Not so long ago, I picked up Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. Published in the middle of the 19th century, it is now something of an iconic book about nature, about the woods, about the joys of solitary moments. Several times, I have mentioned Umberto Eco’s Six Walks Through The Fictional Woods on this blog, and even though Eco’s work isn’t exactly about the woods as such, but more about the woods as a fictional entity, both books have come back to mind when I saw Walden, an observational, poetic, very slow, very contemplative documentary by Daniel Zimmerman.
A tree is felled somewhere in Austria, transformed into planks of wood, which are then shipped to an unspecified location in the Brazilian rainforest. The story is quickly told and not, in itself, interesting. Until you realise that the trade route seems reversed. You would, perhaps, expect it the other way around. Something else is interesting, too: Zimmermann’s aesthetics. The film starts with a slow, patient pan from left to right. We’re in a fresh, lush forest. It’s quiet and peaceful. We can hear birds lifting off from tree branches, though we don’t see them. This sequence is important because it makes clear Zimmermann’s intention: hear first, then see. Walden targets, first of all, our ears. While the camera continues to pan patiently towards the right, we spot a worker in a hard hat and a security vest, dwarfed by the sheer size of the trees, overwhelming, overshadowing. There is a real grandeur of nature, a real dwarfing of Man.
The patient pan to the right, it turns out, is not so much a pan, but a circular movement. Zimmermann’s camera circles 360 degrees around its own axis. I couldn’t help think of the Eastern concept of time; time not as something linear but as something circular instead. Walden uses this concept effectively and lulls us in. After nine minutes into the film, the felled tree crashes to the ground right in front of us. Before we even see it, we only see the trees in front of us vibrating. Then, almost total silence once the felled tree has fallen. An incredible scene, momentous even. All of a sudden, there is this discrepancy between life and death, both in the same frame. The silence is deafening, but so are the distant chirps of the birds that seem to respond to the act of felling. The silence highlights the chirps, makes them appear louder, more pronounced. And even though we might expect the camera to stop, to witness with us, Zimmermann moves on.
A second aspect that stands out in Walden. Apart from the use of circular time, the film puts emphasis on time as never stopping. Photography and film, it is true, can halt time, can seemingly give us power over time in that they both allow us to stop for a moment, to go back, to look again. Photography and cinema can freeze time. Or so we think. Zimmermann clearly defies this. His camera keeps moving. At dawn, when the planks are loaded onto freight trains; on the motorway; at the border where the police check the freight on lorries… Zimmermann positions us as passersby. Even though the trade route, or rather the entire process from felling to shipping to unloading, is at the heart of the film, it isn’t really. It is something that happens, just like everything else simply happens. The director’s magnificent camera pans are iconic of two elements of our life. First, a lot of things happen at the same time. Things are always moving, are in flux, and for that, it is difficult to fully pay attention to one single action. In the last century or so, everything has become much bigger, much faster, and, also, simply much more. I know that this is a standard argument, but it is important here because it leads to my second point: we cannot pay attention to everything that happens anymore. We have to select or simply keep going, which is exactly what Zimmermann’s camera does.
As mentioned above, sound is key in Walden. Because of the camera’s 360 degrees movement, we do not always see actions as and when they happen. We hear those actions first and only after a long, slow pan we see the action that belongs to the sounds we have heard earlier. In this way, Zimmermann creates tension, a form of slow suspense, and he plays with our expectations. In our culture, seeing is believing. Seeing is
There is something else that stands out. Zimmermann’s camera never moves from right to left. The camera’s circular movement is from left to right, which is identical to our way of reading in the Western world. We read from left to right, as opposed to other cultures where people read from right to left. If the director’s circular movement reminds me of circular time in Eastern cultures, then he puts emphasis on Western culture in the way he moves his camera from left to right. In this way, Walden becomes a complex image of culture(s) and the ways in which we’re all connected. Once more, the film’s story about a tree being felled and then transformed into planks which are then shipped across the globe is, to my mind, only a story at the surface. After the film’s almost two-hour running time, once the circular camera movements penetrate deeper and deeper into the rainforest and the film comes full cycle, there is a sense that this wasn’t so much about the tree, but about something much higher, or, rather, something much deeper.
And I cannot end this post without noting the film’s official description: A slow down road movie. I think we have a new slow genre!