Organic Cinema – Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (2017)

Slow Cinema polarises. Even though it is no longer as prominent as when Jonathan Romney published his Sight & Sound article in 2010, the debate on the adequacy of the term ‘Slow Cinema’ prevails. There are those who believe that the term, although it encapsulates perfectly in a single word what the films are like in comparison to our busy lives, is derogatory and puts people off instead of inviting them in. There are others who think it’s difficult to come up with another, a better term and that, for this reason, we should simply continue using it. ‘Slow Cinema’ is, it should be said, an anglo-saxon term. I believe that the term was consequential and a reaction to our fast Western lives. Many people around the world, I’m sure, know the films we are speaking about, but have never heard of the term Slow Cinema. Or, perhaps, they have heard of it, but find it inadequate.

Benoit Rouilly aka Harry Tuttle suggested the term Contemporary Contemplative Cinema, short CCC, on his blog. It is true that the term ‘contemplation’ would probably suit the films better and I did find that people, who roll their eyes if you speak about Slow Cinema, get a smile on their face if you speak about Contemplative Cinema, although you speak about the same films. Labels can mislead and I think the search for a better name is still ongoing. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein walks an interesting path in his book Organic Cinema – Film, Architecture, and the Work of Béla Tarr (2017). I heard Tarr, Lav Diaz and several other filmmakers speaking about it, but for some reason it never made its way into the general debate on (slow) cinema: the organic.

“(to) capture life in wandering fashion by following its haphazard rhythm and paying as much attention to detail as to ‘cosmic’ questions.”

How can we rethink Slow Cinema? There are several elements that come to mind when thinking about slow films. First, there is a natural feeling to them. Very good slow films don’t make you feel the slowness but simply the passing of real time. Then there is the absence of a script. Of course, not all slow films lack a script. Tarr’s films, for example, are scripted and highly choreographed. At the same time, there are many films that start with a vague idea and are formed into a coherent vision during the shooting process. In fiction films, stories often develop naturally; in documentaries, there is a subject first and the approach and treatment is often decided upon on set. There are cameras that move independently from the characters (especially in Tarr’s films, but we can also see it in Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (2016)), following wherever its own attention and interest takes it. Just like our own attention that often wanders from one subject to another, so the independent camera moves from one point of interest to another, smoothly, seamlessly.

The key point in all of this is the term ‘naturally’, or ‘organically’ as several filmmakers have described it and as Botz-Bornstein reiterates in his book, which puts the narrative around the Slow Cinema of Béla Tarr into the light of ‘organic cinema’. Botz-Bornstein’s work is not a straightforward book on Tarr. It is not an in-depth analysis of Tarr’s filmography, nor is it a simple author study. Instead, Botz-Bornstein invites us to discover the specificity of Hungarian culture and politics, which gave rise to what he calls ‘organic architecture’, as only one example. Organicism was particularly important to Hungarian modernism and found its way not only into architecture, but also into literature. The work of Laszlo Krasznahorkai is a case in point for circular narratives. One only needs to think of Sátántango (1994). Circularity, which is also one of the main components of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, means nature. Nothing really has a beginning, nor an end. We’re all part of a larger picture whose starting and end points elude us.

“Organic structures are not supposed to follow a final design issued by a human mind beforehand because the model of the organic is not math or logic but nature.”

Organic Cinema is, above all, a look at Hungary and the country’s artists, architects and philosophers. Botz-Bornstein managed something that very few writers succeed in. He stayed in the national context, in the national constraints and specificities to look at the works of Tarr. The book is not a Western-centric vision on Tarr and, for that matter, his Hungarian background. Even though he makes some references to Western writers and critics, such as Marshal McLuhan, Botz-Bornstein’s writing remains embedded in the local context. I now have a long list of Hungarian writers I should probably read…

Let me briefly return to McLuhan, though, because Botz-Bornstein makes an interesting suggestion in relation to Tarr’s works. In his time, McLuhan proposed a distinction between hot and cool media. Botz-Bornstein uses this and applies it to cinema. ‘Cool cinema’ is an open form of cinema, meaning open to interpretation and leaving certain elements unexplained. It is not explicitly written in this way, but it is easy to see that ‘cool cinema’ emancipates the viewer because s/he needs to fill in the blanks left by the filmmaker. It is the type of cinema which Tarkovsky advocated, too. A film, if it is a good film, can only be completed when it reaches the viewer. An interesting connection Botz-Bernstein makes here and which will keep me thinking for a while. How can we incorporate this ‘coolness’ into our reading of slow films?

“While the postmodern deconstructs totalities, the organic constantly searches for new totalities it wants to be not static (universal) but dynamic.”

Botz-Bornstein sees a clear difference between the organic and the post-modern. Especially in the arts, but also in history, we have begun to tap into post-modern waters. How do we describe the era we are currently living in? Can we still speak of modernity or have we already passed modernity? Has perhaps a new era already begun? Botz-Bornstein calls Tarr “the last representative of a disappearing school of European cinematic modernism.” It is true that his films are unique in the field of Slow (or Organic) cinema. Of course, Tarr’s films share characteristics with other slow films, but it is difficult to categorise them, to put them into the same drawer like those of another filmmaker. Tarr stands alone in the vast library of Slow Cinema, and Botz-Bornstein’s book, from the beginning to the end, explains why this is the case.

There is one last thing which I’d like to mention or throw out there. The organic, as I said above, stands for circularity (amongst others). When we speak about film, this has an interesting tone to it because when it comes to film we have been taught to speak about the narrative. But if we speak of circularity, can we then speak of a progression of narrative? It is a question I have been trying to answer since I read Botz-Bornstein’s book. If we consider Slow Cinema as Organic Cinema, we also need to change the way we speak/write about it.

You might have already noticed that Botz-Bornstein’s book Organic Cinema contains a lot of food for thought. It is a non-standard piece on film with a new suggestions and new readings. I recommend it to those of you who want to read about more than just Tarr as a director, but who would like to learn about the context which his films and his filmmaking is embedded in. It’s a thoroughly interesting book, which kept me thinking a lot and I think I will return to it at some point in the future in order to pick up some ideas for my own writing.

(Organic Cinema – Film, Architecture, and the Work of Béla Tarr (2017) by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, published by Berghahn Books, is available for purchase on the publisher’s website.)

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1 Comment

Kirk Tougas

Naming an art-form is something of a fool’s errand. While there are “schools” of artists and trends in art, there’s always a creator who breaks from his/her tradition and points in another direction. Or a creator that refashions the trend, stretching it, deeper, farther.

I’ve always disliked the grab-bag naming of “Experimental Film”, which encompasses countless genres. As well, any film, every artwork, is a series of experiments, attempts, tests, takes, edits, until completion, at which point it is no longer an experiment, but a fully realized and completed artwork. “Experimental” is no longer a useful description.

Hence Slow Cinema, which describes rhythm or pace, can easily emphasize the Organic, or the Cool, or the Observational, or the Contemplative, or the Minimalist. It’s always going to be fluid, sometimes distantly reserved, sometimes closely emotional, and artists will always do their best to create something that can’t be named.

And then, there’s always the cautionary note: Aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds…

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