Film Spectatorship

Something that has always fascinated me is film spectatorship in regards to Slow Cinema. While film spectatorship as a subject isn’t entirely absent from research, it is not as big a subject as it deserves. The problem with spectatorship is that “spectators” are an unknown, unlimited, undefinable mass. It’s difficult to study and easy to generalise. Every spectator is different from another. We’re all individuals, and our perception of certain films is shaped by the way we grew up, where we were born, our life experiences, even our social circle. Spectatorship is multi-facetted, which is, I believe, what makes it so fascinating. It is not something that can be easily defined. Nor, perhaps, for that matter, written about with absolute clarity.

La direction de spectateurs, edited by Dominique Chateau (2015), is an interesting compilation that is the result of a symposium on the subject of film spectatorship held in several places in France, the UK and the Netherlands. There seems to be a habit with good Belgian publishers (and I’m getting more and more interested in them) that they always include film / art professionals in books, so as to avoid selling tough, dry, and theoretical analyses. For them, it appears to be important to bring together the worlds of research and of practice, and this always shows in the quality of their publications (maybe it’s worth thinking about writing my Lav Diaz book in French and publish it through a Belgian publisher).

I don’t want to review the entire book here, even though it is an interesting read and I sure recommend you get yourself a copy if you can read French. I would much rather like to focus on one specific chapter, which made me think a lot about Slow Cinema, contemplation, and my work for tao films. The chapter is entitled Le regard activé – Défis des cinématographies expérimentales and is based on a talk by artist Katerina Thomadaki. Together with Maria Klonaris, she’s been making non-narrative experimental films that have founded and shaped the concept of corporeal cinema as early as the 1970s. Her insights into making those films and her take on the audience is quite intriguing, and I’d like to note a couple of points.

First of all, it is important to note her point that it is common practice to assume that the spectator (or viewer, a term which I personally prefer given the films we’re speaking of which are not at all spectacular) is pre-conditioned. We heave learned “how” to watch a film. We look out for specific characteristics, such as camera angles, changes in colour, etc in order to interpret a film. Thomadaki describes this as “coded learning” and “conditioned expectations”. This coding, this conditioning, is what leads certain viewers to reject certain films. I believe this goes back to a previous post about yes-boredom and no-boredom, i.e. the viewer’s willingness to break through this conditioning and let him- or herself be taken by a work of art. Thomadaki doesn’t mention this in her talk/chapter, yet I see strong parallels between her proposal and the idea of boredom.

This conditioning is not as final as it sometimes seems, however. Thomadaki speaks of the “plasticity of the spectator”, the idea that in talks following the screening of her films a few sentences sufficed in order for some viewers to see the films differently and, most importantly, to open up about what they had seen. While this is an important point to keep in mind while discussing film spectatorship, it needs to be pointed out that this plasticity is not necessarily the norm. To me, plasticity only comes into effect if there is a will on the side of the viewer, which brings me back to the argument above about yes- and no-boredom. It is with films like with everything else. If you’re willing to have your mind changed about something, you walk this way, you open up, and you see where this way might or might not take you. A lot of viewers, however, prefer walking the pre-walked paths, and this is precisely where experimental and arthouse films struggle.

When it comes to experimental films, she argues, one should not speak about directing the spectator, which is the title of the book, and which many filmmakers go for, especially in Hollywood circles. What is most apt for experimental films – and this is where I think Slow Cinema comes in – is that those films disorientate the viewer. It is the aim of the filmmaker to disorientate, rather than to direct. Non-narrative experimental films as well as slow films act against previous conditioning. She writes that in those films it is not the aim of the director to direct the viewer, but to liberate potentials in him/her. The aim is to create such a condition which allows the viewer to find something experimental in him/herself (expérimentale en soi).

I quite like this argument, and I think that this is what a lot of experimental and slow film directors hope to achieve. I, too, as programmer of tao films am very interested in de-conditioning the viewer. If anything, the viewer is hostile to slow films because it’s not standard. If slow films were standard and we would grow up with them, no one would be opposed to it. I mentioned in a post on the book Art and Therapy that what we like depends on what we’re taught is good. As long as no one teaches people that slow films (or experimental films) are good, the vast majority will reject them. It’s a responsibility that institutions, schools, universities shoulder.

Thomadaki suggests that hostility to a genre of film is the first step to acknowledging that there is something worthwhile in those films, but that there is also a creative freedom in the viewer. In this way, her argument continues, the spectator is no longer simply a consumer, which is exactly what especially sales companies are aiming at. The “experimental spectator” becomes de-conditioned, de-programmed, disorientated. While this might feel scary, it is the first step towards a liberated viewing, a kind of viewing that allows one to actually see, to become aware of one’s power as viewer and the power of one’s look. This is at the centre of my work at tao films. I’m hoping that something in the general public can change about the way we see those films. I will never change the world with it, but if I could help some viewers to reach a state of creative freedom, my work has had a point.

Autoportrait en cinéaste / Ma mère rit (Chantal Akerman)

In the last fortnight or so, I have read two books by Chantal Akerman. One of them, Autoportrait en cinéaste, is, in fact, a sort of exhibition catalogue, published at the occasion of a retrospective dedicated to her work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. This isn’t the usual catalogue, however. Akerman has written most of the book herself. It is personal, and only in parts about her films or her filmmaking. More evident, to me, is the insight into the director’s troubled mental health and her continuous suffering. This becomes the driving force in her 2013 book Ma mère rit, which makes you feel that in those ten years, between one book and another, a lot seems to have changed.

In a way, both books are speaking about the ordinary. There is as little happening as in slow films. Neither has a narrative with an intro, a middle and an end. Ma mère rit even less so than Autoportrait, the former, if I read this correctly, seemingly jumping between different phases of her life without indicating which year it was, without clarifying who said certain things (she uses dialogues, in a way, but without indicating that something is a dialogue and without indicating who the protagonists are, though it’s most often her and another person).

Chantal Akerman

I began to think whether the style in Ma mère rit was representative of her state of mind, sort of jumping from one place to another, speedily, while at the same time being exhausted. So often does she mention her “maladie”, her (mental) illness, that I sometimes cringed. It is, of course, now with hindsight that I was reading this book, knowing that she killed herself in autumn 2015. The book is more personal than Autoportrait. It is very much about her family, specifically about her relationship to her mother, very much in the context of her mother’s accident and her subsequent stay at hospital and her suffering at old age. Trauma is present on almost every page, though you have to read between the lines. And sadly, she does announce her suicide in that book, a death that shocked the world of cinema in 2015.

J’ai survécu à tout jusqu’à présent et j’ai souvent eu envie de me suicider. Mais je me disais je ne peux pas faire ça à ma mère. Après, quand elle ne sera plus là.

But I would like to go into more detail here about Autoportrait which is, while personal, an important read because it contains material on how Akerman thought about film. I think what struck me was the following:

Le livre avait et a sans doute toujours plus d’importance pour moi que le cinéma.

If you read her own writing, you do not get the feeling that she is a passionate filmmaker. In fact, if this was indeed the case, Akerman showed throughout her oeuvre that you don’t have to be passionate in order to make good films. You need ideas, first of all, and she had plenty of those. But yes, it feels odd (primarily because we don’t expect it) if a filmmaker says that the book, that literature, always had and still has more value than film. I don’t think she explains why this is the case, but it is interesting for us to think about. It is true, for me, that literature can give you something film cannot. Most evident to me is that you have to imagine the story you read, the characters, the natural environment, everything. In film, these things are given. Unless you have a striking experimental film, there is, usually, not much left for imagination. Another point about literature is that you have time… Just as Lav Diaz said once, novels can be 900 pages without anyone complaining, but long films are not acceptable. Because books can have any length, you, as the author, can go into as much detail as you want. You have time and space, and so does the reader. Slow films are a beginning, they’re an attempt to rectify this, and I believe Akerman’s https://partenaires.amazon.fr/home/productlinks/customize?asin=B000NDDTCA&request_source=quicklinks&subflow=sp_ shows this best.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

The issue of time in film does pop up, in fact, a few pages after Akerman’s argument about literature.

Une rue longtemps. Ou un arbre. Mais pourquoi longtemps et par rapport à quoi et puis c’est quoi longtemps? C’est plus que pas longtemps de tout façon. En tout cas, c’est plus longtemps que pour informer. En une seconde ou deux, on reconnaît une rue, un arbre. Donc, longtemps, cela peut être plus que le temps de le reconnaissance. Cela peut être le temps de la connaissance, enfin d’un peu de connaissance comme d’un peu de vérité.

In her usually, dry funny style, Akerman says that “long” is certainly longer than not long. So, if someone ever asks you, there you have it! But she elaborates on this, to be fair. She argues that “long” means that a filmmaker spends more time on something that would be dedicated to that something if the filmmaker merely wanted to inform his/her audience. What length suggests is that a filmmaker wants the viewer not just to recognise, to notice something, but to get to know it.

D’Est (From the East)

She also suggests that waiting for the next (long) take means to live, to feel that one exists. Time, for Akerman, is not only part of a film. It is also part of the viewer. To me, this was clearest in her film From the East. Even though Akerman is using a moving camera, she gave us time to see, another important aspect of her filmmaking.

Regarder est-ce la même que voir, non. Il faut regarder pendant combien de temps pour avoir vu et vu quoi.

To look is not the same as to see. One must look for a long time in order to see. Slow films follow this mantra, especially those films with very few characters and almost empty frames. Static cameras also support the idea of looking in order to see. I think that this single, and, in fact, simple Akerman quote sums up the nature of slow films.

Her death is a big loss for all of us, for film, for filmmaking. However, behind the genius of this “sad clown”, as she had been described by some, there was so much trouble, so much suffering, so many problems, fears, anxieties that no one saw, as the books, especially Ma mère rit, show. But her legacy will remain for as long as we want it to remain.

Art and Therapy (Alain de Botton, John Armstrong, 2014)

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong had been on my list from the moment I saw it online. With my research background – film and trauma, and the interest in how filmmakers deal with their own suffering – I expected quite a bit of material from this book. What I didn’t expect was the many references to slowness, contemplation and observation, which are so fundamental to the way I read slow films. One could say that at least the first part of the book is entirely dedicated to slowness without mentioning it directly. In fact, it could be a companion piece to Slow Art Day (which, by the way, takes place on 8 April this year!).

Almost from the beginning of my research into Slow Cinema, I made reference to static art. I considered slow films as pieces for galleries and museums rather than as films made for the big cinema screen. I do agree that this isn’t the case with all slow films. A great deal of them, however, share characteristics with static art such as painting and photography. So why I was surprised to see the many similarities between de Botton and Armstrong’s writing and Slow Cinema is, to be honest, beyond me.

Richard Serra – Fernando Pessoa (2007-2008)

The first chapter of Art as Therapy is dedicated to what art can do for us, both in very simple terms and in specific psychological circumstances. It made me reflect about my experience with cinematic slowness and its healing potential in the context of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. I cannot stress enough how much Slow Cinema helped me to calm down, to fight anxiety, and to take part in life again. One of the arguments that seems to run through the book is that art, which we find attractive, often offers something we usually don’t have but which we desire.

…le goût dépendent de ce qui, dans la constitution émotionnelle, dort et a besoin d’être stimulé et accentué. … les préférences pour l’une ou l’autre reflètent différentes lacunes psychologiques.

When it comes to your choice of a favourite piece of art, or a favourite genre, it is, according to de Botton and Armstrong, very likely that you chose this particular piece or this particular genre because of what is going on in your head. It has psychological roots and is not a simple I just love it. For many people it is difficult to describe why they like certain things. Many resort to simple answers, not knowing that the reason for their preference is, perhaps, more complex than they had imagined. When I began to get into Slow Cinema, it was very difficult to explain why I liked it. I, too, resorted to a simple answer. I liked the slowness. I really did. But why? Only years later did the reason unravel. It took work to figure it out. What this reminds me of is the third meaning, which Luke Hockley suggested in Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen, which I mentioned on this blog before. The third meaning of a film derives from our unconscious. Sometimes a film moves us and we do not understand why this is the case. It’s our unconscious that is responsible for this, and in most cases, we will never know why a specific scene had such a strong impact on us.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler – Nocturne: le fleuve à Battersea (1878)

What Slow Cinema meant to me personally is that it allowed me to slow down, to take my time, to record what was happening on screen, which I couldn’t do with action blockbusters anymore.

On recherche les oeuvres capable de compenser ses fragilités intérieurs, d’aider à trouver un juste milieu. … L’art peut aider à gagner du temps, et même sauver la vie.

De Botton and Armstrong note a trait of art (and, I believe, film), which became essential in the early phase of my struggling with PTSD. Art(film) can save one’s life. This is very much connected to the unconscious I mentioned above and the attraction to specific art works and art genres during different phases of our lives. But it’s not all about individual deficiencies. Art also has a meaning to the collective, to society, to us as humanity. And one thing that stood out for me in the book is the very simple (but maybe too simple for us to consider it) argument that we tend to get used to things too quickly, especially in our developed, capitalist, consumer societies.

Un de nos grands défauts, et un des grans obstacles à notre bonheur, est la difficulté à prendre note de ce qui nous entoure.

We no longer notice what is around us. We simply don’t have the time (we think!). When have you last looked at a tree for longer than a couple seconds? When have you touched its bark in order to feel what a tree feels like? As the books’ authors argue, these things are not “spectacular”. But they’re necessary in our becoming one with our environment, and in our search for contentment and an emotional equilibrium. They argue that art can help with this by depicting the ordinary, the kind of things we overlook nowadays because we think they don’t play a major role in our lives. At the same time, and I argued this before here on this blog, this is exactly what our lives are about: it’s the ordinary. Our lives aren’t spectacular, for the most part.

Slow films, just like static art, can help us notice this, notice the ordinary, identify with it, realise that this is what our life is like…and, perhaps most important, that we’re not alone with this. Our life nowadays consist of a constant desire of something better, something spectacular, something that takes us out of the routine. What we forget in this constant desire is our own life, and ourselves. To me, Slow Cinema can play an important role in returning us to our roots. It can remind us who we really are and what we should focus on first of all in order to reach an equilibrium inside ourselves.

Frederic Edwin Church – L’Iceberg (1891)

I would like to mention one last essential argument, which brings me back to Slow Cinema and boredom. It is now THE argument against cinematic slowness: it’s boring. Slow films are not the only films that are considered boring. And film, as a form of art, is not the only art form which struggles with this. To me, it has always been like this, in part, because of the way we are taught film or art respectively. I was happy to see the same argument in de Botton and Armstrong’s book.

Les idées au sujet de la valeur artistique ne se forment pas spontanément. Elles résultent de systèmes complexes de mécénat, d’idéologie et d’éducation, soutenus pas l’enseignement universitaire et les musées, qui à eux tous forment notre conception de la valeur artistique.

It is, in short, our surrounding that defines artistic value. Political ideology, education, museums – they all have a stake in the way we look at art and what we consider to be “good art” or “high art”, and what is to be discarded as junk. In parts, I believe that Slow Cinema is rejected by so many because no one teaches them their potential value. There is nothing outstanding about them, no. As I said above, they show the average life, and I believe this is exactly why some people deny those films the value they deserve for making us aware of what we have stopped seeing, stopped valuing. If slow films are to be more acknowledged, educational institutions need to take part in this. At the same time, it is possible to break out of this circle and free oneself from the traditional teachings of what is good and what is useless. It is very much a mind thing. It’s about freeing your mind, about liberating your thinking, and then you can enjoy what you really like, and not what society tells us is worth liking.

(Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong was first published in English. If you’re not a French-language speaker, you will have no problem getting an English version of the book.)

Book review: Contemporary art and time (2016)

Towards the end of my PhD research, I noticed that quite a few interesting works in my area have been published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes. In particular work that has come out of Université Rennes 2 sounded promising, and, indeed, there is a lot going on. The reason for its comparative invisibility is that the scholars publish exclusively in French, which is a real shame, because I believe their work could shake up English-language scholarship in some areas. Now that I’m living in Rennes, I see the potential even clearer. It’s not just Rennes 2, which is pretty successful in its scholarship (in my area). Rennes is also home to a branch of the famous ESRA (Ecole supérieure de réalisation audiovisuelle / Ecole de cinéma, de son et film d’animation) as well as the EESAB (Ecole européenee supérieure d’art de Bretagne), where a lot of good stuff is going on. So, in some ways it didn’t surprise me when I read in the Avant-Propos of L’art contemporain et le temps: Visions de l’histoire et formes de l’expérience, edited by Christophe Viart, that there is a special research group located at the EESAB looking into “forms of time”. What more does someone like me need!?

The books subtitle is Visions of history and forms of experience, and it’s a great round up of thoughts on the matter, well-researched, well-focused. What I personally enjoyed a lot was to read about time in art in general. I had been primarily focused on time in film for a long time, but I became interested in time, especially duration, in other art forms as part of my research into the representation of (post-) trauma. So L’art contemporain was a great addition, and a wake-up call for me to keep looking into these things.

Christophe Viart’s introduction got me hooked because of a curious anecdote, or rather a description of an artwork by Alighiero Boetti: a simple light bulb in a box. The light bulb lights up only once a year, for a mere 11 seconds. No one knows when that will happen. Quite evidently this has an effect on the visitor’s experience of time. It’s one of those artworks of which you could say that nothing was happening with it, or to it. It’s boring. But that brings us back to an earlier post of yes-boredom and no-boredom. Do you accept standing in front of the box, which contains the light bulb, with the pretty high chance that you won’t see it lightening up? Or do you just walk past it and dismiss the whole idea behind it?

Boetti’s lightbulb is a superb introduction to the book, which is varied in its foci. It ranges from an investigation of Du temps de l’art au temps de l’oeuvre by Jean Lauxerois to Relectures postcoloniales de la temporalité et de l’histoire de l’art by Emmanuelle Chérel to Le temps suspendu, written by artist Bernhard Rüdiger. It’s this mixture of researchers and artists which I value the most, because it is important to me to give artists a say, too. Scholars tend to ignore artists and just pretend that their reading of an artist’s work is the right one, because they have read about it and think that they found the key to understanding, say, a sculpture, a painting, or even a film. I know from experience that all this reading can carry you away and you don’t see the actual work. So hats off to the editor for including a chapter by Rüdiger, which is, I have to say, a thoroughly interesting take on time, image and sound. It’s a chapter on shocks and on trauma, albeit not as foregrounded as you might expect it.

Rüdiger describes the processes behind his work, and how he arrived at a solution to the discrepancy between showing and not showing. He spent several months in Jerusalem in 2000 and noticed that he couldn’t take photos. He just couldn’t. Something inside him prevented him from doing so. He was convinced that regardless of what type of photograph he would take, the photograph would turn into a cliché. I will not describe his entire process here. The chapter is well worth reading if you’re interested in Rüdiger’s work. The result of months of thinking about the problematic became a very special engagement of image and sound, a strange combination of visibility and invisibility: sound recorded as an image (see picture above). Again, a curious starting point to think about time, duration, and the way the viewer/gallery visitor experiences it.

Another thoroughly interesting chapter is Jacinto Lageira’s Voir, revoir, pré-voir, which is perhaps the most complex chapter in this book, demanding, at least of myself, a second and maybe even a third reading. I find his argument that plastic art creates time quite fascinating, something that we possibly never think about. But it is true that those art works never adhere to either historical time or biological time. They have their own time, they create their own time, which is at odds with the viewer’s lived time. I believe, even though Lageira does not mention this at all, his chapter lays the foundations for an interesting debate about boredom at the centre of which we always find a simple discrepancy between two different and opposing experiences of time.

One more chapter I would like to highlight. The book is overall great, but I cannot describe it all. It would be an endless post. Worth mentioning, however, is the chapter Relectures postcoloniales by Emmanuelle Chérel. Colonialism changes a peoples’ experience of time. This is very often neglected in studies on post-/colonialism, as far as I can see. Chérel argues that post-/colonialism requires a redefinition of time and space, and quite rightly so. As I discovered in my own research on trauma, and as Chérel argues a little earlier in the chapter, the postcolonial period is not just a temporal marker in a history written by European powers. In effect, past and present always interact, especially in postcolonial times. The postcolonial is exactly where our idea of a linear historical time fails (which would bring me back to trauma here but I really need to finish this post!).

If you’re reading/speaking French, and you’re interested in the intersections of time and art, it’s certainly worth buying L’art contemporain, or getting it through your library. And you should keep an eye out for publications from this research group at ESSAB, just like I will do 🙂

Wang Bing – A filmmaker in today’s China (2014)

I quite like how much material there is in France about Chinese director Wang Bing. I had always thought that he was as invisible academically as is Lav Diaz, but that isn’t the case at all. He is very much so in the English-language world. But France proves itself to be a hub for good literature on slow-film directors. At least something good that has come out of my moving away from the UK! 🙂

The book Wang Bing : Un cinéaste en Chine aujourd’hui (2014) is the result of a symposium held at Aix Marseille University. Despite is having its root in an academic symposium, the book is written for the general public. It is not a book which only film students would understand. It is not tirelessly theoretical either. It’s a joy to read, in fact, and it opens up the oeuvre of Wang Bing to whoever is interested, professional filmmaker or lay film viewer. What is particularly interesting are the interviews that have been conducted with the director. It’s not so much interviews even, they are more three conversations. I learned with Diaz, whom I interviewed for over three hours at the Locarno Film Festival in 2014, that this is how you get the most interesting facts out of a filmmaker, and this seems to be the case with Wang Bing, too. The book opens with the first interview which was conducted in summer 2013, and ends with a third one which had been conducted concerning Wang Bing’s Til Madness Do Us Part (2014).

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The first interview tells you a lot about Wang Bing as a person and as a director. It fits very well into my research of filmmakers (with a particular focus on slow film directors) telling silenced histories, histories which are not in school books or in official discourses. I know that Filipino director Raya Martin pointed out just how important this is to him. Wang Bing himself wasn’t aware of the dark history of his country. His work on The Ditch (2010) and Fengming, for example, stems from a book of testimonies he had been given. He read the book in one go on a flight to Paris. After that he noticed that he didn’t know his country. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard several filmmakers saying this, and it’s this not-knowing which leads to investigative feature and non-fiction films the way we see it in Wang Bing’s films, but also in Lav Diaz’s or Raya Martin’s.

Wang Bing often works clandestinely, which gives him the freedom he needs to make the films he wants to make. He points out repeatedly that going the official way in China would mean he couldn’t make any films. His small digital camera gives him the chance to go out and film when he wants. Having read this book, I understand that Wang Bing’s work is very organic. If something strikes him, he immediately goes out to shoot. Over and over again, he praises the digital revolution, which has helped not only him but many filmmakers around the world, especially those living in poor and remote areas.

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The three interviews plus the one conducted with the director’s producer Lihong Kim gives a detailed and very interesting insight into the director’s work. On top of that, for further contextualisation, the editors of the book have included, for instance, letters written by Jiabiangou prisoners which have then been used by Wang Bing for his film The Ditch. In two chapters, Wang Bing can express himself, which is great. There is a real collaboration apparent between the editors of the book and the filmmaker, something I value a lot. Especially now, after having read that Wang Bing initially received no money at all from the distribution of Tie XI Qu (2003) in France, a shameful and shocking practice (I’ve been told that this has changed in the last couple years and that the director is finally getting paid). Anyway, Wang Bing wrote a chapter on the image as evidence of the real. He speaks about two photographs from Jiabiangou he has been given, photographs which impressed him and which he used for The Ditch and his larger project on the history of the camp. The chapter is a poetic meditation on those images and the story they tell.

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The second chapter in which Wang Bing was involved is a thoroughly interesting one, because it is a project description of a film he hasn’t been able to finish yet, because of a lack of funding for the post-production. I’m very interested in this project because it feeds into my research into the concentrationary, which I discovered in the context of Lav Diaz’s films. The film’s working title is Past in the Presence Tense. As far as I can tell from the director’s project description, it’s going to be a film with a running time of eight hours or more. It is part of the filmmaker’s investigation into the history of labour camps in China, and is supposed to contain primarily interviews, possibly in the ways we have seen in Fengming, a Chinese memoir (2007). Wang Bing intends to create the most comprehensive history of Jiabiangou on screen. This sounds like a superb and very important subject. Sadly enough, the funding is missing and I wonder whether something could be done, and if it’s crowdfunding by is supporters. This sounds like a project that must be done by all means.

There’s plenty more good stuff in the book. The editors have managed to create a comprehensive work that is faith- and truthful to the director, who himself is involved in the project. There is material on Wang Bing’s use of space and time; on his desire to investigate a China he doesn’t know; on his tendency to show people on the margins of society; on his interest in showing the body, the human being, the way it moves, the way it struggles; and on the importance of being a mere observer. The book is slim but it is full of insights on the Chinese director, one of the most interesting personalities in current independent world cinema. Highly recommended (if you can read French!).

New books on Pedro Costa & Béla Tarr

The initial wave of I-want-to-be-the-first has subsided, and after quite a few not very good books on Slow Cinema or on slow-film directors, we’re slowly (of course, slowly) getting to a point where it is worth opening books on the subject because they have been researched properly. Or because the authors have taken the time to experience the films without trying to squeeze them into theories and statistics. This has been done already, primarily by András Bálint Kovács. When Béla Tarr had the book in his hand and saw Kovacs’s attempt at turning his films into statistics, into numbers, he said “Fuck off”. Yes, he really said this and spoke about it in one of the worst interviews I have read with any filmmaker, published on MUBI. But that happens if people try to force a meaning onto a film that isn’t there and the filmmaker has been trying for twenty-odd years to avoid this in interviews.

Anyway, this year saw the publication of two very good books. One of them, a German-language book, deals with the work of Pedro Costa. The publisher is quite impressive, to say the least, and I took the chance of suggesting an edited collection on Lav Diaz. They were very open to this and will discuss it in their next meeting (fingers crossed!). Edition text + kritik focuses on one director at a time, and they avoid turning a director’s work into mere theory.

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The book on Pedro Costa – with its simple name Pedro Costa – is somewhere between a thorough introduction to the director’s work, and an elaborate investigation of his films which goes beyond introductory remarks. It is a journey through Costa’s entire oeuvre. What I enjoyed most in this book is the authors’ focus on Costa’s collaboration with his actors. Those who know Costa and his films are aware of the close collaboration, which somewhat started with the famous “Stop the faking!” expressed by Vanda Duarte after the production of Ossos (1997). Costa began to live with his actors. No, he lived with the people, who then became his actors. Non-professionals, who live their roles. It seems as though this is the red line that is woven throughout the book.

The book consists of seven chapters. The eighth is a written contribution by Pedro Costa himself, or rather it is a text written by Costa which, for the first time, was translated into German for this particular book. There is a general attempt at really understanding the artist and his work. The book is not an attempt at creating something that isn’t there, at telling the filmmaker what his films are really about, which scholars love to do. Pedro Costa reads like a genuine exploration of Costa’s approach to filmmaking, to the subject he chooses and to his aesthetics. One chapter in the book deals with (non-) images of violence in Costa’s films, especially in Casa de Lava (1994). It is a fascinating piece which is complemented by another chapter on aspects of ghosts. To me, those two go hand in hand, and they’re not only characteristic of Costa’s work. The themes of violence and ghostly haunting are pretty widespread in slow films, especially those that deal with a people’s colonial past.

If you’re German, or a German-speaking cinephile who’s interested in Costa’s work, this book is definitely for you. I’m surprised that this book is the first coherent piece on the Portuguese director who’s been making films for decades. I wonder why English-speaking scholars have not yet picked that up. More than journal articles doesn’t seem to be in their interest. I wonder why that is.

So while German scholars have produced the first book on Pedro Costa, France slowly but surely turns out to be a hub for really good books on Béla Tarr. The new book Béla Tarr : De la colère au tourment has been published in March this year. Jacques Rancière’s book Le temps d’après was great already, but this new book tops this. First of all, the book is a feast for the eyes, which makes it a more entertaining read than the German book on Pedro Costa. You can see that a lot of work went into the design of the book; the screen grabs, positioned one underneath the other, have something of photo strips.

Even more so than the book on Pedro Costa, this new book on Tarr tries to explore and convey what a Béla Tarr film feels like. There are two chapters, if I remember correctly, which are very theoretical and which make for a difficult read. I do believe that the authors of those chapters kind of missed the point. But overall, the book is about what we see when we watch a Tarr film. It is about how it looks like, how it makes the viewer feel. I could be wrong and just read something into all this, but to me the book seems, perhaps not openly, but nevertheless focused on the viewer and the viewing experience.

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The interesting aspect is that a viewing experience is always individual. What I feel during a film may be very different from what you’re feeling. But somehow I, as the reader, felt pretty much on the same wavelength as the authors. It’s not difficult to guess why this is the case. I believe that the authors let the film happen to them, which is so important to Slow Cinema. I could see the films right in front of me while reading the book. Tarr’s cinema, his fans would probably agree with me, is special. It has a certain something, which is difficult to put into words. This new book manages it somehow, and while discussing the characteristics of Tarr’s oeuvre as a whole it is at the same time exploring vital aesthetics of Slow Cinema in more general terms. There’s talk of the emancipation of the gaze, of hypnotic emptiness, of a “tactile” experience of film.

The book is divided into three parts, and starts with a long interview with Tarr, which is revealing and I’m grateful that the interviewers didn’t ask the same old questions. We actually learn something from it, which is rare these days. Interviews, especially those with slow-film directors, tend to revolve around the themes of “Why are your films so slow?” or “Why are your films so long?” In some ways, this one is a very moving interview. Tarr also speaks about no longer having enough oxygen as a filmmaker to work in his country. He always thought he would make more films. He never saw himself teaching at a film school. He wanted to create a new genre of Hungarian cinema. But it all came different. He had to close his production company, stopped filmmaking, because of the political situation in Hungary. He isn’t the first to say this. The most recent high-profile example is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This new book on Tarr is definitely a must, if you can speak French. It starts to dawn on me, after previous experience, that you might need to look for something in a language other than English, if you want to read something that is not overly academic and tries to complicate everything by pretending to explain films to you which perhaps shouldn’t be explained. So far, the best books I have read about slow-film directors are not in the English language. I’m looking forward to a book on Slow Cinema in French or something. Maybe this will be better than what we have come across so far. Anyway, if you speak either German or French, or maybe both, go get yourself those two treats!

The aesthetics of absence and duration in the post-trauma cinema of Lav Diaz

Now that the PhD has been awarded, I’m happy to make my thesis, the first coherent study of the films of Lav Diaz, available for you to read. I’m currently working on a monograph, which will use this thesis as a basis, but which will be more personal, less academic and which will contain one more chapter. I’ll write a little something on Diaz’s Locarno winner From What Is Before (2014) which I really thought needs mention in the context of post-trauma, but which I couldn’t really fit into my thesis. Please feel free to get in touch about the thesis if you want. Please feel free to comment or even recommend further reading which I would be happy about. Here’s the abstract of the thesis. You can find the download link below.

Aiming to make an intervention in both emerging Slow Cinema and classical Trauma Cinema scholarship, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which the post-trauma cinema of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz merges aesthetics of cinematic slowness with narratives of post-trauma in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). 

Diaz has been repeatedly considered as representative of what Jonathan Romney termed in 2004 “Slow Cinema”. The director uses cinematic slowness for an alternative approach to an on-screen representation of post-trauma. Contrary to popular trauma cinema, Diaz’s portrait of individual and collective trauma focuses not on the instantenaeity but on the duration of trauma. In considering trauma as a condition and not as an event, Diaz challenges the standard aesthetically techniques used in contemporary Trauma Cinema, as highlighted by Janet Walker (2001, 2005), Susannah Radstone (2001), Roger Luckhurst (2008) and others. Diaz’s films focus instead on trauma’s latency period, the depletion of a survivor’s resources, and a character’s slow psychological breakdown. 

Slow Cinema scholarship has so far focused largely on the films’ aesthetics and their alleged opposition to mainstream cinema. Little work has been done in connecting the films’ form to their content. Furthermore, Trauma Cinema scholarship, as trauma films themselves, has been based on the immediate and most radical signs of post-trauma, which are characterised by instantaneity; flashbacks, sudden fears of death and sensorial overstimulation. Following Lutz Koepnick’s argument that slowness offers “intriguing perspectives” (Koepnick, 2014: 191) on how trauma can be represented in art, this thesis seeks to consider the equally important aspects of trauma duration, trauma’s latency period and the slow development of characteristic symptoms. 

With the present work, I expand on current notions of Trauma Cinema, which places emphasis on speed and the unpredictability of intrusive memories. Furthermore, I aim to broaden the area of Slow Cinema studies, which has so far been largely focused on the films’ respective aesthetics, by bridging form and content of the films under investigation. Rather than seeing Diaz’s slow films in isolation as a phenomenon of Slow Cinema, I seek to connect them to the existing scholarship of Trauma Cinema studies, thereby opening up a reading of his films.

You can download the full thesis here.

Slow Cinema, ed by Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge (2015)

I’m not sure where to start with this one. Not considering the content for a minute, the new and very first edited collection on Slow Cinema, aptly titled Slow Cinema appears like a bit of a fraud. A subject that has been carried by film viewers, lay film critics, and PhD students, is now appropriated by professors of high reputation who have little to do with the subject, meaning I don’t think they have expertise in the subject. A friend of mine also went through the list of contributors and said that the choice of authors made little sense. Unless, of course, you want to attract buyers who see that this book was written by professors of high standing. This method usually works. I reckon that this is also the reason to include the great Jacques Rancière, who didn’t have to be in the edited collection. His book on Béla Tarr is by far better than his chapter in the Slow Cinema book.

It is ironic, and to me it says a lot about academia and academic publishing, that a book about a subject carried by lay people has the highest amount of professors in the list of contributors I have ever had in my hands. And I really mean professors. I don’t mean lecturers. Given the work that has been done outside academia, this collection is a slap in the face to everyone who worked very hard on bringing the subject forward. Where are those PhD students who studied the subject for years and brought real innovation to it? I miss a student from my university who submitted an abstract for a chapter which would have dealt with cinematic slowness in North African cinema – a real novelty in the current geographical foci in Slow Cinema research. Where are those writer-filmmakers (like Erik Bordeleau)? If you are familiar with the subject and look through the list of contributors and contributions, you will notice that the official “Call For Papers” which was published a couple years ago was no more than a nice gesture but there was little intention in bringing together experts on the subject or in creating something new. The aim was to be first and not necessarily good. At the same time, it looks as though most of the contributors have been determined in advance, but only for their names, not for their long and close research interests in Slow Cinema…which, as I said, made the CfP pretty much redundant.

If you have read Jacques Rancière’s work on Béla Tarr, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have read Song Hwee Lim’s book on Tsai Ming-liang, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have already read Karl Schoonover’s work on Slow Cinema and the labouring body, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have read Cecilia Mello’s work on Jia Zhang-ke, you don’t need to buy this book. Nor do I believe that the almost static films of Andy Warhol (Sleep) should be subject in a book on Slow Cinema. Justin Remes has done well reading those films in his book Motionless Pictures, but Warhol should not be in a Slow Cinema collection. I could go on. After three years of research into the area, I have found myself whispering “I read this somewhere before” (and not necessarily by that specific author) a couple of times, and if you have followed this blog and read through some of my bibliography, which I update regularly, this book is nothing new to you. The monographs which are out there – as mentioned about Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, or even Tiago de Luca’s Realism of the Senses (2014) – are a great deal better.

Thankfully, the price of the book has dropped by now and it has become affordable. Nevertheless, if you’re a Slow Cinema afiniciado you should check out the monographs which exist out there already and keep reading material by lay film critics. With the hundreds and hundreds of reviews, blog posts and other material this edited collection failed to make a real contribution. One exception is once more Philippa Lovatt’s work, who is probably the only person out there who’s actively working on sound, which is always a refreshment because Slow Cinema is primarily discussed in terms of time and its visual aspects. Sound tends to be neglected. Besides, she writes about a director who has not yet been written about in all details: Liu Jiayin (Oxhide I).

The book’s most remarkable achievement is its complete neglect of this website. Harry Tuttle’s is in there. David Bordwell’s is in there. But no mention of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema (to be fair, the website is in a reference but only because I have uploaded a paper of mine, so my paper is quoted, not my website). This isn’t a personal thing. It is simply strange that there’s a website – I’d say perhaps the website on Slow Cinema these days – which the editors are aware of (I submitted an abstract and mentioned the website in my biography, besides if you look for Slow Cinema on Google my website comes 2nd after Wikipedia), and it doesn’t even get a mention. Given the contributors I can only imagine the reason. It’s not that it’s a blog. It’s a blog by someone who didn’t have a PhD at the time. In itself, this is disappointing because this website has done a lot to bring research forward and to open up the Slow Cinema canon.

What bugs me is that quite a few of my ideas from this blog appear in the book’s introduction with no reference at all. Now, you could say that I shouldn’t have made my thoughts public. But that isn’t the point I’m arguing about here. I do not own my ideas because there certainly are other people who have the same ideas on the same subject. To me it’s frankly a matter of decency and part of research ethics to cross-reference each other. I did so in my PhD thesis. I thought I had a fantastic idea but a few weeks after I had written down my ideas I found a text which, scarily enough, was even written in almost the exact same matter. These things do happen. But I referenced the student’s work because of decency and ethics. As I know that the editors are aware of this blog and that, if you research Slow Cinema, you land on this website almost by default now (which I’m proud of), this looks to me like a deliberate exclusion for whatever reason. This isn’t ethical research and summarises my experience in academia for the last three years.

The ideas someone celebrates himself for has perhaps its origins here, so please keep this in mind when, or if, you read this book. Having read this book made the entire business of film distribution and a VoD service much stronger and, personally, necessary because after those now six years following Slow Cinema and seeing the academic development, all I can say is that it’s time to get out of there and do something that is useful for the filmmakers and the films and not for my reputation as an academic, scrambling for a piece of the slow cake.

That said, if you’re a total beginner in slow films, this collection may be worth buying. If you have followed the subject for years, then it is not worth at all unless you want to read something you have already read several times before. It’s a real shame that this collection turned out like this. But once I heard which abstracts had been rejected (all of which promising and really unique), I could guess what the agenda of the book was. The final product shows exactly that.

(E)Motion in slow films

A couple of days I ago, I came across a new article by Ira Jaffe, who wrote the, to me, unconvincing book Slow Movies (2014). In Slow Cinema: Resistance to Motion and Emotion, Jaffe argues that form and content work together in expressing a resistance to motion and emotion. For Jaffe, a lack or a suppression of emotion is a key characteristic of slow films. His examples are as varied as Lisandro Alonso’s, Béla Tarr’s and Gus van Sant’s films. He rules out non-narrative “slow” films such as Derek Jarman’s Blue because the film contains too much emotion, mainly delivered through voice over. If I follow Jaffe’s approach here, we can rule out Lav Diaz as a slow-film director. Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, for instance, would not be a slow film.

I find this apparently clear line between slow movies (no (e)motion) and “the rest of cinema” (motion + emotion) problematic. I don’t think that the characters actually resist emotion, even though some directors, such as Lisandro Alonso – as Jaffe demonstrates, even though he doesn’t give a source for it – ask their characters not to show too much emotion. The question first of all is, how do we define emotion? It looks as though the basis of Jaffe’s article is the heightened, artificially exaggerated display of emotion on popular cinema. If one compares slow films to those artificial portraits of emotion, then yes – Slow Cinema is dead. There’s no life in the films. But – and here is the crux – I think Jaffe forgot the idea of slow-film directors turning to a somewhat more realistic approach to film. I think very few people have emotions the way they do in Hollywood. To me, the display of these extreme switches bares similarities to bi-polar disorder. But this isn’t the norm. In general, we humans are simply flat. We do not walk around shouting, crying, laughing, and all this in the course of an hour. What slow films display is a more realist take on what we humans are like. If you filmed me for a day or two, you wouldn’t see much emotion either. I’m in the same kind of mood pretty much all day.

A second question that needs to be asked is, does the suppression of emotion only apply to the character? What about the emotion of the viewer? I find that most slow films move me, especially the films of Lav Diaz, Tsai Ming-liang and Béla Tarr. These films may be characterised as lacking emotion, but they sure stir emotion in me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Basically, it’s the same effect popular films are aiming for: making the audience feel. The aesthetics of Slow Cinema and popular cinema couldn’t be more different from one another. But the effect is the same. I don’t think that someone who makes films about trauma, or the slow death of cities and life in them, or the suffocating alienation in urban spaces aims for boring the audience. There’s no point telling these stories if they are merely used to bore the viewer. These stories are told in order to evoke something in the viewer; i.e. emotion. It is interesting here that Patrick Holzapfel, in his article The Sehnsucht nach Bewegungslosigkeit im Kinoargues that even if you look at a static photograph, one moves emotionally.

Photographs are similar to slow films. I have written about this characteristic before. Just like in photographs, you may not see everything in one frame. You may not see, say, a disturbing event which, for instance, led to the death of a mother’s child. You may simply see the mother in a picture. She may not even cry. The story around it, however, is full of emotion and this is transmitted to the viewer. To me, many slow films are similar to that. And because we move emotionally, as Holzapfel has argued, there is always movement in connection to Slow Cinema. It may not be the camera. But nevertheless, the films are more alive than is commonly presented. We just look at the wrong side of things.

Default Setting: Bored

Just last week I read Jakob Boer’s interesting paper “As Slow As Possible: An Enquiry Into the Redeeming Power of Boredom for Slow Film Viewers” (2015). I’m partly immensely grateful for this paper. I’ve lamented for a while that Slow Cinema scholarship is running in circles and there’s very little new material that comes out of it. We’re still discussing mainly the subjective issue of (slow) time and its roots in Neorealism, which isn’t exactly true. Based on Matthew Flanagan’s PhD thesis, Boer, too, refers to these roots.

His paper is an investigation into the aspect of boredom, also often discussed in the context of Slow Cinema. But Boer’s paper is a philosophical take on the issue and therefore makes an interesting point within Slow Cinema studies. It’s clearly audience centred, which I find particularly vital for the study of Slow Cinema. Slow Cinema is a form of cinema driven by experience for the viewer. I personally think that you lose the whole experience of slow films if you try to read them exclusively through the lens of film theories. As scholars, we’re obliged to do it, but it’s not always helpful and maybe (hopefully) Slow Cinema teaches academics to back down a bit, ease up on theoretical framework-thinking.

What is Slow Cinema? A genre, a movement? Neither? Boer takes the stance that Slow Cinema is a genre. The most widespread term is ‘movement’. I haven’t really made up my mind and, in effect, it doesn’t matter that much. It only does in scholarship, so that we can put these films into already existing categories. The viewers possibly don’t waste a minute about those things. If there’s one thing that Slow Cinema really does is visualise the extreme differences between academic and viewer, and the former often forget that they’re also the latter.

What strikes me in Boer’s article, but not only in his, is that it is assumed slow films create boredom by default. Boer does consider the positive effects of boredom, such as creating contemplation. But it seems as if you have to be bored first, and then, if all goes well and the boredom turns out to be positive, you reach a state of contemplation. Contemplation is seen in the context of boredom. Can I not contemplate a film or an image, say a painting, without getting bored? That is the ultimate crux here: Boer’s paper is, among others, based on Heidegger’s thinking on boredom. Because this literature is there, it feels as though we have to make Slow Cinema fit.

But isn’t it a fact that Slow Cinema challenges existing literature? I’m wrapping up a thesis on the way Lav Diaz’s slow films challenge both Slow Cinema and Trauma Cinema. You can make it work, but you need to be a bit creative. I do believe that slow films do not create boredom by default. If it was like this, it would mean that people would only go see those films because they wanted to be lazy. It reminds me of this well-known media model of the passive spectator who merely sits in his/her seat and the messages are injected straight into his veins…or his brain, for that matter.

When I read Boer’s paper I had this very model in mind, wondering whether active spectatorship has ever been considered. I don’t think that someone who’s bored is actively engaged in a film. And yet, for most slow films you need to be actively engaged in order to grasp the meaning, the narrative, the twists and turns. There’s more happening than writers often make readers believe. But rather than many different forms of action happening in time, Slow Cinema depicts often only one action. And yet, lots is happening, but not necessarily on the time-axis. It’s more about depth. I mentioned Maya Deren in one of my early posts. She talked about poetry being vertical (rather than horizontal), because it describes and investigates themes in depth. For me the vertical means depth, the horizontal is the surface. Slow Cinema is vertical, and you have to be actively engaged in order to dig your way into the film. Even contemplation can distract in that matter. I know that myself – give me a beautiful photographic shot and I forget the narrative.

I think a study of boredom would perhaps make more sense for films like Warhol’s Empire or similar video art. I don’t think it’s applicable to slow-film viewers who watch fictional narratives or docs. They do not see Lav Diaz’s films to get bored. They want to go on a journey, and if your journey is boring, then you have clearly done something wrong.