Post Tenebras Lux – Carlos Reygadas

Before you read this post, please be aware that it contains spoilers. If you intend to watch the film in future, I’d advise you not to read it. Or to forget about what you’ve read.

I want to jot down only a few impressions from Reygadas’ new film Post Tenebras Lux as reviewing the entire film would be utopian at the moment. It is a complex film. I’d say it is Reygadas’ most complex film. Controversial, as I read in some reviews. Though I do wonder where exactly the controversy comes in. True, the brutality of man exercised on his dog was a horrible thing to watch. But that’s as controversial as it got for me. If the bathouse orgy was controversial – well, I suggest you don’t attend a screening of an alternative film which is rated for people over the age of 18.

Anyway, I have written previously on the apparent aesthetic shifts in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films. His latest short Mekong Hotel didn’t have the same look nor the same feel compared to his other films with regards to the issue of what is termed Slow Cinema. It was different. This may be too fast a shot, but I wonder whether we witness a new trend in this field of cinema in general. The characteristics of Slow Cinema that scholars and film critics have come up with stem from films made predominantly before 2010, ergo in the first part of the 2000s.

Post Tenebras Lux is yet another example, which defies the usual, almost fixed elements of Slow Cinema. Reygadas’ has always been seen as part of the Slow Cinema family, and, indeed, his previous films were easy to group them under this umbrella. They were less painterly than, say, Diaz’s and Tarr’s film, but they were certainly slow, had similar themes, were set in similar regions (i.e. rural areas) and depicted characters in much the same light as other slow-film directors have done before.

His latest cinematic work is different, mainly because of its use of special effects, which has never been part of Slow Cinema (in the early 2000s). Everything had been natural, down-to-earth, realistic (although I am aware that the term ‘realistic’ is debatable). In his new film you encounter the devil, an animation, computer graphics, in short: a special effect.

You equally have blurred lenses, which has – to my knowledge – not been used before. And at the film’s end the guy to your right rips his head off his shoulders; a special effect. The film contains elements of the supernatural, of science-fiction, of animation, of artificiality. In itself this isn’t bad, and not the point of this blog post. However, I want to point to the changes in the films of who we have described as ‘slow-film directors’.

Are we witnessing a new development within Slow Cinema in this decade? Two films are following this new trend. Or better, they question our current understanding of Slow Cinema as it is. It also shows how malleable and flexible the phenomenon is.

The Effects of Music and Dialogue

Yesterday’s screening of Apichatpong’s Mekong Hotel in Glasgow made it obvious to me how problematic the term Slow Cinema is.

The name Apichatpong Weerasethakul appears almost everywhere you look for something written on Slow Cinema. His work is a trademark. Mekong Hotel, however, makes me wonder to what extent films are slow, and whether it wouldn’t be appropriate to narrow the term Slow Cinema to a more specific, cohesive and conclusive part of slow film (and I suggest here, for instance, the slow films that bear similarities to paintings).

Mekong Hotel is slow. Yet, compared to other films by Weerasethakul, and to other slow films in general, his latest short is fairly quick. The reason for this is his slightly different style.

Remember, remember – Michel Chion, and his vococentrism of film. Just like human beings, films are vococentric, that means their focus lies on speech as our ears react faster to external stimuli than our eyes do. I have argued that his point is a clue as to why slow films appear to be slow. They lack dialogue. Our ears are deprived of information, and have to pass on the command to our eyes. We need to read the film with our eyes, which is a much slower process.

Mekong Hotel features a lot of dialogue. There are lengthy passages, which feature two or three characters in conversation. In addition, the film contains a guitar tune which accompanies almost every scene. The ongoing tune in the background keeps feeding our ears with information. Our eyes don’t have to do much. Our ears do the job. I actually blocked my ears for a little while during the screening. The film appeared so much slower!

Both dialogue and music make films appear more time-based, more rhythmic. As soon as this is the case, the effect and perception of slowness is greatly reduced. My avenue towards (the Fine Art of) Slow Cinema as being similar to static arts in terms of their lack of kinetic objects, their framing, their frame composition, and their lack of dialogue and music, is going to address this problem in a bit more detail. But I would like to stress once again that the perception of slowness stems from more than only long-takes and the depiction of mundane every-day activities of characters. Hence the term needs adjustment. And Mekong Hotel serves as a great example for doing exactly this.

Diary of a Young Boy

This is the title of Tsai Ming-liang’s new film. There isn’t a lot of information out there. What I could find was that the film is in post-production, and that the distribution rights are held by Urban Distribution International. So, we will have a chance to see it eventually!

A short synopsis from their website:

“A father and his two young kids are looking for a Noah’s Ark to survive in a society that madly over-consumes.”

It looks intriguing to me. There is a (slow) critique of society included again. I’ll keep my eyes open for possible screenings!

Tsai Ming-Liang – Visage (2009)

Let us recall some of the characteristics that are usually associated with Slow Cinema; unknown actors / actresses, tendency to frame characters in medium or long shots, little dialogue, if any. Naturally, there are always exceptions to the rule, and Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage (2009, watch the trailer here) demonstrates that you can slightly alter these characteristics without compromising the actual nature of slow film.

As with every slow film, Visage is difficult to sum up. I could say, in brief, that it is about a Malay director shooting a film in France. It could even be an homage to Truffaut, whose films have greatly influenced Liang. But the real interest is not so much the story. The film’s strengths lie, as usual, in the cinematography, the banal, often ridiculous incidents, and in the scenes, which often cause a WTF in my head. Visage is by all means a typical Tsai Ming-liang film.

Yet, this films make me question if the characteristics we researchers have come up with, are necessary for a slow film. What’s different about Visage? As the name (Face) suggests the focus lies in faces, which are shown in close-up. It is rare that close-up shots are used in slow films (hence the idea of painting), but here it comes as natural as in any other film. Not surprisingly, it feels more intense, more intimate. We’re closer to the character and can decipher his or her facial expressions. I would call it a new dimension in the art of Slow Cinema.

Also, Liang makes use of famous French actors and personalities. Laetitia Casta plays the Star, Jean-Pierre Léaud the King (he played Antoine in The 400 Blows by Truffaut), Fanny Ardent plays both the producer and the Queen. And this is not the end of the list of French actors. All three, however, are ‘popular’ personalities, and yet, to my surprise, they did a wonderful job in this slow film.

True, they talk more than the Malaysian actors, hence the aspect of little dialogue is only partly valid here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nevertheless an almost silent film. But, proportionally, there’s more dialogue amongst the French actors than amongst the other half on set.

Despite diverting away from his usual concept, if only slightly, Liang, one of my favourites out there, demonstrates with Visage that it can be unhelpful to think too much in terms of definitions. There’s a lot more to the film, so updates might follow in the course of my research.

Tsai Ming-liang – Walker

After films such as I don’t want to sleep aloneThe Wayward Cloud, and What Time is it there? [I apologise for this trailer, it’s the only one I could find and it’s Hollywoodian advertising of a slow film…outch!], Malay filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang produced a beautiful short film, commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival. If I was to write a review for Walker (2012), I would write only one sentence: This short is a powerful reminder to slow down!

Tsai Ming-liang is the only slow-film director I’m aware of whose films are not set in rural areas; a characteristic that is predominant regarding the films I study at the moment. Instead, he juxtaposes the vast, bustling urban space with lonely, isolated, depressed, and empty characters. Just the type of character we often come across in slow films. What is different in Tsai Ming-liang’s films is that he makes a direct connection between the urban space and its knock-down effects on individuals.

Walker illustrates this dichotomy of fast vs slow in a striking way. Do take half an hour, and watch this beautiful film.