Escaping time

I didn’t expect my thinking about the possibility of escaping time. It’s one of those age-old science-fiction dreams that people have. Time travel is perhaps the most imagined, the most commonly imagined form of escaping time. There is not only the philosophical question of why we would want to escape time, but also whether we can actually do it.

Every year, I’m looking forward to reading the questions for the BAC en philosophie here in France. The BAC is the French school leaving exam just before you go to university. This year, more than in previous years, I felt encouraged to try to respond to one of the questions, even if, perhaps, not in a very philosophical way.

Is it possible to escape time?

Philosophy teachers answered the question on radio at the time. It all seemed straightforward and easy. No, we cannot escape time. But is it really this simple? First of all, the question is tricky because it doesn’t say from which point-of-view you should approach the question. I assume that the question is aimed at being resolved by Western, secular thought only, but it’s not stated anywhere that this is what students should be going for. Let me ramble a bit and see where it takes me.

Time itself, as a word, does not have an easy definition. Natural time is (vastly) different from mechanical time. Natural time, or let’s call it simply nature, has an effect on how we make use of our mechanical time in different parts of the world. The time you live by is different if you’re a farmer than if you are an office worker. You probably have different (shorter) work hours on fields in really hot, southern countries than in the north. At the same time, living in the digital age, time has become abstract and confusing, contradictory even.

The sun rises, the sun sets. Nature has its laws and abides by it. We can’t do anything about it. We go to work from 9 to 5. Working society, too, has its laws, which we usually abide by, but we can tweak the oppression by mechanical time. We change jobs to change our work hours. We can work flexible hours. We can become self-employed and become even more flexible (albeit also more stressed). Digital life, the digital world that has replaced much of our natural world around us (in term of awareness) has its own time. For lack of a better word, we call this time, but it has nothing to do with a continuous progress of time the way we know it. The digital is time assembled. It’s Stop & Go all the time. It’s manipulation, adjustment, repetition. And this, like natural time, we cannot change. The digital seems to have its own life. In the 21st century, natural time and digital “time” bracket our life. In between, we live every day by the mechanical clock that is in sync with no other time form.

If we want to discuss whether we can escape time, we first need to clarify which time form we’re speaking of. Before the advent of the clock, the answer to the question would have been a straightforward “no”. It is true that we cannot escape death, which means that we cannot escape time. Yet this perhaps only really holds true in our societies where, post-Christian belief, death is the literal end of something. The Buddhist belief in rebirth, I would be inclined to say, complicates the thought of death as a stoppage of time. If we began to consider death as merely another phase in our being, then it would no longer appear as the ultimate escape from time. At the same time, the philosophers on the radio argued that we couldn’t escape time because death would always catch up with us. If we continued this Western thought, would death then not be the ultimate escape from time, meaning that, in fact, we all achieve it and that this could, perhaps, even be the sense of life in our post-everything world?

There is little doubt that we can escape mechanical time. Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea is a wonderful example: leave society behind, live in the woods, according to nature’s principles and its own time. Forget about standard hours for doing certain things. Simply be. It doesn’t come as a surprise that villagers on a small Norwegian island plan to abolish the mechanical clock. The island of Sommarøy wants to become the world’s first time-free zone. Of course, the island cannot be free of time. But it can free itself from the chains of mechanical time. The argument behind this is simple. If there are no traditional nights during the summer period high up in the north, everything becomes the same. If you mow the lawn at 4am or 2pm is not a question to be had. It’s broad daylight, so go for it!

So, the answer to the question of whether we can escape natural time depends on the philosophy you follow in life. It is much easier to affirm that we can escape mechanical time. In fact, I believe that we have been escaping time since the advent of photography, and later cinema. But how about digital/virtual time? I would be inclined to say that virtual time behaves like mechanical time. It is artificial, it is imposed on us by ourselves. This also means that yes, we can escape it. It is us who created it, it is us who can abolish it. But perhaps this is too easy?

Happy 10th Slow Cinema anniversary

This year marks a special anniversary for me. Ten years ago in summer, I watched my first slow film. It was Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), a stunning feast, which blew my mind. I kept looking at my watch not because I was bored, but because I wanted to see just how long this first take would last. Quite remarkable that it has been a decade already. Since The Man from London, which, I later found out, was based on a book by Georges Simenon, I have seen hundreds of slow films. Not all of them have made it onto my blog, for lack of time, or frankly for a lack of space because I started my blog only three years after my first slow-film experience.

Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang – these were the big names when I started. I came comparatively late to the oeuvre of Pedro Costa, and I still need to catch up with all of his films. But overall, those four directors used to be the core of what was considered to be Slow Cinema at the time. There were others, of course. Abbas Kiarostami, or Theo Angelopoulos. Chantal Akerman was always a bit on the side, because she was the only woman director talked about. Slow Cinema certainly was a male field. The term was coined by a man, the directors were almost exclusively male, and whenever I did see a slow film in cinema or went to a conference, I felt rather strange as being one of only a handful of women. In fact, my work on Slow Cinema has made me become utterly aware of my being a woman, especially when my book proposal was rejected with the reason of the subject not fitting into the publisher’s portfolio, only for them to accept a book on the same subject by a man.

But apart from having me made aware of who I am and where I come from, Slow Cinema had for me something exciting about it. Why? Because it was a sort of genre, or movement, that I more or less grew into. Slow films, or slower-than-the-usual films have always existed, yet it became “a thing” only in the 2010s, once Jonathan Romney published his Sight & Sound piece about the increase of cinematic slowness in films. It felt as though I was witnessing something in-the-making. I still remember the first festival dedicated to slow films. The AV festival in the UK dedicated a whole weekend to Slow Cinema, with a mini retrospective of Lav Diaz’s films. This was where I saw my first ultra-long film, which much later became my main interest because the length not only created an entirely new film experience for me. It also allowed me to see films in a different way, not just as a purely horizontal narrative, but as something that can take its time to get to the bottom of things.

When I did my Phd from 2012 to 2015, debates about and around Slow Cinema tended to become heated. On the one hand, you had devoted followers. On the other, there were people who hated Slow Cinema and they were the ones who advocated the idea of boredom in the context of slowness. “I’m not going to the cinema to get bored.” The debate on Slow Cinema highlighted what most people expect of cinema to be: a form of entertainment that is used to numb problems, pain, concerns – if only for two hours. I believe that the rejection of slow films not only stems from its rejection as a form of entertainment. It is the rejection to see, a rejection of our human condition.

Slow Cinema also showed the nasty business of film criticism, with certain critics leaving the auditorium early and then ripped a film into pieces (which you can’t do with slow films until you have seen the whole film), and with critics who haven’t even seen a certain film they were reviewing. There were books hastily published, which didn’t even try to understand the movement as something that goes beyond a rejection of modernity’s speed. All of a sudden, those who never bothered with the field had a chapter published. If you wanted to be on top of things as a film scholar, you had to join the band waggon.

I believe that Slow Cinema has given me an insight into more than I had bargained for. In the end, the heated discussion died down as quickly as it had begun. Paul Schrader announced the death of Slow Cinema not so long ago. This shows nothing else than his lack of understanding of the genre. It may well look as though Slow Cinema is in decline. Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang have retired. Chantal Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami have died. The written output is decreasing.

If one wasn’t actively involved with it almost daily, one could easily agree with Schrader. But this would be a mistake. With the rush over slowness coming to an end (yes, this joke is totally intentional), Slow Cinema can finally be. Maybe directors can soon even do Q&As without being asked the age-old question as to why their films are so slow. They can just talk about the content of their films. Now is the time when some quality writing, some quality analysis can emerge from the silence and the stillness that is slowly beginning to wrap around slow films. It’s no longer about making a quick comment on something that is at odds with our modern times. It is about feeling it, and putting it into perspective.

And we will have ample time to do this, as Slow Cinema is everything but dead. Wang Bing has become one of the most prolific directors in recent years. Nikolaus Geyrhalter continues to investigate the world. Shengze Zhu has just won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam. Jacqueline Zünd seems to become a new female force in Slow Cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is treading new grounds in Colombia. Aleksandra Niemczyk is probably one of the most promising new talents. Michela Occhipinti has premiered her new film at the Berlinale. Bi Gan is making himself a name in the field.

The future couldn’t be brighter, precisely because the public debate has died down. While others declare Slow Cinema dead, I personally am convinced that we are entering a new promising phase, which could even become a sort of golden age for slow films. Let’s see what there is to write for me in 2029!

The spirit of absence

I have long been fascinated by the power of absence. I hadn’t known that this was one element that drew me towards Slow Cinema until I saw my first of a number of Lav Diaz’ films, which so clearly play on the nature of the unseen, the present absence. More and more I also realise that my attraction towards this ghostly aesthetic probably stems from several holes in my family history, which I’m now seeking to clear up. There is always a reason for one’s attraction to a piece of art, or a film, and often one isn’t aware of the underlying reason for being emotionally moved by something.

The fascinating aspect of absence, which, to me, is related to the element of space, is that it distorts our perception of time. In many ways, time appears to pass slower, in extreme situations perhaps even in slow motion. There are various reasons for “holes” in our life narrative. Absence is always connected to a loss of something, and this can take different forms. Death is probably the one we can all identify with, and the days and weeks after having lost a loved one always feel different. Time has a different meaning than before. There is a before and an after.

I have long been an admirer of the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman, whose work seems to overlap with my own more often than not, and the further I move through his work, the more I see just how much value his books and essays have for Slow Cinema. Didi-Huberman is not an expert in cinema, which would perhaps rule him out for a lot of people because he just doesn’t know the field. Interestingly enough, it is probably precisely because he is writing from several vantage points – philosophy, art, history, and yes, cinema – that allows him to see things clearly, to take a step back, and to introduce new ideas. Or to simply open our eyes to what’s really in front of us.

One would not necessarily pick up a study on the Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani for an informed reading on Slow Cinema. But Didi-Huberman’s in-depth focus on “air, dust, traces, and haunting”, as indicated in the book’s subtitle (Génie du non-lieu – Air, poussière, empreinte, hantise), is exactly what one should pick up for a better, or even new understanding of the uses of absence in slow films. I have long used art books for my work on Slow Cinema, and there is a lot of remarkable material that many people, especially academics who think only in their own field, have overlooked. Claudio Parmiggiani is an exceptional artist, whose work focuses on absence, silence and fragmentation. Ignoring everything I have read, looking at Parmiggiani’s pieces online conjures feelings of loss, of pain, of longing, but also of searching and hoping.

The power of time in form of patience, desire and waiting, Didi-Huberman writes, can never exist without an event, an action, that tears it up. There is nothing like a homogenous forward movement of time. There is a persistent alternation between calm and shock. This shock, as I have argued above, usually comes about through the loss of something or someone. A loss is always traumatic, like when you thought, in your childhood, that your dad really stole your nose when he made this weird finger movement in front of your face. You’re shocked, you cry. The calm disappears. The alternation between the power of time in form of slowness and its shock moments can be found in several slow films, but is most visible in the films of Lav Diaz, whose narratives live of this back-and-forth, especially his six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012).

There is this famous opposition in the works of Roland Barthes: what is and what has been. Parmiggiani, on the other hand, works on what remains. Barthes’ has been is absent, but continues to haunt the present. Parmiggiani shows the residues. He creates a picture of this haunting absence in the form of dust, or imprints. He makes it palpable, brings it out into the open. Didi-Huberman argues that dust (poussière in French) has its own time, it doesn’t follow the rhythms we establish throughout our lives. What’s more, dust survives us. It always will. Even though, as Didi-Huberman points out, dust is in permanent movement, it is perhaps the only permanent remnant of everything we do, of everything that our life is and has been. It’s what remains after our death. Dust is temporary and yet permanent. It is in movement, shifting from place to place, and yet remains where it is.

The survival of traces, of dust, of imprints threatens our own survival, Didi-Huberman writes. Is this the reason why we feel uncomfortable about it? Is this why feel haunted, why we try to run away, in whatever way? The nature of slow films reminds us of those traces, and they usually do so by using the off-screen very effectively (and affectively). Parmiggiani’s work is all about the literal meaning of imprints and dust, at least in his magnificent series Delocazione. In effect, I find that he gives an image to what those two elements can also mean, namely memory. Persistent memories, haunting memories, memories that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Memories survive us, and this very survival, this longevity, threatens us and our calm existence. They bring upheaval, pain, change.

This “dust” forms the core of most slow films that I have seen. I have argued previously on this blog that slow films centre around Barthes’ what has been. In fact, after having seen Parmiggiani’s art, I more and more believe that we’re actually speaking about what remains in those films. We’re speaking about remains, residues, dust. We speak about what survives us, what remains after we’re gone. We feel our own impotence of something much larger than us. Do we not?

Waiting Time

The end of the year 2018 was, in France at least, a period in which the media focused on the subject of time. The quantity of things published was impressive and made me think about the possible reasons behind this seemingly mutual choice of journalists and podcasters alike. What happened in 2018 that became the trigger for a return to the subject of time and a reminder that time, as we know it, is an artificial construct?

It was, perhaps, Donald Trump and his presidency. In part, at least. An American president, impulsive, tweeting, can quickly take over the news. What I noticed last year is that it felt as though news faster than ever before. One tweet by a politician was enough to create a newsworthy item. Breaking news was the order of the day. Trump, Brexit – you name it. 2018 was characterised by immediacy, heightened by social media and people’s use of it for “news”. I don’t want to write a political post, albeit I could because there is so much to say about last year. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of time today. In an earlier post, I already wrote down my ideas on the theme of waiting, triggered by a blog post on the subject.

Today, I want to go into a bit more detail because I think that if we speak about Slow Cinema, we still don’t speak enough about the subject of time itself. Academics love to explain slow films with Bazin and Deleuze, but this approach has always felt incomplete, or even inadequate to me. It is Sylvain Piron, who, in his magnificent book L’occupation du monde, writes about, what he calls, an artificialisation of every part of society. This, I believe, can also be found in the debate on Slow Cinema. There is no natural conversation about it, but slow films are being explained by artificially constructed frameworks that we have created merely because we humans have to categorise everything in order to keep track of what is happening around us.

Prologue – Béla Tarr

The simple aspect we forget while creating artificial frameworks is that time is an illusion, a question of perspectives rather than a universal truth, as physicist Carlo Rovelli describes it in his new book on time. There is, he suggests, neither space nor time, but instead a continuous progression of processes. Not so long ago, I spoke of Sylviane Agacinski’s thought-provoking book Le passeur du temps, in which she argues that everything is always passing, is in constant transformation. Nothing remains the way you see it right in this very moment. In a second, it’s already different, which, as we may remember from previous readings and discussions, makes it difficult to define what the present moment is, because the present is fragile. If you speak about “the present”, it sounds like a stable temporal entity, but it’s the opposite. What’s present now, is already past in a nano second. So what does this say about time? Rovelli puts forward a pretty good argument. Reality, our reality, is merely a fragment. No one’s reality is the ultimate reality. We create those fragments in order to handle the world. He describes this process, in fact, as a way of blurring of what is around us. In order to contemplate the world as it is, we need to fragment it. We do this, for example, via time, and time is nothing but a marker of our unawareness, of our ignorance.

For Rovelli, time is primarily an emotional and psychological experience, which resonates so strongly with everything I have thought to express on this blog in relation to slow films. From the beginning, I have considered slow films as an experience, rather than as a sort of movement that is defined by frameworks, which tick certain boxes. I have reviewed over 250 films and have seen more without having (yet) written about them. If there is one thing that I have learned, then it is about the necessity of experiencing the films before one poses questions as to what they mean, why they are so slow or so long, and why the director didn’t cut at a specific point. Slow Cinema is, if I take the argument of Rovelli to heart (which I do), the perfect illustration of what time is: an experience, a passing experience, a continuous movement towards something – the end in most cases.

It is, I believe, this experience that we struggle with. In a fast-paced, knee-jerk epoch, are we still capable of truly experiencing something? In order to experience something, this something needs to last, and what actually still lasts? The 21st century, in particular, has cut short everything. Except, that is, for slow films. They last. Their duration allows us to experience, which can be a scary experience. Maybe this is why people say that they are bored. Perhaps they are just scared of letting something happen to them und use boredom as an easy way out. This something – it matters little what it essentially is as it is different for everyone – appears by itself, but one needs to wait for it. We spend so much of our lives waiting, we don’t even realise it anymore. It is so normal to wait for the bus that we no longer notice it as something out of the ordinary. Besides, as Reiner Niehoff and Sven Rücker explain in a three-part podcast series on waiting, everything is being done to make this period of waiting look and feel as though we are not waiting at all. Newspapers and journals in the GP practice, games on mobile phones while waiting for the bus or the metro. We keep ourselves busy all the time, even during periods of waiting.

Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd

Waiting, Niehoff and Rücker say, doesn’t have a quality in and of itself. Its goal is to end the period of waiting. What I found truly thought-provoking, even though it is so simple and easy to recognise that, precisely, I had never thought of it before, is that no one chooses to wait. Waiting is always imposed upon us. We have to endure it and we are at its mercy. This alone tells us why we struggle with waiting. Of course, we like to be in control, and if we are not, it makes us anxious, angry or simply uncomfortable. Whoever it is who makes us wait has power over us, because s/he plunges us into a hole of non-productivity. Remember that time is nothing but a psychological experience? In waiting, we can feel this most strongly.

Do you wait for the director to cut the scene? Do you wait for something to happen? Do you wait for the film to end? The key here is that we perceive a slow film as a form of waiting, and then we say “I don’t have time for this”. Some people might even say that the director shouldn’t steal or waste our time. At the same time, I consider waiting for something to happen in a slow film as the one way of waiting that is not imposed from the outside, but from the inside. Waiting is imposed on ourselves by ourselves, and we project this fear of waiting and our disappointment onto the director, who merely shows a passing experience without any obligations. Because we are, as Rovelli suggested, busy with “blurring” our surrounding, it becomes difficult to accept those films as they are. Instead, we consider them as time experiments, as a “tour de force”. People’s rejection of those films comes from their misconception of what time is, and I think that seeing the subject from a different angle might help them to find their way into the films one day.

Pre-order The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine now!

After months of work, the very first issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine is now available for pre-order via tao films. It’s thanks to Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais that I have finally made the move towards my own journal. It’s been thought of for years, but I had never actually had the guts to do it. Now, after six years of blogging I’m happy to welcome the first paper version of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema into the world.

With a cover designed by Swedish filmmaker and artist Sebastian Eklund, the magazine comes in A5 size and is 84 pages strong. It comes with a professional fastback binding. I’m super chuffed to have wonderful people on board.

Filmmakers Aleksandra Niemczyk and Sebastian Cordes write about their approach to film, and give you an insight of the behind-the-scenes of their films Centaur and A Place Called Lloyd respectively.

Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais reflect about the state of cinema in the 21st century, to which Maximilian Le Cain responds in a separate essay.

Catlin Meredith from Her Head in Film writes about the meaning of home in Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo, which we are streaming on tao films.

Myself, I investigate the aesthetic of absence in the films of Lav Diaz.

And I’m over the moon with John Clang’s sketchbook of his film Their Remaining Journey.

All of this, and a 20% discount of your tao films subscription, can be found in the magazine.

In order to keep possible financial losses at bay, I will collect orders of twenty magazines before they go into print and are then shipped. It’s a sort of on-demand service, which allows me more flexibility and avoids financial hassles. In the end, we must not forget that this is the first issue and I have no clue as to how successful this will be. I’m taking it safe 🙂

International shipping is available, of course. The price is 10€ for the magazine and 6€ for shipping. Shipping from France is pretty expensive. I wished I could offer it for cheaper, but it’s sadly not (yet) doable. Maybe I’ll have found a better option for issue 02.

As soon as the first batch of magazines is ready for shipping, a shipping date will be communicated to each buyer individually. I’d be eternally grateful if you could spread the message, in whatever way possible. And, of course, if you have any questions about the magazine, do drop me an email: theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com

My thanks goes to all contributors and supporters. This magazine wouldn’t have been possible without you!

Pre-order your magazine on the tao films VoD website and join me on this next part of the slow journey!

Landscape / Character

The end of the year proves to be busy, and it’s not easy at the moment to sit down and watch a film. I hope that I soon get to see Wang Bing’s Dead Souls. This is the one film I still want to see this year, if I don’t manage to see more than one. Although I should. There are still two Nikolaus Geyrhalter films waiting for me. So much slowness, so little time. This irony… 🙂 In any case, I need to prepare an article on the uses of sound and silence in the films of Lav Diaz because I have been invited to Lyon for a study day on the director. I might publish this one either here on the blog or in the next issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine. 

In any case, there is an outstanding project from, believe it or not, seven years ago. In October 2011, I wanted to submit a paper abstract to a conference on landscape and film in Ireland, but had never found the time in the end. At the same, my interest in Slow Cinema was still in its early stages. Nevertheless, I knew that there was a special relationship between the landscapes, the streets, the empty and degrading houses of Béla Tarr and his films’ characters. In many ways, what I have noticed in the films of Tarr only returned once I began to discover the work of Lav Diaz. These two directors are special in their assigning a sort of character status to their landscapes, turning them into ghostly characters that mirror the characters’ inner psychological landscapes; their pain, their angst, their suffering, their devastation. 

Anything that surrounds a character becomes a character itself. This isn’t the case with all slow films, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is a particular characteristic of Slow Cinema. Béla Tarr, however, used to be one of those few directors who persistently followed this alley and who also assigned a special role to his camera. Everything became a character, everything played a decisive role, and everything added to the heaviness and power of his films. For that conference in Ireland seven years ago, I had planned to look at how the landscape/the surrounding becomes a mirror of the characters’ psyche. In particular, I had wanted to look at Karrer, who is, of course, the main character in Tarr’s Damnation, and at the woman he seems to be infatuated with. I believe that Damnation is really the first vertical, in-depth film, which looked specifically inside the characters. Characters began to have extraordinary depth and were more than just elements used to push a narrative forward. 

We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information. … If you have a chance to make some really deep things, I think everyone can understand everything. The question is always the deepness: how you can touch the people. (Béla Tarr)

At the same time, Damnation is perhaps the most obvious example of how directors can use landscape in order to underline the characters, if I could say it in this way. According to interviews, Tarr spends a lot of time looking for the right background to his story. And it pays off. He selects his landscapes carefully, making sure that they’re in perfect alignment with his characters and his stories. The beginning of Damnation is already a good pointer towards this. It is perhaps the most iconic opening of all of Tarr’s films, perhaps even of all slow films (I’m sure you think the same!). We watch cable cars passing by, a remnant of the city’s coal mining past. The sound is perhaps even more incisive. I can still hear it when I think back to the film… The camera slowly, very slowly zooms out and we realise that we don’t actually watch the cable cars, but a man (Karrer) watching the cable cars. We watch someone watching something. This is repeated several times in Tarr’s oeuvre. Just think of his 1994 seven-hour masterpiece Satantango, in which we watch an old doctor watching his neighbours. Bernhard Hetzenhauer wrote a fantastic book about this, Das Innen im Aussen, which, if you can read German, is a must-read. 

The cable cars, buckets that used to carry coal from one place to another, are a pointer to the past, the death of the mining industry having plunged the village into its own death spiral. The houses we see are in a sad state. The persistent, continuous rain adds to the atmosphere of something passing by, of something that is clinging on but knowing that it won’t have strength for much longer. The decay of the houses foreshadows the decay of the characters. If anything, it is perhaps the rain that acts as the most faithful interpretation, or rather mirror image, of Karrer who is in love with the wife of another man. He doesn’t accept being rejected and, in the end, loses everything. 

Take it or leave it, this is what you’re stuck with. What can you do? You lose your words, yet you cannot go. It’s been over for a long time. It’s good that utopia exists. Good to know I won’t be here for long. Take it or leave it. (song in Damnation)

The identities of landscape and character overlap in Damnation. They merge to become one. When Karrer offers the woman’s husband to do a smuggling job for him in order to get him out of the way, he becomes morally corrupt. He would do anything to be able to continue his love affair. Karrer’s offer shows his own downward spiral, the moral corruption becoming a picture of his internal degradation. Tarr intercuts this degradation with scenes of the village. Damnation is interesting because throughout the film, the focus remains on the actual characters alone. The director presents a village that is pretty much emptied of people. The only constant companion is the rain. This makes is easy to establish a link between the few characters we follow (Karrer, the woman and her husband) and the empty landscapes we see in scenes before or after them. Who is of more importance in the film?

Interestingly enough, there are scenes that question the importance of the characters and which focus more intensively on the landscapes, or the surroundings in general. This is helped with Tarr’s independent camera, independent in the way that it moves wherever it wants without necessarily following a character. There is one scene that makes this absolutely clear. After initially having rejected Karrer’s offer to go out for dinner, the woman allows him into her flat and they have sex. This sequence says more than a thousand words. The camera doesn’t bother much with the couple. It looks around the room, panning slowly and carefully to allow us an in-depth study of the austere flat and the rundown streets outside. The non-passionate and loveless act between the two characters is seemingly unimportant. What matters is the expression of the characters’ inner lovelessness through the expression of an austere mise-en-scène and natural elements like rain that carve deeper and deeper holes into a slowly dying internal and external environment. 

Writing on the film Barren Lives by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Jean -Claude Bernadet suggests that the structure of the film

“is not conditioned by the action of the characters, but rather by nature: it is the rain and the drought that decide the beginning, the middle, and the end of the film.” (in Representing the Rural, p156)

One cannot deny that Tarr follows the same principle in Damnation, perhaps more so than in his other films with the exception of his last film, The Turin Horse. What characters may not be able to express is expressed through their surroundings as metaphors. Tarr’s characters are not easy to read. There is little emotion involved. Everything happens inside them. When Karrer leaves the woman’s flat after they had sex, he doesn’t give any hint as to how he feels. But for once, the rain has stopped. Things brighten up. It is nature that tells us about Karrer’s feelings, not Karrer himself. Tarr makes himself deliberately dependent on nature, on psychologically charged landscapes in order to give his seemingly flat characters an extraordinary depth. 

The end of the film is most emblematic of the director’s pursuit of blending characters with their surroundings so that they become one. Over the course of two hours, Karrer slowly disintegrates, as does the village. With nothing left, Karrer becomes no more than a dog, on all fours imitating the stray dog who barks at him, drenched in rain and mud. Damnation is a story about the life of a dog in human disguise, whose mask drops ever so slowly, but continuously, just like the persistent rain slowly but surely swallows the village. It won’t leave any traces, and Karrer, too, will disappear.

The next step – The Art(s) of Slow Cinema Journal

It’s been several years that I dream of publishing my own journal. I was still a student when I began to think about pursuing this because I was frustrated at being rejected because my subject matter didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Things have changed lot, though, since the idea first popped into my head, although I can say for sure that it has never disappeared. Over the years, my blog has become the most visited site in the area of Slow Cinema. I have readers from all corners of the world (except for Greenland, which I find very sad), and I have gotten to know a lot of wonderful people because of my writing. I have gotten to know filmmakers, cinephiles, but I also came across new films thanks to my readers. In the last five years, I have been able to build a network of people whose interest and thirst for Slow Cinema I’m happy to cater for, and who, at the same time, taught me a lot; about cinema, about writing, about confidence, about myself.

It is thanks to Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais that I’m returning to my idea of publishing a journal. When I held their FilmPanic magazine in my hands, I could no longer shake off this thought. I could no longer ignore it for another couple of years. My guts told me that now was the time. Why is that? Because I feel that this would be the right step forwards; expanding on the blog; inviting other contributors, whom I always rejected because the blog was supposed to be my personal platform on which I developed my own ideas; creating a new challenge for myself; challenging academia and its published content on Slow Cinema.

The Art(s) of Slow Cinema has already given birth to tao films, my video-on-demand platform for contemplative world cinema. The platform went live on 1 January 2017, and after a few adjustments (learning by doing!), we’re now offering a growing catalogue of fiction films, documentaries and experimental cinema. Every month, more films are added and you can either buy the films individually, or you can get yourself a 30-day subscription, which will not be renewed automatically. We’re fair and don’t want to cash in on people’s forgetfulness on having subs with several platforms. So, in case you haven’t yet been aware of this project, you should definitely check it out, because we show films that are difficult to get hold of, or are, in most cases, available exclusively on tao.

The Art(s) of Slow Cinema journal, whose publication in the near future I’m herewith announcing (you should imagine me dance while writing this!), is another step forward, another attempt at expanding on the work I have already done, and at creating alternative content in the context of Slow Cinema. I will take it slow, of course, and start small. There won’t be a fancy design, there won’t be glossy paper, or a team of editors trying to think of what’s best to publish. What this journal will be instead is a space for those interested in the field to publish their ideas and thoughts. The journal will develop as freely as it can, without word limits etc which always inhibit a real development of great ideas. Just as I listen to the filmmakers, who release their films through tao films, I’ll listen to the writers of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema journal and accompany them as best as I can. So what can you expect if not the glossy stuff or a perfectly designed, expensive magazine?

You’ll be able to read exclusive content that you wouldn’t find here on this blog. There will be interviews with filmmakers. There will be filmmaker notes, essays by filmmakers, diaries about their shootings. There will be essays by cinephiles, who have a special interest in Slow Cinema and who love to explore certain themes in more detail in their writing. There will be creative responses to films. There will be a whole lot that you will never find either here or in academic writing. It’ll be a sort of fan journal, if you want to call it this way, albeit this might sound too cheesy and boring.

The first authors have been selected, and they’re working on their respective pieces until the beginning of July. I’m really looking forward to this and feel super excited to take this step this year, as, yes, the first edition will be published this year. Magazines will be available via pre-order only in order to create a sustainable project that does not become a financial burden. I don’t want to prep 1,000 copies if only 100 people want to read it. I don’t have a fireplace where I can burn the rest to heat the house 😀 Nowadays, we need to be reasonable and while I would love to go full-blow on this, I want to do this right, that means careful, thought-through, with the aim to grow if necessary and possible.

Details about the content of the first edition and the pre-order price will be published in due course. I need to collect the articles first and then I can give you an update on everything. Let’s make this happen and please share the slow love! Thank you!

Arresting trauma – Martti Helde’s In The Crosswinds (2014)

“On the night of 14 June 1941, more than 40,000 innocent people were deported from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The aim of this secret operation – done on Stalin’s orders – was to ethnically cleanse the Baltic countries of their native peoples.”

In the context of my research into the representation of post-trauma in the films of Lav Diaz, I have published a few posts here on this blog, which equally dealt with the subject. There is, first of all, a rather personal account of my dealing with PTSD and how Slow Cinema helped me to become more mindful. There is also an article on the link between Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory. In fact, throughout my research and my trying to come to terms with my own experience, I have realised that trauma research focuses almost exclusively on the aspect of speed (as mentioned in my PhD thesis). There is little doubt that life after trauma is different. Anxiety and panic introduce an aspect of speed to one’s life that seemingly spirals out of control. But there is also an aspect that tends to be forgotten: an aspect of duration and slowness. It can take a while before post-trauma, for instance, manifests itself in the body/psyche. Traumatic memories return over and over again, a circular repetition that makes the actual post-trauma life seem endless. You can read more about the aspect of slowness in the context of trauma in my thesis.

In my thesis, I have argued that Diaz’s use of absence and long duration effectively (and affectively!) represents post-trauma without ever showing the traumatic event that has led to the character’s suffering. What matters is the time spent on the character and on his/her suffering. Quite some time ago, I have come across an Estonian film, which I rewatched yesterday and I cannot not write about this film. Perhaps, it is not a traditional, straightforward slow film, and yet it is a film that uses slowness, duration and absence for a representation of post-trauma (or trauma-in-the-making), but in a completely different way.

The film begins with white letters on a black screen. There is no sound. The quietness reinforces the meaning of the dates and numbers that characterise the deportation of over 40,000 innocent people. Filmmaker Martti Helde sets a historical context and explains that his film In The Crosswinds (2014) is based on letters written by Erna Tamm, who had been writing to her husband from whom she was separated during the deportation. For me, Crosswinds stands out as a remarkable experiment on how trauma can be represented on screen without turning it into a spectacle, which is always an ethical problem filmmakers have to negotiate. There is one characteristic in which Diaz’s and Helde’s representation of traumatic events are similar: the directors’ use of absence. Neither Diaz nor Helde show traumatic events on screen. Even though Helde does focus on the actual deportation, his approach to its representation allows for empty space that needs to be filled by the spectator. Atrocities such as mass killings and rape are not shown on screen. Helde shows the before and after, or a voice over informs us about the traumatic event. Yet, the director positions us, confusingly, within the traumatic event without showing all the terrible details, all the while making sure that we cannot be mistaken about what’s really happening.

“Heldur, time has taken on another dimension. The temporary has passed. We measure time by the news that reaches us. That way the days and weeks seem shorter.”

All of this might sound like films I have spoken about before in the context of slowness and trauma. And yet, Crosswinds stands out in one specific way, and it addresses several themes I have mentioned on this blog before. The film has, in fact, two sides to it. Each follows its own temporality, its own aesthetic. Let’s begin with flashbacks, memories of the good times, times before the start of the deportation. The film starts in greyscale. A voice over says, “I received your letter. I’m in your homeland.” The camera, with its beautiful and graceful movements, explores a backyard. There is a blooming apple tree, Erna sorting the laundry. Inside the house, we see her, her husband Heldur and her daughter Eliide having breakfast. The sun is shining. It’s a wonderful image of peace. They talk to one another, but the viewer is excluded from their conversation. Helde silences the voices and focuses instead on ambient sound in order to reinforce this image of quietude and peace. These times of before return once or twice during the film. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the deportation, the journey to and life in Siberia, and the struggles of the deported to survive.

The deportation set something in motion that one would call traumatisme in French. The English language doesn’t have a clear-cut distinction between the traumatic event and the psychological reaction. Not all traumatic events lead to PTSD, albeit PTSD is the only term that makes it absolutely clear that you’re speaking about something post trauma. In Helde’s film, the impact of trauma (the event) is represented on screen by a literal arrest, a stoppage of time and of movement. Crosswinds is a film, in which, in the majority of scenes, characters do not move. They’re standing still, arrested in certain positions while the camera circles around them. It feels as though you’re walking through a haunted past, photographs that have arrested the atrocities committed on Stalin’s orders. It is as though the deported are put to rest (albeit not in a good way). When Erna’s family is arrested, we don’t see the actual arrest. Helde places all three characters on the back of a lorry, sitting still, watching in fear. The soundscape tells us that officers smash glass in the family house. But only the sound tells us of this violent attack. There is no image of it. When the lorry arrives at the local train station, the camera circles around hundreds of to-be-deported people: children, women, men, old and young, rich and poor. There seemed to have been no one who was spared. Everyone on the platform stands as though arrested. The violent scenes we know from Holocaust cinema, in which the spectator is confronted with crying children, begging mothers, shots in the air, forceful commands etc are not present here. What happens instead is that life comes to a halt. Trauma arrests time. Trauma disrupts the continuation of time towards the future. It’s a ghostly atmosphere. It is as though the people on the train platform are already dead, still, stiff, a mere memory of the past (to get a better idea of what I’m speaking of you should watch this scene!).

“We’re prisoners of nature. I wonder if there have ever been any prisoners with so much space that you long for boundaries.”

Crosswinds focuses on Erna’s story, her attempt at survival, the tragic loss of Eliide, who became weaker by the day. Starvation is rampant. So are diseases. Erna’s daughter is one of many who survive the deportation, but not life in Siberia. In a voice over, we’re told that of the 51 women in Erna’s train waggon, 42 made it to the destination. One mother killed herself and her child on the journey.

Every woman is expected to work. They chop wood day in day out, in freezing temperatures with little food that is not even enough for a child. Erna strikes up a friendship with Hermiine, but even she cannot protect Erna from sexual assault and rape in exchange for a loaf of bread. The camera is constantly in movement. It is as free as the camera in Béla Tarr’s films, but its function is different in Crosswinds. Helde’s camera is searching for something or someone. It is always looking for something, not knowing what it would find. There are a lot of empty frames which the camera uses as a cue to keep moving, to keep looking. Here again it might be worth returning to my post about the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in order to see how a film can be created in such a way that it appears to have its own mind, its own ways of thinking. Apart from ZerkaloCrosswinds stands out as the other great example of this.

It takes almost fifty minutes before we see Heldur again, separated from his wife on the platform. Because of Erna’s letter, we learn that the men were deported into another direction. Whereto – this isn’t mentioned at all, but those with knowledge about the war have an idea of what this means. Heldur, dressed almost in rags, head shaven, stands in front of a table behind which three Soviet officers are seated. Helde let’s us guess that this is a make-shift tribunal where Heldur is sentenced to death. The camera spins around the room, while everything else is in arrest. This sequence of scene is the clearest in which the film’s aesthetics represent the action on screen. The non-movement, the two-fold arrest of Heldur (as a prisoner and as a character who doesn’t move), the ghostly images, foreshadow his fate. His non-movement means nothing other than his death.

“Because what is freedom worth if you have to pay for it with solitude?”

It takes the death of Stalin for Erna to be able to return to Estonia. Although she had promised Heldur that she would try to find him after the war, she no longer has any idea of where to look for. “Maybe below the soil?” Erna’s words are poignant, and it took her 47 years to learn that her husband had been murdered. What remains are still, arresting and arrested images of the past that continue to haunt. Because of their stillness, the images Helde has created stay with you. The long duration of the scenes, the stillness of the image, the haunting (visual) absence of atrocities all contribute to a remarkable film experience that, to me, represents perhaps most adequately the post trauma.

The filmind in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo

What follows are bits and pieces from an article I drafted six years ago about the Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo and Daniel Frampton’s filmind. At the time, I approached several scholars with some thoughts on the issue and have been met with hostility. Scholars were not open to it, found it ridiculous even or plainly told me that everything that needs to be said about Tarkosvky has been said. The result was that the draft I’m copying from for this blog post ended up in a cardboard box never to be touched again, half way forgotten until I rewatched the film on a big screen. When I reread the draft, I was struck by its focus on memory and trauma, which I was to develop in full in my PhD. Personally, that was interesting to see. I found the roots, or at least some roots of my PhD.

So let me begin by explaining Frampton’s filmind, a concept which he developed in his book Filmosophy. Hugo Münsterberg already noted in his essay The Photoplay – A psychological Study (1916)“The photoplay obeys the laws of the mind rather than those of the outer world.” In a similar vein, Frampton considers film a thinking being, albeit he never actually equalises man and film. In fact, he stresses that film thinking is different from human thinking because first, it thinks in a different world (a film-world), and, second, it thinks in other dimensions. He grounds his arguments on complex research into previous suggestions by philosophers, psychologists and film theorists that there is a connection between film and the human mind.

The filmind is the origin and source of all images and sounds. It creates and designs the film world, it makes decisions, and “serves itself, the drama, its characters, its narrator, or even an outside force other than just itself” (Frampton, 2006: 81). Every action we encounter is the direct result of dramatic film-thinking. It visualises ideas, feelings and emotions, which distinguishes it from human thinking. Frampton speaks of three types of film thinking: 1) basic film thinking (general design, b/w or colour, places objects and characters into film world); 2) formal film thinking (adds movement, framing, speed, angles etc); 3) fluid film thinking (special effects and distortions). Basic and formal film thinking are always closely related; fluid film thinking is not present in every film. It’s presence depends on the overall purpose of said film.

Frampton gave film a hitherto unacknowledged human feature, and therefore releases it from the constraints of contemporary film analysis. If film is capable of thinking, if we assume that it possesses its own mind, then it is likewise capable of recollecting and remembering past events. I will explore the existence of the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in the following paragraphs and will look specifically at narrative construction, the use of colour, speed and sound. I will also demonstrate its ability to commemorate certain events. Again, this was written 6 years ago, but I now see very strong links to my later work concerning film and its ability to help commemorate and help start the healing process, both for the viewer and of the director.

Director Tarkovsky wrote in his book Sculpting in Time: “It occurred to me then, that from these properties of memory a new working principle could be developed, on which an extraordinarily interesting film might be built…It would be the story of [the hero’s] thoughts, memories and dreams…without his appearing at all.” (2008:29)

His autobiographical film Mirror was released in 1975, condemned as artistic failure in the USSR, acclaimed in the West. Following his idea of creating a new type of film, Mirror is a cinematic treatment of memory recollection through dream sequences and archive footage that trace the past of a dying man. It shows memories from his childhood prior to the Second World War, from his adolescence but it also reveals past-time experiences of Soviet society.

The filmind obscures past and present events, and makes the first visible in that it deliberately undertakes an act of remembering, which, as Biró stresses in her book Turbulence and Flow in Film, is an intentional “attempt to recapture the past.” (2008: 84) The obscurity of it derives from its possibility to visualise memory in its purest form; twisted and conjured, expressed through a mixture of colour palettes and, often enough, a change of paces of past events.

The thought of narrative

The first point I would like to discuss is Mirror’s narrative structure as part of an act of remembering. Sutton writes that “a temporal asymmetry is built in to autobiographical memory, in that (again) we are inevitably realist about the past, conceiving of past events as being all, in principle, integratable on a single temporal sequence” (2010). We therefore attach more “significance to specific events, so that our temporal orientation is by particular times rather than simply by rhythm or places.” (Ibid)

Mirror covers three distinct time spans; the mid-1930s, the time of the Second World War and the present day, presumably set in the 1970s. A direct translation from memory to moving image, Mirror juxtaposes scenes from all three times without giving clear signposts as to what era we find ourselves in. As Biró emphasises, signposts in form of intertitles, change of camera angle or a switch to a dramatic movement in music were inevitable at the age of silent films and early classic Hollywood productions. But, as she also points out, the lack of signposts in today’s films opens up a playful approach to linear narrative structure (2008:93). At the same time, it allows for a breaking of the cinematic spell in that it forces the filmgoer to actively interact with the elements he is presented with. Driven by unconscious frustration, he is required to arrange the plot elements chronologically and fill in gaps in order to create a solid story and thus achieve satisfaction from the narrative. Furthermore, for Tarkovsky, it is a step towards reality. In his book he poses the question of how it would be possible to “reproduce what a person sees within himself, all his dreams, both sleeping and waking.” (2008: 71) His answer is as simple as it is effective. The reproduction of a dream, or a memory, must be the exact copy of the natural phenomenon. Therefore, his filmind moves along the same asymmetric way as part of a journey in its inside.

Except for the very last scene, the filmind’s journey into the protagonist’s memories starts and ends in the present to establish a framework for the Here and Now. It also reveals what triggers the memories: Alexei, the protagonist, whose lack of physical presence allows for substituting his mind with a filmind which takes the journey for him, lies on his deathbed. His son Ignat turns on the TV and we become witness of a young adult liberated from his stuttering through séance. It is an allegory to the already mentioned cinematic spell, which, too, is broken through first paralysing the filmgoer due to its different nature, then bringing him back into reality.

What follows is a hardly clear-cut childhood memory of the protagonist, which again opens up a debate of the existence of a filmind. Maria sits on a fence outside her house looking across a field. A doctor approaches from afar and asks for the right way to Tomshino. He flirts with her, but his compliments fall on deaf ears. Maria rejects his advances, threatening to call her husband. Seeing that she doesn’t wear a ring, however, the doctor assumes she isn’t married at all. When he asks her for a cigarette, she turns around and watches her two children sleeping in a hammock. One of them is Alexei, the protagonist. His apparent inability to observe the situation prevents the filmgoer from connecting this memory with Alexei. It cannot be part of his memory, but that of a filmind, which takes over as an omniscient mind to broaden the perspective of the time. Frampton writes that “Integral to the power of the filmind is its knowledge of the whole – its transcendence” (2006: 84) and it can therefore visualise the memories not only of one character, but of an ensemble of characters.

A further example is young Asafiev, a boy of Alexei’s age, who, after having thrown a deceptively real hand grenade into the firing range, is expelled from the place and leaves to climb up a small hill to look over the range. Having reached the top, a bird lands on his hat. Meanwhile, Alexei, as the protagonist, is still undertaking the shooting practice. He would have been unable to see, and therefore, remember the bird on Asafiev’s hat. Once again, it is the filmind with its knowledge of the whole, which gives us access to that specific memory.

Likewise, the role of the newsreel images is vital as part of an omniscient presence. They are less an expression of personal memory, but that of a communal remembrance of a whole country. The first are almost violently interrupted by the latter in form of historical archive footage, which – contrary to the film’s structure – unravels in chronological order. Just as the film is set in separate times, so are the archival images. The pre-Second World War time shows images from the Spanish Civil War, a record-breaking Soviet balloon ascent as well as the successful flight over the North Pole by Valery Chkalov in 1937. The next set of footage includes the crossing of Lake Sivash in 1943, the liberation of Prague two years later and the iconic image of the Hiroshima bomb.

All events result in either personal tragedy, as for example in the death of the balloon crew during their ascent, or one for a country, as it was the case with Spain and Japan. This is striking in that it expresses (a) haunted soul(s) as much as an imperative feature of memory; the tendency to remember events with a high emotional attachment more vividly than any other collected memory. Ochsner draws attention to the still valid hypothesis that “emotion will increase the distinctiveness with which an event is encoded in memory” (2000: 244) and that this distinctiveness is dependent on the amount of attributes available (Ibid). The newsreel images, illustrations of collective memory (see The Thought of Memory for further analysis), intensify the act of remembering because they arouse powerful, emotional attributes; pride and triumph, loss and sadness.

Due to its fragmented structure, Mirror opposes the classic narrative cinema, which Hayward defines as “made up of motivated signs that lead the spectator through the story to its inevitable conclusion.” (2003: 46) The reason for this is Mirror’s similarity to the act of remembering. Memories are often recalled in fragments, which are neither in a clear temporal order nor with an apparent causality. Thus, the act of remembering seems to stand in stark contrast to a narrative.

Bordwell and Thompson give an illustration of the effect of the absence of both in a conventional narrative sense: “All the components of our definition – causality, time, and space – are important to narratives in most media, but causality and time are central. A random string of events is hard to understand as a story. Consider the following actions: ‘A man tosses and turns, unable to sleep. A mirror breaks. A telephone rings.’ We have trouble grasping this as a narrative because we are unable to determine the causal or temporal relations among the events.” (2008: 75)

Causality and temporal order are vital for a conventional narrative. Thus, in the early days of classic Hollywood cinema plot and story were alike. Films like Welles’ Citizen Kane, however, challenged this pursuit in providing the filmgoer mainly with a plot and it was his or her task to create a story by rearranging the fragments into a temporal order and hence establish causality.

Fragmented memories are akin to a plot, which doesn’t have an obvious narrative until, if needed and wanted, the remembering person puts them into a broader context of causality. As part of his intention to stick as close to the natural processes of memory, Tarkovsky structured Mirror through fragmented plot elements with an apparent absence of causality, and in so doing comes strikingly close to the real act of remembering.

How it differs is in the filmind’s capacity to “think the slow fast, the loose tight, the small large, the loud quiet, the tame violent, and the mythic real.” (Framton, 2006: 81) Furthermore, as already mentioned above, the filmind is additionally capable of thinking in specific colour palettes depending on its intentions towards characters or its overall aim. Accordingly, I would like to focus on three major formal points of Tarkovsky’s Mirror with respect to Frampton’s proposition; the thought of colour, speed and the thought of sound.

The thought of colour

The filmind remembers the different times dealt with through a specific use of colour palettes; something a human mind does not do. Frampton emphasises that “some of the most thoughtful moods of film are felt through colour. Simply put, the filmind can feel the drama to be a certain colour…” (Ibid)

Generally speaking, in the film memories are indicated through the use of black and white or sepia. These account specifically for the pre-war time, when Alexei was still a young child and his mother Maria was left behind by her husband. It is also true for Maria’s own memories and for the three dream sequences we encounter. Likewise, the archival images are monochrome. Contrary to this, most of the scenes in modern times are tinted in colour. It is vital, however, to bear in mind that “this is not always the case. Lack of colour stock meant that Tarkovsky had to film certain scenes, such as Alexei and Natalya’s last conversation in the flat, in monochrome, while the first scene after the credits, clearly a memory, is in colour.” (Martin, 2011: 120)

The act of remembering in Mirror is repeatedly linked to a feeling of loss and sadness, which continues to affect Alexei in the present. Consequently, the filmind tints all events set in the present in dull colours so as to underline both the protagonist’s detachment from his wife and his mother and, subsequent to his failing health, a lack of spirit.

The thought of speed

The filmind decelerates a considerable amount of movements in Alexei’s and Maria’s memories. Frampton points out that “slow-motion is a thinking of utter importance, brought in when a significant moment has the power to extend itself.” (2006: 124) One particular example is that of Maria running along the aisles in the printing house. Nervousness and rush are slowed down, the filmind lengthens the memorable episode. For Bordwell and Thompson, slow motion, linked to past events, is used “to express a lyrical quality.” (2008: 167) Biró goes further than that. She links back to French philosopher Bachelard, for whom lingering, caused, among others by slow-motions, as “a form of vacillation (…) [that] requires a pause before the momentous step is taken so as to consider the moment’s challenges, its contingencies and the weight of the decision.” (2008: 34)

Mirror is a combination of both definitions, dependent on the type of past events the filmind remembers. Exemplary for Bordwell’s lyrical quality is a memory near the end of the film. Alexei’s father looks towards us. Then he turns around to stroke the hand of Maria. Instead of laying in bed, however, Maria levitates over it. In addition, Alexei recounts a recurrent dream. He is outside the old dacha, but is unable to enter it. The door opens several times and yet he seems to be prevented from entering by a mystic force.

As indicated above, slow motion can equally express another, more challenging type of memory, illustrated, for instance, with Maria’s memory following her phone call to Alexei to tell him that her former co-worker Liza has died.

Maria dreamed of having made a mistake in her proofreading. She returns to the printing house to check the proofreading once again. This scene not only poses a challenge to Maria, but also to her co-workers, who are frightened of a mistake in a very important edition of the paper, and who also realise the weight of an error as they had been printing all night, which would have made a correction impossible.

Despite some memories being expressed in slow motion, lingering, as Bachelard describes it, is not exclusively tied to that form. The use of long takes as opposed to choppy cutting is another form of deceleration and therefore a demonstration of lingering, which can reinforce the challenges posed. A striking proof is Alexei’s memory of a hand grenade being thrown into the firing range during military instruction. The instructor throws himself on it. He lies in a foetal position covering the hand grenade and a bald patch on his head – presumably a scar from the war – reveals his increasing pulse rate, until Asafiev, the child who kept violating instructions, admits that the hand grenade is nothing but a dummy.

Just as Biró emphasised, this specific memory exemplifies that lingering opens challenges (a hand grenade in a firing range full of children), contingencies (Does the grenade go off? Will the instructor die?), and it brings decisions to the surface (The instructor chooses to sacrifice his life). It is here that the filmind expresses a memorable event by slowing it down in order to transmit the very danger of the situation, the fear and anxiety.

In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera takes up the issue of speed and memory, referring to mathematics: “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting…In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” (1996: 34-35)

Slowness is an expression of intensity. By enlarging the characters’ spatial and temporal awareness, the filmind defines the degree of suffering, despair and agitation.

The thought of sound

However, the filmind cannot only think the fast slow. It equally does so with sounds; asynchronous to the image or, in other situations, it accentuates them and excludes all other surrounding noises. The partially frightening memory of Maria’s washing her hair with the help of Alexei’s father is exemplary of the exclusion of noise. While seemingly enclosed in absolute silence, the filmind remembers clearly two distinct sounds: the hoot of an owl at night and the sound of water every time Maria puts her hands in, washes her hair and, in getting up, causes water dripping from her hair into the big basin underneath her. Here, the memory of sound and image is synchronous as both occur in slow motion. A contrast to this is the already mentioned memory of Maria’s in the printing house. Again, the filmind excludes all surrounding noises, apart from two distinct sounds: the sound of footsteps on the stone floor while Maria herself and Liza walk down the aisles. Both sound and image memory are synchronous. As soon as both walk past the printing machines, however, the filmind merely stresses the almost deafening noise of the machines and hence emphasises the turmoil Maria is in, supposing she made the mistake she had visualised at night. It is reinforced by opposing the slow motion visuals with the normal-paced rhythm of the machines.

In addition, Frampton stresses that “filmosophy finds a thinking of (…) danger, a feeling, through sound, of danger – either thinking the character’s emotions or thinking its own knowledge.” (2006: 120) Therefore, it is the filmind that takes over the memory of the incident in the firing range. The drill instructor throws himself on the hand grenade, awaiting its explosion. Once again, all other sounds are minimised. The filmind but discloses the instructor’s heartbeat to aurally display his anxiety and consequently thinks the immediate danger (again, this cannot be Alexei’s memory, as it’s a personal feeling of the instructor). It is exemplary of the filmind’s ability to transmit the “selective, perceptive thinking of a character’s subjectivity.” (Frampton, 2006: 121) In this particular memory, again the filmind doesn’t express the protagonist’s mind, but more accurately it bears the instructor’s near-death experience.

Perceptive thinking is, as slowness, an indication for a memory’s intensity. In filtering the sound of the heartbeat from all other irrelevant sounds, the filmind accentuates the almost unbearable loudness of life in an ostensibly fatal situation.

The thought of memory

Mirror’s filmind embodies what is called autobiographical memory. As demonstrated above, the filmind acts as a catalyst of individual recollections from the past and in so doing makes the absent present. Conway and Rubin highlight that “event specific knowledge [a level of autobiographic memory] tends to take the form of images, feelings, and highly specific details indicating the retention of sensory details of objects and actions in a general event.” (1994: 107) Reasonably, through the thought of colour, selective sound and the alteration of slowness and normal-paced rhythms the filmind visualises fragmented memory traces of a character.

At the same time, it can prompt collective memory in an attempt to portray the circumstances and conditions of Soviet society, linking all characters by supplying a socio-historical framework they share. Engel suggests: “Another way we learn about distant and historically significant events is by internalizing the memories of others. (…) You either remember an event as a participant, from within the middle of it, or you remember it from the perspective of an observer, on the edge of the scene.” (1999: 151)

The filmind is able to inhabit the role of the observer due to its transcendental nature. We have seen previously that transcendence permits the revelation of personal memories of an ensemble of characters. In addition, as the newsreel images disclose, it allows for access to historical events as part of collective memory. The filmind exposes, what McAdams calls nuclear scenes: “Our lives are punctuated by certain incidents – some of them seemingly critical or formative and others seemingly mundane – which we draw upon to define who we are, who we were, and perhaps who we are to become…They may entail private moments or a shared experience with an entire community.” (in Pillemer, 1998: 40)

The newsreel images the filmind employs have two specific purposes. First, it connects the characters in providing images of collective Soviet memory. The successful crossing of the North Pole by Chkalov was a moment of Soviet pride as well as the balloon ascent in the race for the conquest of the sky against America. And even though most of the soldiers died in the crossing of Lake Sivash, it is yet another symbol of a proud nation because it demonstrates the period of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. The filmind’s utilization of these images not only acts as a linkage between the characters, but it also links them to history instead of seeing them as separate entities.

Second, and most strikingly of all, the filmind expands this linkage to people around the world and therefore also to the filmgoer. It goes beyond the creation of a collective memory for Soviet society and shows newsreel images, which form a global collective memory, including the filmgoer as (and invites him to be) an active participant in recollecting and remembering the celebrations at the end of the Second World War, the extortionate destruction the nuclear bomb brought over Hiroshima and Mao’s revolution in China. In so doing, the filmind doesn’t leave the filmgoer as a passive spectator behind, but instead includes him indirectly in the film-world as he is strongly bonded with the characters in the process of remembering.

Frampton’s filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo

After all, there remains one crucial question to answer. If the existence of a filmind in Tarkovsky’s Mirror seems to be an obvious fact in my analysis, does it serve as a demonstration that all films are steered by a filmind?

The answer is twofold. Frampton theorized the concept of filmosophy to “reveal the complexity of film” (2006: 108) in an attempt to “organicise rather than technicise the filmgoer’s experience of cinema.” (Ibid., 106-107) His concept aims for a more liberated way of seeing films and thus for a proposition the filmgoer can either accept or reject. He describes the framework of filmind and film-thinking as a “conceptual ladder, to be climbed and then kicked away…it is a decision by filmgoers whether to use this concept when experiencing a film.” (Ibid., 98-99) He argues that his idea of seeing film as film is not a default state, but a mere attempt to show that allowing space for the existence of a filmind can enhance the cinematic experience of filmgoers.

However, although obviously intending to render film extraordinary in liberating it from contemporary semiotic and empirical analysis, he simultaneously creates yet another homogenous framework in applying his concept on a vast variety of films covering all genres. In so doing, Frampton develops a rather generic schema.

My argument is that of freedom of choice for the filmgoer. Indeed, as Frampton points out, Filmosophy is a proposition to the filmgoer. He alone decides whether or not he accepts the presence of a filmind. Like any other cinematic experience, this is based on individuality rather than conformity. Not only do historical and social contexts influence a willingness to break the cinematic spell. Accepting a filmind is as much dependent on the filmgoer’s individual and unique life experience, desires and interests.

Preminger stressed in an interview that “the ideal picture is a picture where you don’t notice the director, where you never are aware that the director did anything deliberately.” (in Perkins, 1993: 128) Even though he expresses his opinion about an ideal film in general, it is helpful to apply his statement to Filmosophy because it shows the significance of the nature of film itself. Not all films are made for a filmosophical journey because they are inextricably and strongly linked to the decisions of a director, which complicates an attempt to see film as an independent being. Barthes describes this linkage as the text directing “the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.” (1977: 40)

Tarkovsky’s Mirror bypasses this by giving neither the director nor the protagonist a visibly strong presence, and moreover by using only a small amount of subtle signifiers so as to allow the filmgoer where he wants to take the narrative to without directly interfering in his choice. Similar to the nature of memory, Mirror does not have a meaning, but many possible viewpoints, which evolve independently in the filmgoer himself.

In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky philosophises over the expression of time in film, also called time-pressure. According to him, time is felt “when you sense something significant, truthful, going on beyond the events on the screen; when you realise, quite consciously, that what you see in the frame is not limited to its visual depiction, but is a pointer to something stretching out beyond the frame and to infinity; a pointer to life.” (2008: 117-118)

He continues: “The film then becomes something beyond its ostensible existence as an exposed and edited roll of film, a story, a plot. Once in contact with the individual who sees it, it separates from its author, starts to live its own life…” (Ibid., 118)

Thirty years prior to the release of Frampton’s Filmosophy, Tarkovsky created with Mirror a film(ind) that is already rooted in the pursuit of film as having its own life independent of the director, which is capable of creating a film-world through its own characteristic thinking process.

Slow reconciliation with nature

This morning, I left the house at 8 o’clock. I went to a bridge that is close to my flat and that overlooks the canal Saint Martin in Rennes. I waited a bit but decided to walk a little closer to my flat again. The canal to my right and new apartment buildings to my left, I was waiting for the sun to rise. It was a cold night, it had snowed the evening before too. I stood there for an hour, not moving much, my gaze fixed on the horizon…just there, behind the tree tops, I expected the sun to appear. I’m sure that the construction workers who could surely see me wondered why I was standing there doing nothing. But even though they could stop even for a minute to marvel about this wonder of nature, the beginning of a new day, they don’t do it. Time is money. Every lost minute means delay, and delay costs money. So, naturally they keep working while I’m watching this fireball slowly appearing behind the tree tops. A wonderful sunrise in the cold at 8.36am but not visible until 9am. I could see the small changes in the colour of the clouds behind me as they slowly turned pink. The sun had an effect on everything before I could even see it.

It was this morning that I thought a bit more about something I heard on radio the other day. France Culture posed the question whether we should reconcile with nature, and if so, how. I didn’t hear the entire broadcast as I had only just stopped teaching and was on my way home. The broadcast reminded me a lot of slowness, contemplation, of the idea of taking one’s time to really see. The reason I’m writing something on this blog is because they spoke about film. I had hoped they would mention slow film, but they didn’t. A missed chance but perhaps it’s something I can start here on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.

One of the guests, Anne-Caroline Prévot, looked into the representation of nature in Walt Disney films for a research project and found that the face of Disney has changed a lot. No more Snow White’s singing with birds. Away with characters dancing in the green, appreciating the beauty of nature, being one with it. Since the 1950s, Prévot argues, Disney has adapted (I would even say reinforced) our decreased interest in nature, in its marvels. Nowadays its films show more brick buildings, city life, cobble stones people walk over than characters appreciating nature. It’s how life is these days. In the last decades, waves of migrants from the countryside have moved to the cities in order to find jobs. Countrysides are now deserted. France and Germany, for instance, face critical “medical deserts” where everything has closed because only a handful of people live in those regions and it wasn’t financially viable to keep even one doctor there. Life is city life nowadays, and cinematic representations very much go with the flow.

That said, we’re speaking about mainstream representation here. It is mainstream that shows us where and how we life, and that can propel us into the future. It is independent cinema that can remind us of what life should be, and could be. Slow Cinema, I believe, is one type of cinema that reminds us of the marvels of nature. Not only, I should say. But one of its main characteristics is that films are primarily set in nature, something Walt Disney has gotten rid off in the last couple of decades (apparently since the 1970s). It looks at empty places, places where people have stopped looking. It looks at those “deserts” that have become so widespread in our developed countries. But, most important of all, they function as a reminder to be. Not to make something, but rather to accept our surrounding and see the beauty in it. For that, it needs time, time which slow films give us. A film I recently saw comes back to my mind: Abbas Kiarostami’s Five. I’m also thinking of Lisandro Alonso’s films (La Libertad, etc), Alamar by Pedro Gonzales-Rubio or Semih Kaplanoglu’s wonderful Bal. 

These are, of course, narrative films. I believe that experimental films can go even further because they can dwell even longer without necessarily having to push a narrative forward. But there is also a wonderful book titled Cinema and Landscape by Graeme Harper and Jonathan Ryner. I’m aware that the broadcast was really about nature, but if you mention film you might want to take more than 2 minutes in really exploring how cinema represents our attitude to nature, but also how film, as a widespread form of entertainment, can help us to reconcile with nature. I strongly believe that Slow Cinema can do its share there and is already doing so. It’s not as visible as one might want it to be, but it’s there and good change is often a result of grass root movements…so maybe we’re seeing something in the making here!

(Little reminder: the tao films advent calendar is now available on our website. 24 short films until Xmas. A new film every day. Check out our website and check yesterday’s post for more info.)