The Multisensory Film Experience

If there is one thing that is visible in my research of the last three to four years, then it is my interest in why certain films attract me more than others. I’m fascinated by film experience, a fascination which started with Slow Cinema and then shifted to slow trauma cinema (specifically the cinema of Lav Diaz). Why did I get so hooked on Slow Cinema? In a previous post, I wrote about my experience with post-trauma and how Slow Cinema helped me to deal with anxiety and sensory overstimulation. For me, slow films were therapeutic. At the same time, I was reading an eye-opening book called Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen – a Jungian perspective by Luke Hockley. I discovered “the three meanings” of a film, the third (speaking to something in the unconscious, unknown to us) being the reason why I have one film in particular which I cannot watch to the end. I don’t know why, but there seems to be a relation between the film and my unconscious.

Now, this reading and this experience showed to me that film is not just an audio-visual product. I could already feel this when I investigated the ways in which Lav Diaz used specific aesthetics in order to transmit a sensation of post-trauma to the viewer. Post-trauma is more than just audio-visual. It goes deep under your skin, so if a film wants to evoke this, it has to go deep under your skin too. In effect, film being a multisensory experience is a no-brainer. I believe people are aware that it’s not just about images and sound. However, this is what scholars focus on, even more so on image than on sound. Film critics follow a similar line. There is little talk about the experience of a film, regardless of where you look. Especially in scholarship, experience is a sort of plague which you should try to avoid. It is subjective and mostly individual, therefore you cannot prove anything or write an objective scientific paper backed up with facts. But film viewing isn’t fact, it’s experience. It always was and it will always be, whether we’re speaking of popular mainstream or niche arthouse cinema.

I was therefore happy to read Luis Rocha Antunes’ book Multisensory Film Experience: A Cognitive Model of Experiental Film Aesthetics (2016), which contains a lot of material that is applicable to Slow Cinema, or that comes specifically from slow films. Antunes even mentions Slow Cinema, which doesn’t surprise me at all. He argues that the multisensory in film can be felt primarily in films with little dialogue, films which allow time for viewer experience, films which are often austere in their aesthetics. That is not to say that other films don’t offer this experience. It is just more difficult to perceive an action blockbuster as multisensory rather than as an image-sound-product. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Specifically, Antunes writes: “By using non-verbal communication and the senses, these films capture the interest of various audiences. The experiential appeal of these films is universal” (2016: 7).

The fact that the experiential aspect is universal explains (to me) why there is a rather large group of people attracted to slow films, and if you ask them why they’re attracted to it, it seems as though they all feel the same. Certainly to different degrees, but it is always about the specific experiential aspect of the films, not about how amazing the actress looks, or how mind-blowing the cuts were. There is something that sits deeper in those viewers who admire slow films, and I believe that Antunes’ book is a very good start to explore this “something”.

After years heavy with sensorial experience, be it through post-trauma or through cinema, I can heartily support Antunes’ proposition that “the experience is the message”: “it is the experience – not the medium alone – that defines the perceptual nature of the message” (2016: 13). In some ways, this is one of the cornerstones of meditation and Buddhist/Taoist beliefs. It is about experience. For that to happen, for the experience to materialise, you need to be in the moment, in the present, and this can be facilitated through certain aesthetic choices by filmmakers, as is the case in Slow Cinema, the way I see it. In fact, Antunes mentions slow-film directors as varied as van Sant, Tsai Ming-liang and Albert Serra.

The issue is that we have lost the ability to be in the moment, which makes it difficult for us to feel a film as a multisensory experience. This explains why so much emphasis is placed on images first of all, then maybe on sound. If they follow classic patterns like changes of colour for mood changes or change of shot lengths if a character reveals something important to the narrative, images are easy to read. Add a chunk of quick cuts, and the viewer has little chance to be with a film. I think Antunes’ book is worth reading if you’d like to understand the psychological and biological processes behind the multisensory film experience. Antunes cognitive model can be overwhelming, but it is an eye-opener, or perhaps rather a reminder of what cinema is about, namely experience.

Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory

In a previous post I mentioned my own personal experience with slow films in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder. Given the comments I had received after publishing that specific post, it seems as though I’m not the only one who, consciously or unconsciously, uses or used slow films in order to calm down, to soothe, to work through traumatic events. Slow films allowed me to breathe. They gave me the chance to think, to take my time, and, most important of all, to “realise”; realise what is happening in front of me, something I couldn’t do in real life at the time because my senses were repeatedly overstimulated. You can read all details about the link between Slow Cinema and trauma here.

In my post-PhD life I’m discovering more relations between slowness and memory, and I find the role (cinematic) slowness is playing in regards to working through trauma increasingly intriguing. It started off with my finding a theatre play by the Belgian theatre group GROUPOV. Just imagine, a five-hour theatre play about the genocide in Rwanda, with the beginning nothing but a forty minute long testimony of a genocide survivor. The sheer overall length of the play exceeds public expectations. It is not a theatre play you go see to entertain yourself. You go there, perhaps, because you feel a responsibility. Or because you’re simply interested. But you certainly don’t go see this in order “to have fun”. Now, this five-hour play stunned me. I watched parts of it on YouTube and read whatever I could about it. It made waves when it premiered in Liège, Belgium in 2000.

In the context of the genocide in Rwanda (1994), scholar Alexandre Dauge-Roth has proposed a thoroughly striking argument, which I couldn’t help but link to (cinematic) slowness or long duration. Dauge-Roth argues that cultural expectations may silence victims of genocide, war, and other traumatic events. This isn’t just about state-sponsored trauma and terror. We’re also speaking of individual trauma; sexual abuse, rape, attempted murder, loss of family members etc

For the sake of length (what irony!) and because I’m working on an article on this subject, which prevents me from going into too much detail, I’m simplifying the argument here. Most vital in any case here is that we have very much grown used to the way stories are told. Just take the resistance to long films such as those by Lav Diaz. We are not used to films of six hours running time or more. A nice, concise ninety minute film is just about right. Make it two hours at most. Already at school, I was taught that a story needs to have a three act structure, with an introduction, a climax and everything. These are standard characteristics of narratives, even today, when arthouse films try to break through this tradition.

This tradition is exactly what may silence victim-survivors, argues Dauge-Roth. He doesn’t mention long duration as such. But it becomes clear that this is one vital characteristic which is missing in current representations of trauma. It was a major force in my work on Lav Diaz and his treatment of post-trauma on-screen. Then there was the theatre play, and Wang Bing’s three-hour film Fengming. Interestingly, they all take their time in exploring trauma. They allow victims to take as much time as they want and need.

Of course, for everyone who has been through a traumatic event, the experience is individual. I cannot oversimplify and approach every traumatic text in the same way. However, there seems to be a relation between films of long duration and the investigation of trauma. The problem we face nowadays is that the tradition of storytelling challenges (post-)trauma. Trauma is a-temporal. It doesn’t follow a linear narrative. Nor is it necessarily something you can squeeze into a nine-minute film. Nor does it follow a typical three act structure. Traumatic events are remembered in the time the survivor needs, and in a fashion that the survivor finds appropriate. This very often clashes with people’s expectations; it clashes with standards, with traditions, and is therefore often rejected by listeners. As a survivor you can tell that your story somehow “doesn’t fit”, which may lead to being rejected…which overall causes a silencing of the traumatic experience in public discourse.

I not only generalise here. I also use my own experience, having had to tell people in every single detail about what happened to me a couple years ago. This took an immense amount of time, and wasn’t at all linear. I think my way of remembering defied all classical structures, which is why a lot of people turned their back on me. We have created a net of tight expectations as to what is allowed and in what way we should tell our stories, or in what way we should write about it, or even make films about it. This adds to the already suffocating life of trauma-survivors. To me, personally, Slow Cinema or films with long duration, directors who engage in those films, are those who alleviate this silence, who can genuinely contribute to cultural memory, and this is exactly where I’m headed with my new project – the clash between expectations and silencing, and how artists can intervene, and the ways in which duration can tackle the silence imposed by society. Very excited by this actually!

Monochrome Painting and Slow Cinema

At the very beginning of my doctoral research, I linked Slow Cinema to static art, especially Chinese painting. Traditional Chinese painting, I found, had characteristics that could also be found in the films of Lav Diaz. This was very specific though, and never allowed me to apply it to the whole of Slow Cinema. I’m nevertheless still keen on finding out more about the link between art and Slow Cinema. I do believe that there is more to find in art literature than in film studies literature, which can help us understand the aesthetics of Slow Cinema a bit more.

What set this off was a French language book titled La peinture monochrome: Histoire et archéologie d’un genre by Denys Riout. I bought it out of curiosity because I find monochrome art immensely interesting. I find it engaging, more so than pieces of art with several different colours. I was reminded of my preference of black-and-white over colour when it comes to films and thought I should give this book a try. More than half way through it now, I can thoroughly recommend it.

First of all I should say that I see the term “monochrome” in a much broader sense than it is used at the moment. The term is used only for colour, and yes, that makes perfect sense. But what does an artist do when s/he uses just one colour? Or even a no-colour like black or white? The artwork is reduced to a bare minimum. But, as Denys Riout points out in his book, this bare minimum does not necessarily mean simplicity. In fact he uses the term “image parfaite”, or perfect image; a representation through the absence of representation. We could certainly argue that this absence is asking for no-boredom, an active rejection of engaging with the artwork in front of oneself. But this absence is perfect precisely because it doesn’t manipulate you into thinking of what an artwork is about. Absence sets you free. It is up to you what you would like do with it.

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Riout gives more suggestions, which are as simple as they are mind-blowing. I believe the art of monochrome painting challenges our intellectual approach to literally everything we do. I cannot remember where I read this, but the phrase that intellect kills experience becomes clear once you’re faced with a Rauschenberg painting. Or a slow film in which little is happening. Most telling in this context is Riout’s description in the following paragraph:

Là où le lecteur attend une explication, il ne rencontre que l’occultation et se trouve ainsi brutalement renvoyé à la condition plus inconfortable de regardeur. À lui de ‘faire’ les tableaux; c’est-à-dire de leur donner sens. (Riout, 2006: 34)

Riout mentions here the viewer’s uncertainty with an artwork in which no explanation is given. The viewer is left to his/her own devices. Our dislike of uncertainty is deeply rooted in our evolution and its connection to survival. It may seem odd to connect our rejection of uncertainty in art in general, and film in particular, to our survival mode as humans (or animals, actually). But this is what it is. We often forget where our behaviour comes from. Certainty means safety and security. They’re essential for survival. But I don’t want to go on too much about it. It’s just a thought that is worth mentioning, I think.

Another quote I’d like to highlight:

Alors qu’il n’y a rien à voir, our presque … le regard s’attarde sans pouvoir jamais se fixer. … ‘Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs’. (Riout; 2006: 45)

Emptiness allows the viewer to move his/her gaze along the entirety of a painting. If there are several different elements with several different colours there is a likelihood that your gaze remains fixed on one element without you ever seeing the painting as a whole. The phrase “Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs” comes from Albert Camus,and says nothing more than emptiness giving you plenty powers as viewer. Monochrome art, or indeed emptiness, paves the way for the viewer’s emancipation…if s/he would like to take up this challenge. Because film is time-based, this emancipation is not only achieved through visual simplicity but also through time. The duration of the long-takes allows us to take our time to move our gaze along a frame without necessarily getting focused on just one element.

What I found most intriguing is the thought that monochrome paintings should perhaps not even be called “visual art”. The idea behind it is that whatever you see in, say, Rauschenberg’s black paintings it not actually in the painting. It’s in your head. It’s a spiritual type of engagement with a work of art. So we may ask where the visual ends and the spiritual begins, a very striking thought, if you ask me.

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Now, I do not say that everything I have so far mentioned (and I could say plenty more!) is applicable to Slow Cinema. But there are definite parallels between monochrome painting and Slow Cinema. First and foremost, I believe, we should mention the fact that both are, or tend to be, reduced – aesthetically – to a bare minimum. Complexity comes with simplicity. As odd as it sounds, this is true. The less you’re bombarded with information, the more you can experience what is happening in front of you. You’re given time to feel a situation and you can ponder about what it all means. As Camus says, power comes through emptiness, and I believe that slow films play on exactly that. I would suggest that Lav Diaz is one of the most striking and the most obvious example. But Slow Cinema in general lives off its reduction to simplicity in order to emancipate the viewers. Meanings aren’t given. They’re not imposed. The viewer has to make sense of them (that requires yes-boredom tho).

I also believe that what you actually see in slow films is not necessarily what’s on the screen. Many things happen in your mind, precisely because you have to create a story and make sense of the images and the story the directors give you. You could easily stare at the screen and be passive. Then indeed slow films would be entirely visual. But I suggest that, like monochrome painting, they’re more spiritual than visual. I guess the most recent example for me is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens (2016). This spirituality is perhaps more prominent in some films than in others. Perhaps it is even more prominent in experimental slow films than in narrative films. Nevertheless, it is a characteristic of slow, contemplative films.

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One last point before I stop for now. Painter Robert Mangold said that after everything had been tried in painting, “la seule façon de peindre un tableau consistait à repartir à zero, puis d’ajouter une chose après l’autre” (Riout, 2006: 208). Meaning, painters had to return to zero and start to reinvent painting. Start from scratch. Start with the bare minimum and then add one element after another without overloading the artwork. I cannot help thinking that this is the case with slow films. I have long argued that the actual roots can be found in the early days of cinema. Film has gradually become more complex in terms of aesthetics. Just think of the latest blockbusters and the special effects used for them. Just looking at the film posters shows that the films are basically the same (and do we not know this anyway?). In order to make cinema again, filmmakers have to return to zero, to the bare minimum. Start from scratch. I thoroughly believe that Slow Cinema is a means to return to the very basics of film, of how cinema used to be, and how, perhaps, it had been imagined in the early days.

I should stop at this point and leave you with this food for thought. I still have half of Riout’s book to go, so there might be a second part to this post in the near future!

 

Passions of the will to boredom

I have taken today’s post title from Julian Jason Haladyn’s wonderful book Boredom and Art: Passions of the Will To Boredom (2015), which I have read with pleasure. Haladyn is, effectively, speaking about more than just boredom and art. To me, there is a lot about the politics of modernity in it, and several of Haladyn’s ideas and thoughts are an answer to the question of why people walk out of the cinema when they see a slow film.

What I found most striking, though actually most obvious (so obvious that we may never think of it these days) is the way modernity has changed our attitude. Haladyn uses the train journey, now a famous example, to illustrate this. He proposes that modernity, in the form of a train journey, has lead to people placing emphasis on expectations rather than on presence. If you think about it, during a train journey, or any journey for that matter nowadays, whether it’s by train, by car or by plane, you are expecting your arrival at the destination. This is what your mind is focused on (if it can focus at all during a time of transit). Expectation overshadows presence. Because you’re in transit, you can no longer appreciate being in there here and now because time and space is persistently shifting. If there’s one major thing that has changed for us through modernity, then it is the fact that we have lost the ability, perhaps the opportunities even, to be present.

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This is one section of life, where slow, contemplative films are intervening. Even though Haladyn does mention the films of Andy Warhol and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, he makes too little a case for cinema in general. However, there is a major case to be made about the nature of Slow Cinema as a tool for allowing us to return to the pre-modern feeling of being present at and with something. The long-takes, the wide shots of nature, the focus on character development, or even the running time, which is at times excessive (you know whom I’m talking about!) – all of those give us, the viewer, the opportunity to let go and just be. I argued in an earlier post that, to me, slow films are the real escapist cinema because they allow me to get away from the hectic modern life that is too fast, too noisy, too stressful. This is precisely where my two thoughts merge. It is escapist precisely because it allows me to be present, to be in the here and now, to breathe with the film, which nothing in modern life (apart from a Buddhist retreat and meditation, and perhaps yoga) can give me.

For some reason, a parallel between slow films and Duchamp’s readymades shaped up in my head while reading Haladyn’s book. Duchamp’s works were outrageous at the time, and perhaps they still are. Remember his famous toilet? There’s nothing arty about it. In effect, he has taken it and made a piece of art out of it. He showed us the ordinary in life, which we no longer notice. Perhaps this wasn’t his real intention, but I read it this way. The readymades are ordinary elements. They’re already there, nothing needs to be done, apart from putting them into a spotlight. Duchamp’s strategy, I find, is very similar to what slow film directors to, too. I’m aware that films are, more often than not, constructed pieces. There is an involvement of the artist evident, especially in highly experimental films. Yet, what slow films show is the mundane, the everyday, the life we all live without actually noticing it. What these films show are readymades. That also goes for the characters who are often no more than themselves – non-professional “actors” who play themselves, who do what they usually do, only in front of a camera.

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Haladyn cites Frances Colpitt, who made a very good point about Warhol’s films, but it is a point that can be equally applied to slow films. She writes, “Boredom necessarily describes the spectator’s state of mind rather than any characteristic of the object. The root of the problem is in the unpreparedness of the audience, most of whom were not familiar with the theoretical concerns of this highly conceptual art.” Colpitt is correct in arguing that boredom is a state of mind of the viewer and the artwork in itself is not boring. Haladyn proposes two approaches to a “boring” piece of art. He describes them as yes boredom and no boredom. The latter is a refusal of letting yourself float with the artwork, a refusal of trying to find or make meaning. Following Haladyn’s description of no boredom, it is to me a refusal of engaging with a work of art, or a film for that matter. Yes boredom, on the other hand, means that the viewer engages with an object. If there’s no obvious meaning, then the viewer is ready to create something, or at least s/he tries to. This is very much what the annual Slow Art Day is doing, or allowing you to do.

What is happening with slow films, and their rejection of it, is, in effect, no more than an expression of no boredom on the side of the viewer. It is an inability to be, to breathe, to be present. Those who walk out have no intention to do a bit of work. They have no intention to create meaning. They have no intention to engage with what is in front of them. Engagement with a work of art does not necessarily mean that you like it. Of course, you can dislike slow films. Yet, those films need to be engaged with in full first, and the reason for dislike cannot be “it’s boring”, because then you haven’t tried to engage with it. Two UK film critics walked out of the Lav Diaz Berlinale screening after two and three hours respectively (which is fatal, because Diaz’s long films only begin to get really interesting after three hours). Diaz takes it with humour, of course. At the same time, he said that people needed to sit through the full length of his films before they should express their opinion. Only then have they really tried to engage with the film. This is not only true for Diaz’s films, but for any slow film. Yes boredom!

Towards a poor cinema

The title of today’s post is not at all meant to be derogative. I like Slow Cinema too much for a defamation of it. I also strongly believe that poverty does not necessarily harm creativity. On the contrary. I’ve been there during my childhood and my youth. You learn to make do with what you have, and this always requires creativity. A lot of filmmakers demonstrate the same thing. Without funding, or only minimal funding which doesn’t cover the production costs at all, some create remarkable films. Slow Cinema directors are known for this. Not all of them make something out of nothing. Some are a bit luckier with receiving financial support than others. Yet, the general situation is pretty bleak for slow-film directors when it comes to financial support.

Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning know that I’m always interested in looking into any possible roots of Slow Cinema. I do not agree with the current classification of being a descendant of Italian Neo-Realism. Nor with European modernist cinema in general. This approach is entirely focused on film, and shows the ongoing problem in academia: many researchers only think in their own fields instead of looking beyond their own horizons. Doing exactly this, though, shows just how rich Slow Cinema is, despite people’s persistent argument that there’s nothing to see, nothing to get out of. The films have a strong heritage in other art forms. I already spoke a bit about painting, and I still stand by what I said. Lav Diaz is not the only one who used to paint before he turned to filmmaking. I think Apichatpong Weerasethakul used to paint as well (I think I read this in a recent interview). They may be an exception from the rule, but they make for an intriguing study of the ways in which Slow Cinema and other art forms converge.

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By way of diversion, I have reached the field of theatre. It started with a book on Polish post-trauma theatre, which was superb and similar to what I’ve been writing about Lav Diaz’s films in my thesis. In fact, there were so many similarities that I was glad I hadn’t read the book before submitting my thesis. It could have led to the Homer Simpson “NO!” effect. I was particularly taken by the two theatre directors Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. The latter’s “Theatre of Death” shows similarities to the three Lav Diaz films I have studied, but unfortunately cannot be applied to any other director I have studied so far in the context of Slow Cinema. But Grotowski is an interesting reference point. It was he who wrote the short but groundbreaking essay “Towards a poor theatre” in the mid-1960s.

I want to highlight no more than two aspects of Grotowski’s theatre and his vision of what theatre should be like. I possibly do not have to go into detail about the overall aesthetic of a “poor” theatre. Everything is reduced to a minimum. Perhaps Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) may be a good example. Yet it’s by no means the prime example. In slow films, in general, the mise-en-scène is minimalistic. The frames have been emptied of distracting elements. Very often you only see the very basics. And that is, in fact, all you need.

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This is also what Grotowski thought. Reducing the mise-en-scene to a mere minimum, you’re left with two elements which need to be strong: space and acting. As far as space is concerned, I’m not just speaking about what is visible. In a film (or a theatre play for that matter) what is not visible, but present nevertheless, is immensely important, and is, in some cases, even what a film is about. I’d say that Apichatpong’s Cemetery of Splendour is a good example.

If you reduce the mise-en-scene to a minimum, then you have, I believe, a lot more options you can play with, precisely because nothing is certain for the audience. Absent presence is a wonderful means to speak about loss, loneliness, death, longing, haunting – all those elements play a major role in Slow Cinema.

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A second element whose importance is heightened in a “poor” theatre is acting. Grotowski placed particular emphasis on acting. The actors/actresses were so important because they had to fill the gaps the mise-en-scene left them with. They had to embody a lot more than just a role. Now, in many slow films, the term “acting” is perhaps not ideal. Very often, non-professional “actors” are used. In several cases, they do not even act, but play themselves. They are themselves. In other cases, actors and actresses live their roles. They embody the person they are meant to be on-screen. Lav Diaz’s films are a superb example for this, especially Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). Diaz’s films would fall apart if it wasn’t for the strong acting, for the at times breathtaking behaviour of actors and actresses who merge with their own selves.

Grotowski advocated something for theatre which can today be detected in slow films, which, in fact, are main characteristics of Slow cinema. Once more, I do not believe that it is the long-take which is the main characteristic. This point is once more an example of the narrow thinking of certain scholars. There are similarities between the aesthetics of Slow Cinema and other art forms. These may not be the most known advocacies but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take them into account when looking into the aesthetics of films. I’d be interested in knowing how many filmmakers consciously know about Grotowski and his poor theatre. It would be an interesting influence on films.

Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scène, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.

The slow long-take?

If you have been following this blog from the beginning, you may have noticed that I regularly return to the issue of the long-take and its importance for Slow Cinema. I have often argued that the long-take is not in and by itself a guarantee for a slow film. Other factors need to be in place, too. Towards the end of my research, I have come across the latest doctoral thesis on Slow Cinema, in which the long-take was described as the “sine qua non” of Slow Cinema. I have an issue with that. Previous researchers, like Matthew Flanagan, or even Harry Tuttle (Contemplative Cinema) have at least linked the long-take with the content of respective film frames. Even though the long-take is and remains the main focus in Slow Cinema studies, which is not bringing the research forward at all, I would like to point to a film which I have recently seen.

Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (2015) has been shot in a single-take. The film is in fact a very long two-hour and twenty minute take. For those who have not yet seen it (and you should!), the film is everything but slow. It does take its time to build up tension. Yet in the end it’s nevertheless a heist movie. It’s fast. It’s about speed, about anxiety, about adrenaline. Victoria is anything but slow. So if the long-take is the sine qua non of Slow Cinema, where would we position films such as Victoria? If the long-take slows down the narrative, how exactly can we continue to speak of it as THE Slow Cinema characteristic if it can easily be used for a complete opposite effect?

I think, my main issue with this “sine qua non” is that it’s taken out of context. Again, the long-take has rarely been mentioned in the context of a film’s respective content. Analyses are often mere descriptions because researchers have difficulties to approach slow films in the usual scholarly fashion of applying previously successful frameworks to those films. I had a very similar problem and it took me a while (thank God, I had three years for this!) to get a hang of it.

The long-take is not the main characteristic of Slow Cinema. It seems to be at first sight, but I would like to suggest a different approach: the long-take is essential for a cinematic exploration of character psychology. Whether this happens in a slow, or in a fast film is of little interest. It is true that very often it is slow films which deal with character psychology. My own work on Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma is a good example for this, because Diaz uses slow time in order to give the viewer a sense of depletion of resources, trauma’s latency period, and other debilitating factors of post-trauma. In the films of Béla Tarr, too, you can see a depiction of character psychology. It has often been said that characters in slow films show no emotion, that it is difficult to read them. Ira Jaffe has been a supporter of this argument. But as I have argued in an earlier post, we merely expect characters to go through all possible emotions in 90 minutes. If this isn’t the case, the character lacks emotional engagement.

This is simply wrong, and shows that we are still reading slow films through the lens of approved of, age-old frameworks. What becomes important, and I hope that my doctoral thesis makes a first step into this direction, is that Slow Cinema studies has to be connected to other fields of academic research. If one sees Slow Cinema entirely in the context of Film Studies, one is bound to reach the conclusion that the long-take is the sine qua non of it. It looks like it, and I was also one of those supporters. If someone asked me what Slow Cinema was, I always mentioned the long-take first, and I still do, because it’s easy and people know what I’m talking about.

But no, it is not typical of Slow Cinema as such. It is necessary for character psychology. In a way, it’s similar, because, again, Slow Cinema often focuses on character psychology. Yet one needs to be more precise and put the significance and role of the long-take into a correct context. Otherwise, you will always come across films like Victoria which prove you wrong.

(E)Motion in slow films

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

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

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

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

Venues for Lav Diaz film strand wanted

Now that my thesis is almost on the way to the printer, I can start focusing on other things. After three years of research, I have noticed that the work I have done is, in effect, a solid basis for curating a strand of Lav Diaz’s films at whatever event or film festival. This is not so much about a retrospective, which obviously needs a larger scope and which I’m still hoping to organise in Manila (if I can find a venue!). This is about a specific part of Diaz’s work and his country’s history, so it allows an in-depth focus rather than a broad sweep over Diaz’s entire oeuvre.

In brief, I have an in-depth study of Diaz’s representation of post-trauma in the aftermath of colonialism and dictatorship in my rucksack. I link form and content, that means I focus as much on his now well-known and famous aesthetics as well as on the historical and societal background the films refer to. I also have the films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) in my rucksack.

The idea is to travel around with this rucksack and give the audience a chance to get an in-depth view of the prolific filmmaker. I can introduce the film, but also lead panel discussions in regards to this. I’m hoping to set up something in Brussels next year and will also approach the Philippinen Büro in Cologne, which screened Diaz’s Norte last year.

If you know of a venue, or know an event this may fit into, please do get in touch via theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com Also, please do not hesitate to get in touch if you want more detailed information about what I have in mind. Oh, and please feel free to spread the word! 🙂 Thank you!

Death Time

Oh yes, a cheery title for this blog post. I apologise. But this only comes because of an email I received from one of my website’s avid readers. I was asked – and this isn’t rare – what I think the difference between slow film and Slow Cinema is. Two and a half years into my research, I still have no idea, and perhaps I will never be able to answer this questions. Slowness is relative. Whatever is fast for me, may be slow for you. It is true that slow films use very similar, if not the same kind of aesthetics. So where do we draw the line?

I was thinking about one of my arguments, which you can revisit in the paper I uploaded a little while ago. In the paper I linked the use of time in concentration camps and the way Lav Diaz uses time in his films about terror and trauma. I saw similarities and talked about “death time”. Slow Cinema is characterised by temps mort, or dead time. I switched this around and began to look into death time, which is such a characteristic feature of Diaz. Time is used as a form of power, of punishment. Endless duration drives the characters insane (and maybe the viewer, too). There is a curious mixture in his films of shock and duration, of the instant and endless waiting. I call this complexity death time.

Now, in what ways can we see Slow Cinema as a whole in this? I briefly thought about the other films I know. They are aesthetically close to Diaz’s films, and yet totally different. They also use time different. This is primarily the case because Diaz makes incredibly long films, while most slow-film directors stick to a more usual running time of about two hours. Diaz can therefore play a lot more with duration. His films are also different in that they deal specifically with the trauma of his people, which makes his films stand out in the classical Slow Cinema canon.

But if I were to expand a bit on the notion of “death time”, going a beyond my previous argument that it’s an expression of a complex interaction of the instant and duration in order to inflict miseries on film characters, then I could actually make it fit to Slow Cinema. This is way too new for me now, so it may be the case with slow films in general, so the whole idea of finding a structure which sets Slow Cinema apart from “normal” slow films becomes rather redundant. Personally I think that Slow Cinema is an experiential thing, but no one likes experience because you can’t prove anything. So I’m still trying to find something less abstract.

Anyway, let me expand on the notion of death time and say that death plays a major role in Slow Cinema. Slowness has often been equated with death. The Futurists were keen on speeding up life because it meant exactly that: life, living. Speed means progression, therefore a forward movement. Slowness also means movement, but it is more often associated with stagnation (which makes it particularly interesting for my study of terror and trauma). Death is not necessarily the kind of death we imagine. It is not necessarily associated with humans. Not a lot of people die in Diaz’s films, for example, but we know that they eventually will. They’re on the verge of death all the time. They’re walking dead.

Fogo by Yulene Olaizola is also about death, only in a different way. It is about the death of an island. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are all about ghosts, which imply death by default. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is another example. Or even his Sátántangó. And what about Carlos Reygadas? Japon and Battle In Heaven use death as an underlying narrative feature, too. I also remember Nicolas Pereda’s Summer of Goliath (and I hope I remember this correctly); the death of a child, the departure of a husband and father and therefore the death of the family structure. Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert depicts the death of the traditional postman.

So are these films slow because they deal with death in one way or another? Can you deal with death appropriately in fast films? I think there is something in there, and it’ll be worth researching further (on my list!). And for some reason this all links vaguely to my very early arguments about static art; stasis always implies death in some form or another. So my original thought of death time looks a lot more complex now and I’m looking forward to looking into this in the near future.