The Power of Time

People who prefer slowness in their lives argue that we’re all slaves of the clock. Those who can’t live without the constant rush of adrenaline argue that this is grossly exaggerated. However, the concept of being a slave of the clock has a history most of us may not at all be aware of. There are three aspects to it (I will do this only briefly here, more details in my actual thesis):

1) Christianity was the first religion that was focused heavily on doing religious services at the ‘correct time’. This was initially indicated by sun clocks, or water clocks, until the mechanical clock was invented. The pursuit of religious services became more rigorous and were a must for devoted and time-obedient Christians. In a way, then, it was from the beginning the clock that ruled when to pray (Aventi 1995; Landes 1983).

2) The mechanical clock was an ideal instrument to exercise power. Take Charles V of France, for instance. At the end of the 14th century, he had a clock installed in his palace, and requested that all other clocks be adjusted to his time. With that being the case, he also ruled when his inferiors were allowed to do certain things. They were thus enslaved by the clock (and by Charles V) (Scattergood 2003).

3) Finally, the power of time on a larger scale; colonialism. European powers introduced mechanical clocks to those countries they conquered. The technically advanced clocks were seen to be an ideal example to show the superiority of European cultures. I mentioned elsewhere that Lav Diaz explained that the Filipino’s perception of time had changed when the Spanish colonisers conquered the islands and introduced the mechanical clock. In a way you can apply my second point from above here; the ruling power introduces her ‘time’ and the colonised have to obey (Geißler 2012).

In general, the mechanical clock allowed it Man to detach time from Nature. This meant that he was in control, and what would prevent him from using this tool to exercise power on his fellows to secure his dominant position?

Part of the landscape

The invention and widespread use of the mechanical clock in the middle of the last millennium has not only changed our understanding of time. It also altered our perception of time and space as entities. In the 15th century the minute hand was added to the clock face, in the 1690s the second hand helped to measure time in even smaller intervals. The clock became a symbol of Western efficiency, of the hunt for profit and productivity. Nature, which had long been a satisfying time teller, was gradually replaced by technology. Karlheinz Geißler, having researched the history of time measurement and its effects on society, argues that while time had long belonged to God, Man seized this power with the invention of the mechanical clock.

With an artificially created time, the ‘mean time’ which consists of 24 equal hours as opposed to ‘temporal time’ which is based on nature and its seasons, we have also altered our perception of space. I think we can agree on the fact that the clock was a decisive factor in the Industrial Revolution, in the speeding up of Man’s activities. It is telling that David Landes stresses the term ‘watch’ for portable clock, emphasising that time is something we need to pay attention to at any moment.

In any case, let’s consider for a moment an argument by German writer Heinrich Heine, who, in 1843, was saddened by the locomotive “killing” space and leaving us with nothing but time. Geißler explains this in more detail. If we sit in a train, we travel through space, but we don’t stop at a place to rest. We merely rush forward in order to travel through even more space. We, the passengers, are therefore not part of the landscape anymore. We merely travel through it. We’re independent of space in a way. All that is left is time, and our view on the landscape, but we’re not part of it anymore.

This separation of time and space is more evident than ever before these days. In manipulating natural time, we have disconnected it from space. This is obvious in films, which use flashbacks and flash-forwards. Time is something we have control over, it’s something we can manipulate to our liking. With that, space changes, too. In Fergus Daly’s wonderful documentary “The Art of Time“, Russian director Alexandr Sokurov explains that he attempts to re-connect time and space. Sokurov is one of the many ‘slow-film’ directors. His film Russian Ark is perhaps a great illustration of this, a film made up of a single long-take, therefore ‘recording’ time as well as space in their natural appearance.

The very characteristic of slow films in general is a way to return to the pre-mechanical clock, pre-Industrial age era in that it is concerned with the natural way of time and space. It is about returning the control over time, and therefore over space, to nature. Just as in the era prior to the mechanical clock, we simply watch what is happening. We’re no longer sitting in a train speeding past the landscape. We’re part of it again.

From Painting to Drawing?

I have to admit that it sounds odd to bring drawing into my research. I have long argued that painting is the most appropriate art form some slow films can be compared to. Things have developed since I posted my first entry on this blog, and while I am still convinced that painting will be the focus in my thesis, there is something else that has caught my attention.

Jianping Gao (1996) argues that ‘painting’ means ‘to apply colour’. At least, this is our Western understanding of it. Indeed, my Oxford dictionary tells me that “paint” (noun) is a “substance applied to a surface in liquid form to give it colour“. Gao explained that there has traditionally been a difference in the west between paintings and drawings, the former incorporating colours, the latter being predominantly monochrome. This is, in fact, a fine line these days as art in general lives of mixing and merging concepts. However, do think for yourself: what do you associate with ‘painting’?

Perhaps the colourful works by Impressionists come to your mind. Or those of the Romanticists. No matter what period we’re looking at, I can almost guarantee you that you have ‘colour’ in your head. Maybe we could argue that Western painters wanted to create an image of the world, which comes as close as possible to reality. True, especially the Impressionists applied colours according to their own interpretation of the world. However, colour in general heightened the realistic effect of the paintings. The world was colourful, so the painters depicted it accordingly.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned analogous characteristics of Lav Diaz’s films and painting. The one thing I have never thought about was the absence of colour. Not in this context anyway. I did analyse the black-and-white system used in his films, but I never thought about whether it would make sense to apply the concept of ‘painting’ (applying colour) to his films. I’m not saying that his films are drawings, though if we looked at the definitions mentioned above, it would be true.

The main concern is that I can obviously not go ahead arguing easily for painting. While Diaz’s films show many similarities, and while all the points in my research make perfect sense, the term ‘painting’ can be controversial if not defined properly. Lesson learned.

Looking slowly

I hope that you slowed down a bit yesterday, on the International Slow Art Day. It was a lovely thing to do, and I can’t wait for next year. I have to admit, though, that I toy with the idea of setting up a personal Slow Art Day in about six months – a whole year without slow looking is too long!photo2

We were eight people at the McManus in Dundee. Slightly less than I had expected, but it was an ideal number for the discussion of our experience that followed the art viewing. The artworks I have chosen were “Pictish Artefact No 3”, “Island“, “Fairy Tale or Summer Incident“, “Moorland and Mist“, “Love’s Young Dream” and “Demon Mask”. I chose the different types of “art” deliberately. Especially the demon mask is an artefact you would normally only pass by. I had done so several times before, and I can say for sure that it was worth looking at it in more detail.

Even though I study slow films, and have been arguing for a while now that they appear to be static, I had troubles at the beginning to stay with an actual static image for five minutes or more. For me, it was an entirely different experience. Similar to Slow Cinema, you have to learn how to look slowly at static art. No painting will attract you in the same way another one does, or even appall you. It is thus important that you find your way into it and learn how to look at it. From an angle, from a distance, standing up, sitting down – if you do this, you will realise (slowly) that the painting in front of you changes whenever you change. I had a particularly striking example with “Moorland and Mist”. The sun that came through the rooftop windows had a considerable effect on how I experienced the viewing. Once the sun disappeared behind clouds, the painting evoked a different atmosphere.

photoUnfortunately, I could find only a tiny image of “Island” for this blog. This was my favourite, and that of the group. I suppose it is the ideal painting for a day like this. It seems like a minimalist painting at first sight. If this was a film frame, I would say that it was empty and didn’t contain a lot of information. But because you weren’t distracted by dozens of objects and colours, it was a perfect painting to stay with for a long time. I could have stayed for an hour.

It was by all means a valuable experience, and I’m glad that I signed up to be a host. I merely wanted to find out what this was all about and how it feels to look slowly at art. Thanks to all attendees!

I’m keen on hosting the event at Stirling University next year and will post a registration link here once the event page is up and running.

To return to my actual topic, Slow Cinema, Catherine Grant from Film Studies for Free compiled a good list of writings on Slow Cinema. Worth checking this!

A Gap Between Generations

I went to the PG Study Day at St. Andrews University yesterday and gave a paper, which aimed to reason why slow films cannot evoke justified responses in a movie theatre audience. Instead they should be screened at alternative venues, such as galleries. I have discussed this issue elsewhere on this blog.

In the Q&A session afterwards, a point was raised, which is so simple that it is often overlooked. It is, in fact, another straight-forward reason why the term ‘Slow Cinema’ is incorrect. Ask the generation of people who grew up with films by Tarkovsky, Janscó, and similar directors. They would tell you that the term SC is ridiculous. No one has ever termed these films as slow in the past.

I very much agree to this. There are generations as well as areas in the world where the term SC is a dead end. It is a Western concept and yet another framework we use in order to make sense of what we see. Strangely enough, we forget what the directors say, and no one has ever spoken of Tarkovsky’s slowness at the time. It had never been highlighted as being exceptional. If you search now for writings on Tarkovsky, you can suddenly find it everywhere. We have a new framework called SC, so we can go back and analyse all films through this lens – that is what film scholars do (and they shouldn’t!).

Technically, there are no differences between the late Angelopoulos and today’s slow films. Nor are there, pace-wise, major differences between Béla Tarr and Miklós Janscó. It is not the films that have changed. It is us.

In his fabulous book Art and Time, Philip Rawson argued (correctly, I find) that an artist’s perception of time influences his artwork. We can take this a little further. I argue that one’s perception of time influences one’s reception of an artwork. And here we are again, with the old discussion of digital media increasing the pace of our life. I don’t mention this to blame the new media. Not at all. Rather, I try to illustrate what exactly we need to consider when talking about slow films, and it might not be the films at all that should be in the centre of attraction. Perhaps, we should put a close-up on the viewer and his pace in life, not that of the film.

Happy Easter – Thank you!

As Easter is approaching fast, and the first six months of my research are coming to an end, it is a good time to thank everyone reading this blog regularly. In a few days, this blog will reach 1,000 views from 36 different countries. I’m specially glad about the latter fact. It means that my blurb reaches a global audience. This is what I had intended.

The usual experience of starting off with a research topic just to see it transform into something else is already very apparent after a few months. Slow Cinema is, and will always be, my topic. Yet, my approach has changed – let me think – twice already. Perhaps three times? When I flicked through my notebook today I was surprised that (and how!) I ended up where I am now. I do believe that I’m done walking in the dark. Work on the core chapters will now begin. A few elements from this blog will be included in future. The main aspect of my thesis, though, will appear online in only a few months time as I must not be too generous giving away my thoughts all at once 🙂

I have not yet mentioned that there will be a Slow Cinema anthology coming out in the near future. The editors are Nuno Barradas Jorge and Tiago de Luca. The book is part of the Traditions in World Cinema series, solicited by Edinburgh University Press. I will learn in April whether or not I will be part of this new publication. I’ve submitted a proposal for a chapter on Lav Diaz, so fingers crossed! This chapter would contain the ‘main aspect’ I’m not giving away yet. Can you hear the book; “buy me, buy me”?

I wish you all some peaceful and moreover slow days.

A happy Easter from me. Or, as my sister said: Merry Easter – for everyone who sees the snow piling up outside.

The Ethereal Melancholy Of Seeing Horses In The Cold

Things have been slow lately. I’ve been busy writing proposals and papers. Hence, there isn’t anything new or groundbreaking I have to offer this week. But I have a little something at least.

I found this wonderful short film yesterday, which strongly reminded me on the aesthetics of slow film. To my surprise (though it might not be a surprise to everyone) this film was made by an amateur. Scott Barley is a first-year film student in Wales. True, the films by his favourite filmmaker Béla Tarr are influential. However, I believe that it’s more than just copying. Besides, his film has its very own aesthetics.

This film made me wonder how many amateur slow-film directors are out there. We (that includes me, of course) study the canon of well-known directors up and down, but actually it might be worth looking into, what I would call, a new and younger generation of directors.

If you know someone (who probably knows someone who knows someone) who makes something we could call slow film in his / her free time, please do email me:

theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com

I’d be very interested to see what the real scope of this slow film concept is.

The Effects of Music and Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Cinema at the Museum!?

Slow Cinema is often, wrongly, seen in terms of boredom. For me, this has two reasons. The first one is the term itself. In an era of ever-increasing speed, ‘slow’ has negative connotations. It literally screams ‘boredom’. Second, no one has ever questioned why the films appear boring. Is it the long takes people can’t find the patience to endure? Is it the lack of dialogue that make people want to fall asleep? Or is it the emptiness of the frames that the audience interprets as not sparkling enough to keep their attention?

My view on it is this: Slow films are shown at the wrong venue. Cinemas have been an age-old venue for the entertainment of people. The films make you laugh, they make you cry. The cinema as an institution is capable of taking you out of this world and of leading you into a fictional one. The reasons for why people go to cinemas have been clear for decades; it ranges from entertainment to escape. Yet, what happens if you screen slow films, which have strong parallels to static art forms, in cinemas?

The expectations of the filmgoer are not, and cannot be fulfilled. Yes, compared to all films screened in cinemas (and I don’t mean popular films exclusively), slow films appear to be boring. But this is merely the case because the venue shapes the viewer’s expectations. We do not go to the cinema in order to contemplate a film. Contemplation is not part of the cinema-concept. Museums and galleries, however, have always been a place for exactly this.

Michael Newman writes that “once the moving image is placed in the gallery it is implicitly experienced in relation to art that does not move: painting, sculpture, and photography.” (Newman 2009: 96) Peter Osborne argues that the venue influences the temporalities of a video work (Osborne 2004). Does this mean that the temporality of slow films appears to be ‘slow’ only in cinemas, but as ‘normal’ in galleries? I suggest it does.

Interestingly, there is a movement towards adding films by slow-film directors to permanent museum collections, which should tell us something. The Louvre commissioned a film by Tsai Ming-liang, and added Visage (2009) to its permanent collection. Further, his short It’s a Dream (2007) was acquired by the Taiwanese Fine Art Museum in 2012. In 2007, Apichatpong Weerasethakul produced a short for the National Palace Museum in Taipei. And last year, the Walker Arts Centre commissioned a film by him; Cactus River.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Rather, I think that it gives us clues as to why the perception of slow films is distorted.

A matter of kinetics

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that I intend to draw parallels between Slow Cinema and the static arts. I also established a link between slow films and painting, and gave a reason for why this was possible. Apart from Michel Chion’s work on vococentrism in film, however, there is an additional aspect, which allows for my approach.

Kinetics, or Kinetic Art. The term “kinetics” implies motion, movement. Kinetic Art has become particularly prominent in the 1950s. Kinetic sculptures – sculptures with moving parts – were specially widespread. In his book Kinetic Art, Frank Popper (1968) explores the history and the development of kinetic art. He starts off with revealing how Impressionist painters had depicted movement by focusing on elements such as boats, horses, railways, etc.

What I find interesting in this context is the fact that film has apparently never been seen as a kinetic form of art, despite it’s being kinetic in itself, being comprised of moving images. Characters move on screen. So do objects. And if you think of video, the spectator moves, too. (Am I thinking things too easy here?)

Anyway, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren said that film was much closer to music and dance than to the plastic arts. In general, this cannot be denied. Film and music / dance are time-based art forms. Therefore, they have in common the characteristic feature of development in time. They’re rhythmic.

But what happens to film if you slow it down? Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho is a good example here. Gordon slowed down every frame of Hitchcock’s original, so that the film plays over 24h. The movement in the frames is barely perceptible. Slow films are not quite that extreme. However, most of them employ a static camera work, and characters move slowly or not at all (hence, they appear [almost] static).

Further, few of the films depict objects that convey the meaning of movement. I focus on the films by Lav Diaz at the moment, and movement (or kinetics) is almost non-existent. Say, you can hear cars and motorbikes, but you hardly ever see them. If I remember right, Heremias Book I has been the only film to date that featured cars and motorbikes. And an ox cart. But that one gets stolen.

Apart from this diversion, though, Lav Diaz’ films are more static than kinetic, more painting than moving image, therefore more related to the plastic arts than to the time-based art forms, like music and dance.