Centaur – Aleksandra Niemczyk (2016)

!!! This film is now available on tao films until 30 March 2017 !!!

I rarely come across a film, which stuns me through its very first frame. The minute Aleksandra Niemczyk’s film Centaur opened, I couldn’t take my eyes off it anymore. Was it the character, the half man, half horse figure which walked towards me? Or was it the ice cold aesthetic and colour which characterised the frame? Maybe it was both. I just knew that I had found a real gem in the field of slow film, and I will try my very best to get this film on board The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD, which will go live in January 2017.

Niemczyk, a student at Béla Tarr’s film.factory, is more than just a filmmaker, and this is perfectly visible in Centaur. She is a painter. Filmmaking is only a part of her work, but as far as I could see, she combines the two parts. The visuals of Centaur are stunning. Almost every frame is a beauty. It’s one of those things which made my photographer heart open up again. It smiled, and smiled, and it couldn’t stop smiling and admiring Niemczyk’s framing until the very end.

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But let me tell you something about the content of the film first before I lose myself in admiration of the film in its entirety. Centaur is a film about a love which is challenged, a love between a woman and her husband whose mobility is greatly reduced due to polio. She is much younger than he is, which reminded me of Tarr’s last film The Turin Horse (2011), in which a daughter repeatedly dresses her father because he is too old, too fragile and not mobile enough to do it himself. There is something of that in Centaur until we realise that the two protagonists are married.

Alma and Vlado are one, but what differs between them is how they handle the challenge. Alma cares for her husband every day. She washes him, she helps him out of bed, she does everything. Vlado, on the other hand, is losing patience with himself. He can no longer bare his wife seeing him like this and having to support him in such a way. One can feel that it humiliates him, when he sits in the bathtub and refuses to be washed by his wife. The clash between the two – Alma is hurt by Vlado’s refusal to let her care for him – is visually reinforced, easily – perhaps too easily – but beautifully when Alma leaves the bathroom and enters another room just next door.

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The light, the colour – everything fits there. And it doesn’t even feel as though it’s overdone. There is another striking scene in which Vlado makes his way along a long balcony. He sits on one chair and uses another to lift his body onto it. It is a painful scene, and a painfully long scene, not only for the viewer. The almost endless way of Vlado while, on the other side of the small wall which separates the balcony from freefall, an elderly woman, possibly retired, watches him the entire time from her window. One wonders what she is thinking. One wonders why she doesn’t offer to help. Maybe she has offered to help already, but her help had been refused just as Alma’s has been refused before.

What is Vlado’s goal? We get the feeling that he wants to give up. He’s tired of living like this, without any improvement in sight. But what have his dreams got to do with his situation? Vlado dreams of a figure half horse, half man. The interesting things is that this centaur is the opposite of the centaurs we know from Greek mythology. The centaur in Vlado’s dream has a horse-shaped rather than a human head. I’m not trying to interpret this, but I find it interesting that Niemczyk uses this symbol and changes it ever so slightly.

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The film is “only” forty minutes long, but it contains a lot of visual and narrative material which keeps you thinking for a while. I watched the film as part of last week’s Slow Cinema No 2, a follow-up event to the Slow Cinema symposium which took place in April in London. It’s been almost a week and I cannot forget the first image of the film. It really stays with you. Niemczyk has created an open film, a film which doesn’t end when the credits roll. It continues way beyond this. It has its own life, perhaps like that of Greek mythology. It evolves and develops in your mind. It is as though Centaur was the beginning of a domino effect. The film does something to me, and I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it is time to return to Luke Hockley’s Somatic Cinema and his theory of the “third image” in order to tackle what’s going on in my head.

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!

 

Ambiancé [trailer] – Anders Weberg (2016)

I’m not sure where, or how to start. Usually, those reviews always come with an intro, but how to introduce a seven-hour long-take? If I was asked to summarise the entire seven hours, I would, sadly enough, have to say that it’s about two people (artists Niclas Hallberg and Stina Pehrsdotter) who colour stones black and white on a beach, who often disappear from view only to come back a couple minutes later. Maybe I should also mention that the film also shows those two people putting wooden sticks into the beach sand. This is what really happens in the film, but it’s a crude version of what we see. Seeing does not necessarily mean making sense of something. Any synopsis would fail to get to the bottom of the trailer, and would, perhaps, only put people off. So maybe I should just describe what my mind saw, because this is much more intriguing than what my eyes were seeing.

I’m aware that I run the risk of completely misinterpreting the film. Perhaps what I saw wasn’t intended by Anders Weberg himself. On the other hand, I guess that Anders didn’t create closed-off meaning. Just like the 72min teaser, which I reviewed a while ago, this trailer is, to me at least, a medium to discover yourself. I can imagine that someone who watches the Ambiancé trailer probably sees something else that differs from what my own views. But this is the beauty of it. There is no right or wrong. It’s a kind of experience that expresses itself in thoughts.

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The seven-hour piece is carried by two performers, who do a wonderful job, and who made me wonder whether I was really seeing a film, or whether I was seeing a performance. Is the Ambiancé trailer a performance film? Where does “film” stop, and where does “performance” begin? Ambiancé blurs the line, and it’s for this reason that it’s a superb gallery piece. I wouldn’t want to watch it in a dark cinema, stuck in my seat for seven hours. I have experience with Lav Diaz’s long films, and they’re perfectly fine for cinema. The crux with Diaz’s films is that there is a heavy narrative, sometimes with a lot of dialogues which, after two or three hours, begin to unravel the entire narrative. It is important to stay with it. Anders’ work has a lofty nature to it. It was perfectly fine to take a break and get a coffee, digest the images I have seen, and then return to it. The film was running continuously, but I wasn’t always physically present. Being away from the screen from time to time actually helped me to make sense of what I saw. It gave me space (and time) to ponder the images (well there is only one image, but you know what I mean!!).

So what did my mind see? My eyes saw two performers. One of them was dressed in black, the other in white. My mind saw a dance between Life (white) and Death (black). At the beginning of the film, Anders highlights the words life, death, love, quest and escape. You could take it as something that only drags the film into an even more endless (slow) spectacle. But no, those five words are, in fact, what the film is about. If you really wanted a synopsis, then those are your words: life, death, love, quest and escape. The length of the film (and, in this case at least, also the length of the one take) reminded me of this intriguing part of my trauma research.

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In my thesis on the films of Lav Diaz, I argued that a representation of post-trauma wouldn’t have been possible to the same extent in a two-hour long film. Why not? Because two hours don’t give you enough screen time for an in-depth study of human psychology. Then I came across a five-hour theatre play about the Rwandan genocide, connected to the argument that society and culture impose restrictions on the representation of trauma. A trauma narrative has to have a beginning and an end, it needs to have a climax and a denouement. It shouldn’t be excessively long. It should give the main points, but no details. Those representations are always in favour of the traumatic event, but not of the psychology that follows.

Perhaps, we cannot speak of trauma in the case of Ambiancé. Perhaps we can. I don’t want to read something that isn’t necessarily there. But the trailer is definitely about human psychology; the psychology of loss, of grief, of struggle. The interaction between Black (death) and White (life) makes this absolutely clear. There is an instance when White puts a rope around Black, dragging him along, then sort of tying him up in such a way that Black can no longer move his arms. Life struggles with the presence of death, a presence we are actually fully aware of, but a presence we often suppress and deny. We try to restrict Death’s access to our being, because we’re scared of it.

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At a later point, White lays down in the middle of the frame while Black puts stones onto White. It looks and feels like a burial ritual. Death overcomes Life. But then there is Life enveloping Death with a piece of white cloth at a later stage, a sort of embrace. Death goes down on his knees, Life follows. They look at each other. The embrace is complete. This image of Life and Death looking intently at each other for a long time after their hours-long battle is a sign of acceptance. Life isn’t possible without Death, and vice versa. Both are part of our daily going-ons.

I know from my experience with post-trauma that our, at times excessive, fear of death can be crippling. I’m surely not the only one, who tried to tie down Death because I wanted Life. Years later I would learn to wrap this white cloth around Death and embrace it, which now allows me to live life to the fullest (at least according to my standards 🙂 ). I don’t think this film only appeals to me. I’m sure there are people, who have struggled with grief, for instance, who see a similar representation in Anders’ film.

There isn’t a lot in the trailer of Ambiancé, but that what is there is profound, and this is what counts. However, you need to allow your mind to wander. Don’t try to stop it from going places. In a way, I see Ambiancé as a form of meditation where you can discover yourself. But this will only happen, if you allow it to happen.

Interview with Jet Leyco (2015)

Here’s the long awaited interview with director Jet Leyco, who has found the time to answer a few questions while preparing his new film. This interview kicks off my new project on Philippine cinema and you can find all necessary info on that on my new blog philippineindependentcinema.wordpress.com

The next post on this website will hopefully come either later this week or next week. I have something in my head, but I’m not yet entirely sure how to word it. So be patient with me, please 🙂

Reminder: Slow Art Day

It is so close. Twelve days, and we will celebrate the art of looking slowly. At art. Hence again the reminder that registration for the event in Dundee (Scotland) at the local McManus Gallery and Museum is still open.

The event takes place on 27 April 2013 from 11am to 2pm. After an initial meeting, participants will enter the gallery and look at at least five artworks for at least ten minutes. A list with the names and locations of the artworks will be circulated via email closer to the day.

Once we have spent roughly an hour immersed in art, we will meet up for a pub lunch and discuss our (slow) experience. You don’t need any knowledge of art in order to participate. Only patience and commitment.

It is important to me that you register on my eventbrite page as this will facilitate emailing you the list of artworks and further information about the event. Thank you!

Hope to see you on 27 April 2013 here in Dundee!

Slow Art Day @ McManus, Dundee

I’ve found this wonderful idea by accident, and decided to become host of a little event here in Dundee. The idea behind it is simple: according to some studies, we only take around 17 seconds max to look at a painting, which defies proper contemplation and understanding. The Slow Art Day aims to slow down the process of looking at art.

So how is this going to work? The event takes place on 27 April 2013 here in Dundee (and in other cities, check the official website). If you want to take part in it, please register on my event page. The day before we meet, I’ll send you an email with the names of five paintings you’re supposed to look at. I’ll ask you to dedicate between five to ten minutes to each painting. After that, we go have lunch together and discuss our experience.

Very easy, very straightforward. You don’t need expert knowledge in art. This is not an event exclusive to art students, art teachers, etc. It is more about coming together to share the luxury of contemplation together.

The entry to the McManus is generally free, so you’d only have to pay for your own lunch. That’ll happen at Duke’s Corner, a ten minute walk away from the gallery. A lovely pub, nice atmosphere, good food and drinks.

Hope to see you at the McManus!

(I’ll repost this entry several times in the run-up to April, so early apologies for this.)