Post Tenebras Lux – Carlos Reygadas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Expanded Cinema at St Andrews University

I’ll be presenting a paper at the postgraduate study day at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. The conference takes place on 3 April and lasts the whole day. The programme can be found here.

My paper will address the increased visibility of slow-film director’s work in museums and galleries. I’ve posted an entry on the issue here on this blog already. I argue that this is not a coincidence. Rather, it suggests that slow films are perhaps screened in the wrong venue (the cinema) at the moment. The paper reasons this by linking slow films to static arts, which, in itself, require contemplation on the side of the viewer. The cinema, however, is not a site of contemplation, even though Thomas Elsaesser argues that Slow Cinema has changed this considerably. I don’t agree with this. It’s more the fact that we try to make the equation slow film + cinema work, without actively looking or accepting alternatives.

Following my work on the static arts, I will then give detailed examples to what extent certain slow films can be seen as incorporating elements of painting. Clearly pointing out that there is a definite link between stasis and Slow Cinema, I then go on to argue that the home of slow film should be the gallery or the museum, as this environment of (static) art would trigger larger acceptances of the movies. This is mainly due to the fact that the films would be seen as part of (static) art. The movie theatre symbolises entertainment, and slow films cannot fulfil the viewers’ expectations with regards to this. If placed in a gallery, however, the films are specifically received in the context of art and contemplation, and especially the latter is of utmost importance when watching a slow film.

It’s a 15min paper, and I hope to get sufficient feedback on it for further development. If you are around on this day, do drop by.

Positioning my research

There are two pieces of writing which I currently use to position my own research. One of them is Angela Dalle Vacche’s Cinema and Painting – How art is used in film (1996). Vacche makes some important points in her work. She writes, for instance, that “painting for the cinema constitutes a forbidden object of desire.” (1) She goes on to say that “cinema has always had a tendency to challenge not just painting in isolation but rather the whole system of the arts.” (3, my emphasis, reason for this will be clear in a minute)

Vacche attempts to demonstrate how specific genres of painting were relevant to the style of certain films. In her book, she focuses on seven films by seven different directors. Amongst them are Murnau with his film Nosferatu, and Antonioni with Red Desert. While she tries to explore a wide range of films and directors, it poses the greatest limit of her study at the same time. Her focus lies on a well-known canon of films. In addition to Murnau and Antonioni, we see the work of Godard and Rohmer dissected and analysed.

There is no attempt to apply her research to more contemporary films. Rather, this study focuses on directors who have been discussed in relation, for example, to painting, previously. Tarkovsky serves as a good example. Choosing five (European) films from the immediate post-WW II era, Vacche feeds the idea that this way of filmmaking has played a particularly strong part in European modernist cinema, particularly in Italian neo-Realist cinema. (If this sounds familiar, then you’re an attentive reader of this blog. Matthew Flanagan was one of the people to argue the same about the origins of Slow Cinema.)

Also, my impression is that Vacche focuses on deliberate frame composition in order to achieve a painterly look of the films. Jean Renoir is not included in her study, but he’s one filmmaker, who’s work was influenced by his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the painter. His frame compositions were deliberate. I believe that this is the statement of her book: the directors she has chosen all make deliberate choices about frame composition, lighting, etc in order to imitate painting. This is not the case with Slow Cinema. I would be surprised if only one director said that he structured his films according to a famous painting he admired at the time of filmmaking. What I see in Slow Cinema – the painterly aesthetic – is, I assume, wholly accidental.

The second book I use is Eivind Rossaak’s great study The Still/Moving Image: Cinema and the Arts (2009). Rossaak’s work concerns the negotiation between mobility (cinema) and immobility (painting, photography, sculpture). Contrary to Vacche, he describes the interaction between the moving and the static image not as a challenge of one art form over the other. Instead, there appears to be a collaboration at work. In short, he focuses on “how a moving image artwork borrows and refashions an aspect or quality from other art or media forms” (10) from the perspective “of a potential co-existence or co-experience of the interrelationship between different art forms.” (18)

Compared to Vacche’s study, Rossaak applies his method to a wider range of films, despite using only three examples. But with The MatrixTom Tom The Piper’s Son and The Passions, he covers mainstream commercial cinema, American avant-garde and video art – from different periods. It’s a truly fascinating study, I can only recommend it. However, there is a downside of it all, too.

Again, the evocation of the still arts is deliberate. Yet, instead of deliberately composing the frames in such a way that it evokes the image of a painting, Rossaak focuses on films whose stillness is computer-generated. In The Matrix, for instance, it is the bullet-time effect, which is entirely computer-generated. Ken Jacobs filmed the original Tom Tom and slowed it down, used freeze frames and other methods in order to stretch it to a feature-length film. Stillness is thus artificially created.

In short: Slow Cinema lives of the “co-experience” of different art forms, but its stillness is not created artificially. Slow films negotiate their mobility with static arts, but they do so in their own natural way (meaning without the help of technology or similar methods). They do not challenge static arts, they embrace them. Painting does appear to be an “object of desire” for slow films, but this does not explicitly mean that slow-film directors consciously construct their films in similar ways. It is accidental, rather than intentional.

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.

What is Slow Cinema 2.0

During my research I have come across a number of slow film festivals, which implied that Slow Cinema is not as marginal as sometimes thought. The most telling example is the Slow Film Fest in Hungary. Until last year, it had been an annual festival showcasing a wide range of slow film. The programme of 2010 indicates just how varied the submissions had been. Unfortunately, the festival was discontinued. I am currently in contact with the man behind the festival, and will publish (with his permission, of course) more details about the festival.

Slow Cinema, or slow film, is picked up regularly. Even the Design Week in Budapest had a specially curated Slow Cinema strand last year. But there’s still no coherent explanation of what SC really is. The attempts of describing it are incoherent, as they are based on a debate of (subjective) time, and the films’ technical aspects, which limits the view on SC as being simply a reaction of filmmakers to the high-speed screen entertainment in today’s world.

I propose something entirely different. Something that, if you take your time to see, makes all the difference.

Slow Cinema is a treatment of time not associated with Western cultures.

Too simple? But this is what it is. Slow Cinema is an expression of Eastern perceptions of time. Time is not reversible, as is technically the case in the West, as all it takes is reversing our clock. Philip Rawson (Art and Time, 2005) opposes our perception of time with that of Eastern cultures; the ancient water clocks implying that time is irreversible. Time keeps flowing, and cannot be chopped up, rearranged, etc. as is the case in contemporary popular film. Also, Slow Cinema is essentially a study of the present. It is an observation, a meditation.

More to the point, Amy Cappellazzo writes,

“Western philosophical discourse has a relationship to time that, in general, does not emphasise an awareness of the present moment … There is no religious or philosophical practice like Zen, for example, which frames what we would call ‘real time’ as an opportunity for deeper contemplation and, ideally, understanding of our human condition.” (2000, 16)

Think about it….