Andrei Rublev – Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)

It’s been weird lately. First, I struggled to find the time to watch films. I was immersed in books, really good ones, and I didn’t want to stop reading. Then, once I had a film I thought would be a really good fit, it turned out that it wasn’t really Slow Cinema. This was particularly disappointing for Sudoeste by Eduardo Nunes from Brazil. The film starts in a superb fashion. It stunned me, and drew me in. I felt like floating in those beautiful long-take shots, magic, ghostly, simply very affective (and effective). Unfortunately, the film’s aesthetic changed somewhat after the powerful beginning, so that I decided not to write about it. A new subject was needed, and I remembered that I still hadn’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s early piece Andrei Rublev (1966), which is his second film, after the really good Ivan’s Childhood which was a great portrait of war trauma and young adolescents. Rublev is perhaps not an iconic work of Slow Cinema, but the film shows Tarkovsky’s later trademarks, beginning, of course, with the director’s use of long takes and a camera that sometimes moves independent of the characters it is showing.

While watching Rublev, I couldn’t help think about Béla Tarr and his first social-realist films. The films by Tarr that are now so well-known because of their particular style, didn’t come out of nowhere. Tarr developed it over time, and so Rublev was a stage in Tarkovsky’s development towards perfecting his almost magical cinematic philosophy that we admire today. It’s quite a change to films such as Mirror and Nostalghia, and yet you can see Tarkovsky’s soul in the film, which begins to shine. Rublev is not a philosophical experiential piece the way the director’s other films are. While it does contain important discussions that demand an engagement with the film text, Rublev is almost a straightforward historical epic, which surprised me at first. It was not what I had expected. What I didn’t expect either was that the film would be a strange back-to-the-future piece with scenes that strongly reminded me of MirrorStalker and Nostalghia. Everyone would argue that it’s always best to watch a director’s entire filmography chronologically (with the exception of Semih Kaplanoglou’s trilogy, which includes Bal), I found that my watching Tarkovsky’s oeuvre almost the other way around added a magnificent ghostly atmosphere to Rublev.

The film starts with an episode of an unfortunate balloon flight. There is a scene, almost right at the beginning, which shows the fascinating camera work that would later become so vital for Tarkovsky’s experiential pieces. In a long take, one man enters a house, drops what he has in his arms inside the house, then exists the house again. The camera moves freely. It’s floating almost, has its own mind and even though it does follow the character to an extent, it is also taking its own steps. All of a sudden, I was reminded of Alexandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark, in which the camera followed its characters in much the same way. This type of camera has a dreamy, almost unreal nature to it. Something else caught my eye: once the balloon, which several people tried to keep on the ground before others arrived and attacked them, is in the air, Tarkovsky uses a remarkable POV shot that, once more, reminded me of Sokurov’s mirror lenses in Mother and Son. Now, the copy I have has not been restored, and I wonder whether those particular shots look slightly deformed and mirror-y (here’s a new term for you, which I have just coined….you’re welcome!) because of the age of the film, or the quality of the camera. I’d like to jump to the conclusion that it’s supposed to be like this, because it genuinely brings something disorienting with it, something bizarre, something uncomfortable.

We find a similar “look” later on, when Kirill, Daniil and Rublev arrive at a house, where they seek refuge from torrential rain. There is a jester singing and dancing, before he is being escorted away by the Duke’s men. Here again, the camera lens seems to be slightly deformed, alluding to a rather round picture. It doesn’t feel flat at all, but it’s almost as though the camera alludes to a third dimension. Of course, I could (and I probably do!) read too much into it, because this particular look is not one of the main aesthetics of the film. Moreover, I know that Tarkovsky tended to work with whatever he had and he might as well had problems with the camera. Nevertheless, I like the idea that this deformed view on the world from above and on those people who enjoy the sexually charged songs from the jester is not as accidental as one might believe.

Contrary to later films, Rublev is progressing in chapters, that means chronologically. Although there are dream sequences, which upset the temporal order established by the chapters, the film runs more or less in a linear fashion. The first chapter, which contains the scene with the balloon I have just described, begins in 1400. Fifteenth century Russia was a tumultuous country, never really at peace, and Tarkovsky shows this in particular in the latter half of the film. For financial reasons, he had to cut a lot of battle scenes, which he had in the script, but which he couldn’t realise for lack of funding. Those cuts sometimes lead to disorienting jumps in the narrative that are more startling than sophisticated philosophical omissions. There is, for instance, a scene in which Rublev’s assistant finds a dead swan in the woods. In films such as Mirror, which are deeply rooted in themes like memory and dreams, I wouldn’t have been startled. I would have considered this to be a memory that violently appears (appears violent?) and which has a connection to the stories of remembering and forgetting Tarkovsky tells so often. Rublev, however, doesn’t fell like such a movie at all. Because of its linear, straightforward progression and its non-mysterious images, the dead swan appeared out of place and made me wonder if there wasn’t something missing. Have I missed something? Is the explanation for this still to come? I wouldn’t try to find explanations for anything in dreamy films, but here, I have to say that I was almost annoyed about this scene, which could have been cut easily. (And I cannot believe I’m actually saying this about a film by Tarkovsky…)

Andrei Rublev, as we know, was a painter, whose The Trinity is supposedly his most famous work. Tarkovsky shows very little of his life as a painter. In ways similar to the struggling filmmaker in Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing (2011), we witness several discussions on art and the role of the artist. The actual act of painting is positioned in the background. Instead, we hear Rublev struggling with the task of painting The Last Judgment: “I can’t paint this, it’s disgusting.” Rublev doesn’t want to frighten people and would rather paint something of a lighter nature. I would agree with the fact that Tarkovsky makes a statement here about the struggle of the artists with his conscience. But the layer underneath that surface is the use of artists to promote certain images. At the time, painters worked on behalf of a duke, or other high ranking state officials. They had to paint what was expected of them, even though, as Theophanes, the Greek points out, their works and even they themselves are attacked for the images and messages they portray in their works. They do so on behalf of someone, and often suffer for it – either at the hands of others, or at the hands of their own conscience.

The theme of conscience is present throughout the film. The tartars attack the city of Vladimir. Andrei, who is in the city to paint the church, witnesses the atrocities. When one of the attackers kidnaps a woman (supposedly to rape and kill her), Andrei kills him with an axe. What has he done? Once the attack is over, and silence returns to the church – the camera shows us dozens of dead, among them children – Andrei is visibly shaken by what he had witnessed, by the sheer violence, by the fact that men are that cruel, that men simply kill other men (“We’re both Russians”, we hear a young man pleading while trying to escape), that Man is no better than a beast. This event leaves Andrei traumatised. He hallucinates and re-encounters Theophanes. Almost furious, Andrei tells him that he has worked for people all his life, but that people are not people, suggesting that they’re mere beasts. Consequently, Andrei takes a vow before God: he would never paint or speak again, the latter of which reappears in another context in Lav Diaz’s Heremias – Book One (2005). This vow is not only the result of what he has seen. I firmly belief that Tarkovsky makes a point on the painter’s conscience here. In fact, Andrei has sinned. Even though he rescued a woman from certain torture and death, he himself has killed a man. He himself has turned into a beast. He himself is no different than all the others.

Tarkovsky plays here with sound and silence, almost deafening silence, which he would later reuse in Stalker and Mirror. There is something ghostly about it, something traumatic, as though the explosion of violence has deafened not only Andrei, but also us. In minimising the sound, slowing down sound effects, the director disorientates us temporally. Andrei’s trauma and that of the village becomes palpable. What follows is a shift in narrative towards Boris, a young man, who pretends he knows the secret of bell making and is hired by the Duke to make a bell. Andrei moves into the film’s background. As a silent monk he is no more than an onlooker, a bystander, visibly angry at first, then quieter in later years. He becomes a silent observer of Boris, whom he seems to use as a mirror of himself; a talented artist, who struggles with himself, with his work, with the burden of having to create. The film comes full circle, picking up the same themes and applying it to another character, whose emotional torment pierces through Andrei’s shield, which he had kept up for 15 years.

It is quite remarkable to me that my first impression of the film was not a good one. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like the film. It was just too ordinary, compared to what I know of Tarkovsky. And yet, this is, except for one single essay (and conference papers which I have just copied and pasted), the longest post on this blog. Andrei Rublev seems to build a nest in my head after all…

People’s Park – Libbie D. Cohn & J.P. Sniadecki (2012)

I’m not sure where to start with this film, which, even though very similar to Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, shot in a single long-take, reminded me of so many things except for this particular film. People’s Park and Russian Ark have a lot in common, but there are certain aspects of People’s Park, which actually made me feel uncomfortable while watching it which had never been the case with Russian Ark.

People’s Park  is set in a park in Chengdu, China. Shot in a single long-take of around ninety minutes, the camera travels through the landscape and records people’s activities during their leisure time. This is one thing that sets off the film strongly from Sokurov’s counterpart. The directors Libbie Cohn and JP Sniadecki have set up a seemingly Tarr-esque camera, a camera which has its own life, its own objectives, its own trajectory. It reminded me of Daniel Frampton’s filmind, a concept I have found mind-blowing when I read Frampton’s book Filmosophy and which I still like, especially when it comes to Béla Tarr and his use of an “independent” camera, which appears to follow nothing but its own plan. But, in contrast to the uses of an independent camera by Tarr and Sokurov, Cohn and Sniadecki’s camera feels voyeuristic. While Sokurov’s camera is a playful tool to record a walk through a museum, for example, People’s Park feels like something one is invited to watch but which one shouldn’t watch perhaps.

The extremely smooth camera is on a level of height with that of a child. The people with whom we cross paths, look down on us. The only ones that look straight into our virtual eye are the children we meet. As for the adults, we look up to them from time to time. We cross a lot of people who don’t know why we look at them, why we seem to be interested in their having a tea, in their enjoying themselves on a free day. Some people even look as if they have never seen a camera before. Indeed, why are the directors filming this and why do they force us to watch this? This could be said with other slow films, too. But there is no film I’m aware of in my repertoire which nagged me so strongly with those two questions; for one specific reason.

One thing that immediately came to my mind, after only a couple of minutes, was the ethnographic studies done with the help of film in colonised countries. I couldn’t help but think of those early films colonisers have made in far away worlds to record natives and show those portraits to their (colonising) people at home. The Chinese you see in People’s Park had very similar looks in their faces, if not the exact same look we know from early colonial film. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I wonder what the actual aim of the film was. Of course, the historical context today is different. And yet, and yet… I’d be very interested in seeing an analysis of the relationship between colonial film and People’s Park.

Two more things which came to mind while watching the film. There are definite links to Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993), which is a superb film and was a journey through memories for me, having been born into a communist system which then fell apart shortly afterwards. And then there is this eerie feeling, just like in Akerman’s film, that there is a ghost taking us on a journey. For some reason I felt a ghostly presence throughout the film. I think it was the incredibly smooth camera, the floating movements, which had me believe that there is an otherworldly presence.

Maybe this is the reason for the questioning looks on the protagonists?

The River Used to be a Man

It’s been a while that I watched a good slow film. My head rarely thinks ouside Lav Diaz’s films at the moment. I’m trying to re-watch Florentina Hubaldo (and will post a review here later), but it’s a lot tougher than I had first experienced. So I’m taking it slow.

I came across The River used to be a man by accident. It’s a German film by Jan Zabeil that was released last year in its home country. I don’t think it has ever made its way to the UK, and IMDB agrees with me on this point.

The river Used to be a Man

The film tells the story of a German, who, after the apparent death of his guide, gets lost in the Botswanan wilderness. It is a slow-paced film, though not a painterly slow film the way I would study it. However, The River that used to be a man confirmed a few things that I realised only a short while ago, and which still make me think as to how I could fit this into my writing.

The film is wonderful at depicting the African wilderness, the loneliness it evokes. But also the untouched nature we can hardly find these days, especially in our regions. We see peaceful sunsets and smooth rivers. The main character, for me, in this film is nature. And strikingly, the native who initially travels with the German explains to him: “Here’s the house of the animals. It’s the house of all the animals … we’re on their island”. Nature is the host; man is merely a guest, as is the case in many other slow films.

The River Used to be a Man

What made me think is the subtle point on modernity, and the way in which we humans, especially from the First World, have forgotten how to live in a simple manner. When the native dies, the German is on his own, in the middle of nowhere. He struggles to manouvre the canoe-like boat, and falls into the river because he cannot keep his balance. He cannot hunt. At night he hears a lot of sounds from animals, but he cannot identify whether or not the animals around him could be dangerous as he possibly has never learned to identify them in the first place. He didn’t need to, living in a city. Finally, he can’t light a fire because his lighter doesn’t work. The first thing he asks for when he wakes up in an unknown village after he had been picked up by a native when unconscious, is a telephone and a shop.

It sounds like the typical ignorant Westerner. And yet, it is only a subtle theme that runs through the film. This very theme brought me back to an earlier thought that a substantial amount of slow films are in some ways connected to the Third World, or in more specific terms to developing countries. They are made by directors from developing countries, or deal with issues that touch upon those regions. This doesn’t apply to all slow films, but it is nevertheless quite a large number.

We have Lav Diaz from the Philippines; Yulene Olaizola, Nicolas Pereda, Carlos Reygadas and Francisco Vargas from Mexico; Lisandro Alonso from Argentina; Abbas Kiarostami from Iran; Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand. Michela Occipinti’s film Letters from the Desert is set in India. The River is set in Africa.

I wouldn’t go as far as terming these films Third Cinema, but I find this development striking. Other slow films come from what we call the Second World. Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokurov are the most known examples. I’m not trying to put the films into boxes. However, this is where the term “slowness” comes in again. For whom are those films slow? For the audience, and the audience comes mainly from the capitalist, speedy First World. From urban areas with bustling streets. From hyper-modern civilisations, whose days are structured by the mechanical clock.

Considering the geographical backgrounds of those directors, it is inadequate to term the films slow. The term can be derogative, and in this case, I would say that, indeed, it is. It is merely looking down from our big modern horse on countries that are still a bit “behind”. But behind what? What is the merit?

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.