News from Home – Chantal Akerman (1977)

I’m slowly but surely diving more into Chantal Akerman’s filmography. I believe that her work contains a lot that I have been interested in throughout the past years, and it might be worth looking at it in more detail over the coming months and years. News from home, released in 1977, is a sort of follow-up to Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) in that it continues to follow Akerman’s contemplative aesthetics. In some ways, it is a soothing film. The images of New York in the late 1970s are accompanied by a voice over of Akerman herself, reading letters she had received from her mother. The concept is very simple, but effective (affective?).

While we see images, often via a static camera, of cars driving up and down the streets of New York, or people walking the streets, or even people in diners as seen through windows, we hear the written words of Akerman’s mother, always worried, always concerned, always tired. She speaks about her health, needing medication again and again, and the difficulties they have with their shop in Belgium. It appears to be quiet, and Akerman’s mother often evokes that she’s either bored at work because nothing happens, or anxious precisely because of this. It means tighter finances. And yet, she makes a great effort at supporting Chantal in her adventure in becoming a filmmaker in the US. She sends money and clothes, always anxious whether her letters or packages are received.

The voice over is often drowned out by noise in the streets or in the metro. You try to listen, but there is little point. You can catch mere glimpses of what is said, if at all. It is realism that Akerman attempts to pursue here. Cities are noisy, cities are loud, deafening the people who live in it. We become accustomed to it and no longer notice it…until we spend a few hours in the countryside. The approach of letting the spoken word disappear in the noise of city life is very poignant, especially given that the film was made in the late 1970s and it’s so much worse today.

I became very quickly an admirer of Akerman’s shots in the metro stations; beautiful and enigmatic, just like life. What these shots meant to me was much more complex than what the actual images show. These images are images of time, and not just of slowness, but of time the way Chinese, for example, see it. Time not as consisting of only a single pace. Time is complex. Time consists of slowness and speed, of emptiness and fullness, of idling and of doing. At those metro stations people come and go. They wait for the next metro that takes them to another place, that takes them through space. We see them wait, we wait with them, and at some point the metro comes rattling into the station. It’s speed that we perceive. People leave the metro cars, people enter the metro cars. It’s bustling for a few second, and then everything quietens down again. Slowness and speed…the complexity of time portrayed in a single shot.

There is another aspect that I became aware of, and I’m unsure whether this has been written about before. If someone were to ask you what the film was about, what would you respond? We can all describe the film, describe what we see. But what is the film about? Perhaps this isn’t important. At the same time, the indistinct feeling , this not so very clear orientation of where we should go, again speaks for complexity in simplicity.

Did Akerman make a film about New York at the end of the 1970s? One gets a glimpse of life in the city throughout the film’s running time.

Did Akerman make a film about her mother? Maybe. Her written words are the images’ second layer. They give a characterisation of Akerman’s mother, but perhaps also of any mother, worried about a child abroad, in a big city, far away.

Did Akerman make a film about herself? That is possible, too, especially if one considers that she herself is involved (via voice over), reading personal letters she has received and filming the city she now lives in.

Did Akerman make a film about us? Maybe. Everything is possible in this film. Akerman keeps it simple but open. It’s a film that wasn’t finished by herself or the editor. It is finished when it meets its viewer, and when the viewer decides what s/he sees, what s/he wants to read into the images before his/her eyes. Only then News from Home is complete. Only then do we see just how complex simplicity can be.

Welfare – Frederick Wiseman (1975)

In past years, several people have pointed out the work by Frederick Wiseman to me, in particular whenever I spoke of Lav Diaz and his rather long (feature) films, which explore the history and trauma of a country and society in depth. I have to admit that now that I have seen my first Wiseman film, I don’t quite see a relation to Slow Cinema the way I feel it, or would perhaps define it (if I had words for it). Nevertheless, there are some specifics that are quite interesting to consider in terms of slow film, perhaps also, yes, in relation to the films of Lav Diaz.

First of all, Welfare is an almost three-hour long documentary. Indeed, this goes against the usual perception of a documentary. There are exceptions like Adam Curtis’ pieces, but overall documentaries (just like feature films) tend to have industry-imposed time limits. Wiseman doesn’t seem to care about this, and this allows him to go into such depth that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Welfare is a long-form documentary that has a scope similar to slow films in that he shows vertical time. You might remember from earlier posts that I spoke about horizontal and vertical time, the former being a simple advancement of the story without going into too much depth. A vertical treatment of a subject is based on the director’s taking his time. It’s about feeling, psychological depth. It’s about the character first, the story comes second. Vertical time is usually something poetic, which you might think isn’t present in Wiseman’s film. And yet, you will find everything that is characteristic of a vertical story treatment.

Welfare places emphasis on those who are seeking help and feel like hamsters in a bureaucratic wheel. In several long-takes – I believe one is even longer than 10 minutes which is unusual for a documentary – he films conversations between those who seek help and those who decide about whether they can eat on that same day, or whether they have a place to sleep. Some conversations, cases, problems, feel endless, repetitive, often painful. But Wiseman keeps filming. He wants to get to the bottom of the pain that is so often forgotten in bureaucratic systems. This is the vertical you can usually only see in slow films. It’s vertical time that comes to the fore and it is because of this vertical time that Welfare has such a strong effect on the viewer. It’s like reading an 800 page novel and you get to know your character in such a way that you really identify with him or her. You know every single trait of that character, you have time to draw parallels between you and him/her, you actually have time to consider what’s happening to the character.

This is Welfare. It’s an 800 page novel. Perhaps it’s not slow, but it’s detailed, focused on individuals who are usually marginalised and forgotten. It’s vertical in its treatment of the subject, or rather subjects. The film is not only about the failing welfare system in America. The documentary shows several other facets of society, amongst them blatant racism. It is a portrait of America in the 1970s, and, perhaps crucially, it is a portrait of America today, because as far as we can gather from news items, very little has changed. The end of the film is quite interesting. It hit me and hurt me. Having lost his comfortable job with an income of $20,000 a year plus more for other work, having lost all his research work (stolen from him), his accommodation, having fallen from a hardworking successful member of society to a homeless man who needs to steal in order to survive, all of this after a stay in hospital and being told afterwards that he would no longer be able to work – this man, this character who sums up everything we have seen in the previous two hours plus, predicts that there wouldn’t be a United States of America anymore at the end of the 1980s if nothing changed. People would leave the sinking ship. It would be interesting to see the same documentary playing out in 2017…

Welfare is not a slow film. This much I can say. Nevertheless, the link to slow films and in particular to films by Lav Diaz, who uses long duration (and cinematic slowness) for an in-depth exploration of an individual’s pain, is clear. What both Slow Cinema and Frederick Wiseman’s work share is the use of vertical time, of duration, in order to get to the bottom of pain, of despair, of injustice; in order to make the viewer feel this pain, despair and injustice; in order to use their films as a cry for help.

The Royal Road – Jenni Olson (2014)

How I had missed this fight inside my head of what is slow and what isn’t. Jenni Olson’s deeply personal, moving and engaging film The Royal Road (2014) started those evil voices in my head again. I think I’ve been saying for a few years now that Slow Cinema is not a fixed but rather a fluid category of films. And yet, I start to find myself figuring out what I consider Slow Cinema and slow film. The former to me is most definitely narrative, while the latter can be anything but is mostly experimental. It doesn’t necessarily need a narrative. This is as vague as I can describe the voices in my head. I thought I would get away with this “definition” but Jenni Olson did a good job in questioning even this attempt of where to position certain films. Is The Royal Road Slow Cinema or a slow film? Is it both (gosh this becomes complicated now)? I don’t want to make a case for either, though. It’s a great thing when I come across films that make me rethink my own writing. In the end, this is what it’s all about and I do not want to be definite on anything. There are millions of films out there. Any fixed definition would fall apart sooner or later.

Slow Cinema or slow film, Olson’s The Royal Road is something entirely new for me. It goes very much into the direction of James Benning, whose films – shame on me – I still haven’t had time to see. Her film consists of several static shots with at times only little movement in the frame. This does sound like the now famous Slow Cinema, and yet it isn’t. The shots in themselves are of several different locations throughout America along The Royal Road. There are no protagonists as such in the frames. The visual protagonist is this famous road of which we learn quite a bit through Olson’s personal interest in history. She takes us on a journey through history, which I, personally, found fascinating. Not only because it was history I didn’t know about, and I reckon most Americans don’t know about either. Even the Royal Road is now broken up into several different highways and city streets. I guess so is the knowledge of the road’s history.

What makes Olson’s journey along this road really fascinating is her combination of historical blurb with the most personal details of her journey to her loved one – along this very road. It is a journey which expands by the minute. It is also a journey which becomes more personal by the minute. The Royal Road‘s auditory protagonist, to me, is herself and her wife, whose first encounters she describes in a sort of dreamy, blissful tone. It sort of reminded me on my own very long, eight hour train journey across an entire country to see my partner. All those anticipations, those expectations, and anxieties – they’re all there in Olson’s film.

Returning more to the visuals, the long shots Olson uses reminded me of a photo album. A sort of photo album that is passed along generations. It doesn’t contain the most beautiful shots but they tell a story and this story comes through the voiceover. It is like sitting down with Olson who shows you one photo after another and who talks a bit about the history or the context of what we see. Or, perhaps, even of what we don’t see. This form of story-telling made me feel part of the film, made me feel part of the journey. It all fits in with the very personal tone of Olson’s film.

I felt immensely privileged having seen the film. I felt privileged to go on a journey with Olson to see her partner. The theme of LGBT is not as overt in slow films as it is perhaps in others (maybe I speak rubbish here but my excuse is that I’m not at all familiar with this field). You do have Tsai Ming-liang’s films, of course, and The Royal Road could not be more different from Tsai’s films. Olson does not create a secretive, fictional narrative about her love to Julie Dorf, her wife. On the contrary, she puts it straight out there which makes me film even more personal. It’s a fascinating piece and I would like to see more of Olson’s work in future. I love her interest and fascination with history, and her style – this slow, meditative photo album style – is intriguing and gives me something new to think about in future for whatever entails Slow Cinema. Or slow film. Or whatever you may call it.