New books on Pedro Costa & Béla Tarr

The initial wave of I-want-to-be-the-first has subsided, and after quite a few not very good books on Slow Cinema or on slow-film directors, we’re slowly (of course, slowly) getting to a point where it is worth opening books on the subject because they have been researched properly. Or because the authors have taken the time to experience the films without trying to squeeze them into theories and statistics. This has been done already, primarily by András Bálint Kovács. When Béla Tarr had the book in his hand and saw Kovacs’s attempt at turning his films into statistics, into numbers, he said “Fuck off”. Yes, he really said this and spoke about it in one of the worst interviews I have read with any filmmaker, published on MUBI. But that happens if people try to force a meaning onto a film that isn’t there and the filmmaker has been trying for twenty-odd years to avoid this in interviews.

Anyway, this year saw the publication of two very good books. One of them, a German-language book, deals with the work of Pedro Costa. The publisher is quite impressive, to say the least, and I took the chance of suggesting an edited collection on Lav Diaz. They were very open to this and will discuss it in their next meeting (fingers crossed!). Edition text + kritik focuses on one director at a time, and they avoid turning a director’s work into mere theory.

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The book on Pedro Costa – with its simple name Pedro Costa – is somewhere between a thorough introduction to the director’s work, and an elaborate investigation of his films which goes beyond introductory remarks. It is a journey through Costa’s entire oeuvre. What I enjoyed most in this book is the authors’ focus on Costa’s collaboration with his actors. Those who know Costa and his films are aware of the close collaboration, which somewhat started with the famous “Stop the faking!” expressed by Vanda Duarte after the production of Ossos (1997). Costa began to live with his actors. No, he lived with the people, who then became his actors. Non-professionals, who live their roles. It seems as though this is the red line that is woven throughout the book.

The book consists of seven chapters. The eighth is a written contribution by Pedro Costa himself, or rather it is a text written by Costa which, for the first time, was translated into German for this particular book. There is a general attempt at really understanding the artist and his work. The book is not an attempt at creating something that isn’t there, at telling the filmmaker what his films are really about, which scholars love to do. Pedro Costa reads like a genuine exploration of Costa’s approach to filmmaking, to the subject he chooses and to his aesthetics. One chapter in the book deals with (non-) images of violence in Costa’s films, especially in Casa de Lava (1994). It is a fascinating piece which is complemented by another chapter on aspects of ghosts. To me, those two go hand in hand, and they’re not only characteristic of Costa’s work. The themes of violence and ghostly haunting are pretty widespread in slow films, especially those that deal with a people’s colonial past.

If you’re German, or a German-speaking cinephile who’s interested in Costa’s work, this book is definitely for you. I’m surprised that this book is the first coherent piece on the Portuguese director who’s been making films for decades. I wonder why English-speaking scholars have not yet picked that up. More than journal articles doesn’t seem to be in their interest. I wonder why that is.

So while German scholars have produced the first book on Pedro Costa, France slowly but surely turns out to be a hub for really good books on Béla Tarr. The new book Béla Tarr : De la colère au tourment has been published in March this year. Jacques Rancière’s book Le temps d’après was great already, but this new book tops this. First of all, the book is a feast for the eyes, which makes it a more entertaining read than the German book on Pedro Costa. You can see that a lot of work went into the design of the book; the screen grabs, positioned one underneath the other, have something of photo strips.

Even more so than the book on Pedro Costa, this new book on Tarr tries to explore and convey what a Béla Tarr film feels like. There are two chapters, if I remember correctly, which are very theoretical and which make for a difficult read. I do believe that the authors of those chapters kind of missed the point. But overall, the book is about what we see when we watch a Tarr film. It is about how it looks like, how it makes the viewer feel. I could be wrong and just read something into all this, but to me the book seems, perhaps not openly, but nevertheless focused on the viewer and the viewing experience.

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The interesting aspect is that a viewing experience is always individual. What I feel during a film may be very different from what you’re feeling. But somehow I, as the reader, felt pretty much on the same wavelength as the authors. It’s not difficult to guess why this is the case. I believe that the authors let the film happen to them, which is so important to Slow Cinema. I could see the films right in front of me while reading the book. Tarr’s cinema, his fans would probably agree with me, is special. It has a certain something, which is difficult to put into words. This new book manages it somehow, and while discussing the characteristics of Tarr’s oeuvre as a whole it is at the same time exploring vital aesthetics of Slow Cinema in more general terms. There’s talk of the emancipation of the gaze, of hypnotic emptiness, of a “tactile” experience of film.

The book is divided into three parts, and starts with a long interview with Tarr, which is revealing and I’m grateful that the interviewers didn’t ask the same old questions. We actually learn something from it, which is rare these days. Interviews, especially those with slow-film directors, tend to revolve around the themes of “Why are your films so slow?” or “Why are your films so long?” In some ways, this one is a very moving interview. Tarr also speaks about no longer having enough oxygen as a filmmaker to work in his country. He always thought he would make more films. He never saw himself teaching at a film school. He wanted to create a new genre of Hungarian cinema. But it all came different. He had to close his production company, stopped filmmaking, because of the political situation in Hungary. He isn’t the first to say this. The most recent high-profile example is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This new book on Tarr is definitely a must, if you can speak French. It starts to dawn on me, after previous experience, that you might need to look for something in a language other than English, if you want to read something that is not overly academic and tries to complicate everything by pretending to explain films to you which perhaps shouldn’t be explained. So far, the best books I have read about slow-film directors are not in the English language. I’m looking forward to a book on Slow Cinema in French or something. Maybe this will be better than what we have come across so far. Anyway, if you speak either German or French, or maybe both, go get yourself those two treats!

Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness – Song Hwee Lim (2014)

In 2003, Michel Ciment coined the term “a cinema of slowness.” A year later, Jonathan Romney coined the now popular term “Slow Cinema.” It’s quite remarkable that it took over a decade before the first book on the phenomenon was published. I would have expected literature on the subject much earlier than this, but as Song Hwee Lim – I suppose, correctly – points out, Slow Cinema has been somewhat brushed aside by academics. Lim’s book is therefore a premiere. And a good one.

I should make clear that it is, in fact, not really a book about Slow Cinema. Rather, it is an examination of Tsai Ming-liang’s films through which we get to know the aesthetics of slowness. I find the book a success for two reasons. First, Lim has succeeded to put Slow Cinema on paper, which is a real achievement, because it must be extremely difficult to convey the feeling of slowness with words. Yet, his book manages to create a wonderfully authentic image of slow films in general, in of Tsai’s films in particular.

And this is the second reason: the book is an intriguing study of Tsai’s films. Tsai’s oeuvre has attracted writers before, and I do have one book about him in my shelf, a review of which I can put up later. But although these books are interesting, they cannot quite grasp and convey the Tsai-ness of his films. Only Lim’s book does so adequately, and it was a joy to read it. It made me want to re-watch all of Tsai’s films, but unfortunately some other (slow) films have priority at the moment.

There is perhaps another important point I should make. While Cinema of Slowness had been written by an academic, it’s surprisingly open. There is always the risk (and I had many of them in my hands during my research) that films are so utterly theorised that no one apart from academic experts, or even just the author him/herself, understand it. It’s one reason why this blog is the way it is, because Slow Cinema is a phenomenon mainly carried by the audience, often people who have little to do with Film Studies at a university. I personally find that this very fact requires us to make everything that is written accessible to the wider public.

Now, Lim’s book manages the balance between academic analysis and lay film-watching superbly. It’s detailed, but not dry, boring or even off-putting (as is the case with András Balínt Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr). Nor is the book jam-packed. As the first book on Slow Cinema, it could have been a compilation of all thoughts on Slow Cinema out there, basically a roundup of everything that can be said (again, as is the case on Kovacs’s book).

Instead, as strange as it may sound, the book is slow. Lim compiles a lot of material on slow films. Yet, he does not overwhelm the reader with too much information. On the contrary, he manages a smooth integration into an analysis of Tsai’s films, which makes for a smooth and slow reading without being hastened by the author through something that is inherently slow. I also had the rather astonishing experience that I agreed to everything. Before the publication of this book, there were so many things about Slow Cinema that vexed me. This blog was used to argue against those points, and, funnily enough, a lot of the things I have had in mind, appear in Lim’s book. It feels as though I have found a slow (soul) mate.

If you are a keen follower of Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang, this book is perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give you for the time being. It works both as a nice introduction to the phenomenon, as well as a lively but not tiring analysis of one of the most prolific representatives of Slow Cinema.

(Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness, by Song Hwee Lim, University of Hawai’i Press, now available on Amazon)

Review: Béla Tarr, The Time After – Jacques Rancière

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed András Bálint Kovács’ book The Cinema of Béla Tarr (2013), which turned out to be a disappointment. Jacques Rancière’s book (original title: Béla Tarr, Le temps d’après) was published in 2011. The English translation hit the book market last year.

If I wanted to review the book in only one sentence, I would say that it’s much better than Kovács’ book. By miles. I read the French and the English version, the latter has been done well to come as close to the original as possible. The most outstanding fact of the book is that it conveys the atmosphere of Tarr’s movies to a greater extent. The book is at times rather poetic, which fits well to Tarr’s filmmaking. It’s a book that stays true to the subject it is studying. I missed this in Kovács’ book, in which Tarr’s films were quantified and dissected into a great many pieces. The over-analytical approach irritated me, and because of its approach the book wasn’t the greatest advertisement for Tarr’s cinema.

Rancière’s approach is different. I had the feeling that he doesn’t quantify the films. Rather, he focused on the quality of the films. His style of writing is very different from that of Kovács’. If you expect an academic study of Tarr’s films, you may not be happy with The Time After. Analysis takes over towards the end of the book, but until then it all feels like an experience. Tarr’s films, too, are experiences, as is the case with the vast majority of slow films. The main factor that distinguishes them from contemporary narrative (blockbuster) cinema is that it’s an experience, instead of an action-packed entertainment parcel.

I do have to admit that it was sometimes difficult to follow Rancière. At times it felt as if he drifted off, and didn’t care anymore whether the reader could follow him. It felt as if he was in his own world, and yes, sometimes it read as if he wasn’t writing, but speaking. This tone made the reading an entirely different affair. I had a much better image of Tarr’s films. I could feel the images, and this is so essential about his films.

With his poetic writing, I assume, Rancière manages to wake the interest of the reader who is not familiar with Tarr’s films. The book is an experiential piece without its ever giving away too much of the films themselves. When you’re done with Kovács’ book, you have pretty much seen all of Tarr’s films. His study is so detailed that you don’t have to see the films anymore. On the other hand, the tedious analysis might have put you off the films anyway. Rancière, in contrast, points to aspects of Tarr’s films, without making a detailed analysis out of it – just as Tarr would have liked it. He said several times that his films shouldn’t be analysed or interpreted. I always found this to be a somewhat arrogant statement of an auteur, but after I read Kovács’ book I could see the truth in Tarr’s point.

This is for me the biggest success of Rancière’s book: he does not put people off Tarr’s films. He makes them sound interesting. His writing remains true to the films and to Tarr’s filmmaking. There’s no attempt at analysing every scene of every film. The only 92 pages strong book covers Tarr’s entire oeuvre superbly. At times, it’s confusing, I have to admit, because Rancière jumps from one film to another. Overall, however, it feels as if he said everything that can realistically be said about Tarr’s films without making it a dry, distant and utterly boring affair. There may be more books on Tarr in the future, who knows. But The Time After is definitely the one to top for me.

[Béla Tarr, The Time After, by Jacques Rancière, Univocal, available on Amazon]

Review: The Cinema of Béla Tarr – András Bálint Kovács

Kovács’ book is not the first book on Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Jacques Rancière has equally published a book, though rather slim, about Tarr, titled Le temps d’après (2011). It’s been available in English since last summer, I believe. Rancière’s book felt a bit like a quick shot attempt at writing about Tarr after he had announced his retirement from filmmaking. The good thing about this book was that it came close to catching the atmosphere of his films. At least it felt this way in the French language version. I haven’t had the chance to flick through the English version.

András Bálint Kovács has published on Tarr before, mainly journal articles, which I was actually fond of, when I started my slow obsession. Kovács is a good friend of Tarr’s, and has, according to himself, shared the manuscript with the filmmaker before publication. When I read this, I thought that it must be a good piece of work, given that Tarr himself had a look over it. I was proven wrong.

Kovács’s book encompasses Tarr’s entire oeuvre, from his early social realist films such as Family Nest (1977) and The Prefab People (1982) to his last two films The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011). The book starts off well. It begins with a chapter on Tarr himself, which I found to be very interesting in parts. I’ve read extensively on him in the last couple of years, but there were still a few bits and pieces here and there that slipped through or that never came up in the stuff that I had read. Kovács then kind of chronologically moves from Style in the Early Years to style in his later works with a seemingly comprehensive study of characters, camera movement and everything you can think of.

And this is the problem – everything you can think of. Kovács has tried to put literally everything into a 175 page book on the director. His analysis becomes more and more crammed toward the end, which made it extremely difficult to finish the book. He’s analysing eleven (slow!) films in roughly 150 pages, in all their details, of course. It feels as if Kovács didn’t want leave anything left for other people to write about. It feels as if he wrote this book in panic, which completely ruined the impression of Tarr’s films, which are the complete opposite of what I think Kovács has created in his book.

I was always wary of writing about Tarr (and now, Lav Diaz), because I was worried that writing about him would take away the essence of his works. I wasn’t entirely wrong. Kovács’ book is a good example of how not to tackle Tarr’s oeuvre. If you read the book before having seen any of this films, it would probably put you off. This is mainly because of the extensive quantitative analysis Kovács has undertaken. In detail, he describes how often the girl in The Turin Horse takes up sewing, and how often her father takes a drink before seeing the dying horse. In detail, he describes how the shot length has steadily increased within Sátántángo (1994), making it a tedious read full of numbers and information that make Tarr’s films sound more boring than anything else.

The problem is that Kovács has quantified Tarr’s style. He hasn’t managed to bring his films as such on paper. Kovács has put crude numbers and readings on paper that lack insight, which is astonishing giving their friendship. The reader is confronted with diagrams illustrating the “Rate of Moving Camera” or the ASL. Somewhere in this mix of numbers and diagrams, Kovács forgot to make the films look human in a way. There’s very little on the atmosphere in the films and the actual contents. Or even just the photographic beauty of the cinematography. I would have loved to see more insights, less detachment, less scientific analysis. Film is art, and while scientific analysis can be helpful, it is not the best way to conquer an entire oeuvre by one of the most prolific directors in arthouse cinema.

If you tell someone that Lav Diaz’s films are six hours long or more, they laugh at you. Only if you tell them what the films are about, they become curious. If you read Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr, they would be just as uninterested. If I hadn’t been familiar with Tarr’s work, this book would have put me off on page 50 already.

[The Cinema of Béla Tarr – The Circle Closes, by András Bálint Kovács, Columbia University Press, available on Amazon]