Waiting Time

The end of the year 2018 was, in France at least, a period in which the media focused on the subject of time. The quantity of things published was impressive and made me think about the possible reasons behind this seemingly mutual choice of journalists and podcasters alike. What happened in 2018 that became the trigger for a return to the subject of time and a reminder that time, as we know it, is an artificial construct?

It was, perhaps, Donald Trump and his presidency. In part, at least. An American president, impulsive, tweeting, can quickly take over the news. What I noticed last year is that it felt as though news faster than ever before. One tweet by a politician was enough to create a newsworthy item. Breaking news was the order of the day. Trump, Brexit – you name it. 2018 was characterised by immediacy, heightened by social media and people’s use of it for “news”. I don’t want to write a political post, albeit I could because there is so much to say about last year. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of time today. In an earlier post, I already wrote down my ideas on the theme of waiting, triggered by a blog post on the subject.

Today, I want to go into a bit more detail because I think that if we speak about Slow Cinema, we still don’t speak enough about the subject of time itself. Academics love to explain slow films with Bazin and Deleuze, but this approach has always felt incomplete, or even inadequate to me. It is Sylvain Piron, who, in his magnificent book L’occupation du monde, writes about, what he calls, an artificialisation of every part of society. This, I believe, can also be found in the debate on Slow Cinema. There is no natural conversation about it, but slow films are being explained by artificially constructed frameworks that we have created merely because we humans have to categorise everything in order to keep track of what is happening around us.

Prologue – Béla Tarr

The simple aspect we forget while creating artificial frameworks is that time is an illusion, a question of perspectives rather than a universal truth, as physicist Carlo Rovelli describes it in his new book on time. There is, he suggests, neither space nor time, but instead a continuous progression of processes. Not so long ago, I spoke of Sylviane Agacinski’s thought-provoking book Le passeur du temps, in which she argues that everything is always passing, is in constant transformation. Nothing remains the way you see it right in this very moment. In a second, it’s already different, which, as we may remember from previous readings and discussions, makes it difficult to define what the present moment is, because the present is fragile. If you speak about “the present”, it sounds like a stable temporal entity, but it’s the opposite. What’s present now, is already past in a nano second. So what does this say about time? Rovelli puts forward a pretty good argument. Reality, our reality, is merely a fragment. No one’s reality is the ultimate reality. We create those fragments in order to handle the world. He describes this process, in fact, as a way of blurring of what is around us. In order to contemplate the world as it is, we need to fragment it. We do this, for example, via time, and time is nothing but a marker of our unawareness, of our ignorance.

For Rovelli, time is primarily an emotional and psychological experience, which resonates so strongly with everything I have thought to express on this blog in relation to slow films. From the beginning, I have considered slow films as an experience, rather than as a sort of movement that is defined by frameworks, which tick certain boxes. I have reviewed over 250 films and have seen more without having (yet) written about them. If there is one thing that I have learned, then it is about the necessity of experiencing the films before one poses questions as to what they mean, why they are so slow or so long, and why the director didn’t cut at a specific point. Slow Cinema is, if I take the argument of Rovelli to heart (which I do), the perfect illustration of what time is: an experience, a passing experience, a continuous movement towards something – the end in most cases.

It is, I believe, this experience that we struggle with. In a fast-paced, knee-jerk epoch, are we still capable of truly experiencing something? In order to experience something, this something needs to last, and what actually still lasts? The 21st century, in particular, has cut short everything. Except, that is, for slow films. They last. Their duration allows us to experience, which can be a scary experience. Maybe this is why people say that they are bored. Perhaps they are just scared of letting something happen to them und use boredom as an easy way out. This something – it matters little what it essentially is as it is different for everyone – appears by itself, but one needs to wait for it. We spend so much of our lives waiting, we don’t even realise it anymore. It is so normal to wait for the bus that we no longer notice it as something out of the ordinary. Besides, as Reiner Niehoff and Sven Rücker explain in a three-part podcast series on waiting, everything is being done to make this period of waiting look and feel as though we are not waiting at all. Newspapers and journals in the GP practice, games on mobile phones while waiting for the bus or the metro. We keep ourselves busy all the time, even during periods of waiting.

Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd

Waiting, Niehoff and Rücker say, doesn’t have a quality in and of itself. Its goal is to end the period of waiting. What I found truly thought-provoking, even though it is so simple and easy to recognise that, precisely, I had never thought of it before, is that no one chooses to wait. Waiting is always imposed upon us. We have to endure it and we are at its mercy. This alone tells us why we struggle with waiting. Of course, we like to be in control, and if we are not, it makes us anxious, angry or simply uncomfortable. Whoever it is who makes us wait has power over us, because s/he plunges us into a hole of non-productivity. Remember that time is nothing but a psychological experience? In waiting, we can feel this most strongly.

Do you wait for the director to cut the scene? Do you wait for something to happen? Do you wait for the film to end? The key here is that we perceive a slow film as a form of waiting, and then we say “I don’t have time for this”. Some people might even say that the director shouldn’t steal or waste our time. At the same time, I consider waiting for something to happen in a slow film as the one way of waiting that is not imposed from the outside, but from the inside. Waiting is imposed on ourselves by ourselves, and we project this fear of waiting and our disappointment onto the director, who merely shows a passing experience without any obligations. Because we are, as Rovelli suggested, busy with “blurring” our surrounding, it becomes difficult to accept those films as they are. Instead, we consider them as time experiments, as a “tour de force”. People’s rejection of those films comes from their misconception of what time is, and I think that seeing the subject from a different angle might help them to find their way into the films one day.

Adam’s Passion, or What is cinema?

I can’t remember anymore in which context I saw the trailer for Adam’s Passion, a performance with music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and stage design by American Robert Wilson. The performance was advertised in German papers as a slow-motion performance, and after I saw the beautiful (!!!) trailer, I gave it a try. First of all, I must recommend it. It’s wonderful to look at. It’s also powerful, meaningful, and even though it’s slow, it’s very engaging.

Now, while watching Adam’s Passion, in particular the beginning when Adam (presumably) moves ever so slowly towards a tree branch (it takes him half an hour to do so!), I began to wonder what difference there was between was I was seeing right there and what I am currently watching for tao films, for instance. In effect, Adam’s Passion has, movement-wise, a lot in common with Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series. In the context of acting in Lav Diaz’s films, for instance, one often mentions the term “performance”, perhaps because of the films’ lengths.

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I have absolutely no idea where I’m going with this, and I could easily write utter nonsense. Yet considering the nature of Adam’s Passion I need to ask the famous Bazanian question: What is cinema? Very often, it is described in terms of motion. This is perhaps the only thing that sets cinema off still photography. Cinema is moving, it’s moving images. But what is theatre? What is a stage play? I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’m convinced that theatre is motion, too. Scenes are changing; actors and actresses may change their costumes; there is dialogue. Bodies move, the audience moves. Especially nowadays, the border between cinema and theatre is fluid when cinema houses broadcast theatre plays, which means there is at least one camera present during the play.

Except for the few shots where I could see the stage and the audience, there was absolutely no difference between a slow film and Adam’s Passion. Besides, it also had this certain something which only slow films create inside me (and which I still can’t describe). Combined with the stunning music of Arvo Pärt of whom I’m a great fan (although I try not to listen to him too often anymore because it depresses me – in a good way tho!), the performance appeared like an experimental film. This, I’m sure, was facilitated by the work of Robert Wilson, whose stage design was magnificent, and, indeed, cinematic.

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It reminded me on the famous description of cinema as “painting with light”. Can’t remember from the top of my head who referred to cinema in this way. In a way, Wilson did this with Adam’s Passion but on a stage. Isn’t a film set a stage?

I have long compared slow films to painting, pointing out that in classic Slow Cinema the camera is static and there is little to no movement in any given scene. Apart from those slight movements, there is no difference between painting, photography and slow film. Which is why I believe that many slow films should be shown in museums and galleries instead of in cinemas. The screening location sets expectations, and the cinema house raises the wrong expectations so that viewers get frustrated. The same viewers would have less problems sitting through a slow film while in a gallery, simply because the setting raises different expectations. Stasis and slowness are perfectly acceptable in galleries, and, I believe, also in theatres.

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In some ways, painting, photography and cinema are not the only three art forms where boundaries are blurred. Adam’s Passion made me see that theatre plays a big role in this, too. Or can do. It very much depends on how it is done, I suppose. And is Adam’s Passion even a theatre play? This performance posed so many questions I don’t have answers for. But the biggest question of all was “What is cinema?” I challenge the notion that cinema is movement, recorded by a video camera. Cinema is not a recorded scene with actors and actresses, and scene changes. It is not “painting with light”. All of this is Adam’s Passion, but no one would describe it as a film. I wonder whether it might not be time to rethink our definitions of the art forms we think we are critics of. Or, perhaps, all of these art forms are just one. It is art, so does the distinction between them, if there is any, even matter?

André Bazin 2.0

This post may be a bit of a rumble rather than a coherent line of thought. But I want to jot down a couple of thoughts that struck me while reading Bazin’s What Is Cinema? If you look through writing on Slow Cinema, Bazin and Deleuze seem to be the people to quote. Again, I suggest that this has something to do with frameworks and the belief that if you haven’t dug through and used those classic pieces, then you haven’t done your job properly. I’m fully aware of their contribution to film studies, yet I wonder just how applicable they are to today’s cinema and whether we should really still make heavy use of this literature.

It feels as though bits and pieces of Bazin’s work are used without looking at the whole work and how this applies to modern cinema. Just in the first five pages of The Ontology of the Photographic Image I find questionable arguments, and I know that this is one of the founding texts Film Studies uses when teaching students. The idea of ‘true realism’ through photography and cinema, i.e. through a mechanical eye, is at the heart of Bazin’s work and his arguments were possibly true at his time. But they are no longer applicable and should be considered as such when used in academic work.

Take this example: the essential factor of photography “lie[s] in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part.” (p12)

Even at Bazin’s time, man did play a part in photography. He mentions it in passing, in fact. But even though you have a mechanical recording machine, which makes us believe that the subsequent final product is objective, it is subjective and someone had his/her hand in the production of it. Now that we’re talking a lot about manipulation, which is as old as photography (and which I believe Bazin completely overlooked in his idealisation), we should re-evaluate Bazin’s argument here.

A second example: “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind.” (p13)

Again, Bazin glorifies the objectivity of photography without realising that he contradicts himself and notes precisely the point that makes photography subjective. First, he argues that man has no hand in the making of mechanical reproduction. Then, on the next page, he says that a photographer does “enter into the proceedings”. He writes that he does so “only” to select the object. Selection is already an interference and is the first step of subjectivity. What do you take a photo of? What do you not show? What angle do you choose? Bazin mentions a photographers “purpose” he has in mind while selecting the object of his photograph.

This defies objectivity. Every selection is a personal choice, which renders whatever we see in cinema or photography subjective. Bazin considers painting subjective because the painter had his hand in the production of the painting. I agree, painting is subjective. Yet, it is the result of only one hand, one painter. If we take cinema, the cameraman isn’t the only one who chooses what should be shown and how. There’s also the director, the producer, the editor etc etc

I always had problems to read Bazin. It’s my third attempt now and if it wasn’t for final touches on my thesis, I would give up again. It’s contradicting, and certainly not applicable to today’s times. I wonder what he would say about the World Press Photographs, those which have been manipulated. I’m not only speaking of digital manipulation. Photographs and films, just like paintings, are, especially in the arthouse section, often an expression of the artist’s inner feelings. How can this be objective?

As soon as you put a lens between you and the real world, you have a mediation. No mechanical recording mechanism can and will ever record reality. Reality can only be lived and seen with our own eyes. Things may feel real, but they’re not, and this is the main fault in Bazin’s work, because he doesn’t seem to acknowledge this.

For a new cinema

In one way of another, you may have heard of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s now rather famous book For a New Novel, which was published in its original French version in 1963. Robbe-Grillet worked with Alain Resnais on the film Last Year at Marienbad, the script of which was what he then called “a new novel”.

If you take Marienbad as an example, there appear to be little to no similarities between Resnais’ film and Slow Cinema. Marienbad is slow, but it is formally too complex to count as Slow Cinema. There is, however, more to the nouveau roman, which does make a link to Slow Cinema possible. In some ways, I’d even go as far as saying that Robbe-Grillet anticipated Slow Cinema in some ways. First of all, the majority of his book For a New Novel contains short essays, commentaries in fact, that are written by an angry author after the repeated rejection of his works. It is a defense, in a way, and while his arguments are valid for many arthouse filmmakers out there, some aspects are, I find, specifically relevant to Slow Cinema.

For instance, Slow Cinema is always and wherever you look compared to neo-realism. It sometimes seems as if Slow Cinema is neo-realist. This comes mainly from the repeated links to Italian films of the time and the writings of André Bazin. Indeed, the aesthetics of the film may be found in Italian neo-realism, but this doesn’t mean that the directors deliberately attempt to re-create what Italian directors have produced. Moreover, the focus on neo-realism whose aesthetics can be found in Slow Cinema does not acknowledge the directors’ own work; their background, their intentions, etc Robbe-Grillet pointed out that comparing a musician today with a famous composer from the 19th century was impossible. He rejects the term “like” in a comparison.

This “like” is used time and again in the context of Slow Cinema, which is supposedly like Italian neo-realism. An important point that is forgotten, however, and that Robbe-Grillet explains in more detail, is that something cannot be like another thing. If Slow Cinema was “like” neo-realism, it would have had to be made in post-war Italy. A 21st century slow film cannot be like a neo-realist film, because it was made under different circumstances. Therefore, the first important point we learn from Robbe-Grillet is that Slow Cinema isn’t like, it purely is. This partly explains my reluctance to use traditional theory, because they’re mainly used to create a likeness between one film and something that has already been there.

Anyway, when I now speak of the similarities between the aesthetics of the French nouveau roman and the aesthetics of Slow Cinema, I risk creating likeness. This is not my intention, but happens because of a lack of words really.

Robbe-Grillet’s book contains a chapter on Time and Description in Fiction today. There is a concern apparent about the speed with which the narrative is pushed forward. He does, in fact, make reference to the good old way of thinking that cinema is better because it can represent something in seconds that a book describes in dozens of pages. He rejects the impatience of the readers, who strive for a quick-fix of entertainment. Truth be told, I started reading one of Robbe-Grillet’s books, Jealousy. If there is something like Slow Cinema in book form, then this is it. It is terribly slow, and the narrative appears somewhat stagnant. The reason is his detailed description of the environment, of the mise-en-scène in cinematic terms, which slows down the narrative progression. Unless I have lost the plot, the characters are still doing the same thing on page 31 as they did on page 1. This is unusual for a novel. I like Russian novels, the classics, all of which contain elaborate descriptions and are fairly slow in their progression. But Robbe-Grillet puts it to an extreme.

Description of the mise-en-scène is the classmark of the nouveau roman. The result is slowness. As Robbe Grillet says, “But in the modern narrative, time seems to be cut off from its temporality. It no longer passes. It no longer completes anything.” If the term “description” is the wrong word for Slow Cinema, because nothing is described as such in words by a narrator, then it is the fact that slow films give time its temporality back that counts most. The films let time pass. They do this by lingering long-takes, by temps mort, and by long shots that allow for contemplation.

The curious thing that occurs with Slow Cinema, as opposed to the nouveau roman, is that nothing is explained in words. However, the long-takes provide the spectator with enough time to study the mise-en-scène in detail. The description of the mise-en-scène is visual, silent and occurs in the viewer’s head. If you were to read a book by Alain Robbe-Grillet, you would find it difficult to see a link to Slow Cinema. But once you remove the written descriptions and replace them with visuals in your head, you arrive at something that strongly resembles a slow film à la Béla Tarr or Lav Diaz. In effect, in Diaz’s Heremias Book I, for instance, the narrative is often halted by extensive visual “descriptions”, a detailed study of the landscape, of light, of nature. As a result, Heremias’ story progresses rather slowly.

No, Slow Cinema isn’t like the French nouveau roman. But Robbe-Grillet’s works are rather interesting in the context of slow films.