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…

Arresting trauma – Martti Helde’s In The Crosswinds (2014)

“On the night of 14 June 1941, more than 40,000 innocent people were deported from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The aim of this secret operation – done on Stalin’s orders – was to ethnically cleanse the Baltic countries of their native peoples.”

In the context of my research into the representation of post-trauma in the films of Lav Diaz, I have published a few posts here on this blog, which equally dealt with the subject. There is, first of all, a rather personal account of my dealing with PTSD and how Slow Cinema helped me to become more mindful. There is also an article on the link between Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory. In fact, throughout my research and my trying to come to terms with my own experience, I have realised that trauma research focuses almost exclusively on the aspect of speed (as mentioned in my PhD thesis). There is little doubt that life after trauma is different. Anxiety and panic introduce an aspect of speed to one’s life that seemingly spirals out of control. But there is also an aspect that tends to be forgotten: an aspect of duration and slowness. It can take a while before post-trauma, for instance, manifests itself in the body/psyche. Traumatic memories return over and over again, a circular repetition that makes the actual post-trauma life seem endless. You can read more about the aspect of slowness in the context of trauma in my thesis.

In my thesis, I have argued that Diaz’s use of absence and long duration effectively (and affectively!) represents post-trauma without ever showing the traumatic event that has led to the character’s suffering. What matters is the time spent on the character and on his/her suffering. Quite some time ago, I have come across an Estonian film, which I rewatched yesterday and I cannot not write about this film. Perhaps, it is not a traditional, straightforward slow film, and yet it is a film that uses slowness, duration and absence for a representation of post-trauma (or trauma-in-the-making), but in a completely different way.

The film begins with white letters on a black screen. There is no sound. The quietness reinforces the meaning of the dates and numbers that characterise the deportation of over 40,000 innocent people. Filmmaker Martti Helde sets a historical context and explains that his film In The Crosswinds (2014) is based on letters written by Erna Tamm, who had been writing to her husband from whom she was separated during the deportation. For me, Crosswinds stands out as a remarkable experiment on how trauma can be represented on screen without turning it into a spectacle, which is always an ethical problem filmmakers have to negotiate. There is one characteristic in which Diaz’s and Helde’s representation of traumatic events are similar: the directors’ use of absence. Neither Diaz nor Helde show traumatic events on screen. Even though Helde does focus on the actual deportation, his approach to its representation allows for empty space that needs to be filled by the spectator. Atrocities such as mass killings and rape are not shown on screen. Helde shows the before and after, or a voice over informs us about the traumatic event. Yet, the director positions us, confusingly, within the traumatic event without showing all the terrible details, all the while making sure that we cannot be mistaken about what’s really happening.

“Heldur, time has taken on another dimension. The temporary has passed. We measure time by the news that reaches us. That way the days and weeks seem shorter.”

All of this might sound like films I have spoken about before in the context of slowness and trauma. And yet, Crosswinds stands out in one specific way, and it addresses several themes I have mentioned on this blog before. The film has, in fact, two sides to it. Each follows its own temporality, its own aesthetic. Let’s begin with flashbacks, memories of the good times, times before the start of the deportation. The film starts in greyscale. A voice over says, “I received your letter. I’m in your homeland.” The camera, with its beautiful and graceful movements, explores a backyard. There is a blooming apple tree, Erna sorting the laundry. Inside the house, we see her, her husband Heldur and her daughter Eliide having breakfast. The sun is shining. It’s a wonderful image of peace. They talk to one another, but the viewer is excluded from their conversation. Helde silences the voices and focuses instead on ambient sound in order to reinforce this image of quietude and peace. These times of before return once or twice during the film. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the deportation, the journey to and life in Siberia, and the struggles of the deported to survive.

The deportation set something in motion that one would call traumatisme in French. The English language doesn’t have a clear-cut distinction between the traumatic event and the psychological reaction. Not all traumatic events lead to PTSD, albeit PTSD is the only term that makes it absolutely clear that you’re speaking about something post trauma. In Helde’s film, the impact of trauma (the event) is represented on screen by a literal arrest, a stoppage of time and of movement. Crosswinds is a film, in which, in the majority of scenes, characters do not move. They’re standing still, arrested in certain positions while the camera circles around them. It feels as though you’re walking through a haunted past, photographs that have arrested the atrocities committed on Stalin’s orders. It is as though the deported are put to rest (albeit not in a good way). When Erna’s family is arrested, we don’t see the actual arrest. Helde places all three characters on the back of a lorry, sitting still, watching in fear. The soundscape tells us that officers smash glass in the family house. But only the sound tells us of this violent attack. There is no image of it. When the lorry arrives at the local train station, the camera circles around hundreds of to-be-deported people: children, women, men, old and young, rich and poor. There seemed to have been no one who was spared. Everyone on the platform stands as though arrested. The violent scenes we know from Holocaust cinema, in which the spectator is confronted with crying children, begging mothers, shots in the air, forceful commands etc are not present here. What happens instead is that life comes to a halt. Trauma arrests time. Trauma disrupts the continuation of time towards the future. It’s a ghostly atmosphere. It is as though the people on the train platform are already dead, still, stiff, a mere memory of the past (to get a better idea of what I’m speaking of you should watch this scene!).

“We’re prisoners of nature. I wonder if there have ever been any prisoners with so much space that you long for boundaries.”

Crosswinds focuses on Erna’s story, her attempt at survival, the tragic loss of Eliide, who became weaker by the day. Starvation is rampant. So are diseases. Erna’s daughter is one of many who survive the deportation, but not life in Siberia. In a voice over, we’re told that of the 51 women in Erna’s train waggon, 42 made it to the destination. One mother killed herself and her child on the journey.

Every woman is expected to work. They chop wood day in day out, in freezing temperatures with little food that is not even enough for a child. Erna strikes up a friendship with Hermiine, but even she cannot protect Erna from sexual assault and rape in exchange for a loaf of bread. The camera is constantly in movement. It is as free as the camera in Béla Tarr’s films, but its function is different in Crosswinds. Helde’s camera is searching for something or someone. It is always looking for something, not knowing what it would find. There are a lot of empty frames which the camera uses as a cue to keep moving, to keep looking. Here again it might be worth returning to my post about the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in order to see how a film can be created in such a way that it appears to have its own mind, its own ways of thinking. Apart from ZerkaloCrosswinds stands out as the other great example of this.

It takes almost fifty minutes before we see Heldur again, separated from his wife on the platform. Because of Erna’s letter, we learn that the men were deported into another direction. Whereto – this isn’t mentioned at all, but those with knowledge about the war have an idea of what this means. Heldur, dressed almost in rags, head shaven, stands in front of a table behind which three Soviet officers are seated. Helde let’s us guess that this is a make-shift tribunal where Heldur is sentenced to death. The camera spins around the room, while everything else is in arrest. This sequence of scene is the clearest in which the film’s aesthetics represent the action on screen. The non-movement, the two-fold arrest of Heldur (as a prisoner and as a character who doesn’t move), the ghostly images, foreshadow his fate. His non-movement means nothing other than his death.

“Because what is freedom worth if you have to pay for it with solitude?”

It takes the death of Stalin for Erna to be able to return to Estonia. Although she had promised Heldur that she would try to find him after the war, she no longer has any idea of where to look for. “Maybe below the soil?” Erna’s words are poignant, and it took her 47 years to learn that her husband had been murdered. What remains are still, arresting and arrested images of the past that continue to haunt. Because of their stillness, the images Helde has created stay with you. The long duration of the scenes, the stillness of the image, the haunting (visual) absence of atrocities all contribute to a remarkable film experience that, to me, represents perhaps most adequately the post trauma.

The Sacrifice – Andrei Tarkovsky (1986)

“Humanity is on the wrong road.”

Andrei Tarkovsky’s ultimate film, The Sacrifice, released in the year of the director’s death, is perhaps one of his bleakest films. Once more, I see a steady development towards an end; the end of a filmmaking career, a sophisticated development of ideas about the world and Man, a progress towards putting finishing touches on one’s oeuvre. I have seen this before with the final films of Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011) and Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs, 2013). Sacrifice fits very much into this line as a sort of film that makes a final statement, a film that is, in parts, a recollection, a reminder, but also an outlook to the extent that there will be other filmmakers who will pick up on this and continue the story.

It was the second time I have attempted to watch Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. I didn’t finish it the first time. It’s funny to say this now, but the film felt incredibly slow. More difficult to watch than longer slow films. I tried it again yesterday, years later, now with a good number of slow films of all sorts under my belt, and it still remains one of the slowest films I have seen! And indeed, my husband agrees that The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s slowest film. The running time of just over two hours is nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, and, above all, nothing that I haven’t sat through before. Yet, this feeling of slowness was heavier than in other films I have seen. There is a real weight to The Sacrifice, which slows down the film, a weight that goes beyond the running time, beyond the usual aesthetics for slow films. It is a weight, which (slowly) creeps up on the viewer through the various, countless, daring monologues and dialogues.

This is one aspect, which made The Sacrifice a challenging film; the often highly sophisticated monologues that ask you to ponder, to reflect, perhaps even to respond, cannot be taken lightly. You cannot not react to them. You cannot not think about them. Tarkosvky forces you to be engaged in discussing humanity’s failure, Man’s shortcomings, our desire for destruction. “Savages are more spiritual than us. As soon as we have a scientific breakthrough, we put it into the service of evil”, says Alexander, the main protagonist, who has, according to himself, a non-existing relationship to God, but who pleads with God to save his family from the coming nuclear war. In return, he offers to destroy his house, to give up on his family, on Little Man (his son), and he promises to never say a word again: “if only God takes away this animal fear.”

Silence – another important factor in The Sacrifice. Despite the number of thought-provoking monologues throughout the film, Tarkovsky has created a very quiet film. We can hear suspected war planes flying above the beautiful house, built right at the coast. At some point we can hear a television set. And yet, The Sacrifice is, very much like The Mirror and Nostalghia, a quiet film, almost silent, which, I know, sounds contradictory, but I believe this is precisely what the director was going for: to create a discrepancy, a contradiction that confuses the viewer, confused like the characters are once the imminent nuclear war is announced on television. The end is near… Otto, the postman, a good friend of Alexander, says early on in the film: “One shouldn’t be waiting for something.” Waiting – this is perhaps the essence of The Sacrifice.

Waiting for something that you know is going to come without knowing when it’s going to hit you. This is very much the point Lav Diaz makes in several of his films, perhaps most evidently in Melancholia (2008). Three rebel fighters are stuck in the jungle. They’re the remaining fighters of a larger group, the rest of which has been killed already. The island they’re on has been surrounded. They know what’s coming for them, but they don’t know when. It’s psychological warfare, a very effective type that, as Diaz shows, can drive people to insanity. What is the origin of this insanity? Fear. But fear of what? Alexander says, “There is no death. There is fear of death, and it’s a terrible feeling. If only we could stop fearing death.” The Sacrifice is a film about fear. It is a film about the unseen, about the feared; about a nothing that is full of something, namely danger; about the question of what it means to fear death, to mourn your life in advance.

Waiting, silence, heaviness – these are the three main elements that contribute to the exceptional experienced slowness. But there is something else that struck me when I saw the film, already when I saw it for the first time. The Sacrifice could also well be filmed theatre. Fittingly, it is pointed out pretty early on that Alexander used to be a theatre actor. He received a birthday card from former colleagues. All interior scenes, set in Alexander’s family home, feel like a filmed stage, a theatre stage. The set-up as well as the movement and the behaviour of the actors and actresses contributes to the feeling of seeing a stage play in front of you. Often, the speaking person walks towards the camera as do theatre actors/actresses often do, too. There is a theatricality to the film that, to me, supports the idea of a major psychological breakdown going on in the film.

Yet, after all, after the passing of the imminent danger, after the breakdown of Alexander’s wife out of sheer fear, after the ominous remark of postman Otto that only Maria (the servant) could help prevent the apocalypse, after all of this, there is one thing that remains: the circularity of life. Nothing ever stops. Everything continues, in one way or another. Alexander pleads with God and promises never to speak again. His son, Little Man, as he lovingly calls him, is mute throughout the film. It isn’t revealed why. There is vague talk of an operation, but Tarkovsky never fully clarifies this. What matters is that when Alexander falls silent, Little Man begins to speak. “At the beginning was the word. Why is that, papa?”

Continuity, circularity – everything continues, everything circulates, nothing ever stops, despite sacrifices by one man. Life goes on. If you leave something, someone else will pick it up and continue the work. It is as though Tarkovsky, dying of cancer at the time, sent us a message with this film: when he is gone, someone else will continue the work he has been doing. Perhaps not in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, his work will continue, and so it did with the likes of Béla Tarr, in particular. But also Lav Diaz continues the work Tarkovsky had started in the 1960s. And it will be continued by many more filmmakers from around the world.

The filmind in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo

What follows are bits and pieces from an article I drafted six years ago about the Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo and Daniel Frampton’s filmind. At the time, I approached several scholars with some thoughts on the issue and have been met with hostility. Scholars were not open to it, found it ridiculous even or plainly told me that everything that needs to be said about Tarkosvky has been said. The result was that the draft I’m copying from for this blog post ended up in a cardboard box never to be touched again, half way forgotten until I rewatched the film on a big screen. When I reread the draft, I was struck by its focus on memory and trauma, which I was to develop in full in my PhD. Personally, that was interesting to see. I found the roots, or at least some roots of my PhD.

So let me begin by explaining Frampton’s filmind, a concept which he developed in his book Filmosophy. Hugo Münsterberg already noted in his essay The Photoplay – A psychological Study (1916)“The photoplay obeys the laws of the mind rather than those of the outer world.” In a similar vein, Frampton considers film a thinking being, albeit he never actually equalises man and film. In fact, he stresses that film thinking is different from human thinking because first, it thinks in a different world (a film-world), and, second, it thinks in other dimensions. He grounds his arguments on complex research into previous suggestions by philosophers, psychologists and film theorists that there is a connection between film and the human mind.

The filmind is the origin and source of all images and sounds. It creates and designs the film world, it makes decisions, and “serves itself, the drama, its characters, its narrator, or even an outside force other than just itself” (Frampton, 2006: 81). Every action we encounter is the direct result of dramatic film-thinking. It visualises ideas, feelings and emotions, which distinguishes it from human thinking. Frampton speaks of three types of film thinking: 1) basic film thinking (general design, b/w or colour, places objects and characters into film world); 2) formal film thinking (adds movement, framing, speed, angles etc); 3) fluid film thinking (special effects and distortions). Basic and formal film thinking are always closely related; fluid film thinking is not present in every film. It’s presence depends on the overall purpose of said film.

Frampton gave film a hitherto unacknowledged human feature, and therefore releases it from the constraints of contemporary film analysis. If film is capable of thinking, if we assume that it possesses its own mind, then it is likewise capable of recollecting and remembering past events. I will explore the existence of the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in the following paragraphs and will look specifically at narrative construction, the use of colour, speed and sound. I will also demonstrate its ability to commemorate certain events. Again, this was written 6 years ago, but I now see very strong links to my later work concerning film and its ability to help commemorate and help start the healing process, both for the viewer and of the director.

Director Tarkovsky wrote in his book Sculpting in Time: “It occurred to me then, that from these properties of memory a new working principle could be developed, on which an extraordinarily interesting film might be built…It would be the story of [the hero’s] thoughts, memories and dreams…without his appearing at all.” (2008:29)

His autobiographical film Mirror was released in 1975, condemned as artistic failure in the USSR, acclaimed in the West. Following his idea of creating a new type of film, Mirror is a cinematic treatment of memory recollection through dream sequences and archive footage that trace the past of a dying man. It shows memories from his childhood prior to the Second World War, from his adolescence but it also reveals past-time experiences of Soviet society.

The filmind obscures past and present events, and makes the first visible in that it deliberately undertakes an act of remembering, which, as Biró stresses in her book Turbulence and Flow in Film, is an intentional “attempt to recapture the past.” (2008: 84) The obscurity of it derives from its possibility to visualise memory in its purest form; twisted and conjured, expressed through a mixture of colour palettes and, often enough, a change of paces of past events.

The thought of narrative

The first point I would like to discuss is Mirror’s narrative structure as part of an act of remembering. Sutton writes that “a temporal asymmetry is built in to autobiographical memory, in that (again) we are inevitably realist about the past, conceiving of past events as being all, in principle, integratable on a single temporal sequence” (2010). We therefore attach more “significance to specific events, so that our temporal orientation is by particular times rather than simply by rhythm or places.” (Ibid)

Mirror covers three distinct time spans; the mid-1930s, the time of the Second World War and the present day, presumably set in the 1970s. A direct translation from memory to moving image, Mirror juxtaposes scenes from all three times without giving clear signposts as to what era we find ourselves in. As Biró emphasises, signposts in form of intertitles, change of camera angle or a switch to a dramatic movement in music were inevitable at the age of silent films and early classic Hollywood productions. But, as she also points out, the lack of signposts in today’s films opens up a playful approach to linear narrative structure (2008:93). At the same time, it allows for a breaking of the cinematic spell in that it forces the filmgoer to actively interact with the elements he is presented with. Driven by unconscious frustration, he is required to arrange the plot elements chronologically and fill in gaps in order to create a solid story and thus achieve satisfaction from the narrative. Furthermore, for Tarkovsky, it is a step towards reality. In his book he poses the question of how it would be possible to “reproduce what a person sees within himself, all his dreams, both sleeping and waking.” (2008: 71) His answer is as simple as it is effective. The reproduction of a dream, or a memory, must be the exact copy of the natural phenomenon. Therefore, his filmind moves along the same asymmetric way as part of a journey in its inside.

Except for the very last scene, the filmind’s journey into the protagonist’s memories starts and ends in the present to establish a framework for the Here and Now. It also reveals what triggers the memories: Alexei, the protagonist, whose lack of physical presence allows for substituting his mind with a filmind which takes the journey for him, lies on his deathbed. His son Ignat turns on the TV and we become witness of a young adult liberated from his stuttering through séance. It is an allegory to the already mentioned cinematic spell, which, too, is broken through first paralysing the filmgoer due to its different nature, then bringing him back into reality.

What follows is a hardly clear-cut childhood memory of the protagonist, which again opens up a debate of the existence of a filmind. Maria sits on a fence outside her house looking across a field. A doctor approaches from afar and asks for the right way to Tomshino. He flirts with her, but his compliments fall on deaf ears. Maria rejects his advances, threatening to call her husband. Seeing that she doesn’t wear a ring, however, the doctor assumes she isn’t married at all. When he asks her for a cigarette, she turns around and watches her two children sleeping in a hammock. One of them is Alexei, the protagonist. His apparent inability to observe the situation prevents the filmgoer from connecting this memory with Alexei. It cannot be part of his memory, but that of a filmind, which takes over as an omniscient mind to broaden the perspective of the time. Frampton writes that “Integral to the power of the filmind is its knowledge of the whole – its transcendence” (2006: 84) and it can therefore visualise the memories not only of one character, but of an ensemble of characters.

A further example is young Asafiev, a boy of Alexei’s age, who, after having thrown a deceptively real hand grenade into the firing range, is expelled from the place and leaves to climb up a small hill to look over the range. Having reached the top, a bird lands on his hat. Meanwhile, Alexei, as the protagonist, is still undertaking the shooting practice. He would have been unable to see, and therefore, remember the bird on Asafiev’s hat. Once again, it is the filmind with its knowledge of the whole, which gives us access to that specific memory.

Likewise, the role of the newsreel images is vital as part of an omniscient presence. They are less an expression of personal memory, but that of a communal remembrance of a whole country. The first are almost violently interrupted by the latter in form of historical archive footage, which – contrary to the film’s structure – unravels in chronological order. Just as the film is set in separate times, so are the archival images. The pre-Second World War time shows images from the Spanish Civil War, a record-breaking Soviet balloon ascent as well as the successful flight over the North Pole by Valery Chkalov in 1937. The next set of footage includes the crossing of Lake Sivash in 1943, the liberation of Prague two years later and the iconic image of the Hiroshima bomb.

All events result in either personal tragedy, as for example in the death of the balloon crew during their ascent, or one for a country, as it was the case with Spain and Japan. This is striking in that it expresses (a) haunted soul(s) as much as an imperative feature of memory; the tendency to remember events with a high emotional attachment more vividly than any other collected memory. Ochsner draws attention to the still valid hypothesis that “emotion will increase the distinctiveness with which an event is encoded in memory” (2000: 244) and that this distinctiveness is dependent on the amount of attributes available (Ibid). The newsreel images, illustrations of collective memory (see The Thought of Memory for further analysis), intensify the act of remembering because they arouse powerful, emotional attributes; pride and triumph, loss and sadness.

Due to its fragmented structure, Mirror opposes the classic narrative cinema, which Hayward defines as “made up of motivated signs that lead the spectator through the story to its inevitable conclusion.” (2003: 46) The reason for this is Mirror’s similarity to the act of remembering. Memories are often recalled in fragments, which are neither in a clear temporal order nor with an apparent causality. Thus, the act of remembering seems to stand in stark contrast to a narrative.

Bordwell and Thompson give an illustration of the effect of the absence of both in a conventional narrative sense: “All the components of our definition – causality, time, and space – are important to narratives in most media, but causality and time are central. A random string of events is hard to understand as a story. Consider the following actions: ‘A man tosses and turns, unable to sleep. A mirror breaks. A telephone rings.’ We have trouble grasping this as a narrative because we are unable to determine the causal or temporal relations among the events.” (2008: 75)

Causality and temporal order are vital for a conventional narrative. Thus, in the early days of classic Hollywood cinema plot and story were alike. Films like Welles’ Citizen Kane, however, challenged this pursuit in providing the filmgoer mainly with a plot and it was his or her task to create a story by rearranging the fragments into a temporal order and hence establish causality.

Fragmented memories are akin to a plot, which doesn’t have an obvious narrative until, if needed and wanted, the remembering person puts them into a broader context of causality. As part of his intention to stick as close to the natural processes of memory, Tarkovsky structured Mirror through fragmented plot elements with an apparent absence of causality, and in so doing comes strikingly close to the real act of remembering.

How it differs is in the filmind’s capacity to “think the slow fast, the loose tight, the small large, the loud quiet, the tame violent, and the mythic real.” (Framton, 2006: 81) Furthermore, as already mentioned above, the filmind is additionally capable of thinking in specific colour palettes depending on its intentions towards characters or its overall aim. Accordingly, I would like to focus on three major formal points of Tarkovsky’s Mirror with respect to Frampton’s proposition; the thought of colour, speed and the thought of sound.

The thought of colour

The filmind remembers the different times dealt with through a specific use of colour palettes; something a human mind does not do. Frampton emphasises that “some of the most thoughtful moods of film are felt through colour. Simply put, the filmind can feel the drama to be a certain colour…” (Ibid)

Generally speaking, in the film memories are indicated through the use of black and white or sepia. These account specifically for the pre-war time, when Alexei was still a young child and his mother Maria was left behind by her husband. It is also true for Maria’s own memories and for the three dream sequences we encounter. Likewise, the archival images are monochrome. Contrary to this, most of the scenes in modern times are tinted in colour. It is vital, however, to bear in mind that “this is not always the case. Lack of colour stock meant that Tarkovsky had to film certain scenes, such as Alexei and Natalya’s last conversation in the flat, in monochrome, while the first scene after the credits, clearly a memory, is in colour.” (Martin, 2011: 120)

The act of remembering in Mirror is repeatedly linked to a feeling of loss and sadness, which continues to affect Alexei in the present. Consequently, the filmind tints all events set in the present in dull colours so as to underline both the protagonist’s detachment from his wife and his mother and, subsequent to his failing health, a lack of spirit.

The thought of speed

The filmind decelerates a considerable amount of movements in Alexei’s and Maria’s memories. Frampton points out that “slow-motion is a thinking of utter importance, brought in when a significant moment has the power to extend itself.” (2006: 124) One particular example is that of Maria running along the aisles in the printing house. Nervousness and rush are slowed down, the filmind lengthens the memorable episode. For Bordwell and Thompson, slow motion, linked to past events, is used “to express a lyrical quality.” (2008: 167) Biró goes further than that. She links back to French philosopher Bachelard, for whom lingering, caused, among others by slow-motions, as “a form of vacillation (…) [that] requires a pause before the momentous step is taken so as to consider the moment’s challenges, its contingencies and the weight of the decision.” (2008: 34)

Mirror is a combination of both definitions, dependent on the type of past events the filmind remembers. Exemplary for Bordwell’s lyrical quality is a memory near the end of the film. Alexei’s father looks towards us. Then he turns around to stroke the hand of Maria. Instead of laying in bed, however, Maria levitates over it. In addition, Alexei recounts a recurrent dream. He is outside the old dacha, but is unable to enter it. The door opens several times and yet he seems to be prevented from entering by a mystic force.

As indicated above, slow motion can equally express another, more challenging type of memory, illustrated, for instance, with Maria’s memory following her phone call to Alexei to tell him that her former co-worker Liza has died.

Maria dreamed of having made a mistake in her proofreading. She returns to the printing house to check the proofreading once again. This scene not only poses a challenge to Maria, but also to her co-workers, who are frightened of a mistake in a very important edition of the paper, and who also realise the weight of an error as they had been printing all night, which would have made a correction impossible.

Despite some memories being expressed in slow motion, lingering, as Bachelard describes it, is not exclusively tied to that form. The use of long takes as opposed to choppy cutting is another form of deceleration and therefore a demonstration of lingering, which can reinforce the challenges posed. A striking proof is Alexei’s memory of a hand grenade being thrown into the firing range during military instruction. The instructor throws himself on it. He lies in a foetal position covering the hand grenade and a bald patch on his head – presumably a scar from the war – reveals his increasing pulse rate, until Asafiev, the child who kept violating instructions, admits that the hand grenade is nothing but a dummy.

Just as Biró emphasised, this specific memory exemplifies that lingering opens challenges (a hand grenade in a firing range full of children), contingencies (Does the grenade go off? Will the instructor die?), and it brings decisions to the surface (The instructor chooses to sacrifice his life). It is here that the filmind expresses a memorable event by slowing it down in order to transmit the very danger of the situation, the fear and anxiety.

In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera takes up the issue of speed and memory, referring to mathematics: “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting…In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” (1996: 34-35)

Slowness is an expression of intensity. By enlarging the characters’ spatial and temporal awareness, the filmind defines the degree of suffering, despair and agitation.

The thought of sound

However, the filmind cannot only think the fast slow. It equally does so with sounds; asynchronous to the image or, in other situations, it accentuates them and excludes all other surrounding noises. The partially frightening memory of Maria’s washing her hair with the help of Alexei’s father is exemplary of the exclusion of noise. While seemingly enclosed in absolute silence, the filmind remembers clearly two distinct sounds: the hoot of an owl at night and the sound of water every time Maria puts her hands in, washes her hair and, in getting up, causes water dripping from her hair into the big basin underneath her. Here, the memory of sound and image is synchronous as both occur in slow motion. A contrast to this is the already mentioned memory of Maria’s in the printing house. Again, the filmind excludes all surrounding noises, apart from two distinct sounds: the sound of footsteps on the stone floor while Maria herself and Liza walk down the aisles. Both sound and image memory are synchronous. As soon as both walk past the printing machines, however, the filmind merely stresses the almost deafening noise of the machines and hence emphasises the turmoil Maria is in, supposing she made the mistake she had visualised at night. It is reinforced by opposing the slow motion visuals with the normal-paced rhythm of the machines.

In addition, Frampton stresses that “filmosophy finds a thinking of (…) danger, a feeling, through sound, of danger – either thinking the character’s emotions or thinking its own knowledge.” (2006: 120) Therefore, it is the filmind that takes over the memory of the incident in the firing range. The drill instructor throws himself on the hand grenade, awaiting its explosion. Once again, all other sounds are minimised. The filmind but discloses the instructor’s heartbeat to aurally display his anxiety and consequently thinks the immediate danger (again, this cannot be Alexei’s memory, as it’s a personal feeling of the instructor). It is exemplary of the filmind’s ability to transmit the “selective, perceptive thinking of a character’s subjectivity.” (Frampton, 2006: 121) In this particular memory, again the filmind doesn’t express the protagonist’s mind, but more accurately it bears the instructor’s near-death experience.

Perceptive thinking is, as slowness, an indication for a memory’s intensity. In filtering the sound of the heartbeat from all other irrelevant sounds, the filmind accentuates the almost unbearable loudness of life in an ostensibly fatal situation.

The thought of memory

Mirror’s filmind embodies what is called autobiographical memory. As demonstrated above, the filmind acts as a catalyst of individual recollections from the past and in so doing makes the absent present. Conway and Rubin highlight that “event specific knowledge [a level of autobiographic memory] tends to take the form of images, feelings, and highly specific details indicating the retention of sensory details of objects and actions in a general event.” (1994: 107) Reasonably, through the thought of colour, selective sound and the alteration of slowness and normal-paced rhythms the filmind visualises fragmented memory traces of a character.

At the same time, it can prompt collective memory in an attempt to portray the circumstances and conditions of Soviet society, linking all characters by supplying a socio-historical framework they share. Engel suggests: “Another way we learn about distant and historically significant events is by internalizing the memories of others. (…) You either remember an event as a participant, from within the middle of it, or you remember it from the perspective of an observer, on the edge of the scene.” (1999: 151)

The filmind is able to inhabit the role of the observer due to its transcendental nature. We have seen previously that transcendence permits the revelation of personal memories of an ensemble of characters. In addition, as the newsreel images disclose, it allows for access to historical events as part of collective memory. The filmind exposes, what McAdams calls nuclear scenes: “Our lives are punctuated by certain incidents – some of them seemingly critical or formative and others seemingly mundane – which we draw upon to define who we are, who we were, and perhaps who we are to become…They may entail private moments or a shared experience with an entire community.” (in Pillemer, 1998: 40)

The newsreel images the filmind employs have two specific purposes. First, it connects the characters in providing images of collective Soviet memory. The successful crossing of the North Pole by Chkalov was a moment of Soviet pride as well as the balloon ascent in the race for the conquest of the sky against America. And even though most of the soldiers died in the crossing of Lake Sivash, it is yet another symbol of a proud nation because it demonstrates the period of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. The filmind’s utilization of these images not only acts as a linkage between the characters, but it also links them to history instead of seeing them as separate entities.

Second, and most strikingly of all, the filmind expands this linkage to people around the world and therefore also to the filmgoer. It goes beyond the creation of a collective memory for Soviet society and shows newsreel images, which form a global collective memory, including the filmgoer as (and invites him to be) an active participant in recollecting and remembering the celebrations at the end of the Second World War, the extortionate destruction the nuclear bomb brought over Hiroshima and Mao’s revolution in China. In so doing, the filmind doesn’t leave the filmgoer as a passive spectator behind, but instead includes him indirectly in the film-world as he is strongly bonded with the characters in the process of remembering.

Frampton’s filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo

After all, there remains one crucial question to answer. If the existence of a filmind in Tarkovsky’s Mirror seems to be an obvious fact in my analysis, does it serve as a demonstration that all films are steered by a filmind?

The answer is twofold. Frampton theorized the concept of filmosophy to “reveal the complexity of film” (2006: 108) in an attempt to “organicise rather than technicise the filmgoer’s experience of cinema.” (Ibid., 106-107) His concept aims for a more liberated way of seeing films and thus for a proposition the filmgoer can either accept or reject. He describes the framework of filmind and film-thinking as a “conceptual ladder, to be climbed and then kicked away…it is a decision by filmgoers whether to use this concept when experiencing a film.” (Ibid., 98-99) He argues that his idea of seeing film as film is not a default state, but a mere attempt to show that allowing space for the existence of a filmind can enhance the cinematic experience of filmgoers.

However, although obviously intending to render film extraordinary in liberating it from contemporary semiotic and empirical analysis, he simultaneously creates yet another homogenous framework in applying his concept on a vast variety of films covering all genres. In so doing, Frampton develops a rather generic schema.

My argument is that of freedom of choice for the filmgoer. Indeed, as Frampton points out, Filmosophy is a proposition to the filmgoer. He alone decides whether or not he accepts the presence of a filmind. Like any other cinematic experience, this is based on individuality rather than conformity. Not only do historical and social contexts influence a willingness to break the cinematic spell. Accepting a filmind is as much dependent on the filmgoer’s individual and unique life experience, desires and interests.

Preminger stressed in an interview that “the ideal picture is a picture where you don’t notice the director, where you never are aware that the director did anything deliberately.” (in Perkins, 1993: 128) Even though he expresses his opinion about an ideal film in general, it is helpful to apply his statement to Filmosophy because it shows the significance of the nature of film itself. Not all films are made for a filmosophical journey because they are inextricably and strongly linked to the decisions of a director, which complicates an attempt to see film as an independent being. Barthes describes this linkage as the text directing “the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.” (1977: 40)

Tarkovsky’s Mirror bypasses this by giving neither the director nor the protagonist a visibly strong presence, and moreover by using only a small amount of subtle signifiers so as to allow the filmgoer where he wants to take the narrative to without directly interfering in his choice. Similar to the nature of memory, Mirror does not have a meaning, but many possible viewpoints, which evolve independently in the filmgoer himself.

In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky philosophises over the expression of time in film, also called time-pressure. According to him, time is felt “when you sense something significant, truthful, going on beyond the events on the screen; when you realise, quite consciously, that what you see in the frame is not limited to its visual depiction, but is a pointer to something stretching out beyond the frame and to infinity; a pointer to life.” (2008: 117-118)

He continues: “The film then becomes something beyond its ostensible existence as an exposed and edited roll of film, a story, a plot. Once in contact with the individual who sees it, it separates from its author, starts to live its own life…” (Ibid., 118)

Thirty years prior to the release of Frampton’s Filmosophy, Tarkovsky created with Mirror a film(ind) that is already rooted in the pursuit of film as having its own life independent of the director, which is capable of creating a film-world through its own characteristic thinking process.

Uzak – Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2002)

One of the three films I recently bought with the support of my patrons is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak, a film from 2002 and, even though not his first film, possibly the first well-known film of the Turkish director from Istanbul. It’s my third film by the director. After I had seen his latest film Winter Sleep, I really wanted to see more. I was curious to see the director’s development over almost two decades of filmmaking. Uzak was the beginning of my starting to watch Ceylan’s films chronologically. Let’s see what I will find!

The story of Uzak is quickly told: Yusuf, a rather uneducated factory worker, travels to Istanbul to stay with his cousin Mahmut while looking for a job as a sailor. Things are not going to plan, however, and Yusuf prefers following a woman around the city rather than look for a job. He lacks motivation but so does Mahmut. The two couldn’t be more different, more distant. I return to the meaning of distance further below, because it is multi-layered and speaks volumes.

As is the case in Winter Sleep, Ceylan’s 2014 film about the divide between rich and poor, and an investigation of power, Ceylan’s outdoor shots in Uzak are gorgeous. In Uzak, the director plays with different lenses, similar to Alexandr Sokurov (Mother and SonFaust). Ceylan doesn’t go as far as using mirrors, however. Rather, he uses painted lenses (or maybe even broken lenses?). In one scene, the top half of the frame is tainted in a very slight brownish colour, something that visualises the weight felt by Mahmut and Yusuf. It’s also a weight that comes from nature; the heavy, endless snow weighs down on the trees. The film feel claustrophobic throughout the 100 odd minutes with the exception of an outdoor scene in Anatolia. There doesn’t seem to be breathing space, neither for us nor the characters. Ceylan’s experimentation with lenses work well here because they reinforce this idea of claustrophobia, of weight, of heaviness, precisely because Ceylan positions the extra layer of light brown at the top of the frame.

In my head, I returned time and again to Winter Sleep, noticing the similarities Ceylan has kept up over the years. The use of snow is only one of many things. Ceylan uses it effectively to create an atmosphere of both peace and beauty, and of subtle, but boiling tension between his characters. Yusuf and Mahmut are different in everything they do…and stand for. Yusuf is a rather uneducated character, poor, aimless, without much motivation. Mahmut has worked his way up to become a renowned photographer in Istanbul. He has climbed the social ladder but now he no more than pretends to belong there. For him, “photography is dead.” He attempts to behave according to his position in society, but does so without motivation or aim. He simply aims not to lose face. It is for this reason that one evening he puts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s supposed to be for intellectuals, so he pretends to be interested but switches to a porn VHS as soon as Yusuf has gone to bed. In the end, the two characters are not as different as they might look like at the beginning of the film. In their heart, they are the same. They are only different because Mahmut plays a role that doesn’t seem to suit him. It is like a heavy coat that he cannot take off.

Ceylan contrasts rich and poor, educated an uneducated. But the quest for love remains the same for both characters. Both Yusuf and Mahmut long for love, the latter presumably still in love with his ex-wife who leaves for Canada with her new husband. The former sees a young woman in the streets when he arrives at Mahmut’s place, but whenever he is close to her or wants to approach her, something or someone comes between them. Unfulfilled love – a current that is running under the main storyline and unites the characters that seem so different. It is also here that the theme of “distant” and “distance” comes into effect. Ceylan creates several distances in his film. There is the distance between the two male characters and women. There is something they’re outside of. They cannot get into this world of love, of emotional bonds. It’s something that happens around them, as we see in one scene in which Mahmut sits in a restaurant by himself, having had dinner. A couple arrives. He knows her, she keeps awkwardly looking over to his table without trying to raise the suspicion of her partner. Mahmut leaves, avoiding the situation, putting a distance between it and the situation. Happiness with a woman – that happens elsewhere.

There is a distance between Ceylan’s two protagonists, as I have mentioned. There is also the distance between social classes that often cannot be overcome. Mahmut has alienated, distanced himself from photography, arguing time and again that photography is dead. Ceylan creates several forms of distance, all of which (apart from Yusuf having left his home) are an expression of his characters alienating themselves from their outside world. They close up, they detach themselves from what is happening around them, while at the same time longing for being a part of something, for joining. Uzak is essentially a film about growing isolation and solitude; it is about an often self-inflicted distance the reasons of which aren’t explained in the film. Indeed, this is one of the trademarks of Ceylan’s films: things are the way they are. The director doesn’t try to explain them, he simply shows them.

I’m not sure whether I can agree to the general opinion that Uzak is Ceylan’s best film. It is a good film, beautifully shot, and intelligent. But I would not (yet) go as far as declaring it his best work. I need to see the rest of his films first before I can judge this properly. I loved Winter Sleep but haven’t so far been able to put it into the context of the director’s full filmography. We will see!!

Homo Sapiens – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2016)

Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.

Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 15.26.41

What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.

The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?

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Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?

Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 16.37.43

I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.

Norte – Lav Diaz (2013)

A couple of months ago, I have posted initial thoughts on Diaz’s new film Norte The End of History. I received a link for an online screener, which I happily accepted as I wasn’t sure if Norte would make it to the UK. Well, it did. In fact, it has become so popular that you find the film at almost all film festivals running at the moment. Not exactly the situation for the Lav Diaz who is known for his black-and-white epic films of eight hours or more. Rather, it’s a situation for a Lav Diaz, who is not in his usual element. 

In my earlier post, I have argued that it’s obvious why critics suddenly got hooked on the film. It is not a mainstream film, but it conforms more to classical filmmaking than all of his other films. Norte is easy food for the audience. It attracts the entertainment-seeker, not necessarily the intellectual cinephile who expects a typical Lav Diaz discourse on the struggles of the world and his people. It pains me to write this, because it may look that I strongly dislike Norte. This isn’t the case. What I dislike instead is the very obvious influence of money on alternative, small-budget filmmaking, which goes – by nature – down to the very basics, the essence of film, the truth; exactly what Diaz is always looking for. Money, on the other hand, seeks something else. If invested, the product needs to be turned into a profitable business. If you make it too hard for the audience to understand the film, you won’t make the film profitable. The director is forced to change his approach and his aesthetics. This is what happened with Norte, as far as I can see. 

Michael Guarneri conducted an insightful interview with Diaz. In it, Diaz speaks about the waste of money and how it has changed the approach to filmmaking. He explained: 

There was so much money wasted, and this is a thing I didn’t like about the shooting. We rented the camera package: very expensive… If we had bought it, the camera could have been used by me and by other fellow-filmmakers, or it could have been rented out by the producers to generate funds. Creating a flow of money and a circulation of ideas to develop film-projects and make more films in our country: to me this is a very important “political” aspect in filmmaking. It is part of the struggle.

So you see technology is an economic issue that has consequences on many levels. Clearly, it affects how the film looks: for example,Norte is a color film and there is much more camera movement than in my other movies. It is not the camera movement you find in commercial cinema, though. It is not flossy camera movement. It’s more about quietly following the characters. It’s still about duration and space as before, but at the same time it is something new for me.

The rented equipment led to tight schedules. Everything had to be rushed. Time is money, and that’s why money isn’t Slow Cinema. You can read the full interview with Diaz here

Returning to the film, though, I find that Norte is less a distinctly Philippine film. I may, in fact, go as far as calling it a “Russian” film. The thought popped into my head after I re-watched Diaz’s Encantos, in which one of the main characters returns to the Philippines after having spent seven years in Russia. He mentions Russian society, literature, cinema. He also says that the Russian and the Filipino struggles are similar. I think that with Norte, Diaz is pursuing his affection for Russian culture (especially literature and cinema) to a new level. 

The film is based on the remarkable Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (if you haven’t read it, read it!). The story is obviously taken from the book, but so are the characters. Even if Russian and Filipino struggles are similar, I had troubles to see the Filipino character in the film; the character I got to know by spending hours watching Diaz’s films up and down, repeatedly, and by reading interviews with him. I think that in making the work more accessible by using a famous book as a background, the film neglects the actual Filipino. It is perhaps the case because no one would want to know about it, or no one would be willing to understand it. We’re all very aware of Russian literature, and while it’s not at all as mainstream as some English-speaking literature, it is at least more known and willing to be taken up by an audience than an entirely Filipino story. This is our indifference to little known cultures. We apply this to our taste for cinema, too. 

With that strong Russian background, we then also have a levitating character. A special effect that rubs into our face what Diaz would have normally said without special effects, without making it plain obvious what he wants to say. He would have normally been the literati, and suggested something without making it clear. But again, this film had to be profitable, so appealing to the audience’s intellectual thinking wasn’t an option. The film had to offer quick fixes. And before I lose myself in this discussion, I should mention that the levitating character is an homage to Tarkovsky, a director Diaz admires and was influenced by. So we’re not speaking about any special effect here. We are, in fact, again, speaking about Russia. 

The question that should be asked is not whether or not the film is good. Rather, how Filipino is it? How much does it betray its own culture in order to be profitable in the selling of distribution rights? And how is this going to change the filmmaking of Lav Diaz?

Day 24 – Surprise (me)

I finish this year’s advent calendar with a self-experiment in slow-filmmaking. It’s one thing to watch slow films all the time. But as I was to find out, it’s an entirely different matter to sit behind the camera and keep quiet for only five minutes just so that you don’t ruin the sound. It was fun to do, though, and I enjoyed it. You can find the video at the bottom of today’s entry.

The last 23 days have taken me to many countries. I was in Argentina with Lisandro Alonso, and in Mexico with Nicolas Pereda. I was in imaginative, historical spaces with Albert Serra, and in dark and evils spaces with Béla Tarr. I found myself in cramped apartments in China, in vast spaces of Turkish forests. I was in Japan, Iran and Sweden. Oh, and not to forget, I joined a couple of monks in France. The films I watched were a glimpse of suffering in the Philippines, of longing in Taiwan, of past memories in Thailand.

Over 37 hours of slow film. I cannot deny that it became difficult towards the end to find words for the films. Watching a slow film is, I find, an entirely different experience. Slow films really take you on a journey. You spend so much time with the characters that you feel as though you have been through what they have been through in two hours.

It was a great idea, though. It is one thing to watch a slow film here and there. It is a wholly different matter if you watch 23 films in a row. It gave me a real grasp of what Slow Cinema is about, how many nuances there are, what themes they actually tackle, and how similar and yet different the filmmakers are in their approaches.

I hope you enjoyed the excursion into slowness. This blog will now return to the usual weekly or fortnightly posts, and film comments whenever I’m lucky enough to find a diamond somewhere.

Merry Christmas!

Day 12 – The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky)

It’s halftime, so perhaps it’s a good idea to focus on a classic today. It feels odd writing about Tarkovsky, because he has never been named as a slow-film director, until the term Slow Cinema came up. I was really happy when I could finally get the Tarkovsky box set. The reason I’ve chosen The Sacrifice for today is that I remember the film for its slowness. No other Tarkovsky film felt this slow, and, I have to admit (shame on me!) that I didn’t finish the film the first time round. I almost fell asleep. This must have been two or three years now, so it was time for a retry.

The Sacrifice was Tarkovsky’s last film. If you haven’t watched any of his films, it might appear less obvious. But The Sacrifice is his bleakest and darkest film. His films were never cheerful. Yet, this one is the culmination of bleakness. There is repeated talk of hopelessness, the downfall of humanity, loss of perspective, death. And then there is this imminent nuclear disaster. Béla Tarr has ended his filmmaking career in a similar way. The Turin Horse was the culmination of his bleak view on the world. You could see that there was nothing else to say. I had the same feeling about The Sacrifice.

The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky

I found two features striking. Neither of them has a lot to do with slowness, though. The first one is the general set-up indoors. Alexander, the main protagonist, who vows to sacrifice all that is dear to him so as to prevent the nuclear catastrophe that had been announced on TV, is a retired theatre actor. I’m not sure whether Tarkovsky intended to transmit this via his filmmaking, but the shot length, the camera angle, and the movement of characters certainly imply that there could equally be a theatre play going on rather than the production of a film.

The camera is a good distance away from the actors. They tend to speak towards the camera as if to a (theatre) audience. The whole – fairly scarce – mise-en-scène (the interior of the house especially) brings up images of a theatre stage with a painted background and a few props positioned on stage. I haven’t had a similar feeling in his other films. The Sacrifice, however, never had much of a film-feeling to me. I guess the long-take help with this. And somehow, I can’t help it, the colours help, too.

The second thing is perhaps a bit obscure. Although I used to love the concept, and actually still do, especially when I’m watching a film by Tarkovsky, I have put it aside, because I brought up two people against me, and I wasn’t fond of that. The Sacrifice is, in parts, a great demonstration of what Daniel Frampton called “the filmind”. The basic idea is that film has a mind on its own. Film is thinking. As radical as it sounds, when I read his book, his proposal blew me away. I cannot detect a “thinking” film all the time. But Tarkovsky’s films are exemplary to Frampton’s approach.

The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky

The beginning of The Sacrifice can be taken as a very simply illustration. When Alexander sits with his back against a tree and continues with his monologue, the camera moves away from him. It feels as if the camera, or the film, decides to look for something visually more interesting or important. It is really only the camera moving, but I always got the sense of the film doing something, and not only the director. There is an eerie presence of a third agent in (all of) his films. I’ve only ever had this eerie feeling with Tarkovsky’s films.

The feature of the thinking filmind is spread throughout the film, as it is in Mirror, where, I believe, it is most evident (I have actually written quite a bit on this a while ago). The independence of the camera (or the film) can also be found in Tarr’s films. The film makes decisions independent from what the characters say or do. Perhaps it sounds like an abstract concept, but you should give the book Filmosophy a try.

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.