Slow Cinema, ed by Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge (2015)

I’m not sure where to start with this one. Not considering the content for a minute, the new and very first edited collection on Slow Cinema, aptly titled Slow Cinema appears like a bit of a fraud. A subject that has been carried by film viewers, lay film critics, and PhD students, is now appropriated by professors of high reputation who have little to do with the subject, meaning I don’t think they have expertise in the subject. A friend of mine also went through the list of contributors and said that the choice of authors made little sense. Unless, of course, you want to attract buyers who see that this book was written by professors of high standing. This method usually works. I reckon that this is also the reason to include the great Jacques Rancière, who didn’t have to be in the edited collection. His book on Béla Tarr is by far better than his chapter in the Slow Cinema book.

It is ironic, and to me it says a lot about academia and academic publishing, that a book about a subject carried by lay people has the highest amount of professors in the list of contributors I have ever had in my hands. And I really mean professors. I don’t mean lecturers. Given the work that has been done outside academia, this collection is a slap in the face to everyone who worked very hard on bringing the subject forward. Where are those PhD students who studied the subject for years and brought real innovation to it? I miss a student from my university who submitted an abstract for a chapter which would have dealt with cinematic slowness in North African cinema – a real novelty in the current geographical foci in Slow Cinema research. Where are those writer-filmmakers (like Erik Bordeleau)? If you are familiar with the subject and look through the list of contributors and contributions, you will notice that the official “Call For Papers” which was published a couple years ago was no more than a nice gesture but there was little intention in bringing together experts on the subject or in creating something new. The aim was to be first and not necessarily good. At the same time, it looks as though most of the contributors have been determined in advance, but only for their names, not for their long and close research interests in Slow Cinema…which, as I said, made the CfP pretty much redundant.

If you have read Jacques Rancière’s work on Béla Tarr, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have read Song Hwee Lim’s book on Tsai Ming-liang, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have already read Karl Schoonover’s work on Slow Cinema and the labouring body, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have read Cecilia Mello’s work on Jia Zhang-ke, you don’t need to buy this book. Nor do I believe that the almost static films of Andy Warhol (Sleep) should be subject in a book on Slow Cinema. Justin Remes has done well reading those films in his book Motionless Pictures, but Warhol should not be in a Slow Cinema collection. I could go on. After three years of research into the area, I have found myself whispering “I read this somewhere before” (and not necessarily by that specific author) a couple of times, and if you have followed this blog and read through some of my bibliography, which I update regularly, this book is nothing new to you. The monographs which are out there – as mentioned about Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, or even Tiago de Luca’s Realism of the Senses (2014) – are a great deal better.

Thankfully, the price of the book has dropped by now and it has become affordable. Nevertheless, if you’re a Slow Cinema afiniciado you should check out the monographs which exist out there already and keep reading material by lay film critics. With the hundreds and hundreds of reviews, blog posts and other material this edited collection failed to make a real contribution. One exception is once more Philippa Lovatt’s work, who is probably the only person out there who’s actively working on sound, which is always a refreshment because Slow Cinema is primarily discussed in terms of time and its visual aspects. Sound tends to be neglected. Besides, she writes about a director who has not yet been written about in all details: Liu Jiayin (Oxhide I).

The book’s most remarkable achievement is its complete neglect of this website. Harry Tuttle’s is in there. David Bordwell’s is in there. But no mention of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema (to be fair, the website is in a reference but only because I have uploaded a paper of mine, so my paper is quoted, not my website). This isn’t a personal thing. It is simply strange that there’s a website – I’d say perhaps the website on Slow Cinema these days – which the editors are aware of (I submitted an abstract and mentioned the website in my biography, besides if you look for Slow Cinema on Google my website comes 2nd after Wikipedia), and it doesn’t even get a mention. Given the contributors I can only imagine the reason. It’s not that it’s a blog. It’s a blog by someone who didn’t have a PhD at the time. In itself, this is disappointing because this website has done a lot to bring research forward and to open up the Slow Cinema canon.

What bugs me is that quite a few of my ideas from this blog appear in the book’s introduction with no reference at all. Now, you could say that I shouldn’t have made my thoughts public. But that isn’t the point I’m arguing about here. I do not own my ideas because there certainly are other people who have the same ideas on the same subject. To me it’s frankly a matter of decency and part of research ethics to cross-reference each other. I did so in my PhD thesis. I thought I had a fantastic idea but a few weeks after I had written down my ideas I found a text which, scarily enough, was even written in almost the exact same matter. These things do happen. But I referenced the student’s work because of decency and ethics. As I know that the editors are aware of this blog and that, if you research Slow Cinema, you land on this website almost by default now (which I’m proud of), this looks to me like a deliberate exclusion for whatever reason. This isn’t ethical research and summarises my experience in academia for the last three years.

The ideas someone celebrates himself for has perhaps its origins here, so please keep this in mind when, or if, you read this book. Having read this book made the entire business of film distribution and a VoD service much stronger and, personally, necessary because after those now six years following Slow Cinema and seeing the academic development, all I can say is that it’s time to get out of there and do something that is useful for the filmmakers and the films and not for my reputation as an academic, scrambling for a piece of the slow cake.

That said, if you’re a total beginner in slow films, this collection may be worth buying. If you have followed the subject for years, then it is not worth at all unless you want to read something you have already read several times before. It’s a real shame that this collection turned out like this. But once I heard which abstracts had been rejected (all of which promising and really unique), I could guess what the agenda of the book was. The final product shows exactly that.

Towards a poor cinema

The title of today’s post is not at all meant to be derogative. I like Slow Cinema too much for a defamation of it. I also strongly believe that poverty does not necessarily harm creativity. On the contrary. I’ve been there during my childhood and my youth. You learn to make do with what you have, and this always requires creativity. A lot of filmmakers demonstrate the same thing. Without funding, or only minimal funding which doesn’t cover the production costs at all, some create remarkable films. Slow Cinema directors are known for this. Not all of them make something out of nothing. Some are a bit luckier with receiving financial support than others. Yet, the general situation is pretty bleak for slow-film directors when it comes to financial support.

Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning know that I’m always interested in looking into any possible roots of Slow Cinema. I do not agree with the current classification of being a descendant of Italian Neo-Realism. Nor with European modernist cinema in general. This approach is entirely focused on film, and shows the ongoing problem in academia: many researchers only think in their own fields instead of looking beyond their own horizons. Doing exactly this, though, shows just how rich Slow Cinema is, despite people’s persistent argument that there’s nothing to see, nothing to get out of. The films have a strong heritage in other art forms. I already spoke a bit about painting, and I still stand by what I said. Lav Diaz is not the only one who used to paint before he turned to filmmaking. I think Apichatpong Weerasethakul used to paint as well (I think I read this in a recent interview). They may be an exception from the rule, but they make for an intriguing study of the ways in which Slow Cinema and other art forms converge.

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By way of diversion, I have reached the field of theatre. It started with a book on Polish post-trauma theatre, which was superb and similar to what I’ve been writing about Lav Diaz’s films in my thesis. In fact, there were so many similarities that I was glad I hadn’t read the book before submitting my thesis. It could have led to the Homer Simpson “NO!” effect. I was particularly taken by the two theatre directors Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. The latter’s “Theatre of Death” shows similarities to the three Lav Diaz films I have studied, but unfortunately cannot be applied to any other director I have studied so far in the context of Slow Cinema. But Grotowski is an interesting reference point. It was he who wrote the short but groundbreaking essay “Towards a poor theatre” in the mid-1960s.

I want to highlight no more than two aspects of Grotowski’s theatre and his vision of what theatre should be like. I possibly do not have to go into detail about the overall aesthetic of a “poor” theatre. Everything is reduced to a minimum. Perhaps Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) may be a good example. Yet it’s by no means the prime example. In slow films, in general, the mise-en-scène is minimalistic. The frames have been emptied of distracting elements. Very often you only see the very basics. And that is, in fact, all you need.

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This is also what Grotowski thought. Reducing the mise-en-scene to a mere minimum, you’re left with two elements which need to be strong: space and acting. As far as space is concerned, I’m not just speaking about what is visible. In a film (or a theatre play for that matter) what is not visible, but present nevertheless, is immensely important, and is, in some cases, even what a film is about. I’d say that Apichatpong’s Cemetery of Splendour is a good example.

If you reduce the mise-en-scene to a minimum, then you have, I believe, a lot more options you can play with, precisely because nothing is certain for the audience. Absent presence is a wonderful means to speak about loss, loneliness, death, longing, haunting – all those elements play a major role in Slow Cinema.

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A second element whose importance is heightened in a “poor” theatre is acting. Grotowski placed particular emphasis on acting. The actors/actresses were so important because they had to fill the gaps the mise-en-scene left them with. They had to embody a lot more than just a role. Now, in many slow films, the term “acting” is perhaps not ideal. Very often, non-professional “actors” are used. In several cases, they do not even act, but play themselves. They are themselves. In other cases, actors and actresses live their roles. They embody the person they are meant to be on-screen. Lav Diaz’s films are a superb example for this, especially Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). Diaz’s films would fall apart if it wasn’t for the strong acting, for the at times breathtaking behaviour of actors and actresses who merge with their own selves.

Grotowski advocated something for theatre which can today be detected in slow films, which, in fact, are main characteristics of Slow cinema. Once more, I do not believe that it is the long-take which is the main characteristic. This point is once more an example of the narrow thinking of certain scholars. There are similarities between the aesthetics of Slow Cinema and other art forms. These may not be the most known advocacies but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take them into account when looking into the aesthetics of films. I’d be interested in knowing how many filmmakers consciously know about Grotowski and his poor theatre. It would be an interesting influence on films.

Cemetery of Splendour – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015)

I need to make a general observation about Apichatpong Weerasethakul first before I go into detail about his new (and wonderful) film Cemetery of Splendour (2015), his Cannes entry five years after he won the Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past livesApichatpong is very often regarded as one main player in the field of Slow Cinema. It is true that especially his early films are very slow and use the long-take long shot combination with little dialogue attached to it. Since Uncle Boonmee, however, Apichatpong is moving away from those strict Slow Cinema aesthetics. This doesn’t mean that his films are not slow. They are, but his films are less strictly Slow Cinema. His films have shifted seamlessly into the broad category of arthouse cinema, which is always slower than the average film. I noticed this shift when I watched Mekong Hotel in 2012, and Cemetery of Splendour is another example. So I’m not even sure whether this post should be on this site or not. I also feel as if I need to point (once more!) to the critics who all said that Cemetery of Splendour was Apichatpong’s best film – and at the same time his most accessible. Again, accessibility guarantees success with critics, as we have seen with Lav Diaz before. Just don’t give critics a film they need to puzzle together.

I used this phrase in my previous post already: “regardless of its pace” – Cemetery of Splendour is a wonderful film. It has a dreamy, meditative atmosphere around it. Jen, Apichatpong’s all-time muse, tends to a soldier suffering from an unexplainable sleep sickness. As usual in the director’s films, it is at some point difficult to distinguish between reality and dream. The line between the two couldn’t be thinner. I don’t agree to the comment that Cemetery of Splendour is Apichatpong’s most accessible film. Story-wise it is, perhaps, because what is happening to the soldiers is explained to the viewer. I found it a bit disappointing. I would have rather kept wondering what went on. On the other hand, it worked nicely and it made the story even more intriguing (and no, I’m not saying what it is!). But this didn’t make clear what was real and what was just a dream or a hallucination, which, I find, also contributes to the respective accessibility of a film. If you think you have understood the story but actually cannot tell right from wrong, accessibility is a relative term.

I saw a brief interview with Apichatpong on French-German channel ARTE in which he explained a few things about the now well-known lamps he used in his films. I loved every single scene which contained those lamps. I found them fascinating, and they had something mysterious and supernatural to them. Something that helped blur the line between reality and dream, between life and death. Apichatpong said that he had read something about the link between light, memory and sleep – a fascinating point I would love to investigate further.

I’m not entirely sure whether it has been written about already somewhere. I noticed explicit references to Tsai Ming-liang and his films. During the screening I wondered whether this was intended (which I believe it was), or whether it was completely incidental. There are three references; Jen washing the body of a sleeping soldier called Itt (Tsai’s I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone), Jen and Itt in the cinema, filmed from behind so that we can see the cinema screen as well as the back of their heads (Tsai’s Goodby Dragon Inn) and a specific shot of escalators in the cinema, which had, to me, strong reminiscences of Tsai’s shots of interior architecture in pretty much all of his films. An homage to the Taiwanese director? Perhaps.

In any case, Cemetery of Splendour contains quite a bit of food for thought again. There was this scene in which Jen says that she doesn’t like Americans because they are poor. She prefers Europeans because it is the Europeans who live the American dream. Interesting proposition, which led me to all kinds of thoughts. There is also a nice point about the preference of stone sculptures showing skeletons over a golden palace with a bathroom made of marble. Perhaps stone, even though it is always regarded as cold, is closer to real life?

I couldn’t help but think that Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps Apichatpong’s most personal film. Perhaps not for himself, but for Jen, the main character and actress. It was a film very much tailored to her and her life story; a great thing to do in a way after many many years of collaboration. The viewer certainly gets to know Jen better than in Apichatpong’s previous films, and it feels as though we’re taking a unique trip with her through dreams and hallucinations. Or maybe we don’t. Who knows that with Apichatpong’s films!?

Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps not the director’s best film. I still favour Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Nevertheless, the film is another great demonstration of the skills of the Thai filmmaker. The visuals are at times superb. The story is fascinating and possibly more engaging than that of his previous films. Maybe that’s why critics liked the film more. The story is progressing easier. There’s less stagnation than in say, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This may all be well for some people, but there is also a scene, for instance, towards the very end which screams of commercial horror. It neither fit nor was it in any way useful to the story. It was a scene that could have been seen in a commercial film, i.e. it could have easily been cut in Apichatpong’s film. Why did he leave it in? I hope there wasn’t a pressure point for him, because despite so many producers from around the world involved in his filmmaking now, he has so far remained independent in his style. I hope it remains this way.

Death Time

Oh yes, a cheery title for this blog post. I apologise. But this only comes because of an email I received from one of my website’s avid readers. I was asked – and this isn’t rare – what I think the difference between slow film and Slow Cinema is. Two and a half years into my research, I still have no idea, and perhaps I will never be able to answer this questions. Slowness is relative. Whatever is fast for me, may be slow for you. It is true that slow films use very similar, if not the same kind of aesthetics. So where do we draw the line?

I was thinking about one of my arguments, which you can revisit in the paper I uploaded a little while ago. In the paper I linked the use of time in concentration camps and the way Lav Diaz uses time in his films about terror and trauma. I saw similarities and talked about “death time”. Slow Cinema is characterised by temps mort, or dead time. I switched this around and began to look into death time, which is such a characteristic feature of Diaz. Time is used as a form of power, of punishment. Endless duration drives the characters insane (and maybe the viewer, too). There is a curious mixture in his films of shock and duration, of the instant and endless waiting. I call this complexity death time.

Now, in what ways can we see Slow Cinema as a whole in this? I briefly thought about the other films I know. They are aesthetically close to Diaz’s films, and yet totally different. They also use time different. This is primarily the case because Diaz makes incredibly long films, while most slow-film directors stick to a more usual running time of about two hours. Diaz can therefore play a lot more with duration. His films are also different in that they deal specifically with the trauma of his people, which makes his films stand out in the classical Slow Cinema canon.

But if I were to expand a bit on the notion of “death time”, going a beyond my previous argument that it’s an expression of a complex interaction of the instant and duration in order to inflict miseries on film characters, then I could actually make it fit to Slow Cinema. This is way too new for me now, so it may be the case with slow films in general, so the whole idea of finding a structure which sets Slow Cinema apart from “normal” slow films becomes rather redundant. Personally I think that Slow Cinema is an experiential thing, but no one likes experience because you can’t prove anything. So I’m still trying to find something less abstract.

Anyway, let me expand on the notion of death time and say that death plays a major role in Slow Cinema. Slowness has often been equated with death. The Futurists were keen on speeding up life because it meant exactly that: life, living. Speed means progression, therefore a forward movement. Slowness also means movement, but it is more often associated with stagnation (which makes it particularly interesting for my study of terror and trauma). Death is not necessarily the kind of death we imagine. It is not necessarily associated with humans. Not a lot of people die in Diaz’s films, for example, but we know that they eventually will. They’re on the verge of death all the time. They’re walking dead.

Fogo by Yulene Olaizola is also about death, only in a different way. It is about the death of an island. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are all about ghosts, which imply death by default. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is another example. Or even his Sátántangó. And what about Carlos Reygadas? Japon and Battle In Heaven use death as an underlying narrative feature, too. I also remember Nicolas Pereda’s Summer of Goliath (and I hope I remember this correctly); the death of a child, the departure of a husband and father and therefore the death of the family structure. Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert depicts the death of the traditional postman.

So are these films slow because they deal with death in one way or another? Can you deal with death appropriately in fast films? I think there is something in there, and it’ll be worth researching further (on my list!). And for some reason this all links vaguely to my very early arguments about static art; stasis always implies death in some form or another. So my original thought of death time looks a lot more complex now and I’m looking forward to looking into this in the near future.

Merry Xmas

I wish you all a Merry Xmas and a joyful period of festive days. Remember to take everything slow. Use the festive days for some well-deserved downtime. You can watch a slow film, for instance. Or a slow film every day until the end of the year. There are plenty on offer to help you slow down.

Admittedly, things have been a bit quieter than usual in the last few weeks. I was in a different slow universe, having focused exclusively on writing my thesis. So I’m not getting lazy and there will be lots more to read on this website next year. Slow films are piling up – there’s still Manakamana to see. And Ben Rivers’ new film A Spell to Ward off the Darkness. Then there is this slow film from Paraguay, whose title I can’t remember, but which I can’t wait to see. Wang Bing’s films are slowly piling up, too. I also need to return to a few earlier films by Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and write at least a brief comment on them so that they’re logged in my database of slow films. I’m also waiting for Tito Molina’s interview answers. There’s a book I recently bought on Green Cinema, or something that comes close to it. It’s all about environmentalism. There’s a chapter on contemplative cinema in there, so I’m keen on exploring this further in the next couple of months. I’ll also review the German-language book on Béla Tarr, which I’m reading at the moment (and which is promising indeed!).

The way it looks, I shouldn’t get bored next year, and you should get new material to read. For this year, however, I withdraw into my slow cave of slow work and festive days and I’ll be back next year with more written slowness.

Silence in Dreamland – Tito Molina (2013)

I know exactly where to put Ecuador on the map. Unfortunately, I do not know where to put Ecuador on the map of world cinema. It’s one of those countries that is shamelessly underreported. There is quite a lot of material about South/Latin American cinema. Yet, Ecuador plays only a marginal role and I wonder why that is.

Tito Molina has put Ecuador on the map of world cinema. With Silence in Dreamland (2013) he has created a stunning portrayal of – surprise! – silence and dreams, but also of ageing, loneliness, and love. The narrative can be quickly summarised: an elderly woman, lonely after the death of her husband, goes about her daily chores. The routine is broken when Cokie, a truly lovable dog appears in front of her window and both strike up a very special relationship. This summary is a good example for why I never read summaries. Indeed, many films have kind of the same thrust and summaries therefore make them boring. But it is the cinematic treatment that is interesting, and it is the same here with Molina’s work.

Silence is a superb slow film that has a meditative, observational rhythm, though partly disrupted by quick cuts so as to indicate brief dream interludes that come in a flash. Molina’s attention to detail, such as his close-up of the woman’s neck to focus on her pulse and her breathing, helps to create an intimate portray of her. I felt as though she was more than a simple subject of a film. There was a bond between filmmaker and character, even between viewer and character, which grew throughout the film. Another detail, which I loved was the persistent electricity cut. Sometimes you didn’t notice it until you looked at the oven behind her, which suddenly ceased to display the time. It’s subtle, but it’s also a reminder that the background of a film is just as significant as everything that happens in the foreground.

Molina introduces aesthetics to Slow Cinema that are unusual. I’m speaking of dissolves, a lot of music in the background, superimpositions. If I had read about these techniques in his film beforehand without having seen the trailer of Silence, I would have been hesitant. Yet, Molina uses these techniques and incorporates them superbly and lovingly into the genre, or movement, or simply this form of cinema. This combination of techniques greatly enriches the viewing experience. A while ago, I wrote about the effects of music and dialogue on our perception of slowness and came to the conclusion that both speed up the film. For some reason, I didn’t have the same impression this time. Either I have changed my point-of-view regarding the issue entirely, or maybe Molina makes better use of music and dialogue than Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Mekong Hotel. It is a mystery. In any case, there is quite a lot of music in Silence, which is a rather interesting contradiction. The music, however, is slow. Very traditional, kind of melancholic so that it works well with the subject matter of the film.

Silence awakened my interest in photography again. I know I say this with a lot of films. But despite this, it is actually not as easy to impress me visually as it sounds. Molina has a superb eye for composition, though, and I wonder what his background is. It doesn’t look painterly, but oh my, some of his shots are worth taking a snapshot of, have them printed and framed. Especially the shots at the sea are magnificent. Shot from above, we see the woman and Cokie walking along the beach, for instance. They both mere dots because of the sheer height of the camera. Molina’s capturing of the sea is truly beautiful and adds a hypnotic rhythm to the film, apart from its making you fall in love with his photographic eye.

In all, I wasn’t all too surprised to see such a fantastic film after the trailer perfectly convinced me that this would be a superb work. Molina is certainly an upcoming and very talented director, who is worth following in the future.

My thanks goes to Tito Molina, who has kindly provided me with a copy of his film. An interview with the director will follow on this website.

Milky Way – Benedek Fliegauf (2007)

Ahh, what a lovely slow film after weeks of drought! I still have a long list of slow films, but I somehow lack the time to watch them all. A paradox, I know. Anyway, I have heard of Benedek Fliegauf before in the context of his film Just the Wind, which is, yes, on my list, but oh well. Fliegauf is a Hungarian director and is often compared to Béla Tarr. I can’t say anything about his other films, which I will watch sometime soon. But given the aesthetics of Milky Way he has little in common with Tarr, apart from the use of static extreme long takes.

If I was to summarise Milky Way in one sentence, then I would probably refer to Zhengfan Yang’s Distant, which I reviewed last year. It’s very similar, and particularly interesting for me as someone who loves photography. Milky Way is not one film. Rather, it is many films. Many self-contained short films. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was made by only one director, I would perhaps call it a slow omnibus. Just as Zhengfan focused on the distance between the camera and the character as well as between the character and the viewer, so does Fliegauf.

As is often the case in Slow Cinema, he uses long or extreme long shots that depict the action. It can be a rather frustrating business, but only because we are so trained to see everything clearly on the screen that it’s difficult to deal with something that challenges this very habit. Despite the frustration, I loved it. It reminded me of my earlier attempt at linking slow films with landscape painting. Not all shots in Milky Way are landscape based. Yet the way the environment is framed and the way the characters are positioned in relation to this environment resembles that of landscape painting. East Asian landscape painting, I should point out, as the position of Man in Western landscape is different, and not immediately evident in Slow Cinema.

As I mentioned earlier, the film is highly photographic. It is not only landscape painting that came to mind when I watched the film. It was also the aspect of still photography that caught my attention. Every frame is a superb and beautiful photograph. The motion that takes place in the frames is of little importance if you’re really keen on photography. Each frame looks very professional, and funnily enough, Fliegauf has no history in photography, nor in film. Apparently, he taught himself the art of filmmaking. This reminds me of myself, and my own view that you don’t have to have a degree in order to be good at something. This is particularly true when it comes to the arts. I learned to develop a photographic eye by picking up a camera, not by studying composition. The advantage, and you can see this clearly in Fliegauf’s film, is that the beauty comes naturally, the way it is meant to be. It is not constructed so that it looks nice. It looks nice just because it is natural.

And here we are again, Slow Cinema – both viewing and making – is based on experience, on feeling, on sensations. This is why it’s difficult to write about it, and I become more and more grateful for this blog, because at least I’m not forced to put something experiential into dry words, which can’t convey the message anyway. Fliegauf’s Milky Way is, for example, also hugely intriguing for its use of sound. The proximity of sound is stunning, and I often wondered about the source of sound, or whether the sound I heard actually fit the image. At other times I thought that the sound alone would be enough.

The visual could indeed only be a photograph and you would still get a sense of the film. Like a photo album with sound. I read on Wikipedia that someone called the film an “ambient movie”. I never thought about calling films ambient. I always connect the term to sound, but now I see the point. It is, if I briefly consider the slow films I’m aware of, a fitting term for Slow Cinema as a whole. Sound is so vital to slow films, and it is astonishing that there hasn’t been written more about it. In this way, I’m excited about the work of Philippa Lovatt, who focuses on sound. Last year, she has published an article on sound in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films and I hope that there will be more to come.

If you want to see Fliegauf’s Milky Way, it’s available to watch on YouTube. Give it a go! I would recommend headphones.

Slow Cinema at the Museum!? (Paper)

Expanded Cinema Conference – St Andrews University – 3 April 2013

Introduction

Slow Cinema – this phenomenon of increased slowness and minimalism on screen has been repeatedly discussed throughout the last decade. Nick James’ and Jonathan Romney’s articles in the Sight & Sound in 2010 are perhaps the most known recent examples of public debate on the issue. The focus usually lies on the use of long-takes in slow films, which often provoke a debate on boredom and suffering on the side of the viewer. There are, however, many more aspects that are worth highlighting and I want to illuminate one of them here today; the exhibition of slow films.

Tsai Ming-liang is one of the most prominent slow-film directors. His films The Hole (1998), Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), and I don’t want to sleep alone (2006) have propelled him into public awareness. His particular style – the striking opposition of lonely, slow-moving characters in bustling cities, combined with humoristic elements and musical interludes – has become a trademark that has attracted not only cinephiles. The French museum and gallery Le Louvre commissioned a film by Tsai Ming-liang as part of their Films by the Louvre project; a project that aims to showcase the museum’s audio-visual productions. Visage was the result of this collaboration; a slow film commissioned byand shot in a museum. Released in 2009, Visage is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

On the other side of the planet, the director of America’s Walker Arts Center commissioned a film from Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose popularity increased over night with the reception of the Golden Palm for his film Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives. Apichatpong had produced several films in the past, most notably Blissfully Yours (2003) and Syndromes of a Century (2006). His latest short, Mekong Hotel, was screened at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. His short film Cactus River for the Walker Arts Center was released in autumn 2012 and can be watched on the institution’s website. I would like to give you two more examples of these directors: Apichatpong produced the short film The Palace in 2007 for the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Tsai’s It’s a Dream, also made in 2007, had been acquired by the Taiwanese Fine Art Museum and was added to its permanent collection. In an interview with Noah Buchan from Taipei Times, Tsai points out that

“It’s the first time that I sold a video installation to a museum and this is the first time for a Taiwanese museum to buy a film as part of its collection. The Louvre was the first in the world to collect film. These events signal that we are now looking at film as a form of art.” (Tsai Ming-liang, quoted in Buchan 2010)

He goes on to say that “gradually, my movies find a home, and that is the museum.” (Tsai Ming-liang, quoted in Buchan 2010). There is a movement towards gallery spaces evident, in particular by Eastern slow-film directors. I propose that this is not a coincidence. Rather I suggest that it has, in fact, a plausible reason, namely the undeniable similarities between slow films and static art, which blur the line between moving and non-moving art, and therefore also question current exhibition practices. Let me elaborate on this point.

Slow Cinema and the Static Arts

Obviously, it needs to be stressed here that there are significant differences between moving images and static art, embodied by the aspect of rhythm as well as the exploration and representation of time. Slow Cinema is of interest in that several slow films merge the two forms of art, blurring the line between kinesis and stasis. I want to highlight three perspectives here:

First, although it had never been officially included in this category and therefore never really seen as such, film is a kinetic art form for two main reasons. By the sheer fact that film is made of moving images, kinesis is imperative. Without kinesis, we would not speak of moving images. In addition, film represents objects of movement, or objects suggesting movement. The representation of kinesis in art is not exclusive to film, however. Frank Popper (1968) traces the history of kinesis in art, with particular reference to the depiction of dynamism in static art forms, such as painting and sculpture. His study reveals that movement was a recurrent theme as early as the mid-19th century in the artworks of Impressionist painters. In part, this can be linked to the Industrial Revolution, when new means of transport, thus of movement, became major symbols of the time. Popper points out that Impressionists were keen on depicting kinetic objects such as railways, horses, water and dancers (Popper 1968: 11) The chosen motifs conveyed a sense of movement, and had been used time and again in later art movements. Especially in the early 20th century, Futurist artists picked up the aspect of movement and heightened its presence in their work. Speed-embodying objects such as cars or trains inhabited a special role in Futurist art.

Of interest to us in this context is the balance between kinetic and static objects in slow films. A close study of films directed by Lav Diaz from the Philippines, for instance, reveals that dynamism is largely absent. His films contain only few elements, which imply movement. One of those rare examples is an ox cart in Heremias Book I, but this one gets stolen early on, so that movement for the owner of the cart is greatly reduced and slowed down. If Diaz represents other objects of movement, such as cars or motorcycles, he does not make them visible to the eye. Interestingly, we can only ever hear them as off-screen sounds, but they are never in any way directly connected to the protagonists. The static camera as well as the little movement of characters within film frames further reinforce the sense of stasis.

With regards to this, I would like to point to a statement of experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Contrasting cinema and static art, she writes that cinema is

 “a time-form, and [therefore] it is really rather more closely related to music and dance than it is to any of the spatial forms, the plastic forms. Now it’s been thought that because you see it on a two-dimensional surface which is approximately the size and shape of a canvas … that it is somehow in the area of plastic art. This is not true.” (Deren, quoted in Jackson 2001: 51-52)

The validity of Deren’s argument cannot be denied. Indeed, film is a time-based art form, just as music and dance are. They share the characteristic of evolving, of developing in time. All three are rhythmic art forms. The limit of Deren’s argument is reached when we try to apply this to Slow Cinema. Due to the common absence of dynamic objects, as we have seen, as well as the lack of camera and character movement, slow films appear surprisingly static, and therefore less time-based; an aspect, which distinguishes slow films clearly from music and choreographic dance.

A third aspect to consider is the use of sound in film. Michel Chion’s study Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1994) contains hints as to why slow films embody stasis. Chion argues that films, similar to human beings, are vococentric (Chion 1994: 5). Research has shown that humans tend to focus on speech first, before their attention switches to other sounds around them. Moreover, our ears are said to react faster to external stimuli than our eyes do. This suggests that the extent, to which speech is used, alters the pace of the film. Slow films contain only little dialogue and music is scarce, a fact that slows down the reading process of the film considerably, as the viewer is dependent on his or her eyes. Combined with little character and camera movement, the cinematic frame appears static and thus has to be read in similar ways to paintings or other forms of static art.

To recapitulate, then, slow films share characteristics with static art forms based on the almost complete absence of kinetic objects or kinesis in general, and the lack of rhythmic speech or music, which demands our eyes to view a film in similar ways we would view a painting.

Lav Diaz and the Art of Painting

To take this a little further even, I want to demonstrate briefly now just how pervasive the aesthetics of static art are in slow films.

In an interview, Lav Diaz made a case in point. He said:

 “My films are just like paintings that are just there. Nothing changes. You can watch it for eight hours, and you can have a more fulfilling experience. Or you can leave the house, go to work, and when you come home, it is still there.” (Diaz, quoted in Baumgärtel 2007)

Diaz’s quote is evidence for my earlier proposition. He describes his films as paintings and reasons this by pointing to the almost static nature of his cinematic work. There is more to this, however, and this will facilitate an understanding of why slow-film directors such as Tsai Ming-liang are leading a renewed displacement of film; from the movie theatre to the gallery.

One major aspect to consider in the study of the relationship between slow films and paintings is the role of landscape and the treatment of nature. Bo Jeffares writes, “[a]s man’s urbanizing programme has increased and his control of his wild surrounding become more extreme, the kind of innocent interest in rustic life … has become an escapist obsession.” (Jeffares 1979: 6) Much similar to landscape painting, the focus in slow films lies on rural areas and nature. This is a key element of Slow Cinema, which only few filmmakers deliberately ignore. Elaborate shots of a landscape force the viewer to linger over what he sees, and thus slow down the narrative progression. The landscape is, what we could term the ‘argument’ in the language of art theorists. It inhabits a dominant role and becomes a character in its own right. It is an interesting point as landscape and character function as a mirror for one another.

A second link to painting is the way characters are framed. Photography popularised the close-up, especially of human faces. It was the key novel feature photography has introduced to the Arts. Nevertheless, painters remained generally keen on illustrating the whole picture, setting the character against his natural surrounding. You have to search really hard in order to find a close-up in a slow film. Filmmakers tend to approach their subjects in much similar ways to painters.

Overall, then, combined with earlier remarks on slow films as being similar to static art, the framing of characters in long-shots, shying away from close-ups, and the presence of landscape which acquired a special place in art in the, what Sherman Lee called, the ‘materialistic’ 19th century (Lee 1962: 3), Diaz’s films can, similar to a vast range of slow films, be read as static paintings.

Slow Cinema at the Museum

How does this affect the reception of slow films, then? Incorporating aesthetics of still art, such as painting, can Slow Cinema evoke a justified response in a movie theatre audience?

It is of interest here that Thomas Elsaesser has described Slow Cinema as the “musealization of the cinema” (Elsaesser 2011: 117). The screening of slow films in cinemas turn movie theatres into sites of contemplation, which has formerly been the case only of galleries and museums. Elsaesser’s point is crucial, yet I propose to read it in a different way. It is more intriguing to speak of slow films as exhibits, which demand a different venue. Reasons for this can be found in studies of video art.

Video artists have long combined aesthetics of static art with those of moving images. A good example is Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho in which he slowed down the original Hitchcock movie in order to extend the narrative over a period of twenty-four hours. It is so slow that movement is barely perceptible. So is 24 Hour Psycho a film, or is it still art?

Michael Newman argues that moving image art recontextualised cinema. It has introduced “a new dimension of reflexivity because of the frame provided by the institution of art and its history.” (Newman 2009: 88) In a nutshell: we associate galleries with contemplation, and cinemas with entertainment. The venue shapes expectations as films, or any other kind of art, are experienced in specific contexts. Therefore, Newman correctly stresses that “once the moving image is placed in the gallery it is implicitly experienced in relation to art that does not move: painting, sculpture, and photography.” (Newman 2009: 96) Having established to what degree slow films share characteristics with non-moving art, it appears evident that the gallery space, as Tsai Ming-liang pointed out in an interview, is the most appropriate venue.

In her study of gallery films, Catherine Fowler argues that “gallery films are different from cinema films, and that if shown in a cinema they would not achieve the vertical expansion that takes effect in the gallery.” (Fowler 2004: 338) Similar to Chinese art, which sees vertical expansion as a method of in-depth analysis, slow films put the same emphasis on depth. This is a prominent element in gallery installations. In fact, in a study of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, Jihoon Kim speaks of “cinemas of the gallery” (Kim 2012: 129). Although slow films are not gallery films per se, I argue that Slow Cinema can be described as a cinema of the gallery. One example from personal experience: The screening of Diaz’s eight-hour epic Melancholia (2008) in Newcastle in March last year took place in a cinema. This, however, was not experienced as such. Sitting on comfy sofas and leaving the auditorium from time to time in order to grab a coffee or give my eyes a break, made it feel as if I had been in a gallery or a museum, a venue which offers me to return to an artefact when needed, and taking a break when desired. Yet, this film was part of a festival at which slowness was celebrated. The movie theatre as a venue implies that the viewer sits down and stays seated until the end of the screening. But this widely accepted and adopted cinema-behaviour-code is not even something the filmmakers themselves imagine. As Diaz points out:

 “I don’t believe in the concept that you have to sit in the cinema for two hours and watch a story that is compressed in this period of time. Cinema can be anything. My films are not purposely done for the cinema anymore.” (Diaz, quoted in Baumgärtel 2007)

Apart from the blurring line between moving image and static art, there is one additional intriguing factor. Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz – these slow-film directors talk openly about the link between slow film and gallery, or slow film and painting. It is remarkable that these directors are from the East, a region whose philosophy has traditionally seen time as irreversible and continuously flowing. This perception of time has influenced people’s artwork, and art tends to be contemplative, following Buddhist and Taoist teachings of a higher understanding. I believe there is a link between this and the push towards alternative screening venues. But further research needs to be done in order to explain this phenomenon fully.

[If you want to use parts of this paper for your own research, please reference it appropriately. Thanks!]

The invisible princes

When I watched Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos again, I had a nice encounter with a prince, the prince of the black dwarfs to be exact. The main character’s mother, who ends up in a mental institution, had been observed by the dwarfs. This is, at least, how the story goes. The dwarfs snatched her soul and from that moment on she was prisoner of the prince. I saw the film a couple of times, but only now I find the prince very interesting.

Reason for this is the use of another prince, namely in Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. It struck me that both directors use “the prince”, without any explanation, in order to refer to the dark side. It is a confusing game. I’m sure that most of us think of handsome men, when the word “prince” pops up. Both Tarr and Diaz, however, refer to the Prince of Darkness. The Devil. Lucifer. However you want to name him. In Encantos, the prince snatches souls. In Werckmeister, he incites violence. 

carmen and pongapong flower

Neither of them is visible. They are imaginary figures. The presence of the prince in Encantos is more or less announced via the use of the Pongapong Flower, which grows in the main character’s back yard. The mother takes it as a sign for the return of the prince. The flower is interestingly called the Corpse Flower; a poignant choice for the indication of a character’s descent into madness and finally into death. The flower is only a mere attempt to render the invisible visible. In fact, the prince remains unseen and is only talked about.

It is similar to the prince in Werckmeister. His (imaginary?) presence in the town square, accompanied by the whale, incites violence and anger amongst the townspeople. He’s spoken of, and advertised as an attraction of the circus. But he, too, remains a ghost. You may want to assign the name “prince” to the figure the people discover in the hospital’s shower room, if you desire to make him visible.

However, the use of the princes in those two films brings up an interesting thought: slow films have a dark side. Think about Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his use of ghosts (Mekong Hotel comes to mind). It is the acknowledgement of higher spirits. But it is also a return to classical stories. The devil used to be present all the time. In popular film, the baddy isn’t the devil. He’s simply a human baddy. Popular films are “earthly” if you want. Slow films, though not all of them, are kind of earthly-heavenly-spiritual. And they bring the devil back into play, suggesting that not everything can be explained rationally.

Interview with Zhengfan Yang (Distant)

Before I go ahead with more blog posts on the relation of Slow Cinema and Chinese painting, here’s a brief email interview with director Zhengfan Yang, director of Distant. I have posted a comment on the film a while ago and he was kind enough to answer a few brief questions for me.

Why “Distant”? The title of your film appears to comment on the aesthetics of the film. But there also seems to be more. 
The aesthetics of the film refers to the the wide shots, the long takes and the way I connected the audience with the film, all these are about “distance”. And it’s also about the subjects, each long take contains a small story about distance.
The characters in your film are a mystery to the viewer, because you refrain from employing close-ups, which could show their facial expressions or their body language. Why do you refuse the viewer access to the characters?

On one hand, the film is not about the characters but the distance between characters. I was trying to show the distance between the characters and even the distance between the audience and the characters, so it’s ridiculous to give close-ups to bring the audience and the characters closer. It’s not about how to let the audience to understand the characters but how NOT to. All I wanna do is to avoid the audience to understand them. We are strangers and strangers. That’s our situation today.
On the other hand, for me, the atmosphere of a film is more important than the characters. I denied the viewer access to both the characters and the story. I deliberately cut off the connections between all these 13 shots, I mean, I could have built up many connection between all these stories and leave some more imagination to the audience. They might think, “oh here’s the police I saw in the hospital scene”, but I didn’t. There will be no distance if they are connected.
For me, each long-take was a film on its own. 

Yes. As I said, I disconnected the 13 sections, so naturally each long take can be one on its own. And the story in each long take is a fragment I collected from the reality, from what I have heard, or from my own experience or imagination. I kept them as fragments as they were at the very beginning instead of developing into a whole full story, with built-up, climax and conclusion.
 Is “Distant” an active engagement with the canon of Slow Cinema?
I am not sure, to be honest with you. But by slowing the film, it allows more sense of time to come from the image and sound, and allows more observation on the space too. Most of the time we see only actions or dialogue in a shot, because many filmmakers just don’t work on time and space and so when the action is done, they have to cut it away. But there’s also time and space. I am creating a world on the screen with the time and space, using the image and the sound, and I want to introduce the audience to feel them.
Do you see yourself as a slow-film director?
Same, I am not sure, I don’t want to define myself as a certain kind of filmmaker, although it is true that the film I made is slow because it is dealing with a certain kind of subject, and the time and space, which I concern as the most important issue for me in cinema. Actually I believe that we are all dealing with time and space, but it doesn’t means that “slow” is the only way to do so.
What is your background? When did you start making films?
I have a bachelor in law but I spent most of my time watching films in that four years. Then, I started making short films around 2007 after I finished my study in law school. I was taught by a film professor, Zhou Chuanji, in a one-on-one film course for one year. After that I went to Hong Kong for a Master of Fine Art program in film production. I just graduated last year and Distant is my first feature film.
Are there any specific directors, writers, philosophers or general artists who have influenced your work or from whom you take your inspiration?
Well, Michelangelo Antonioni inspired me by his way of exploring the space in a film while I see how time has been captured and sculptured  in Tarkovsky’s film. For contemporary cinema, I consider Lav Diaz as one of the greatest filmmakers, together with Apichatpong. Both of them are shaping the future of cinema. But when it comes to something about influence, I believe I was influenced a lot by Tsai Ming-Liang, mostly the image, the sound, and the ambience he shaped in his films…
 Are you working on a new project?
Yes, I am going to premiere a documentary, Out Of Focus, in Cinema du Reel (France) at the end of March. The documentary is directed by Shengze Zhu, producer and cinematographer of Distant. I worked as producer, cinematographer and editor in this documentary.
I also have several projects and some interesing ideas that I want to make, but it’s getting more and more difficult to get funding for films. Most people want good stories instead of good films.