Landscape / Character

The end of the year proves to be busy, and it’s not easy at the moment to sit down and watch a film. I hope that I soon get to see Wang Bing’s Dead Souls. This is the one film I still want to see this year, if I don’t manage to see more than one. Although I should. There are still two Nikolaus Geyrhalter films waiting for me. So much slowness, so little time. This irony… ūüôā In any case, I need to prepare an article on the uses of sound and silence in the films of Lav Diaz because I have been invited to Lyon for a study day on the director. I might publish this one either here on the blog or in the next issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine. 

In any case, there is an outstanding project from, believe it or not, seven years ago. In October 2011, I wanted to submit a paper abstract to a conference on landscape and film in Ireland, but had never found the time in the end. At the same, my interest in Slow Cinema was still in its early stages. Nevertheless, I knew that there was a special relationship between the landscapes, the streets, the empty and degrading houses of B√©la Tarr and his films’ characters. In many ways, what I have noticed in the films of Tarr only returned once I began to discover the work of Lav Diaz. These two directors are special in their assigning a sort of character status to their landscapes, turning them into ghostly characters that mirror the characters’ inner psychological landscapes; their pain, their angst, their suffering, their devastation. 

Anything that surrounds a character becomes a character itself. This isn’t the case with all slow films, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is a particular characteristic of Slow Cinema. B√©la Tarr, however, used to be one of those few directors who persistently followed this alley and who also assigned a special role to his camera. Everything became a character, everything played a decisive role, and everything added to the heaviness and power of his films. For that conference in Ireland seven years ago, I had planned to look at how the landscape/the surrounding becomes a mirror of the characters’ psyche. In particular, I had wanted to look at Karrer, who is, of course, the main character in Tarr’s Damnation, and at the woman he seems to be infatuated with. I believe that Damnation is really the first vertical, in-depth film, which looked specifically inside the characters. Characters began to have extraordinary depth and were more than just elements used to push a narrative forward. 

We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information. … If you have a chance to make some really deep things, I think everyone can understand everything. The question is always the deepness: how you can touch the people. (B√©la Tarr)

At the same time, Damnation is perhaps the most obvious example of how directors can use landscape in order to underline the characters, if I could say it in this way. According to interviews, Tarr spends a lot of time looking for the right background to his story. And it pays off. He selects his landscapes carefully, making sure that they’re in perfect alignment with his characters and his stories. The beginning of Damnation is already a good pointer towards this. It is perhaps the most iconic opening of all of Tarr’s films, perhaps even of all slow films (I’m sure you think the same!). We watch cable cars passing by, a remnant of the city’s coal mining past. The sound is perhaps even more incisive. I can still hear it when I think back to the film… The camera slowly, very slowly zooms out and we realise that we don’t actually watch the cable cars, but a man (Karrer) watching the cable cars. We watch someone watching something. This is repeated several times in Tarr’s oeuvre. Just think of his 1994 seven-hour masterpiece Satantango, in which we watch an old doctor watching his neighbours. Bernhard Hetzenhauer wrote a fantastic book about this, Das Innen im Aussen, which, if you can read German, is a must-read. 

The cable cars, buckets that used to carry coal from one place to another, are a pointer to the past, the death of the mining industry having plunged the village into its own death spiral. The houses we see are in a sad state. The persistent, continuous rain adds to the atmosphere of something passing by, of something that is clinging on but knowing that it won’t have strength for much longer. The decay of the houses foreshadows the decay of the characters. If anything, it is perhaps the rain that acts as the most faithful interpretation, or rather mirror image, of Karrer who is in love with the wife of another man. He doesn’t accept being rejected and, in the end, loses everything. 

Take it or leave it, this is what you’re stuck with. What can you do? You lose your words, yet you cannot go. It’s been over for a long time. It’s good that utopia exists. Good to know I won’t be here for long. Take it or leave it. (song in Damnation)

The identities of landscape and character overlap in Damnation. They merge to become one. When Karrer offers the woman’s husband to do a smuggling job for him in order to get him out of the way, he becomes morally corrupt. He would do anything to be able to continue his love affair. Karrer’s offer shows his own downward spiral, the moral corruption becoming a picture of his internal degradation. Tarr intercuts this degradation with scenes of the village. Damnation is interesting because throughout the film, the focus remains on the actual characters alone. The director presents a village that is pretty much emptied of people. The only constant companion is the rain. This makes is easy to establish a link between the few characters we follow (Karrer, the woman and her husband) and the empty landscapes we see in scenes before or after them. Who is of more importance in the film?

Interestingly enough, there are scenes that question the importance of the characters and which focus more intensively on the landscapes, or the surroundings in general. This is helped with Tarr’s independent camera, independent in the way that it moves wherever it wants without necessarily following a character. There is one scene that makes this absolutely clear. After initially having rejected Karrer’s offer to go out for dinner, the woman allows him into her flat and they have sex. This sequence says more than a thousand words. The camera doesn’t bother much with the couple. It looks around the room, panning slowly and carefully to allow us an in-depth study of the austere flat and the rundown streets outside. The non-passionate and loveless act between the two characters is seemingly unimportant. What matters is the expression of the characters’ inner lovelessness through the expression of an austere mise-en-sc√®ne and natural elements like rain that carve deeper and deeper holes into a slowly dying internal and external environment. 

Writing on the film Barren Lives by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Jean -Claude Bernadet suggests that the structure of the film

“is not conditioned by the action of the characters, but rather by nature: it is the rain and the drought that decide the beginning, the middle, and the end of the film.” (in Representing the Rural, p156)

One cannot deny that Tarr follows the same principle in Damnation, perhaps more so than in his other films with the exception of his last film, The Turin Horse. What characters may not be able to express is expressed through their surroundings as metaphors. Tarr’s characters are not easy to read. There is little emotion involved. Everything happens inside them. When Karrer leaves the woman’s flat after they had sex, he doesn’t give any hint as to how he feels. But for once, the rain has stopped. Things brighten up. It is nature that tells us about Karrer’s feelings, not Karrer himself. Tarr makes himself deliberately dependent on nature, on psychologically charged landscapes in order to give his seemingly flat characters an extraordinary depth. 

The end of the film is most emblematic of the director’s pursuit of blending characters with their surroundings so that they become one. Over the course of two hours, Karrer slowly disintegrates, as does the village. With nothing left, Karrer becomes no more than a dog, on all fours imitating the stray dog who barks at him, drenched in rain and mud. Damnation is a story about the life of a dog in human disguise, whose mask drops ever so slowly, but continuously, just like the persistent rain slowly but surely swallows the village. It won’t leave any traces, and Karrer, too, will disappear.

The Long Take – Art Cinema and the Wondrous (Lutz Koepnick, 2017)

Time for a new book review. It’s been comparatively quiet in academic publishing when it comes to Slow Cinema. I speak of experience when I say that it’s not easy to publish something on the subject in an academic context. Again and again, I have to point out that the best writing comes from outside academia. Just recently, the online film magazine¬†Multiplot¬†published a¬†¬†special issue on Slow Cinema ¬†with articles on Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra and Lav Diaz as well as thoughts on online platforms such as those by¬†Experimental Film Society and¬†tao films. Those articles are free of constraint and therefore fit to the subject.

During my PhD research, I have come across Lutz Koepnick’s magnificent book¬†On Slowness, which I reviewed here on this blog. Koepnick impressed me with his non-confirmative, out-of-the-box thinking. The result was that I became sadly aware of the limits of writing up to that point. Koepnick’s work aligned itself with my own writing, trying to see things from a different perspective, introducing a new angle, a new sub-topic, a challenging way of thinking about slowness. At the time, the author looked at areas other than cinema.¬†On Slowness was a necessary contribution in order to diversify the debate on what slowness can mean and stand for. Most importantly, Koepnick noted a link between slowness and memory, something that I was particularly happy to see because I had often thought I was the only one seeing (feeling) this. If you haven’t had a chance yet to read¬†On Slowness, you should get yourself a copy because it is a refreshing take on slowness in various art forms.

Koepnick’s new book¬†The Long Take – Art Cinema and the Wondrous (2017) differs in many ways from the author’s first piece in that it is more focused and therefore also more constrained. If you have read his previous work,¬†The Long Take¬†will feel less liberating. It’ll feel drier and more directed. The book isn’t a journey the way¬†On Slowness was. Instead, it is a directed effort to come to a previously established result. It feels more academic, and here it needs to be said that academic literature just doesn’t¬†feel Slow Cinema. It has always failed at it, and those articles that try to change this have a hard time getting published.

Contrary to¬†On Slowness, Lutz Koepnick focuses in¬†The Long Take much more on cinema, albeit only one chapter is dedicated to Slow Cinema. Koepnick remains faithful to his approach of broadening the subject matter, as he had done before. This isn’t a book about Slow Cinema, it is a book about the uses of long takes in (art) cinema in general. Once more, Koepnick asks us to think out of the box. It is true that the long take is more often than not discussed exclusively in the context of Slow Cinema. I have always had an issue with this and argued in my PhD thesis that this approach was wrong, given that even early cinema contained long takes, primarily because editing hadn’t been invented yet, so actions had to be filmed from beginning to end. Koepnick follows a similar line, writing about Andy Warhol, Ulrich K√∂hler, Michael Haneke, Francis Alys and Sophie Calle.

Something the author introduces to us, and to the field of cinematic slowness, is the idea of the “wondrous”. According to Koepnick, long takes challenge “what it means to be attentive today” (9). Indeed, the idea of attention, of being attentive, of our patience has emerged (and has been foregrounded) when technology began to speed up our lives. What has happened to our attention as a result of an increased use of technology? As a result of ever quicker cuts in Hollywood action movies? But there is also the wondrous, which, Koepnick argues, the long take confronts us with. One might think of the feeling of wonder coming as a surprise, as a quick sort-of lightbulb that enlightens us. And yes, this is what it does. Wonder comes as enlightenment, in particular when one realises that you have never actually¬†seen something, but have only¬†looked¬†at it.

“Wonder happens suddenly. It ruptures the fabric of time, yet unlike the traumatic experiences of shock, the wondrous neither overwhelms nor petrifies the senses. It produces curiosity rather than fear, rapt attention instead of sensory edginess or mental shutdown.” (9)

It’s not only about wonder to me, albeit Koepnick makes a very good point here. In the end, what often happens if you’re following the idea of yes-boredom (i.e. you’re willing to engage with something that seems to be boring), then you begin to marvel over what you see. It is the extraordinary ordinariness that we keep neglecting, forgetting, ignoring because it doesn’t fit into the concept of progress. We don’t have time for it. But, Koepnick reminds us, the long take can be a way to instil this wonder in us. And it can achieve this through many different ways. The author notes that the long take is not necessarily a form of cinema only. Instead, “it travels across different platforms of moving image culture” (3). As he has done in¬†On Slowness, Koepnick tickles my personal interest in the aesthetic of slow and its links to memory, in particular to trauma. Writing about B√©la Tarr and his apocalyptic films, he suggests:

“Long takes like Tarr’s embrace the mechanical time of moving image projection to open a door for the unpredictable temporality of human experience. … their aim is to envisage futures where trauma, fear, and ever-alert self-management cease to have a hold on what we know, how we act, and what we sense.” (12-13)

In¬†On Slowness already, Koepnick noted correctly (in line with Chinese belief) that there is not one temporality, but several temporalities. Lav Diaz has always been emblematic for me in this context. His lengthy films always combine monotony with shock, the slow and the fast. It’s not so much a rollercoaster. It is a smooth, but very affective/effective way of showing that life doesn’t run at the same speed all the time. On the contrary, it varies because of our personal experience. Traumatic experience, for instances, can make you feel as though what happens happens in slow motion. There are other events which may appear to have passed quicker than anything else you have ever experienced. It’s this mix of temporalities that Koepnick (and Diaz) foreground in their work.

Part of this, in Koepnick’s work, is the formation of a new term, which I liked and which made me think: the cinema of thresholds. In his writing on the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang, the author identifies a very specific camera in the oeuvre of Tsai, a form of long take which sits at the edge of movement and transformation. In his own words,

“(The) cinema of the threshold does not present the slow as a mere inversion of today’s speed but rather as a medium to develop fundamentally different notions of movement and spatiotemporal mapping.” (83)

The concept of a cinema of threshold deserves further reflection on what the long take can achieve, although I noticed while reading that despite those very good arguments, Koepnick often notes the long take’s opposition to modern speed, which, if you’re a bit pedantic about it, cancels out the very argument I have just quoted. Nevertheless, the threshold between movement and transformation is an interesting one, in particular in video art. From my work for tao films, I know that there is certainly something marvellous about video art’s use of slowness in order to transform something; a background, an image, our perception, our thinking, our experience. It is not about merely showing us that there is another idea to life, a side that is slower than what we believe is normal. It is instead about transforming something, actively, which becomes a core characteristic of Tsai’s¬†Walker series.

“What we witness in these twenty-one shots is the birth of cinema from the spirit of photography – or conversely a film trying everything at its disposal to escape the demands of forward motion and return back to the photographic.” (78)

Tsai’s¬†Walker is essentially about persistent transformation. I have long argued that Slow Cinema combines photography and cinema, and Koepnick picks up on this. There is a push-and-pull between static and moving images, between movement and stasis without ever being either one or the other exclusively. Tsai Ming-liang’s films, especially his¬†Walker series, invite us to consider the constant flux that not only images, but also we ourselves are confronted with throughout our lives.

All of that said, however, there are downsides of the book, which disappointed me, because I know Koepnick’s earlier works. I loved his precise writing in¬†On Slowness, liberating (liberated) but precise, to the point. His clear language. In¬†The Long Take, you often find expressions such as “some critics think”, “it is often concluded”, “critics argue” without the author noting who exactly argues or thinks this way. His precise writing gives way to generalisations, which is problematic. If you find an argument somewhere, note the author behind it so that others can verify it…first thing you learn as a PhD student. This rather annoying point is combined with a clear lack of proof-reading. In the last five years or so, academic publishers have obviously cut their proof-reader staff, because the quality of books is just no longer the same.¬†The Long Take is by far not as bad as Dirk de Bruyn’s¬†The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art, which was a complete disaster and should have been shredded and republished right away. Nevertheless, it feels as though proof-reading was the least concern of both author and publisher. It’s part of a trend to cut, cut, cut and publish texts no matter in what state, just so that you can be first in a specific field. I don’t think it’s the right direction, but authors and publishers have to decide if they really want to continue going down this route.

As far as the book’s bibliography is concerned, I have to say that it’s rather thin. It should be said that Koepnick makes perhaps more references to women writers than other authors before him in this field. But he has unfortunately fallen into the same trap, every other published author has so far fallen into: one always reads the same names. Elsaesser, Marks, Adorno, Benjamin, Jaffe, Flanagan, Deleuze, Schlosser, Kracauer, Mulvey, Ranci√®re. I would be delighted to find something by Elina Reitere (PhD, Narration in Slow Cinema), or Diana Poppa (PhD, Slowness in Romanian cinema), or seeing my own work. The excuse that one isn’t aware of those works just isn’t convincing and the longer they’re ignored the less convincing the excuse becomes. Books on the subject matter we’re speaking of don’t have to be based on the same authors over and over again. It is a choice that the author takes when sitting down at his/her desk. It is also for this reason that¬†On Slowness felt much more refreshing and a real addition to the field.¬†The Long Take,¬†on the other hand, while containing several interesting points, doesn’t reach the previous book’s quality.

Shoah – Claude Lanzmann (1985)

It is clear to me that Claude Lanzmann’s¬†Shoah (1985) would never make it into a Slow Cinema list. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, it should simply remain a film apart from the rest in order to preserve its sheer monumentality. And truth be told, it might not¬†feel like a slow film at all. It certainly feels different from the B√©la Tarrs, from the Apichatpong Weerasethakuls, from the Pedro Costas of the world. Nevertheless, I would like to jot down some notes and try to establish a to me inevitable link to the nature of Slow Cinema.

I have become aware of the rather limited approach we seem to have in terms of establishing what is and what isn’t slow. Of course, the respective and perceived pace of a film is entirely subjective, and what is slow for me might well be fast for you. At the same time, there seems to be a sort of mutual agreement that¬†slow happens primarily in feature films. Fiction films, to be more precise. Documentaries don’t pop up very often in our discussion on Slow Cinema. This blog is also a good mirror of this. There is, of course, the work of Wang Bing which has been so often used as an example of Slow Cinema. Apart from a sole exception, Wang Bing is, and possibly remains, a documentary filmmaker whose cinematic slowness is so essential to the stories he tells. He couldn’t tell those stories in any other way. At the same time, he seems to be pretty much the only widely known slow-documentary director, who pops up time and again in people’s writings and in their lists.

Why is this? Why do we seem to have problems to classify documentaries as slow? I believe that documentaries are, often in any case, slower than fiction films. It is somewhat “acceptable” to make a poetic documentary, a piece that takes its time and which allows people to tell their stories. Documentaries are only categorised as special when they are particularly long, which is the case with most of Wang Bing’s films, or Claude Lanzmann’s.¬†Shoah is, by and large, the slowest documentary I have seen, which made me think about its “ingredients” and how they compare to the slow films that have become somewhat canonical.

I do not intend to write a review of the almost ten-hour long film. I would fail. And I would fail miserably. Whether one can write an adequate review at all, I have my doubts. There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions to mention, so many complexities to unravel that written words would never do justice to Shoah. Instead, I want to note a few aesthetic particularities, which I noticed were in sync with what I have written about in the last couple of years.

It remains true that not all slow films are long films. It remains true, too, that not all long films are slow films.¬†Shoah is a particular case, however. Lanzmann set out to create a portrait as detailed as possible of what has been called the “Endl√∂sung”. Similar to any major books you find on the subject, there is little you can cut out. The subject is complex, based on so many orders, on so many levels, in so many administrative regions, so much bureaucracy – it is impossible to recount this part of the Second World War in the usual, narrative way. Take the work of Saul Friendl√§nder, “Nazi Germany and the Jews”, a two-part investigation into the persecution and extermination of the Jews. Overall, the French version (as an example) counts around 1,500 pages. A monstrous piece, in many ways. Just like some people argue that the Holocaust defies representation, certain writers (like Friedl√§nder) and filmmakers (like Lanzmann) have shown that the Holocaust dislocates time and space. It dislocates narrative coherence, albeit it needs to be said at this point that Lanzmann tried to allow the “story” of¬†Shoah to progress in an almost linear fashion. The Holocaust defies cinematic cuts, or ellipses to push the narrative forwards faster, to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. There are no gaps. Not only to prevent the viewer from filling gaps with escapist ideas, romantic ideas which they take from Hollywood films, which in most cases always have a Happy End. It is also about forcing the viewer to listen, to hear, to imagine the unimaginable.

Shoah doesn’t cut. It listens extensively to testimony of survivors, of bystanders, of perpetrators. If there is one thing that narrative convention in cinema, which has developed over decades, has done to us is that we no longer have the patience to listen to survivors. We expect them to tell their stories quickly, in a classical three-act structure, and please do not give any details. Our obsession with narrative conventions has silenced survivors. Alexandre Dauge-Roth has noted this problem in his writing on the genocide in Rwanda. The camera in Lanzmann’s film, on the other hand, remains with the one who speaks. Certain monologues of survivors feel endless, filled with horror, and yet it is impossible to stop listening. The very characteristic of Slow Cinema – giving time to a monologue, a dialogue, an event – is crucial here because time, that means long duration in this case, can assign the witnessing function to the viewer. And in becoming witnesses, we lift at least some of the burden on the shoulder of those survivors who were willing to talk to Lanzmann. Long duration, perceived slowness expressed through little to no movement within a frame, and the use of long takes, all parts and parcel of Slow Cinema, become vital in the representation of trauma.

It is of little importance who is speaking in front of the camera. Survivor, bystander, perpetrator – they all contribute to¬†film as trauma. And the two aesthetics I looked at during my PhD research – duration and absence in Lav Diaz’s cinema – are very much the centre of Lanzmann’s work, not only of¬†Shoah, but also of his last film¬†Four Sisters. The latter film shares a lot with Wang Bing’s¬†Fengming, which also consists of a single interview with a single woman in a single room. Minimalism becomes a vehicle for the transfer of traumatic memories. The focus on interviews, of people talking in front of the camera, their words translated on camera so as to keep the authenticity of what happens alive, all of this results in one major theme: absence.

Shoah is perhaps one of the most haunting films, precisely because it doesn’t show anything. It can’t. It is a post-trauma film, a film that is visually set in the time after the traumatic event occurred, but where the monologues position us inside the traumatic event itself. It is common practice in films by director Lav Diaz, for instance, that traumatic events are spoken about but never shown. Perpetrators are mostly spoken of, not seen very often, or not seen at all. Trauma resides in the past.¬†Shoah is one of those films, albeit it must be so by default. The absence of traumatic imagery results from the absence of real imagery of the Holocaust (excluding four photographs that have been found – see further Georges Didi-Huberman). This means that the haunting nature of the event, as well as of the film, is entirely natural, is consequential rather than forced upon from the outside. There was no choice, there were no options – the particular present absence / absent presence, which is so vital to slow films and their treatment of trauma (for example, the films of Lav Diaz or of Pedro Costa) stands at the core of¬†Shoah.

This particular point is most visible, perhaps even haptic if you wish, in the second half of the film. Filip M√ľller, a Czech survivor, speaks in detail about the process of the extermination; the arrival of a train, the undressing, the hair cuts, the way the people had to walk, their way through the so-called Schlauch, their screams. Lanzmann overlays most of M√ľller’s detailed description with images of the ruins, the remnants of the Auschwitz gas chambers, with images of what has remained; nothing but the mere skeletons of the past. There’s a friction here; the images of ruins invites one to imagine, invites one to let the imagination wander, perhaps even wonder. Yet M√ľller’s monologue, in painful detail, doesn’t allow for imagination. He doesn’t allow for gaps, for holes to open up. There is a constant push-and-pull between what we would possibly like to do as viewer, and what the survivor wants us to do, namely to listen.

Nothing is more effective than¬†not showing. Nothing brings out (post-)trauma so well as does a rejection of visibility, of showing. Nothing makes the past more palpable than using time and space invested in listening, and not only simply listening to words. It is about really listening, not just hearing some words. Lanzmann’s¬†Shoah is so minimalist, so simple that it creates an adequate space and an adequate time for traumatic events to resurface in the survivors’ memories, which can then be uttered, be brought to the surface, be brought into the open. Only slowness, only unconventionality, only long duration and absence, only minimalism can do this. Only Slow Cinema, I personally believe, can really be a cinema of (post-)trauma because all types of aesthetics that are favourable of an exploration of post-trauma are at the filmmaker’s disposal. Slow Cinema can become a vehicle for survivor testimony, if used adequately.

(NB: I began this sort of work in my PhD thesis. If you want to read it, it’s available here.)

I don’t want to sleep alone – Tsai Ming-liang (2006)

I discovered Tsai Ming-liang’s films early on in my research into Slow Cinema, or even well before I started my PhD. The director from Taiwan could, in fact, be the second slow-film director I have come across, and¬†I don’t want to sleep alone (2006) was my very first Tsai film. It was great to return to the film last night. I was not only reminded of the qualities of Tsai as a filmmaker and observer of society. I felt as tough I was going back in time, doing the first baby steps in discovering aspects of Slow Cinema that would become so vital for my later work. In everything I have said and written so far, I have always considered Tsai to be an exceptional director. I’m not using the word “exceptional” only in terms of quality, albeit it certainly applies to him. There is no doubt about it. But what I actually think of is Tsai’s particular aesthetic, primarily his use of architecture in conveying a sense of alienation, isolation, solitude, the sense of being outside, excluded, different.

I don’t want to sleep alone is very strong on this specific element. The story is, as in most slow films, comparatively easy to summarise. The film tells two parallel stories. One of them concerns a young man paralysed from the neck down. He’s tied to bed and is looked after by a young woman, who lives in a claustrophobic, cramped mezzanine above a woman’s flat. The woman’s relationship to the paralysed man is never clearly established. I’m not entirely sure who she is. She could be his mother, perhaps? It matters little. Towards the end of the film, an estate agent leads people through the flat where the young man lays in his bed. It is a bizarre situation. The cruelty is rubbed into our face. I felt helpless as a viewer. ¬†It’s an uncomfortable situation. The young man is exposed to the views of total strangers. The aim is to sell the house, and in the off we hear an argument about this: “You only think of selling the house. Where will your brother live then? Will your wife look after him?” The scene ends with the maid being slapped in the face by the woman under whose roof she lives. What has just happened?

The question isn’t that unusual for a Tsai film. The reason for this is that he makes extensive use of off-screen sound and dialogue, as well as a particular “architectural” aesthetic. I believe that Tsai’s films are often more about what isn’t there than about what we see clearly. But compared to other directors, Tsai doesn’t simply put focus on the off. He uses walls, doors, and hallways instead in order to represent a border, a sort of frontier between the present and the absent, the places of¬†here and¬†there,¬†the places of¬†where I am and¬†where I want to be. Tsai’s frame architecture is a maze which we have to navigate. Architecture, in whatever way it is used, is an expression of the characters’ minds. B√©la Tarr as well as Lav Diaz use landscapes in order to represent their characters’ psychology. For Tsai, it is primarily the particular characteristic of architecture that becomes the main character in all of his later films. Walls, streets, staircases – they all speak volumes.

What struck me most was the way in which Tsai filmed walls. Almost all of them run diagonally through the frame. No one stands straight in front of a wall. There is no frontal shot of any wall at all. Walls run through most of the film’s frames, but they only do so diagonally. This suggests the opposite of “a light at the end of the tunnel”. The walls close off the frames. It suggests increased imprisonment, or perhaps rather a continuation of imprisonment, the continuation of isolation. In almost all scenes in which Tsai lets walls run diagonally, there is no sense of escape for the characters. It feels as though the walls close in more and more, the further they walk towards the horizon. This is a strong statement, especially in a film such as¬†I don’t want to sleep alone, in which many of the characters are migrant workers, some of them from Bangladesh, who try to make a living, but who, we know, will never escape their precarious situation. They are as confined to their situation, as is the paralysed man in his bed, exposed to others, to external circumstances (such as the sale of a house).

But it wouldn’t be a Tsai Ming-liang film without intimate human connections that appear so bizarre that it is almost funny. This is something Tsai shares with Albert Serra; an underlying sense of humour, a dark humour, a dry humour that might not be for everyone, but that can almost be considered the core of their work. Neither director is making straightforward comedies. And yet, both include in their films scenes that lighten the mood a bit, that allows the viewer a bit of relief from the depressive world the directors show, albeit this is more true of Tsai than of Serra. In any case, what matters here is Tsai’s focus on human connections, on the intimacy (or not) between them and what our world, our society does to us. It seems as though human connections will always be there, regardless of external circumstances. And Tsai not only shows those connections on screen, such as when the character of Lee Kang-sheng masturbates a woman in a dark backstreet, just behind a small restaurant at the corner where she is working.

Connection, human or not, is, just like architecture, a core element in¬†I don’t want to sleep alone. The title itself suggests as much. Loneliness in a busy city which never sleeps. Alienation juxtaposed with an eternal longing for a feeling of intimacy, for warmth. That is the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang. But compared with his later films, which tend to get bleaker and bleaker, and which he empties more and more of human intimacy, there is something of us as loving human beings left. This, of course, is established on a visual level. The use of sound is equally important, however. It starts right at the beginning. While we see the opening credits, we hear German classical music. It appears to be non-diegtic music, music that does not stem from the actual film world but which has been added in post-production. But a cut makes clear that the music is, in fact, diegetic. It comes from a radio that stands on the nightstand next to the bed of the paralysed man. Tsai uses this strategy several times in the film. Music bridges two scenes. It connects them, brings them together, something that the film characters long for, but which only really seems to happen on an auditory level.

Rupture is more present in¬†Sleep than smooth connections. I remember an almost literal jump cut at the beginning of the film from the paralysed man’s room to a scene set in busy streets, showing two characters waiting for take-away food. The rupture, the sudden change in sound, shifting from quietude to sensory overstimulation, made me jump. It’s an extreme change on a visual and on an aural level, which was disorienting. I can imagine that this is what it was like for the migrant workers, depicted in Tsai’s film, when they arrived in the big, unknown city. Although set and filmed in Malaysia,¬†Sleep tells a universal story, which, in fact, a lot of slow films do. But Tsai stands out with his particular aesthetics that make his films as recognisable as any Tarr or Diaz film. Having rewatched the film after seven years, I can say that it wasn’t surprising that I got hooked on the director’s work. He’s just damn good. His films are touching, very expressive, deep and heartfelt.¬†Sleep is also a good entry to Tsai’s work in general, if you’d like to discover it. The advantage is that most of his films are available on DVD. Time for you to check Google!

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 B√©la 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¬†Zerkalo,¬†Crosswinds 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.

Good Luck – Ben Russell (2017)

It’s been quite some time that I have been told to explore the films of Ben Russells. I think the very first recommendation dates back to 2012, when I have been asked to watch his¬†Let each one go where he may (2009). I have never taken the time for this film, primarily because at the time it didn’t fit quite into what I had in mind for my PhD thesis. I am, however, very happy to have finally seen my first Ben Russell film, albeit many years later. Russell’s¬†Good Luck (2017) is an impressive observation of mining in Serbia and Suriname, and is divided into two parts, which aesthetically differ from one another, but which, in the end, tell the same story.

The film begins with a long distance shot of trees, which slowly fades into a shot of what looks like a mine. The camera remains with this scene for a little while. Rather ominous music plays in the background. Music doesn’t function as an entertaining medium here. It rather reinforces what is to come. The camera retreats, very much in B√©la Tarr style (with a pointer to¬†Damnation), and it reveals that we were, in fact, standing inside old ruins, possibly those of a family house. The camera also reveals that the music we hear is played by seven men, a small orchestra, if you want. They leave the building (always followed by Russell’s camera), stand for a little while on the cliffside of the mining site, then walk down a street. The camera is always with them, slowly moving ahead of the seven man, almost steadily pulling them towards itself, until they stop their walk and their music for one man to tell us that he was born in that very city. He regrets that there’s nothing left of it but memories.

This is the introduction to Russell’s¬†Good Luck, a title that might surprise at first, but whose meaning becomes very clear in the course of the film’s running-time of over two hours. After this quite impressive intro, the film switches from colour to black-and-white. A miner sits in front of a camera. He’s smoking, looking into the camera, looking behind the camera. This portrait is arresting. It not only stops the film’s steady progress for a moment, but it also arrests our eyes. It is almost like having a photograph, or a collection of photographs, inserted into a moving image presentation. After less than a minute, the miner gets up and turns off the camera. These portraits, which, to me, are iconic of this film and which seem to contain so much more information than Russell’s other shots, function as bookmarks, or even bookends. They function as definite stops, perhaps even as minor shock moments which disconnect us from the almost omnipresent movement in previous and following frames; the movement of the camera, of machines, of people.

It is those portraits that I found most fascinating, containing, as they do, so much information about each miner. In many instances,¬†Good Luck might appear as an almost anonymous portrait of underground and illegal collective mining. In some cases, the director does interact with the workers, both in Serbia and in Suriname, asking them whey they work in a mine, or what they are afraid of. But overall, the film appears removed from the individual until a black-and-white portrait, beautifully shot in 16mm, reminds us that the story is about individuals. Those portraits allow us to study their eyes – where they go, where they stop, what they focus on; their facial features – do they smile? do they seem to be worried? do they play with the camera?; or their posture – are they imposing? are they strong? are they scared? We can study those people we often only see from the distance in detail and therefore get to know them. The workers, who risk their lives in mines in order to earn money for their children’s education, as one worker told the director, become individuals, familiar like you and me. Especially those men working in the underground mine in Serbia, who are, by the nature of their job, hidden from our eyes, are put into spotlight so that we can see those faces, faces of men who simply dream to earn enough money to leave the area.

The two parts of¬†Good Luck almost function as mirror images. The film begins as described above, introduced also by information regarding the whereabouts of the underground mine in Serbia. The man, who speaks about his memories, sets off the first part of the film. The second part, set in Suriname, receives no such introduction. Instead, Russell continues in his usual filmmaking process until the very end, when one of the miners speaks about the existence of gold in the area and the fact that many people come to find it. He’s positioned exactly like the miner from Serbia, slightly to our right. Only at the end do we learn that this part was shot in Suriname. Structurally, these are mirror images, and yet the two parts are different in that they look, and therefore feel, miles apart from one another (which, truth be told, they are in any case – Europe and South America).

Good Luck begins with its exploration of mining in post-war Serbia. For most of the time, we are underground. A lift brings us and a group of workers in the dark underworld and leaves us there for over an hour. The soundscape is important, and Russell recorded a very clear soundtrack to help with our orientation process. And yet, I believe that unless you have been to a mine before or worked there yourself, it is not always immediately clear what is happening. The camera moves slowly, and until it has reached the source of the sounds, the viewer has to get engaged and imagine where the sound could come from. Some scenes, such as two workers drilling a hole into a rock, appear endless, slow but also creating a turmoil because it upsets our senses and the usual smooth duration of the frames that come before and after those explorations of work mechanics. But it’s not all about work. Russell also accompanies the men to their coffee and cigarette break, also in the dark, cut off from civilisation. Their posture, their behaviour – a lot reminded me of the lunch breaks I saw in Wang Bing’s¬†West of the Tracks. There is very little that distinguishes the two, if put next to one another.

Almost everything that happens underground seems magical. Sometimes, we see only torch lights. Sometimes we only see silhouettes. Underground mining is ugly, and even though this film doesn’t fail at making this clear, its aesthetics also add some magic to the visuality of it all, a visuality that is for our eyes only. At one point, I was reminded of fireflies populating the mine. With the beginning of the second part, torches are replaced with bright sunlight at the northeastern coast of South America. We follow a man searching with a metal detector for possible gold stacks. In some ways, this is somewhat similar to what we have seen in the underground mines in Serbia; the jungle envelopes the young miner, there is only little light, until the film cuts and we follow a young man carrying a canister to a for us unknown destination. “No one likes working here”, one of the workers say, mirroring what miners thousands of miles further east have expressed earlier in the film.

And yet, we are in a different world. We’re told about traditions: if you enter a new part of the jungle and want to work it, you have to make an offering to the jungle. Never kill an animal you find while digging. If you spill blood, the jungle is asking for more blood and it’s not a good omen for the mining business. People here are mining for gold, hoping for a better future, for a good salary, for a better life. What this part makes very clear (and I have only noticed it towards the end of the film) is that Russell clearly paints a personal portrait. There are documentaries that focus on the work of machines, on their processes. Russell doesn’t remove the people from the process. On the contrary, he puts them into the centre of his work. We focus on the workers’ faces, their arms, their bodies, without ever fetishising them. The human takes centre stage in an otherwise inhumane work that risks the life of those people. And with that, the title comes attached with a variety of meanings. Good luck surviving underground? Good luck finding gold? Good luck improving your living standard? Good luck earning enough money to fund your kids’ education? Good luck going through this without having an accident?

A lot is there for us to think about. A lot is there to see, and Good Luck is definitely a must-see this year. I was fortunate enough that Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it the other day. Big thanks to the ARTE team!

 

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 B√©la 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 Рeverything 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.

Ex Libris – Frederick Wiseman (2017)

When I wrote about Frederick Wiseman’s¬†Welfare not so very long ago, I did mention how difficult it was to classify Wiseman’s films as slow cinema. They are not slow in itself, but what makes it rather complex is the director’s in-depth observations that result in films that run for three or four hours. I should be careful and I know that I run the risk of equating length with slowness, which is not always the case. Nor is it a standard of Slow Cinema. We all know that directors such as Lav Diaz, who combines cinematic slowness and long duration, are rare. And yet, it seems impossible¬†not to speak about Frederick Wiseman’s new film¬†Ex Libris.

Ex Libris is the latest of Wiseman’s 40 odd films that explore, for the most part, American institutions and American society. As he explained again during the Q&A which followed the screening at the Th√©√Ętre National de la Bretagne in Rennes, these films become films only in the post-production. He tends not to prepare for his films. Instead he goes out and shoots, which, I believe, frees him from certain constraints. If you don’t know anything, you are bound to observe everything in order to learn how things work. He told us outright that he was at the NYPL only once in his life, and that was over 40 years ago. He went out without any knowledge but with the goal to find out about how this institution works. Now, at this point I feel the almost desperate need to mention that I have no respect for viewers, who believe that they know better, that they know how some directors work on set and the director doesn’t know what he himself/herself is doing. I listened to a Q&A with B√©la Tarr once, after the screening of his last film¬†The Turin Horse (2011) in Edinburgh. Some viewers took Tarr for a liar and pretended they knew what he really did or had in mind when he was on set. Some viewers tried the same with Wiseman on Sunday and I salute his inner peace! I’m sure it’s not always easy to stay calm in Q&As when the viewer thinks s/he’s king!

Wiseman’s new documentary is an almost three-and-a-half hour look at the New York Public Library. I expected a lot of scenes of people reading, researching, writing. I got almost nothing of it, because Wiseman focused on the many identities that libraries have nowadays, and perhaps must have in order to survive. The documentary’s title is a clever choice, allowing for several associations to pop up in your head once the film is running. Wiseman shows several different sites of the library, which is not at all connected to one place only. On the contrary, the New York Public Library has 87 branches and although Wiseman’s film is pretty long, it shows only a fraction of the work that is being done across those branches. And this work is impressive.

As one architect, who was amongst the finalist for redesigning one branch (or a centre? Memory fails me.) said, libraries are no longer a simple stockage for books as they used to be. Libraries are – and Wiseman shows this throughout his film – a community hub. It is a space for learning, in some ways like a school, and yet very different. People learn to read Braille; they visit workshops in which they learn about links between Marx and Lincoln; they attend public talks by authors who talk about their work (one subject I can remember dealt with Islam and slavery); they come into the library to dance, to look at rare objects in galleries/museums, to meet other people; they come to learn how to use a computer. The New York Public Library does it all, and more. Behind the scenes, Wiseman shows us how intensive the discussions are in the executive board about future goals, about how to remain relevant and justify the funding from the city they have asked for. What is it that they want to do next? What should their focus be? Is it Bestseller books, or rare research items? Is it primary education for children before they even go to school, or is it helping struggling teenagers?

Wiseman shows all of that. He records live sessions with artists and authors, but also official speeches by the director of the NYPL, or by the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He records people at the help desk; students who work with the library’s picture collection; children experimenting with robots; or a poet who wonders “What is a man?”. The director very much shows the¬†ex, places emphasis on it as if to bring home the idea that a library is no longer just a library in the original sense. Whenever he shows scenes of quietude and peacefulness, i.e. the very essence of a library (in my mind, using it as a research place), he cuts away quickly again. Wiseman doesn’t dwell for very long on the library as a harbour of quietude. Rather, he shows the buzzing nature of it, of what it has become. This is, to me, unfortunate, because he ignores the readers and researchers who spend hours in the library in order to progress in their work. It’s their place, it becomes their home for a period of time. At the same time, I might well be stuck in my head with this image of a library being a stockage of books, which, as Wiseman perfectly demonstrates, really isn’t the case.

Ex Libris is a film to be seen this year (or next!). It’s a through investigation of the¬†ex and of the essence of a library in our time. Without being slow, it takes its time to look at the various aspects of the life of a library as institution, as social hub, as meeting place, as a business, as a concert place, as a school, as a museum, as a research hub… Wiseman shows the fascinating diversity of what’s going on in this “stockage place of books”. Rather than being a place of quietude, it is, in fact, a beehive where something happens all the time.

A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on cinema

It’s been almost a year that I have seen Roy Andersson’s¬†A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a film I remember was very good, but I was reminded of it only when Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it not so very long ago. But what is there to write about this film, a film that is only a part of a trilogy which, taken all three films together, is so much stronger than a single film? I therefore watched the other two films of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”, albeit I would probably refrain from using this description and use “The Human Condition trilogy” instead. Together, Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You the Living (2007) and¬†A Pigeon make for an entertaining view on us as humans, on us as a society, of life as sometimes being completely absurd and we still follow it endlessly like that famous hamster in his wheel.

After having seen the first two films in that trilogy, I was annoyed that I saw¬†A Pigeon before, so that the chronological development didn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, I could see connections, contradictions, additions – all of that made the trilogy throughly interesting, especially if you have a dark humour and are willing to laughing about yourself. It’s difficult to write about three films in a single blog post, but I try to keep it as contained as possible.

I should start, perhaps, with the most obvious characteristic of the¬†Living Trilogy: all films look the same. I’m not sure whether I have seen a trilogy of films before where everything seems to be the same. Even the characters look the same. Andersson does use different actors from time to time, but they’re always white. I mean, make-up white. They’re pale, exhausted, looking almost sick, half dead. The interior of their flats and houses makes you see (and feel) that time literally stands still. Andersson took a long time to complete this trilogy. Between the release of the first part and the release of the third part (all three films played at Cannes), there was a gap of 14 years. So maybe make it 18 years or so, between the conception of the first film and the release of the final part of the trilogy. This is slow, but it resulted in quality work. And while the years passed, life seems to stand still in Andersson’s work. This is ironic, of course, giving the title of the trilogy (Living), whereas it should perhaps be called otherwise. Or maybe this is the whole point? Maybe it is to show us that we’re running in circles and that we don’t really go anywhere?

The interior design of buildings in all three films is the same. Sometimes I would even go as far as suggesting that he uses the same flats for some scenes, shot from a different angle. This is what B√©la Tarr used to do. If you watch his arthouse films from after¬†S√°t√°ntang√≥ (2000), you see a link between them all, which is not necessarily connected to the films’ narratives, but to where the films are shot. Everything repeats, nothing moves forwards. Andersson uses a very sterile environment, 70s or 80s style, cold. Almost exactly how his characters look like. The bars change, but the people who drink their beer there are more or less the same. And why do they drink? Usually to drown their sorrows, the ridiculous existence of humans in a world that is so absurd that it makes you laugh.

Andersson shows us this absurdity in slow, long-takes. Those who like Slow Cinema and have followed my slow journey on this blog know that cinematic slowness serves different purposes in different films. In Andersson’s, I find, cinematic slowness serves the heightening of absurdity. It really brings home how ridiculous life can be sometimes, or how ridiculous we can be in certain situations; such as when a man’s hand is stuck in a train door and everyone stands around and, rather than being concerned, they wonder how it happened, they remember their own accidents, they watch. They watch more than anything else. An accident becomes a sort of animal in a zoo that you simply watch. You gather around and you do nothing. This stoppage of time, this absurd watching, is reinforced by the use of a static camera. Andersson usually doesn’t move his camera. There are very, very few pans or traveling shots in this trilogy.

And in fact, Andersson reduces the aesthetics to a bare minimum over a period of over a decade. It feels very much like the development of B√©la Tarr, who became more and more minimalistic in his approach to filmmaking. From¬†S√°t√°ntang√≥ to¬†Werckmeister Harmonies to¬†The Turin Horse, Tarr reduced the aesthetics more and more; less characters, more barren mise-en-sc√®ne, less camera movements, less dialogue. His films were steering towards an end. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang, whose last feature film¬†Stray Dogs was, perhaps, his most minimalist film. Andersson, I feel, works very much in the same manner.¬†Songs and¬†You the Living were stronger in their narrative progression. If something wasn’t clear in one scene, he would usually show us what really happened or what the previous scene meant in the next scene. In¬†A pigeon, Andersson fragments the narrative almost to an extreme. It feels more episodic than the previous two films, albeit everything does come together in the end. But there is a sense of fragmentation, of a fracture that disrupts the narrative flow. Is this a sign of trauma? Perhaps, given that the trilogy contains elements to the brutal reign of the Nazis.

Andersson’s trilogy is tragic and humorous. Albert Serra was the first slow-film director I got to know who used comedy elements in his films. Slow Cinema as comedy, as entertaining…Andersson goes there, too, but makes more persistent use of it. He does so in order to open our eyes, to hold a mirror in front of us and show us to ourselves. Perhaps it is not spoken about often in the context of Andersson’s films that the director uses a direct confrontation with history and the way we deal with it. The first two films show this explicitly; one character, a sort of hardcore rocker, wears a T-Shirt with the Nazi SS symbol on the front. You only notice it once he gets up from the bench, once his partner pushes him away because she no longer wants to see him. (Or does she?) It would go unnoticed if you were focusing on the frame’s foreground only. There is another scene in which a man, in an attempt to do the famous magic stunt, tries to remove the tablecloth at a big family gathering all the while keeping the (expensive!!) china service on the table. Once the table cloth has been removed, the table shows two swastikas. It’s still there, we haven’t finished with it. The Nazi past, the Nazi support, is still there; almost dormant and yet very present, if only one takes the time to look. Andersson encourages us to do so. I laughed about those scenes, and also about the 100 year old admiral who had been placed in a nursing home and receives high-profile guests for his birthday only to make a Hitler salute. In any other film this wouldn’t be funny, but Andersson has created a bizarre and absurd trilogy that you have no choice but to laugh. And this, I have to say, absurd reaction to things that should shock me made me reflect about where we are. I became the pigeon sitting on a branch reflecting on existence.

With Andersson’s work more so than with other directors I need to say that a lot of action is happening in the background. If you watch the films as usual, expecting things to happen right in front of your eyes (just as we expect it in life – we don’t want to look deeper than that), then you will miss a lot in the trilogy. It is worth taking your eyes of the obvious and look beyond the surface, both in terms of the framing and in terms of the narrative. It is in the background, underneath the surface, where life really happens. There is this wonderful trilogy¬†The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s trilogy speaks of what it means to be a human being. He focuses on our hearts, on everything that goes on inside of us. Andersson’s trilogy is a different take of the same thing, 40 years later. It is also about the haunting of the past. Whereas in Kobayashi’s trilogy, events were happening, Andersson returns to the effects of the past on our present society, our current politics, our current life. It is impossible to say that these two trilogies are the same. But there are similarities, extensions, additions. They are are different ways of making us see and feel of what and who we are. And yet, both trilogies are about the human condition.

The¬†Living trilogy – do Andersson’s characters live, or are they dragged along? Do we ever move on, which is what living is actually about? The pigeon who sits on a branch reflecting on existence is the perfect metaphor for what the viewer is encouraged to do while watching Andersson’s trilogy. What does “existence” even mean? We exist, but do we live? Where does life start and mere existence stop? Are we merely passively watching life going by, suffering from the weight of our existence and everything it entails? Strangely enough, even though none of the three films is very cheerful, Andersson’s trilogy triggered optimism in my heart and in my mind. What exactly causes that, I don’t know. But I do know that the Swedish director has created a very effective trilogy about us, the living, hearing songs from the second floor all the while we sit on a bench reflecting on existence.

Waiting

What does it mean to wait? What does “waiting” mean nowadays when everyone seems to be always, eternally busy? Are we still waiting, or have we essentially replaced waiting by simply doing stuff? I use this blog post in order to respond to a post on Geyst blog that ended with the question “what does it mean to wait?” I felt that there is plenty to say, also in regards to slow film. If waiting has perhaps indeed been almost replaced by us doing stuff in order to keep ourselves busy – while waiting for the train, the bus, a friend to arrive – then it is slow films that return us to the idea of waiting, the feeling of time standing still.

Chantal Akerman didn’t want people¬†not to notice time passing. The point of her work was to make the viewer aware that time was passing. We notice the power of time, I would say, most often when presumably nothing is happening, exactly in moments of waiting. Time feels heavy, feels burdensome. “With my films,¬†you‚Äôre aware of every second passing through your body”, she famously said. What is important (and characteristic of slow films) is the act of waiting, in several different ways. For one, it’s the characters who wait. Think of Lav Diaz. In¬†Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I think it is, that characters are walking from one village to another, but because of the heat they take several extensive breaks. They sit in the shadow, simply waiting for the sun to subside. Diaz said once that this was characteristic of the Filipinos. The heat, the humidity – it’s too much, so people sit down and wait for the heat to subside. They wait, doing nothing.

B√©la Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without B√©la Tarr? The endless, now almost characteristic scenes of people in front of windows, looking outside, looking for nothing in particular. They just sit and watch. We don’t know whether they wait for something to happen, or whether they just stop and allow time do its work. Whether it’s¬†Damnation,¬†The Man from London or¬†The Turin Horse, these scenes are iconic, and they force us, the viewer, to wait, too. Because as Akerman suggested, the viewer is always waiting. We are waiting for the next take to commence, for the current one to stop. Slow films pause, and they develop in their own time. Events are not cut short, which would suit our impatience. Something is always happening in action films, something that relieves us from the claustrophobic feeling of time, the heaviness of time. Time is flying, it’s passing as fast as could be (albeit this is artificial and misleading).

When people who dislike slow films try to reason their feelings towards this type of film, they tend to say that nothing happens on screen, i.e. that it is boring. This “nothing happens” is, in fact, another word for “you actually have to wait for something to happen and we don’t have time for this”. People are impatient. Waiting seems to mean being passive, perhaps being impotent, immobile, all the while being told everywhere that time is running so fast that you’re losing it when you wait a minute or two for the bus. You cannot wait. You need to haste, or else you will lose those precious two minutes. One could perhaps say that people who reject slow films for the simple reason that nothing happens never learned to wait, or forgot the joy of waiting. Because what does waiting mean? What does it do to your body, your mind?

I mentioned several times on this blog that slow films helped me to slow down and deal with PTSD. PTSD introduces an incredible speed into your life, which causes severe anxiety. It’s not just that you’re scared of death. It’s the fact that you can no longer keep up with the speed around you, which makes you unstable and insecure. So what happened was that slow films helped me to pause, and, yes, to wait. Waiting does not mean doing nothing, although it appears as such to a great deal of people. It does not mean being passive, although some people would tell you otherwise. Waiting means being in the moment, being in the present, being present, something that has become increasingly difficult. There is “no time” to be in the present, but this is only the case because we don’t take time for it. To wait means to be mindful. It is a chance to take a look at what surrounds you, at what is going on in your body and mind.

This state is embodied by characters in slow films, when they sit and look out of the window; when they sit in the shadow of trees doing nothing; when they sit in the fields and watch the sky. They’re in the present moment, and the directors ask us to do the same. Be with the characters, be in the moment with them, and become mindful of our surrounding. Become mindful of time, as Akerman suggests, yet without feeling anxious about wasting it. Slow films are a way to see the chances of doing nothing, the liberties of waiting, even the joy in waiting. If only more people took their time to wait and considered the pleasures of nothingness and emptiness… Just how enjoyable is the end of Ben Rivers’¬†Two Years at Sea? A man sits at a fireplace outdoors, the soundscape gives us a feeling of being there with him. He’s doing nothing. He simply watches how the fire consumes the wood. A beautiful scene, seemingly endless, that allows the viewer to¬†be.