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’re 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.
Béla Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without Béla 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.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a few thoughts on Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, which is a wonderful piece. I hope you can see it on a big screen some day. Jenni has kindly agreed to answer a couple of questions about her film and her approach to filmmaking. Happy reading, and thanks Jenni!
1) The Royal Road is situated somewhere between an exploration of American history and a personal essay on love. The Royal Road is most likely unknown to the vast majority of your viewers because, as you say in your film, there are only fragments of it left these days. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you came about making a film about it?
I moved to California from Minnesota in 1992. At some point after I’d been here awhile I started noticing there were these odd bells installed at certain points along the highway. I love finding unusual historical artifacts and researching their histories so that was the beginning of my interest in El Camino Real. I learned that they had been placed their in the early 1900s as a way of memorializing the original trail (but also as a way if encouraging tourists to drive up and down the state — remember this was around the time that automobiles were becoming more popular: You have a car, now here’s where you should go.) Using the road as the central organizing point for the film seemed like a great way to be able to talk about the more serious and generally lesser-known history of California (the decimation of the indigenous population by the Spanish colonizers and the conquest of Mexico by the US in the Mexican American War) while also using the road as a plot device to tell a story of a character going to visit her love interest from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
2) What brought you to filmmaking and what does filmmaking mean to you? What role does it play in your life?
I have a deep and abiding love of cinema that began all the way back in my childhood. I loved watching classic Hollywood movies as a kid and I was a Film Studies major in college — where I also read Vito Russo’s pioneering book, The Celluloid Closet and then created the first gay and lesbian film series on campus (at the University of Minnesota in 1986) and started writing reviews of gay films for the local gay newspaper. I then became the festival co-director at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival in 1992. It wasn’t until that point that I decided to actually make films myself, and even then they were always very modest productions.
It’s only recently that I have realized that my style of urban landscape filmmaking is really just a natural outcome of the way I look at the world. I tend to envision the world around me as a series of compositions. I notice the qualities of the light, the textures and surfaces of buildings, the distance and depth of what is in front of me. And I feel compelled to try to capture this on film.
3) You said you felt compelled to try to capture qualities of light etc on film. Do you think you have succeeded doing this, or are you still looking for the perfect composition?
I am extremely happy with the majority of the footage I’ve shot over the years. I have about five hours of footage total that I was working from to create the film. In this reservoir of images there are still tons of great shots I wasn’t able to fit into this film which will hopefully be in my next project. And I hope I will be able to continue shooting at some point in the future (I can’t afford to these days) and be able to make another film.
4) The film feels very personal. It feels as though, between the lines of history, we can read your film as a kind of autobiography. How autobiographical is the film?
My voiceover is very much drawn from my personal experience but the film is not at all a straightforward autobiographical story. There are many things that are completely fictional in the stories about the women in particular. The woman in Los Angeles is named Juliet mainly because I liked it as an evocative name. She is very much a fictional character (sometimes a mash up of real women, other times totally made up). Since my wife’s name is Julie I have had a few questions from people wondering whether they are the same person. There really is no connection. As W Somerset Maugham once said of his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage: “This is a novel, not an autobiography; though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention.”
As a writer I like to use some kind of topic or thing as an area of exploration which helps provide a structure to my storytelling. I tend towards a very discursive style involving a lot of tangents and associations and allusions to other texts so it helps to have something in the center that I can circle around and bounce off of. Virginia Woolf once said something similar about To The Lighthouse and it has always stayed with me. She said that having the lighthouse as an organizing principle was the thing that enabled her to explore all these other emotions and topics. So I very much think of El Camino Real as a similar central device that organizes the film as a whole.
5) I get the impression that you’re very much drawn to literature. Having seen your film, I’m not surprised about that. Is your film perhaps a “visual novel” rather than the photo album I mentioned in my review?
I like the idea of it as a visual novel but maybe creative non-fiction would be more accurate in terms of literary terms. I have a few different terms I’ve used to describe it: as an essay film, as a hybrid film, an experimental film. It has played in many documentary festivals simply as a documentary but it is of course more complicated than that.
6) You make extensive use of long-takes in the film. I had the feeling of sitting next to you while looking at photos you are telling me stories about. What’s the reason for those long-takes? Are they an aesthetic you generally use in your films?
I have always felt drawn to urban landscape filmmaking as a mode of storytelling. The viewer is put into a certain unique state of receptiveness and is made susceptible to feeling their own emotions — the static, open space provides a calming, comforting reassurance that allows the viewer to relax and take in the voiceover. Ideally the images I like to capture are visually interesting in their compositions and content, and yet they are also somewhat mundane — they have to be not TOO visually interesting or else the viewer will be distracted by them.
The length of the takes is also crucial to creating a spaciousness for the viewer. I always like to establish the grammar of the film in the first few shots so you know to expect these very long takes and can begin by experiencing the joy of just looking at the landscape, relaxing into it and starting to notice the small details of each shot which emerge as hugely dynamic given the minimalist palette of the film — so when a bird flies across the shot, or the light gets brighter or a puff of fog blows past it can actually take your breath away.
I also especially love to have urban landscapes that seem somewhat timeless, as though they might have looked like this fifty years ago. So I crop out as much as possible things that look more contemporary and modern (like newer street signs, billboards and such).
7) Your voiceover is guiding the viewer through history, if you want, all the while seeing modern, but as you said timeless, urban landscapes. How, do you think, can your long-takes help the viewer reach a state of contemplation despite your voiceover providing a persistent auditory background of interesting information?
I think this meditative state is not the same as actual sitting meditation where one is focusing on the breath per se. But it is in the realm of a meditative state in that one emerges in a more mindful and present state, attuned to the physical environment and seeing the world around us in more vivid attentive ways.
8) The film was shot in 16mm, which, unfortunately, isn’t all that common anymore. Why do you still work with 16mm film?
I have a great affection for the look of 16mm film — the quality of the grain, the saturation of the colors and also the 4:3 aspect ratio since I shoot in regular 16mm, not Super 16. I have an underlying agenda in my filmmaking that is about the joys of being present in the moment, in the landscapes in which we live. In The Royal Road I talk about our exceptionally digital age and the importance of “staying connected to the physical, analog world in which we live.” And so there is something very organic about using actual film to create my films.
9) Do you develop the films yourself? I’m reminded of Ben Rivers who develops his films in his kitchen sink.
No, I’ve always depended on the kindness of skilled and talented strangers to process the film (at Fotokem in Los Angeles). I’m dependent on many people to create my films and I’m especially grateful to my good friends Sophie Constantinou (my primary cinematographer) and Dawn Logsdon (my editor) for enabling me to fulfill my creative vision.
10) The 16mm film seems to disappear slowly. Are you worried that you will eventually lose your medium?
Yes, when I talk about making my next film I do worry that I may not be able to pull it off simply because of the level of effort involved. And yet in some ways then it becomes even more compelling to me to continue to use this medium the more arcane it becomes. It really does feel organic to what I’m trying to achieve in my work — qualities of emotional resonance that actually arise from the medium itself (the grain of the image, the quality of light, etc.) The genuine qualities of feeling these generate in the viewer can’t be achieved through the digital medium even by using digital effects that try to recreate the qualities of film.
Personal note by Jenni Olson:
I have to just conclude by saying that I have felt so impacted by the suicide of Chantal Akerman earlier this week and would like to take the opportunity to convey a brief appreciation of her as her work has had an enormous influence on me as a filmmaker over the years. I woke up to the news of her passing on October 6th (my 53rd birthday). As a pioneering filmmaker, Akerman is frequently celebrated for her portrayals of women characters and for elevating women’s stories and offering a unique female perspective in her films. All of which is the case. First and foremost though, she was a filmmaker with a singular vision whose distinctive approach to the possibilities of the medium encompassed a painstaking awareness of the smallest cinematic elements and their potential impact not just on conventional aspects of storytelling but on the emotional, psychological and physiological experience of the audience (of course I identify with this in my own filmmaking and feel deeply indebted to her as an influence). It is this consummate craftsmanship that produced such masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It is this craftsmanship that created so many stunning works of art that will change the way you see the world, and that will never leave you — even though their creator has. May her memory be for a blessing.
This blog goes from strength to strength thanks to my readers. The views are now beyond the 10k benchmark, and I have readers from all over the planet. This helps enormously to make people aware of fantastic slow films, and it’s great for me to learn from you. Not all slow films show up in the news. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is something of a move towards “popular” Slow Cinema. These are films from directors, who you will find everywhere nowadays. I’m hoping to tackle this move with the help of you. It’s been a pleasure so far. But let’s shift to the news of this month:
Nicolas Pereda, slow-film director from Mexico, known for his films Interview with the Earth (reviewed here) and Summer of Goliath, has a new film, which apparently ran at the Berlinale. I must have overlooked it in the programme. The film’s title is Killing Strangers (Matar extraños), and is, in fact, a collaboration with a Danish director. Every year the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen encourages a European and a non-European filmmaker to work together. It’s called DOX:LAB. In 2012, it was Pereda and Jacob Secher Schulsinger. The trailer looks wonderful. Not that I expect something else with Pereda. Here you can read an interview with Pereda and Schulsinger.
Without an official release date yet (as far as I know), Lisandro Alonso’snew film Untitled Lisandro Alonso Project has already attracted a sales company, namely Mexican based NDM. They have acquired world sales rights. NDM also holds the rights to Carlos Reygadas’ latest film Post Tenebras Lux.
The 16e Festival du Film Asiatique de Deauville (France), which is to take place from 5-9 March, has special screenings for Tsai Ming-liang,as an homage to him and his work. They will screen his latest feature Stray Dogs, Goodbye Dragon Inn, and What Time is it there?
Tsai’s Journey to the West premiered at the Berlinale and, as far as I can see, the reviews were throughout very good. Here you can read an interview with Denis Lavant about working with Tsai. Remaining with Tsai, there’s a two months long retrospective of his work scheduled in Belgium from March to May. They screen gems like I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Visage.
In Jerusalem, at the Cinematheque, they organised a retrospective of FredKelemen’s work, both as filmmaker and as cinematographer. Amongst the films chosen for this programme, were Tarr’s The Turin Horse, for which Kelemen acted as cinematographer, and his exceptional Frost, which is part of a trilogy. I watched it at the Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle in 2012, and can only recommend it.
Intriguing interview with Denis Côté about his film Bestiaire. You can, in fact, watch a couple of his earlier films on his personal vimeo page. I wanted to link to a YouTube video. Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing appeared on the platform. But it has been removed. Culture – deleted. What more is there to say!?
The new year starts of nicely for Slow Cinema. The International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Glasgow Film Festival have a range of slow films on offer. If you are around those locations, it’s worth checking their schedules. Here’s a brief overview:
Norte, The End of History – dir Lav Diaz, Philippines
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness – dir Ben Rivers, Ben Russell, France/Estonia
The IFFR has started yesterday. The Glasgow Film Festival will run from 20 February 2014 – 2 March 2014. Tickets will go on sale tomorrow.
Films marked with an * are suspected slow films. It sounds as if they would be slow, but I can only really tell once I see them. And this won’t be soon as I’m unfortunately not living near Rotterdam, and for someone who doesn’t live in Glasgow either, the scheduling is a bit unfortunate. I will catch the films one day, though.
Ben Rivers needs to be included in this year’s advent calendar. When I watched his film first time round at last year’s Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle, and heard more about him, he was immediately a point of interest. Perhaps this was the case because he made and still makes films the old-school way. Analogue film, developed in his kitchen sink. This alone says a lot about his approach to filmmaking. It also says something about slowness.
Rivers’ approach stands in contrast to, say, Lav Diaz. What I gathered from reading about slow-film directors, I could figure that making a slow film is relatively fast. Or can be, if the funding is right. Let’s think about a mainstream blockbuster for a moment: There are so many cuts in them that it must be a real pain to maintain an overview of all the shots (angles etc). I only ever made short films at university (apart from the 12mins documentary), and they weren’t slow. It was difficult to keep on track of things, and even though I know that I’m not a professional at all, I always imagine blockbusters to be a jigsaw of 300,000 pieces, which takes ages in the editing room to put back together.
I remember Béla Tarr having edited The Man from London in a week. Lav Diaz isn’t exactly slow either. It’s easy. A static camera, a long take. There’s nothing much to edit. If you’re clever and successful enough in your filmmaking, all you need to do is glue the long-takes together. This is not to say that slow-film directors don’t have editing skills. Not at all. It’s just an entirely different way of editing for some directors.
Rivers slows down the whole process of filmmaking by developing the film himself. He’s one of the few directors who have so far remained with analogue film. Tarr was another director who would have never touched digital (though I suppose he probably does now during his teaching in Sagreb).
Two Years is a lovely treatment of solitude. Of a happy life in solitude. While in other slow films, solitude is a state the characters long to escape from (as evident in Tsai Ming-liang’s films), Rivers uses solitude to show its beauty. The film doesn’t contain any dialogue, or rather monologue, as we’re all alone with Jack in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish Highlands. It tells the story of a man in his own world. In a happy world, in a world free of everything. There is no dependency apparent. Jack is a free man.
The film cuts to old photographs from time to time. We see Jack’s history, memories of the past, time arrested. The two media visually recording history come together here. And again, Two Years is at times more photographic than – what is the word, cinematic? Filmic? Rivers has a sharp photographic eye. Combined with a static camera, he joins the club of slow-film-or-photo-album directors. I can’t wait for his new film, he did in collaboration with Ben Russell!
The line up for this year’s London Film Festival has ben revealed, and it looks as though it’s going to be a strong and slow festival.
After the success at Cannes and other prominent festivals, Lav Diaz’s Norte will be screened in the category “Dare”. Albert Serra’s new film, Story of my Death, which recently won the Golden Leopard at Locarno, is also part of this category. We have Ben Rivers’ new film A Spell to Ward off the Darkness in the category “Experimenta”.
Apart from these usual suspects, French film Camille Claudel 1915 is also part of the festival. I’m convinced that there are more slow films in the line up than are actually talked about. I have already mentioned that there is a tendency to (deliberately) overlook equally great films, made by unknown directors, such as Yulene Olaizalo. I hope to get to see trailers of most films, and I can hopefully see a few of them in cinema, too.
What will be talked about for sure are the three above-named “big” names. But there is a larger realm of slow film out there. It’s just a question of whether it’ll be talked about. I’m looking forward to the BFI’s own edition of the Sight & Sound after the festival…particularly after they have pronunced Slow Cinema dead after Cannes. It’s going to be an interesting editorial by Nick James, I’m sure!
Update: I forgot to mention Philip Groening’s The Police Officer’s Wife. Groening made that unbelievably beautiful film Into Great Silence a few years ago.