Sixty Spanish Cigarettes – Mark John Ostrowski (2015, repost)

!!! This film is now available on tao films !!!

There is something sublimely beautiful about Mark John Ostrowski’s film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes (2015). Fifteen minutes into the film, an extreme long shot captures the sea and coast in the background. From the right hand side of the frame, a small boat comes into view. Ostrowski’s camera stays with the boat and follows it. Even in this extreme long-shot, we can see how the boat is moved by the wind and the waves. The sun is shining from behind a few clouds, it seems. The image is not in colour, even though you would perhaps think that. Coastal images in colour are always superb.

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But no. Ostrowski works against our expectations. He frustrates us. Scenes of blissful contemplation are interrupted by hard cuts to a black screen. Those contemplative scenes of land- and seascapes, for instance, feel like a carrot Ostrowski is hanging in front of our eyes. But he takes that carrot away as soon as we have almost reached a state of contemplation. We cannot contemplate everything at once. We have to give it time. We have to be patient in order to reach this desired state. Ostrowski works well in alternating beautifully slow shots with a black screen, the latter making us hyper-aware of where we are.

Paradoxically, Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is about movement, and yet it gives us no feeling of speed at all. We see the protagonist walking through several different (beautiful) landscapes, which reminded me strongly of those used in Albert Serra’s Birdsong (2008). The clouds are brushing slowly over the hills, while the man is often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. He is alone, alone on his way to an unknown location. At times, he stops to light a cigarette. At other times, he simply rests. It is this solitude which gives us a feeling of slowness, a sense of pause. The repeated scenes of a man’s walking through an empty landscape brought a wonderful book back into my head; The Philosophy of Walking. If you haven’t read it, please do get yourself a copy.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 16.08.01

Ostrowski’s film shows the director’s superb photographic eye. Many of his shots are beautifully composed. They could easily be photos in an album, or large prints in a gallery. To me, the visual beauty of the film was also its strongest asset; the viewer in awe of nature, in awe of simple but expressive architecture. Ostrowski’s long-takes of those “photos” helped me to pause, to be in the present but also to wonder what the protagonist was really up to. I’m not entirely sure whether this is ever fully revealed in the film, but it is of little interest in any case. Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is more of an atmospheric film than about a set narrative persistently progressing within the film’s 60 minutes running time. It reminded me of Martin Lefebvre’s modes of viewing; the narrative mode and the spectacular mode. Many slow films, which most certainly includes Ostrowski’s film, operate very much in the spectacular mode, even though there is a narrative mode in all. But the narrative mode is suppressed in many instances to give way to contemplation.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 17.56.30

I believe that the film could have been a tick shorter in order to make full use of its shots. I’m not entirely sure when this shot appears, perhaps after around 45 to 50min. There is a beautiful extreme long shot of a landscape at the coast, with the protagonist sitting on a rock or something similar. He has his back turned to us and is looking at the scenery, like us. I expected the film to cut there. It would have been the most fitting and most suitable ending for the film, but unfortunately Ostrowski did not cut there and kept going instead. The final images, to me,weakened the film slightly because they were not entirely necessary.

Nevertheless, with Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, Ostrowski has created a beautiful piece of Slow Cinema, which, regardless of whether or not he continues this slow journey, adds him to my list of directors to look out for in future. If the film runs at a festival near you, I highly recommend watching it!

Sixty Spanish Cigarettes – Mark John Ostrowski (2015)

There is something sublimely beautiful about Mark John Ostrowski’s film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes (2015). Fifteen minutes into the film, an extreme long shot captures the sea and coast in the background. From the right hand side of the frame, a small boat comes into view. Ostrowski’s camera stays with the boat and follows it. Even in this extreme long-shot, we can see how the boat is moved by the wind and the waves. The sun is shining from behind a few clouds, it seems. The image is not in colour, even though you would perhaps think that. Coastal images in colour are always superb.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 16.23.43

But no. Ostrowski works against our expectations. He frustrates us. Scenes of blissful contemplation are interrupted by hard cuts to a black screen. Those contemplative scenes of land- and seascapes, for instance, feel like a carrot Ostrowski is hanging in front of our eyes. But he takes that carrot away as soon as we have almost reached a state of contemplation. We cannot contemplate everything at once. We have to give it time. We have to be patient in order to reach this desired state. Ostrowski works well in alternating beautifully slow shots with a black screen, the latter making us hyper-aware of where we are.

Paradoxically, Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is about movement, and yet it gives us no feeling of speed at all. We see the protagonist walking through several different (beautiful) landscapes, which reminded me strongly of those used in Albert Serra’s Birdsong (2008). The clouds are brushing slowly over the hills, while the man is often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. He is alone, alone on his way to an unknown location. At times, he stops to light a cigarette. At other times, he simply rests. It is this solitude which gives us a feeling of slowness, a sense of pause. The repeated scenes of a man’s walking through an empty landscape brought a wonderful book back into my head; The Philosophy of Walking. If you haven’t read it, please do get yourself a copy.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 16.08.01

Ostrowski’s film shows the director’s superb photographic eye. Many of his shots are beautifully composed. They could easily be photos in an album, or large prints in a gallery. To me, the visual beauty of the film was also its strongest asset; the viewer in awe of nature, in awe of simple but expressive architecture. Ostrowski’s long-takes of those “photos” helped me to pause, to be in the present but also to wonder what the protagonist was really up to. I’m not entirely sure whether this is ever fully revealed in the film, but it is of little interest in any case. Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is more of an atmospheric film than about a set narrative persistently progressing within the film’s 60 minutes running time. It reminded me of Martin Lefebvre’s modes of viewing; the narrative mode and the spectacular mode. Many slow films, which most certainly includes Ostrowski’s film, operate very much in the spectacular mode, even though there is a narrative mode in all. But the narrative mode is suppressed in many instances to give way to contemplation.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 17.56.30

I believe that the film could have been a tick shorter in order to make full use of its shots. I’m not entirely sure when this shot appears, perhaps after around 45 to 50min. There is a beautiful extreme long shot of a landscape at the coast, with the protagonist sitting on a rock or something similar. He has his back turned to us and is looking at the scenery, like us. I expected the film to cut there. It would have been the most fitting and most suitable ending for the film, but unfortunately Ostrowski did not cut there and kept going instead. The final images, to me,weakened the film slightly because they were not entirely necessary.

Nevertheless, with Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, Ostrowski has created a beautiful piece of Slow Cinema, which, regardless of whether or not he continues this slow journey, adds him to my list of directors to look out for in future. If the film runs at a festival near you, I highly recommend watching it!

Story of my Death – Albert Serra (2013)

After his great films Honour of the Knights (2005) and Birdsong (2008), Albert Serra’s Story of my Death (2013) was a highly anticipated film among critics and viewers alike. Serra is one of the key players in Slow Cinema, and distinguishes himself from other slow-film directors by loosely adapting stories of literary/fictional importance: there’s Don Quixote and Sancho on his way to who-knows-where, there are the Three Kings on the way to find baby Jesus, and Story is a film about Casanova. And Dracula. Yes, Serra was rather experimental in putting his characters together.

Story of my Death is a play on Casanova’s actual book, Story of my Life, which he wrote at the end of the 18th century. Early on in the film, Casanova says that he wants to write his memoirs, but he is never seen writing. He’s dreaming of writing. He himself says at some point that he’s obsessed with words. So great is the obsession with words that he wants to write a dictionary of cheeses. Just from this, you can gather that Serra has infused his new film with his usual sense of humour. It doesn’t make you laugh out loud. It’s a somewhat subtle quality of his films. They make you chuckle in silence. It’s one of the things you cannot find in other films that are under investigation on this blog.

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I don’t want to go into too much detail about the content of the film, but there are a few things I’d like to say with regards to its aesthetics. First of all, off-screen space is really important in Story. Weirdly enough, the film’s off-screen space is not a complex construct. There are merely a few parts of dialogue between characters that happen off-screen. Still, I found it fairly interesting. Reaction shots are hardly ever used in slow films, so this shouldn’t be a surprise to me at all. And yet, it is. I think this was the case because Serra hasn’t used off-screen space to such an extent before. I found it to be a real novelty, which worked well. Somehow I expected something from the off-screen space. Maybe it was because I knew that Dracula would show up at some point. Dracula, by the way, is a superb character in this film. So is Casanova. Serra’s representation and depiction of both is brilliant and, I find, with Story, Serra has reached a high in his study of characters.

Overall, the film is rather dark, judging from the lighting used in the film. Again, it kind of fits to the Dracula theme. In fact, the film gets darker towards the end of the film, and especially when Dracula has made his appearance after an hour or so into the film. I would have liked Serra to stick to those dark shots, because they’re all lovely. Beautiful artistic compositions, which generate an atmosphere that always made me wonder how I should feel. Darkness is often equated with evil, but Serra’s shots had a strangely cosy and warm feeling to them. Whenever the film cut to a scene in broad daylight, in bright sunshine, the film lost parts of its quality. They somehow didn’t fit in there, and disrupted the lovely contemplation of the night.

Speaking of contemplation – unfortunately, I have say something that makes me rather sad. This post can be read on my Slow Cinema blog (though I will reblog it on Viewing Film), but, in fact, Story of my Death isn’t a slow film in its original terms anymore. I have decided to upload the post here as Albert Serra is an icon in Slow Cinema, so I thought it would be appropriate to include his new film here, and say at the end that Serra is seemingly moving away from Slow Cinema. Don’t get me wrong, Slow Cinema is actually something that happens naturally and is hardly ever a deliberate choice. The long-takes are in place because the directors find them to be more appropriate in relation to their subjects, for example.

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It appears as though Casanova and Dracula didn’t make for a good slow film. The film is slow, but I would not categorise it as Slow Cinema. It is a “normal” arthouse film, which tend to be slower and longer than popular films. There are some striking long-takes in the film, but overall, the cuts happen fairly quick compared to his other films. There is no interest in the relationship between nature and man, which had been an interesting part in Serra’s earlier films. The outdoor space was important, if not more important than the characters. Not quite as much as in other slow films, but the general tendency was there. Empty frames are rare, too. Compared to his previous films, Story feels rather crammed, and because it is mainly set indoors, I missed the (virtual) breathing space. There’s also a lot more talk in this film than in his others.

So, while his film is great – although it dragged on a bit in the middle which made me think that the film could have been a bit shorter – it is not Slow Cinema, which is worth keeping in mind for further studies of Serra. With Story to his credit, it appears as if he’s not a director who sticks to Slow Cinema aesthetics, but is rather flexible in what he does. Grouping him together with others like Lav Diaz, Béla Tarr, or, say, Nicolás Pereda would be wrong, in fact.

Day 16 – El cant dels ocells (Serra)

Time to return to Europe, and yet another classic. A contemporary classic, though. Spanish director Albert Serra is one of the regulars in Slow Cinema. Especially El cant dels ocells (2008) is often quoted, mainly because it contains an iconic scene in Slow Cinema: three characters walk away from the camera, disappear behind dunes, and return. The camera remains static and fixed on the dunes. You find a similar shot in Bélá Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011).

Serra is one of the oddballs among slow-film directors. Not at all in a bad way. Tsai Ming-liang is just as odd at times. The reason I say this is that these two filmmakers include comic elements into their films. Especially Serra is almost a comedian to me. He is not the type of filmmaker who dwells on the downfall of society, on pain, on suffering, on death. Watching slow films can be depressing at times. Serra, however, brings light into the area. His films are quite uplifting and a real joy – in many ways – to watch.

El Cant dels Ocells (2008), Albert Serra

El cant dels ocells is beautifully shot. We’re following the Three Kings on their way to baby Jesus. This look at (somewhat) historical events is one of Serra’s trademarks. Neither of the two films released so far are set in the present. They have a definite temporal anchor to them, and they’re mostly well-known stories. In Birdsong (the international name of the film), it is the journey of the Three Kings. In his film Honour of the Knights (2006), Serra picks up the story of Don Quixote and Sancho. Story of my Death (2013), his latest film, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in August this year, mixes Casanova and Dracula. There is thus a focus on iconic personalities, whether real or imaginary.

Birdsong is an example of how versatile in his filmmaking Serra is. For me, the techniques in Knights and Birdsong differ. They are roughly the same, but the feel of the two films is different. There is a greater sense of silence and vastness in Birdsong, which makes sense considered in what kind of time period it is set. In fact, Serra plays with sound in his film. There are scenes, such as when the Three Kings go for a swim and the camera is below the water surface, which are almost completely silent. You would expect a muffled sound, but there is predominantly silence.

I guess the film is more polished than others. The Three Kings walk through mountain valleys, and while the fast-moving shadows of the clouds indicate a strong wind, we cannot hear it to such an extent. This stands in contrast to Lav Diaz’s films, which are so unpolished that the sound of strong winds through the mic could potentially deafen you if you have turned the volume of the sound system too high. Both have their appeals and their uses. Diaz is known for his raw filmmaking. It’s his trademark in a way. Serra is different in this case.

El Cant Dels Ocells (2008), Albert Serra

The almost muted sounds and partial silence in scenes work well with the long and extreme long shots of really empty landscapes. They’re as empty as they can be. There is thus an image of peace and harmony evoked in the shots, and they’re supported by the sound. In addition, Birdsong is much more photographic than Knights. It’s one of those films that made me go “awwwwww” and my heart just opened. This is perhaps due to a change of cinematographers. It is important to mention in this context that Serra is a director, who is usually director only. And writer, and editor. But overall he tends to work with other people who are then responsible for, say, cinematography (decisively different from Lav Diaz, but this could be due to availability of funding).

Birdsong was shot in stark black-and-white. It is almost quite literally black and white, similar to what I mentioned in my blog post on Daughter…Father…Daughter. I suppose that special lighting and filters had been used. The use of monochrome aesthetics give the film a real historic touch. It also somewhat underlines the theme of emptiness in the film. Birdsong is still one of my favourites after all these years. The unique combination of photographic shots, emptiness, silence, and humour is one of a kind and whoever says that slow films can’t be entertaining: watch an Albert Serra film. A slow film can be entertaining!