Book review: Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit – Corinne Rondeau (2017)

A small book at the bottom of a shelf that is overwhelmed with books on the big names of Hollywood; films, directors, actresses. There, somewhere in between those oversized books, I found the new book on Chantal Akerman, smaller than A5 in size, almost invisible. Written by Corinne Rondeau, this French-language book is the latest work on the Belgian director. Without being too analytical, Rondeau makes reading the book an experience just as watching a film by Akerman is an experience. Rondeau’s work is poetic in writing, often following a chain of thoughts as they come into her head. Her writing suggests continuous movement, circular movement at times, rather than chopped off pieces of thoughts that appear for no reason.

In her little book Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit (2017), Rondeau suggests that it is futile to see Akerman’s work only in the context of her family’s traumatic past during the Second World War, the silence in the family that had affected her deeply, and her suicide in 2015. Even though, she argues, it is important – and she herself, in fact, returns over and over the aspect of silence as a result of history – it is not adequate, not productive, to consider Akerman’s oeuvre entirely as a result of that. A fair point, given that it is always futile to look at something from a single perspective. Rondeau sets an example, looking even at the small things. Her chapter headings are fascinating at the beginning, simply called “encore” (again) or “où” (where), chapters in which she brings to the fore the essence of Akerman’s work, I find.

There is plenty I would like to mention, but I will point to only a few arguments Rondeau makes, and leave it up to my French-speaking readers to get their hands on the book.

The first argument, which I thoroughly liked, is Rondeau’s explicit view of Akerman working in the context of the words “nothing”, “blank”, and “gap”. These terms appear over and over in Akerman’s films, as visual demonstrations rather than spoken words. Indeed, I find that these terms are particularly prominent in the films I’m interested in: Là basD’EstNo Home Movie. Although Rondeau refuses to read those films exclusively in the context of a traumatic family history, these three films are important in the context of memory, memory lapses, the silencing and suppression of traumatic events. It is impossible not to read them in this context, perhaps in the context of the second and third generation attempting to dig up the past that has formed them, affected them in the way they think, feel and behave. Perhaps, this way of thinking, my thinking, makes me feel so strongly about Rondeau’s description of Akerman’s films: “une nuit qui tombe peu à peu”, a slow nightfall. With No Home Movie, night has fallen.

Rondeau argues that it is obstacles that really help us to find a way, and it is silence that help us to find words. Akerman, according to her, makes use of this logic, and uses a kind of aesthetic that she describes as “suspense in absentia”. Tension is there, but it’s not overt. It’s the main ingredient of her films without putting it on the films’ sleeves, so to speak. Tension is present and absent, just like trauma, which disrupts time and space. This “suspense in absentia” is not only characteristic of Akerman’s work, but Rondeau has unwillingly characterised a large number of slow or contemplative films that use this aesthetics. I described it, though in other words, in my work on Lav Diaz. Béla Tarr’s films centre around this absent-present tension as well as more recent works. I’m thinking in particular of the works by Scott Barley and Enzo Cillo, whose videos make this covert tension palpable.

While reading the book, I came across several instances which contradict Rondeau’s initial claim that it was futile to see Akerman’s work exclusively in the context of trauma. And yet, she herself writes about it without mentioning the term. It is more by describing Akerman’s aesthetics that she gets to the bottom of the nature of trauma, which she, at the beginning of the book, so vehemently rejected as the sole centre of the director’s oeuvre. She mentions another characteristic of Akerman’s films: “on s’approche en s’éloignant”. We approach something by distancing ourselves. This is very much an extension of her notes about silence as a necessity to find words, and obstacles as a necessity to find a way. One is important in order to reach the other. The idea of approach through distance reminded me strongly, again, of the nature of trauma. You dig in your memories to find something. While speaking about it, you come closer and closer to the actual painful event, but you often bounce back, you distance yourself, precisely because it causes you pain. Approach versus distance, distance versus approach.

“Où vont les images?” Where do the images go? According to Rondeau, Akerman’s oeuvre centres around this very question. Why do all images move towards the night? Or “How can you remember something that you yourself haven’t experienced?” as Akerman formulated it. Rondeau identifies the circle as one of several main elements that appear over and over again in Akerman’s work, which to me, once more, is the perfect symbol of how the director deals with the effects of her family’s traumatic history. As much as Rondeau would like to disconnect one from the other, it is impossible to do so. This is the one thing that I did not like about the book; the forced attempt of disconnecting the symbols Rondeau identifies in Akerman’s work from the nature of trauma, which is so dominant in the director’s films.

Nevertheless, Rondeau’s book adds a lot of good stuff to existing writings on Akerman. The way it is written – in a fluid, poetic style – makes it a pleasure to read. The book takes you on a journey and makes you hungry, I find, to see more of Akerman’s films. I haven’t seen her complete oeuvre yet, but am very much aiming for doing exactly that!

New books on Pedro Costa & Béla Tarr

The initial wave of I-want-to-be-the-first has subsided, and after quite a few not very good books on Slow Cinema or on slow-film directors, we’re slowly (of course, slowly) getting to a point where it is worth opening books on the subject because they have been researched properly. Or because the authors have taken the time to experience the films without trying to squeeze them into theories and statistics. This has been done already, primarily by András Bálint Kovács. When Béla Tarr had the book in his hand and saw Kovacs’s attempt at turning his films into statistics, into numbers, he said “Fuck off”. Yes, he really said this and spoke about it in one of the worst interviews I have read with any filmmaker, published on MUBI. But that happens if people try to force a meaning onto a film that isn’t there and the filmmaker has been trying for twenty-odd years to avoid this in interviews.

Anyway, this year saw the publication of two very good books. One of them, a German-language book, deals with the work of Pedro Costa. The publisher is quite impressive, to say the least, and I took the chance of suggesting an edited collection on Lav Diaz. They were very open to this and will discuss it in their next meeting (fingers crossed!). Edition text + kritik focuses on one director at a time, and they avoid turning a director’s work into mere theory.

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The book on Pedro Costa – with its simple name Pedro Costa – is somewhere between a thorough introduction to the director’s work, and an elaborate investigation of his films which goes beyond introductory remarks. It is a journey through Costa’s entire oeuvre. What I enjoyed most in this book is the authors’ focus on Costa’s collaboration with his actors. Those who know Costa and his films are aware of the close collaboration, which somewhat started with the famous “Stop the faking!” expressed by Vanda Duarte after the production of Ossos (1997). Costa began to live with his actors. No, he lived with the people, who then became his actors. Non-professionals, who live their roles. It seems as though this is the red line that is woven throughout the book.

The book consists of seven chapters. The eighth is a written contribution by Pedro Costa himself, or rather it is a text written by Costa which, for the first time, was translated into German for this particular book. There is a general attempt at really understanding the artist and his work. The book is not an attempt at creating something that isn’t there, at telling the filmmaker what his films are really about, which scholars love to do. Pedro Costa reads like a genuine exploration of Costa’s approach to filmmaking, to the subject he chooses and to his aesthetics. One chapter in the book deals with (non-) images of violence in Costa’s films, especially in Casa de Lava (1994). It is a fascinating piece which is complemented by another chapter on aspects of ghosts. To me, those two go hand in hand, and they’re not only characteristic of Costa’s work. The themes of violence and ghostly haunting are pretty widespread in slow films, especially those that deal with a people’s colonial past.

If you’re German, or a German-speaking cinephile who’s interested in Costa’s work, this book is definitely for you. I’m surprised that this book is the first coherent piece on the Portuguese director who’s been making films for decades. I wonder why English-speaking scholars have not yet picked that up. More than journal articles doesn’t seem to be in their interest. I wonder why that is.

So while German scholars have produced the first book on Pedro Costa, France slowly but surely turns out to be a hub for really good books on Béla Tarr. The new book Béla Tarr : De la colère au tourment has been published in March this year. Jacques Rancière’s book Le temps d’après was great already, but this new book tops this. First of all, the book is a feast for the eyes, which makes it a more entertaining read than the German book on Pedro Costa. You can see that a lot of work went into the design of the book; the screen grabs, positioned one underneath the other, have something of photo strips.

Even more so than the book on Pedro Costa, this new book on Tarr tries to explore and convey what a Béla Tarr film feels like. There are two chapters, if I remember correctly, which are very theoretical and which make for a difficult read. I do believe that the authors of those chapters kind of missed the point. But overall, the book is about what we see when we watch a Tarr film. It is about how it looks like, how it makes the viewer feel. I could be wrong and just read something into all this, but to me the book seems, perhaps not openly, but nevertheless focused on the viewer and the viewing experience.

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The interesting aspect is that a viewing experience is always individual. What I feel during a film may be very different from what you’re feeling. But somehow I, as the reader, felt pretty much on the same wavelength as the authors. It’s not difficult to guess why this is the case. I believe that the authors let the film happen to them, which is so important to Slow Cinema. I could see the films right in front of me while reading the book. Tarr’s cinema, his fans would probably agree with me, is special. It has a certain something, which is difficult to put into words. This new book manages it somehow, and while discussing the characteristics of Tarr’s oeuvre as a whole it is at the same time exploring vital aesthetics of Slow Cinema in more general terms. There’s talk of the emancipation of the gaze, of hypnotic emptiness, of a “tactile” experience of film.

The book is divided into three parts, and starts with a long interview with Tarr, which is revealing and I’m grateful that the interviewers didn’t ask the same old questions. We actually learn something from it, which is rare these days. Interviews, especially those with slow-film directors, tend to revolve around the themes of “Why are your films so slow?” or “Why are your films so long?” In some ways, this one is a very moving interview. Tarr also speaks about no longer having enough oxygen as a filmmaker to work in his country. He always thought he would make more films. He never saw himself teaching at a film school. He wanted to create a new genre of Hungarian cinema. But it all came different. He had to close his production company, stopped filmmaking, because of the political situation in Hungary. He isn’t the first to say this. The most recent high-profile example is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This new book on Tarr is definitely a must, if you can speak French. It starts to dawn on me, after previous experience, that you might need to look for something in a language other than English, if you want to read something that is not overly academic and tries to complicate everything by pretending to explain films to you which perhaps shouldn’t be explained. So far, the best books I have read about slow-film directors are not in the English language. I’m looking forward to a book on Slow Cinema in French or something. Maybe this will be better than what we have come across so far. Anyway, if you speak either German or French, or maybe both, go get yourself those two treats!

The films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation – Andrew Horton (1997)

When I was still in primary school, at the sweet age of nine, and had no idea that I would become a slow fanatic one day, someone wrote a book on contemplative cinema. That someone was Andrew Horton, and it appears rather strange to put the concept of contemplative cinema into the pre-2000 era. After all, the concept has largely been accredited to Harry Tuttle, and I wonder whether it’s again just one of those knee-jerk things, or whether someone has actually done a bit of work to see that Tuttle was not the person to come up with it. Even though this is by no means a competitive race about who’s first (it’s useless in a slow world anyway), it is important to put things straight before a proper debate on Slow Cinema can take place.

Horton’s book on the films of Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is one of those rare specimens on the market. I’m surprised to see so little work on Angelopoulos, and nothing substantial has come out of (especially!) academic film studies since Horton’s book in 1997. This is on the one hand surprising because Horton’s book is in no way complete. It is, rather, a nice introduction to the films of the Greek director, who, as I have figured while reading the book, shares quite a few similarities with Lav Diaz.

On the other hand, contemplative cinema – in whatever way, from whatever director – is not exactly a subject film scholars are fighting over. There is a comparatively big hype around Slow Cinema at the moment – since 2010, in fact, when Romney used the term ‘Slow Cinema’, which in fact he did as far back as 2004 but this is generally ignored – but I do not see this as a pointer to a persistent academic interest. It’ll be put aside pretty quickly again, and scholars will move on to something else.

As I said before, Horton’s book serves as an interesting medium to discover the films of Angelopoulos. It’s one of my big faults that I have so far only seen one film by him, but this shall change in future. I’m a bit behind with the ‘classics’. The first part of the book is almost excellent, I would say. Horton puts Angelopoulos’s films into the wider context of world cinema, starting with Greek cinema, then expanding to the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, cinema in the Balkans and East Europe, and he even points to similarities Angelopoulos’s aesthetics share with Japanese films of the early days. While this part is an interesting read, the in-depth analysis of similarities the Greek director shares with other filmmakers discredits his own achievements. It reads as though Angelopoulos’s films are an amalgamation of everything that has been before, which, in some ways, they are. But there is little emphasis on the director’s own approach to cinema.

This reminds me of what Lav Diaz told me when I asked him about influences. His work, as so many other slow films, are linked to Italian Neorealism, for instance. Diaz said he watched a lot of those films, but he would not consciously quote them. He’s not consciously influenced by, say, Rossellini. That means, to me, that I should focus on his films as what they are – his films. This is a major issue in the studies of Slow Cinema. One argument you will find pretty much everywhere is the influence of Italian Neorealism. I’m always surprised to read this. The use of long-takes, non-professional actors etc goes back to the very beginning of film history. Therefore, Slow Cinema is not similar to Italian Neorealism. It is simply cinema, a cinema that has always been there, long before neorealism.

What I particularly liked about Horton’s book is the dive into the similarities of Angelopoulos’s aesthetics and Byzantine art. It’s exactly what resonates with my own thoughts and experiences, namely that Slow Cinema is generally indebted to static art, mainly painting. Not so much the aesthetics, but the way the viewer has to approach the films or static art respectively. This becomes clear in Horton’s analysis. In this context, Horton also speaks about a “cinema of meditation”, which is a fitting description not only of Angelopoulos’s films. It could be applied to all slow films.

When I read through the book, I felt as if little new material has been generated in regards to Slow Cinema. The vast majority of arguments have been there before. It’s been 17 years since Horton’s book was published. Slow Cinema is “back in fashion”, but most of the things that are out there are recycled material. It is for this reason that I try to find niches, as I did in my paper on the concentrationary universe, in which I argued that there are similarities between the slowness in Lav Diaz’s films and the slowness as created through terror in concentration camps. Slow Cinema really needs some original research, and I’m hoping to contribute to this in one way or another.

Back to the book, though. The second part of the book is a rather boring piece, and a waste of paper in large parts. Horton discusses five films, but he spends so much time and space on elaborate in-depth synopses that there’s little space left for a decent argument about the actual film form, or whatever it was he wanted to focus on. It is not difficult to write a ten page synopses for a two or three hour film. Everyone can do it, so while I admired Horton’s work in the first half of the book, I felt that he lost the plot in the second half. He lost his decisiveness, his sharp eye. I don’t think that an almost shot by shot description of the film is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the films. A concise synopsis would do, with an in-depth analysis of the most important sequences. Endless synopses make the reading just so boring that the reader will most likely lose interest in the films, which shouldn’t be the result of a book on Slow Cinema. It’s pretty easy to put off your audience as it is, so you have to be clever. Long synopses are not a good strategy.

Overall, though, Horton’s book is decent, and a nice start on Slow Cinema. If you want an easy start into the matter, try this book. It’s cheap, too, compared to the book on Slow Cinema, which will be published next year (and which is, I think, a rip-off, as all academic books these days).

Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation (1997) – Andrew Horton, available on Amazon.

Slow Movies, Countering the Cinema of Action – Ira Jaffe (2014)

I reviewed Song Hwee Lim’s book on Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang earlier, and called Lim’s book the first appropriate book on Slow Cinema. Ira Jaffe’s Slow Movies is supposed to be a book about the phenomenon as such, which looks at several different directors to give a broad overview of what is out there. Sadly, I have to say that the book fails completely.

First of all, the title is misleading. It is true that the title “Slow Movies” may perhaps mean something other than Slow Cinema. But given that it was published at a time when Slow Cinema is receiving increased attention, you would expect that Jaffe has just used a different name. And somehow, I’m still not clear what he is actually talking about. In the introduction, he clearly sets out the characteristics of Slow Cinema. But then he gives examples that contradict his own approach, and uses film examples that are – I believe – in no way Slow Cinema.

Second, Jaffe brings very little to the field. Especially the first two chapters of the book are rather boring, and make slow films terribly unappealing. I’m thinking in particular about his section on Gus van Sant’s Elephant. We’ve seen it, lots has been written about, and everything he has mentioned has been there before. Reading this section is a waste of time, and of paper (and therefore of trees!).

There are also contradictions within his chapters. There are two examples I would like to point to. First is his use of Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch. I haven’t seen the film, but what he describes is not Slow Cinema. And true to the matter, he even says that Dead Man is an exception. He says that it is “not a slow movie in every respect.” Apart from the recurring on-screen (human) violence, which I judge as a no-go for Slow Cinema, he identifies shot/reverse shots, frequent cuts, close-ups and the use of gimmicks like flashbacks as elements that do not comply with the characteristics of what he faithfully calls ‘slow movies’. So what exactly is Dead Man then? Jaffe spends page after page on the film, and it becomes clearer and clearer that Dead Man shouldn’t be in the book at all.

Another irritating section was the one on 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu. On the one hand, he says that the characters “evince” a lot of emotion, but restraint of emotion is a key theme. So what exactly is the key theme? Again, he points out that the presence of emotion is not a key characteristic of slow movies. I have seen 4 Months and I know that it’s not Slow Cinema. It is slow, but it’s not Slow Cinema. This makes the entire book wholly confusing, because Jaffe appears to hop between Slow Movie and Slow Cinema. If all this is about slowness in films only, then this book is a useless piece because it has appeared in books on Antonioni, Gus van Sant, Sokurov etc before. In writing about exactly those directors, it is therefore a mere compilation of what has been there before. There was little point in bringing up the old topic again.

If it was an attempt at writing about Slow Cinema, the book has failed. Some film examples frankly don’t make sense, especially if the author himself says that they do not quite fit the trope. On top of it, I miss original analysis. Most of it is content description, with a few quotations – some of which return over and over again – thrown into it. Reading the book does not give me the feeling that Jaffe is an expert in slow movies. Nor does he seem to be totally immersed in it. Again, like Andras Balint Kovacs’s book on Béla Tarr, this one feels like a quick shot; the result of a race to be the first to publish on a new subject.

The hare and the turtle. I do have to say that for years I had wanted to be the first to publish on Béla Tarr. That one has obviously not materialised, but the first proper book is a failure, because it was a quick shot, exactly what I had in mind for myself. Then I wanted to be the first to publish a book on Slow Cinema. Jaffe’s book is a failure, a quick shot.

I’m really glad that I have become the turtle!

[Slow Movies – Countering the Cinema of Action, by Ira Jaffe, London: Wallflower Press, available on Amazon]

Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness – Song Hwee Lim (2014)

In 2003, Michel Ciment coined the term “a cinema of slowness.” A year later, Jonathan Romney coined the now popular term “Slow Cinema.” It’s quite remarkable that it took over a decade before the first book on the phenomenon was published. I would have expected literature on the subject much earlier than this, but as Song Hwee Lim – I suppose, correctly – points out, Slow Cinema has been somewhat brushed aside by academics. Lim’s book is therefore a premiere. And a good one.

I should make clear that it is, in fact, not really a book about Slow Cinema. Rather, it is an examination of Tsai Ming-liang’s films through which we get to know the aesthetics of slowness. I find the book a success for two reasons. First, Lim has succeeded to put Slow Cinema on paper, which is a real achievement, because it must be extremely difficult to convey the feeling of slowness with words. Yet, his book manages to create a wonderfully authentic image of slow films in general, in of Tsai’s films in particular.

And this is the second reason: the book is an intriguing study of Tsai’s films. Tsai’s oeuvre has attracted writers before, and I do have one book about him in my shelf, a review of which I can put up later. But although these books are interesting, they cannot quite grasp and convey the Tsai-ness of his films. Only Lim’s book does so adequately, and it was a joy to read it. It made me want to re-watch all of Tsai’s films, but unfortunately some other (slow) films have priority at the moment.

There is perhaps another important point I should make. While Cinema of Slowness had been written by an academic, it’s surprisingly open. There is always the risk (and I had many of them in my hands during my research) that films are so utterly theorised that no one apart from academic experts, or even just the author him/herself, understand it. It’s one reason why this blog is the way it is, because Slow Cinema is a phenomenon mainly carried by the audience, often people who have little to do with Film Studies at a university. I personally find that this very fact requires us to make everything that is written accessible to the wider public.

Now, Lim’s book manages the balance between academic analysis and lay film-watching superbly. It’s detailed, but not dry, boring or even off-putting (as is the case with András Balínt Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr). Nor is the book jam-packed. As the first book on Slow Cinema, it could have been a compilation of all thoughts on Slow Cinema out there, basically a roundup of everything that can be said (again, as is the case on Kovacs’s book).

Instead, as strange as it may sound, the book is slow. Lim compiles a lot of material on slow films. Yet, he does not overwhelm the reader with too much information. On the contrary, he manages a smooth integration into an analysis of Tsai’s films, which makes for a smooth and slow reading without being hastened by the author through something that is inherently slow. I also had the rather astonishing experience that I agreed to everything. Before the publication of this book, there were so many things about Slow Cinema that vexed me. This blog was used to argue against those points, and, funnily enough, a lot of the things I have had in mind, appear in Lim’s book. It feels as though I have found a slow (soul) mate.

If you are a keen follower of Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang, this book is perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give you for the time being. It works both as a nice introduction to the phenomenon, as well as a lively but not tiring analysis of one of the most prolific representatives of Slow Cinema.

(Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness, by Song Hwee Lim, University of Hawai’i Press, now available on Amazon)