Death Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Cinema in the News – January 2014

Here’s a brief rundown of news from this month. I tend to tweet these things, but I think it’s a good idea to summarise it all once a month. Better for you, and for me.

The first stills from Tsai Ming-liang’s new film, Journey to the West, have appeared onlineThey are few, but they look SO good. Very photographic. And much similar to Walker, as expected. You can find the stills here.

Journey to the West – New Film by Tsai Ming-liang

That said, The Cinema Guild has acquired the right to Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Fantastic news. This means that we will have the pleasure of having yet another Tsai DVD at home.

Carlos Reygadas has received two nominations for this year’s Cinema Tropical AwardsPost Tenebras Lux is nominated in the category Best Film, while Reygadas himself is nominated for Best Director. Good luck!

Irish filmmaker Pat Collins, who made the beautiful slow film Silence, shows his new film, Living in a Coded Land, at the Dublin Film Festival. I hope it will make its way to the UK. It was a pain to get a copy of Silence – only sold in and distributed within Ireland. Here’s what Collins said about his film:

“For this film, I’m most interested in topics like the legacy and impact of colonialism, privilege, the residue of paganism, our disconnection from and our connection to the land. But the task is to create unexpected links between the past and the present, to look at the past to illuminate the present.”

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and other independent Thai filmmakers have launched their own sales company, Mosquito Films Distributions. Aim is it to increase the visibility of Thai film in the film circuit. Good news: the omnibus feature Tsai contributed to, Letters from the South, is in their hands.

Denis Côté, whom I have mentioned in this blog in relation to his film Bestiaire, also has a new film, which is to premier at the Berlinale. Title: Joy of Man’s Desiring. Stills and a trailer have emerged, and it looks intriguing. Very similar to Bestiaire in a way. I really like this type of filmmaking.

The Joy of Man’s Desiring – New Film by Denis Côté

Apart from this, Slow Cinema is having a good start of the year with films at Göteburg, Rotterdam, Glasgow, Tromsö, Portland and Berlin. As far as I can see, there are a lot of newcomers on the slow horizon, especially in Rotterdam.

Slow Cinema at Rotterdam and Glasgow

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:

IFFR

Costa da Morte (Coast of Death) – dir Lois Patiño, Spain*

28 – dir Prasanna Jayakody, Sri Lanka*

Another Hungary – dir Dénes Nagy, Hungary*

De chair et de lait – dir Bernard Bloch, France*

Japón – dir Carlos Reygadas, Mexico

Letters from the South (omnibus) – section dir by Tsai Ming-liang

Norte, The End of History – dir Lav Diaz, Philippines

Prologue to the Great Desaparecido – dir Lav Diaz, Philippines

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness – dir Ben River, Ben Russell, France/Estonia

Story of my Death – dir Albert Serra, Spain

‘Til Madness Do Us Part – dir Wang Bing, Hongkong*

Slow Cinema

GFF

Harmony Lessons – dir Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan*

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.

The River Used to be a Man

It’s been a while that I watched a good slow film. My head rarely thinks ouside Lav Diaz’s films at the moment. I’m trying to re-watch Florentina Hubaldo (and will post a review here later), but it’s a lot tougher than I had first experienced. So I’m taking it slow.

I came across The River used to be a man by accident. It’s a German film by Jan Zabeil that was released last year in its home country. I don’t think it has ever made its way to the UK, and IMDB agrees with me on this point.

The river Used to be a Man

The film tells the story of a German, who, after the apparent death of his guide, gets lost in the Botswanan wilderness. It is a slow-paced film, though not a painterly slow film the way I would study it. However, The River that used to be a man confirmed a few things that I realised only a short while ago, and which still make me think as to how I could fit this into my writing.

The film is wonderful at depicting the African wilderness, the loneliness it evokes. But also the untouched nature we can hardly find these days, especially in our regions. We see peaceful sunsets and smooth rivers. The main character, for me, in this film is nature. And strikingly, the native who initially travels with the German explains to him: “Here’s the house of the animals. It’s the house of all the animals … we’re on their island”. Nature is the host; man is merely a guest, as is the case in many other slow films.

The River Used to be a Man

What made me think is the subtle point on modernity, and the way in which we humans, especially from the First World, have forgotten how to live in a simple manner. When the native dies, the German is on his own, in the middle of nowhere. He struggles to manouvre the canoe-like boat, and falls into the river because he cannot keep his balance. He cannot hunt. At night he hears a lot of sounds from animals, but he cannot identify whether or not the animals around him could be dangerous as he possibly has never learned to identify them in the first place. He didn’t need to, living in a city. Finally, he can’t light a fire because his lighter doesn’t work. The first thing he asks for when he wakes up in an unknown village after he had been picked up by a native when unconscious, is a telephone and a shop.

It sounds like the typical ignorant Westerner. And yet, it is only a subtle theme that runs through the film. This very theme brought me back to an earlier thought that a substantial amount of slow films are in some ways connected to the Third World, or in more specific terms to developing countries. They are made by directors from developing countries, or deal with issues that touch upon those regions. This doesn’t apply to all slow films, but it is nevertheless quite a large number.

We have Lav Diaz from the Philippines; Yulene Olaizola, Nicolas Pereda, Carlos Reygadas and Francisco Vargas from Mexico; Lisandro Alonso from Argentina; Abbas Kiarostami from Iran; Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand. Michela Occipinti’s film Letters from the Desert is set in India. The River is set in Africa.

I wouldn’t go as far as terming these films Third Cinema, but I find this development striking. Other slow films come from what we call the Second World. Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokurov are the most known examples. I’m not trying to put the films into boxes. However, this is where the term “slowness” comes in again. For whom are those films slow? For the audience, and the audience comes mainly from the capitalist, speedy First World. From urban areas with bustling streets. From hyper-modern civilisations, whose days are structured by the mechanical clock.

Considering the geographical backgrounds of those directors, it is inadequate to term the films slow. The term can be derogative, and in this case, I would say that, indeed, it is. It is merely looking down from our big modern horse on countries that are still a bit “behind”. But behind what? What is the merit?

Mainstream Slow Cinema

Two terms that do not go together. I’m well aware of this. But a thought occurred to me last night, which, to be honest, has been in the back of my head for a while now.

Slow Cinema is not as invisible anymore as it had been. With the help of a large amount of bloggers, the phenomenon has been put into our awareness. Thanks to those writings, we are now aware of main players like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Albert Serra and others. If there’s anything I learned during the initial stage of my research then it’s the fact that these directors are Slow Cinema. That’s it. There is a set list of directors who have become incredibly famous over the last few years. If something does get written on Slow Cinema, then it’s on one of those directors. In the realm of Slow Cinema, they are big names. The biggest amongst the big names is perhaps Béla Tarr.

With Nick James’ comment that the era of Slow Cinema has come to an end, I have realised that there is little flexibility in the field. We anticipate and focus on new films by famous slow-film directors. I have quite a substantial, and actually incomplete list of work that has been done on the big names. Slowly but surely, they even attract book publication, as is the case with Tsai, Tarr, Apichatpong and now even Serra.

The flipside of all this is that we miss development in the field. I miss someone who goes beyond the usual. Don’t get me wrong, I love the films of the directors mentioned here. But I do wonder whether we do ourselves and Slow Cinema a favour by retaining the focus on those who are already famous in their own way. Have Tsai, Apichatpong, Tarr, Reygadas, and Serra not become extremely popular in the last few years? Can we not describe them as the mainstream of Slow Cinema?

Slow Cinema was kind of seen as a phenomenon of the first decade of the 2000s. I wonder whether there’s anyone trying to trace the next generation (apart from me). I have a problem with the term Slow Cinema and its recent developments, and we may want to branch it out into more specific kinds of Slow Cinema.

For once, directors begin to make use of special effects, which wasn’t in the original concept lay film critics have compiled. Slow films were simply “natural”, and not manipulated. Reygadas’ special effects in Post Tenebras Lux are exemplary here. I have also mentioned in an earlier post that Apichatpong’s Mekong Hotel questions a few characteristics as well by including more dialogue, and more music; elements that speed up the experienced pace of the film. In a clip from Tsai’s new film Stray Dogs, the surrounding looks pretty crowded to me. It still feels slow, but compared to his other films, the frames appear crowded, the action in the background seems hectic. There are certain developments in the films of known slow-film directors away from their usual type of filmmaking they became famous with, which isn’t bad. But it makes people believe that Slow Cinema is coming to an end.

Which, of course, it isn’t. Here’s a wonderful discovery of a new generation of Slow Cinema: Yulene Olaizola. Her two feature films are what Slow Cinema originally started off with. Her first feature, Artificial Paradise (2011), was funded by the Hubert Bals Fund. Hear next feature, Fogo (2012), was screened at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes last year. Fogo reminded me of The Nine Muses somehow. But anyway, there has basically been nothing written about her and her films. Despite her screening at Cannes. Do critics deliberately ignore new slow films? These two films are so obviously Slow Cinema that I’m surprised that no one has picked up on it. They’re slow, set in rural areas, use little dialogue, focus on only a handful of characters, they’re painterly (that’s for me!), they depict the mundane, the everyday, etc You can tick all the boxes, if you want to tick them.

But, you can achieve everything if you just want to. So if you want the era of Slow Cinema to come to an end, then it is possible by closing your eyes. By not showing an interest in a new generation. By not actively seeking alternatives to the already well-known big names of the phenomenon. And this, for that matter, is easier done than said (yes, I intend this to be the wrong way around).

Post Tenebras Lux – Carlos Reygadas

Before you read this post, please be aware that it contains spoilers. If you intend to watch the film in future, I’d advise you not to read it. Or to forget about what you’ve read.

I want to jot down only a few impressions from Reygadas’ new film Post Tenebras Lux as reviewing the entire film would be utopian at the moment. It is a complex film. I’d say it is Reygadas’ most complex film. Controversial, as I read in some reviews. Though I do wonder where exactly the controversy comes in. True, the brutality of man exercised on his dog was a horrible thing to watch. But that’s as controversial as it got for me. If the bathouse orgy was controversial – well, I suggest you don’t attend a screening of an alternative film which is rated for people over the age of 18.

Anyway, I have written previously on the apparent aesthetic shifts in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films. His latest short Mekong Hotel didn’t have the same look nor the same feel compared to his other films with regards to the issue of what is termed Slow Cinema. It was different. This may be too fast a shot, but I wonder whether we witness a new trend in this field of cinema in general. The characteristics of Slow Cinema that scholars and film critics have come up with stem from films made predominantly before 2010, ergo in the first part of the 2000s.

Post Tenebras Lux is yet another example, which defies the usual, almost fixed elements of Slow Cinema. Reygadas’ has always been seen as part of the Slow Cinema family, and, indeed, his previous films were easy to group them under this umbrella. They were less painterly than, say, Diaz’s and Tarr’s film, but they were certainly slow, had similar themes, were set in similar regions (i.e. rural areas) and depicted characters in much the same light as other slow-film directors have done before.

His latest cinematic work is different, mainly because of its use of special effects, which has never been part of Slow Cinema (in the early 2000s). Everything had been natural, down-to-earth, realistic (although I am aware that the term ‘realistic’ is debatable). In his new film you encounter the devil, an animation, computer graphics, in short: a special effect.

You equally have blurred lenses, which has – to my knowledge – not been used before. And at the film’s end the guy to your right rips his head off his shoulders; a special effect. The film contains elements of the supernatural, of science-fiction, of animation, of artificiality. In itself this isn’t bad, and not the point of this blog post. However, I want to point to the changes in the films of who we have described as ‘slow-film directors’.

Are we witnessing a new development within Slow Cinema in this decade? Two films are following this new trend. Or better, they question our current understanding of Slow Cinema as it is. It also shows how malleable and flexible the phenomenon is.