Ananke (Claudio Romano Nöhring, 2016)

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

A man and a woman walk slowly through the woods. The camera follows their steps. They seem exhausted. The woman stumbles and tries to hold on to the jacket sleeve of the man. Birds are chirping, crows are cawing. There is something both peaceful and ominous in the air.

Claudio Romano’s Ananke is an observation of our selves, in parts based on Greek mythology. Romano explained the meaning of the film’s title, which, at the same time, is the name of the goat the two unnamed characters own, in an interview:

In greek mythology, Ananke stands for necessity. Ananke is the force that governs everything. It’s the deification of the unalterable necessity of fate, which is an unavoidable principle and a regulative law, without which we would be swallowed by Chaos.

Ananke (dir Claudio Romano Nöhring)

This chaos is palpable in Romano’s film. His two characters go about their daily life. Very much in the style of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which the Italian director wasn’t aware of while he was working on his own film, the film shows the man and the woman get dressed, comb their hair, eat. In long observing takes, Romano depicts the weight of time which weighs heavily on the little house the film is predominantly set in. Damages on walls become wounds, wounds become scars. The ageing interior of the house has something mysterious to it, a mystery that also envelops the two characters. Who are they? What is their relationship to each other? While in Tarr’s film the relationship between the man (father) and the woman (daughter) is clear, Romano keeps it open, asking the viewer to decide about what s/he sees in those two characters.

The film’s idyllic atmosphere and its peace is disrupted when chaos breaks out. Ananke, the characters’ goat, named after the Greek goddess, disappears and sets a desperate search in motion. The sudden absence of the goat brings the people’s dependancy on it into the open. What becomes apparent is not the fear of what has become of the animal, but rather the fear of what will become of themselves. Ananke becomes a mirror we hold up to ourselves, because the film isn’t so much about the two characters, or the goat. It is a film that represents Man’s relationship to Nature.

Ananke (dir Claudio Romano Nöhring)

To me, this is a moving-image representation of what I have been mentioned several times in connection to traditional Chinese landscape painting. Contrary to Western landscape painting, Man was the crowning glory. He overpowered Nature. This wasn’t the way Chinese painters perceived of Man’s role. He was simply one part of the whole, a piece that adds to the vast jigsaw puzzle called Life. Romano shows in Ananke that Man still very much considers himself to be the crowning glory and that he believes he can master Nature.

But it’s not that simple. Nature has its own ways, as the goat’s disappearance shows. And this is precisely where Man’s perception of himself begins to show cracks. “Anake! Ananke!”, the woman shouts over and over again, her voice almost terrified. Her terrified shouting, her desperate searches – all of this has its root in her realisation that she and the man who accompanies her are no longer in a position of power. They’re acted upon, and struggle with their role.

What remained for me after the film was the woman’s desperate shouts. They are still ringing in my ears when I think of the film. Ananke is a film about power, in some ways, but also about a lack thereof, about emptiness, which is palpable in every frame. It is perhaps best to end this post with Romano’s own words, who describes this interest in absence and emptiness:

Emptiness, or absence, is maybe the main theme of the film and the most important concept of my style, my method, my filmmaking. Absence is all I search, in life as well. To discard everything, to taste the void. Absence means to not see, to not perceive, and also to see and to listen elsewhere. Absence is also a political choice, an essential life choice to me. It’s about focusing on what’s not there, what we cannot see, to appreciate what is there and what we do see. To claim my presence in the void, to not occupy common spaces. This is related to Nature, to God, or spirits, in my opinion. The absence of the goat, for example, is more than a vanishing. It reminds us we cannot manage everything. Almost everything happens out of our control and an explanation is not needed. The absence of an explanation: this is another concept very important to me.

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting V

The second last feature I would like to mention is the use of monochrome aesthetics. It is something that cannot be applied to Slow Cinema as a whole. In fact, the majority of slow films I know were made in colour. However, I initially set out to read Lav Diaz’s films in the light of Chinese painting, and for his work, the reasons behind the use of monochrome aesthetics work perfectly.

The Song period (c 960-1237) was described as the golden age of Chinese painting. Painting was finally accepted as one of the fine arts. It was also the period whose painters focused predominantly on monochrome aesthetics in their depiction of landscapes. There were two schools at the time, the Northern and the Southern School. The latter, in particular, is now known for its use of black-and-white. It was the famous Wang Wei who is quoted as saying: “monochrome is by far superior”. It is a superior, and a different way of seeing. Exactly what Diaz said in an interview with JP Carpio; black-and-white is “a different way of seeing life”.

What can be taken from literature on Chinese painting is, for instance, that black-and-white stood for simplicity. The Song period represented a move towards an even greater simplicity as a whole. Subjects were elemental, i.e. simple and mundane in nature. This is one of the main characteristics of Slow Cinema in general, but Diaz’s films in particular: simplicity. It is not only the cinematic techniques that are kept simple. It is the entire mise-en-scène, the actions by characters, their conversations, even their housings.

Another important factor is the aspect of poverty. Now, poverty goes hand in hand with simplicity in some ways. I have already mentioned the housings of the characters. During my research for one of my chapters, I learned that overall 40% of the population live off less than $2 a day. Diaz explained in an interview (again with JP Carpio), that he could relate to those struggles more as it’s his own background: “I can relate to it in a more truthful way because it’s my culture”. He comes from a poor family of farmers and fishermen. The first diversion of this came with his last film Norte. A film made in colour, which – interestingly – portrays the struggle of the poor against the rich. The use of colour highlights the wealth of the upper class. Black-and-white wouldn’t create a credible picture. You have a similar approach in Béla Tarr’s films, by the way. Think about the particular class of people he portrays in his films…

Lastly, black-and-white supports a focus on the narrative. A focus on the essentials. This ties in once more with the aspect of simplicity. Chinese painters argued that colour would divert the viewer’s attention. Indeed, I personally find black-and-white films more powerful. I don’t get distracted by different colours. I can focus on the very essentials of the film, and I can thus receive all the information as well without its being hampered by changes of colours or colour schemes. Besides, black-and-white supports the idea of universality. It was Béla Tarr who said that his the event in his films could happen anywhere and anytime. It is not a particular thing tied to his native Hungary. Colour would make it easier to identify time and place, whereas monochrome aesthetics (can) leave it open.

Again, this specific feature cannot be applied to all slow films, but mainly to Diaz and Tarr. However, the ideas behind it – simplicity, poverty, focus on narrative – are rather universal for Slow Cinema as a whole.

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting IV

I want to continue with the slow and painterly journey today. You can find the previous three parts here, here and here. Last time, I briefly outlined the theme of verticality both in Chinese painting and in Lav Diaz’s films, with particular regard to the relation of Heaven and Earth, and the role of man in the universe.

Today, I want to add to this a brief summary of the concept of emptiness, which has its origins in Chinese painting. Emptiness never meant “empty” the way we would interpret it nowadays. Emptiness, or absence, always meant presence at the same time. It was the source of all things. Also, it has its roots in meditation. Painters meditated before they picked up a brush. They cleared, or “emptied”, their minds. This emptiness was thus a prerequisite for tranquility. This is particularly obvious in Zen painting. Here, objects are presented in front of a completely blank background.

I mentioned last week that there is always a space of emptiness sandwiched between the planes of Heaven and Earth. At least in traditional Chinese landscape painting. This emptiness was conveyed through the depiction of vast landscapes. This appears very similar to many slow films, as the landscape often plays a major role in them. Characters are often dwarfed, nature is dominant.

This is, obviously, a very literal reading. It is possible to extend the argument, though. In many slow films, but in Lav Diaz’s and Béla Tarr’s films especially, emptiness describes subjective mental states, which are then mirrored by (empty) landscapes. In Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos, for instance, emptiness stands for both the landscape – the film is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming – and the characters and interviewees, all of which have lost either family members or their entire property. Emptiness is here more absence, more destruction than actual non-existence. However, the strong typhoon did “empty” the region. Houses, rice fields, everything is gone. It is creepy to link this to what I said earlier: emptiness is the source of something new, but unfortunately, this is very much the case here.

In relation to the landscape as a mirror of a character’s mental state – this can be linked to the original Buddhist concept of emptiness, namely dependency. We’re empty of self-existence, meaning we only exist because of many other factors. We alone, without any influences, could not and would not exist. We’re dependent. Our life is the result of a combination of circumstances. This means in short that one thing determines another. We can thus also say here that the landscape determines its inhabitants and vice versa. They’re a mirror of one another. This is exactly what we see in Diaz’s films, as well as in Tarr’s films. Particularly the latter is a genius when it comes to showing the dependency of several elements. Everything is connected.

That leaves me with two more features. Stay tuned!

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting II

Last week I began to point to some research I have done last year. Today I want to go into a bit more detail about it.

Perhaps, I should make clear that I do not say that slow films are Chinese paintings. Nor do I say that all slow films can be compared to Chinese painting. This isn’t my intention, and I’m aware that it can look like it. This is why I clarify my intention beforehand.

I suppose that it can be difficult to see a connection between Chinese painting and Slow Cinema. However, only the term “Chinese” is really irritating, and it is only irritating because we divide the world into East and West. And why, with our own rich culture here in the West, should I make a journey to the East?

Chinese landscape painting

I spoke earlier about slow films’ link to landscape painting. It is important to see this link in a historical context. I cannot simply take, say, a Spanish landscape painting and make links to slow films just so that it fits to our Eurocentric reading. If I were to use a Spanish painting, I would ignore a vital part of art history, namely that landscape painting originated in the East, in China (London’s V&A museum currently exhibits striking artworks from China). What I see in any landscape painting has its roots – as vague as it may appear – in China. So why should I not start with it!?

The aesthetics of Chinese landscape painting derived from their philosophy (Buddhism, Taoism) and their take on nature. Nature as a governing force, man as the one who is only one part of the universe, but not the most important part of the universe.

While Westerners chased after the mechanical clock and attempted to divide time into ever smaller entities (to save time, and do more, as is the case today), the Chinese continued to live true to nature. In fact, when Western colonisers tried to introduce the mechanical clock in China, they were laughed at. The Chinese used them as toys, not as time pieces. Unfortunately, with the defeat in the Opium War against the British Empire, the Chinese were forced to adopt Western technology etc.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting has four major characteristics; emptiness, verticality, monochrome aesthetics, and, for me, the Three Perfections. Each of them made a specific contribution to the look of Chinese artwork. Not all of them were visible from the beginning of landscape painting, which is supposedly linked to the 4th century. Rather, it was a (slow) development towards perfection.

I will explain each of the characteristics in more detail in the coming weeks, and put them into the context of Slow Cinema. I hope this will give you an eureka effect similar to the one I had.

Stay tuned! Slowly…