Malaventura – Michel Lipkes (2011)

The last day in the life of an elderly man – this is the entire premise of Michel Lipkes’ wonderful debut feature. Once more, I have to bow to the sheer quality of Mexican slow films. There seems to be a real hub for it over there and I begin to wonder whether it would be good to study them separately, not so much as part of Slow Cinema, but as a specific form in Mexican cinema. Leaving the cinematic slowness behind for a second, and just see those films as an output of Mexican independent cinema.

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Malaventura is a very meditative film. Lipkes has an eye for cinematic beauty in his shots, and the film is thus interspersed with wonderfully photographic frames, which are simply lovely to look at. They help to generate a contemplative atmosphere, to slow down the pace of the film, and thereby give the film a real feeling of its showing the last day of a man’s life. Several frames have a dark, and perhaps sinister nature to them. Some scenes certainly reminded me of Béla Tarr. In an extended scene shot in a local bar, several people are seen drinking and playing cards. A woman takes care of her finger nails. The very characteristic of this scene creates a mysterious feeling. Is what we see actually real, or is the old man merely imagining it?

Voice and sounds don’t fit the images we see. The shots have a certain grey tone to them. Smoke is hanging in the bar. The camera moves between faces of gambling men. The entire set-up is similar to those famous Béla Tarr pub scenes, especially those in Sátántangó (1994), or even in The Man from London (2007). Indeed, the pub/bar scene in the latter is rather different, but you can definitely see a degree of influence of Tarr on Lipkes’ filmmaking. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Then again, Tarr seems to be everywhere. I think he’s been a huge influence on several directors I’m speaking about on this website.

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In many scenes, the man, who appears small compared to the city’s vastness, is seen walking from one point to another. It is not clear at the beginning where he is going or whether he has a destination at all. I thought at the beginning that he was just walking. But he does actually walk to a very specific place, which becomes important at the end of the film. It is unclear what the man is really up to. It’s a clever way of constructing the film because the viewer is left wondering what it is that s/he is actually observing. First of all, the man seems to walk to an unknown destination, if he has one at all.

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Then he is also seen in a park, selling balloons; a sad image, the small man in a long shot, the colours of the natural surrounding degraded in the editing processes, but the colours of the balloons in their full beauty. The contrast between the suffering, stooped, even almost lifeless man on a bench and the colourful balloons flying almost free above the man’s head, in the sky, a sky that promises freedom, is startling. Precisely because this is such a startling contrast, this was also my favourite shot. Lipkes certainly created a simple image with a lot of possible readings. There is nothing much you need to think about. It isn’t a complex image. It doesn’t appeal to the intellectual mind. It just wants you to see what’s there.

Lipkes’ film is rather short. With only 67 minutes it is one of the shorter slow films I have mentioned so far. But this is, I have to say, it’s strength. Lipkes has used those 67 minutes to create a very strong portrait of a dying man, going about his seemingly daily life. It is an even more astonishing work because it is a debut feature. I’m sure that Lipkes has a promising future ahead of him. I’m looking forward to his next film!

 

Book Review: Das Innen im Außen – Bernhard Hetzenauer (2013)

Bernhard Hentzenauer’s book on Béla Tarr, Das Innen im Aussen: Béla Tarr, Jacques Lacan und der Blick, makes me glad that I’m a German native, and can therefore read and fully understand his arguments. I’m not sure whether an English translation is in the making, so you may want to teach yourself a bit of German if you want to read a really interesting take on Béla Tarr’s films 🙂

Hetzenauer’s work is based on a Master’s thesis, which makes the book with only 100 pages neat, brief and to-the-point. It is a philosophical take on Tarr and brings some intriguing aspects to previous writing on the filmmaker that are worth looking at in more detail. What Hetzenauer looks at is ‘the gaze’ in Tarr’s films. Based on Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, he explores the meaning of the gaze but also the aesthetics of it.

I’ve seen every single of Tarr’s films apart from one of his earlier social-realist films. I’ve always been fascinated by them, but I never noticed just how prevalent the gaze is in his films. It’s true, though, and it becomes a kind of eureka effect once you read Hetzenauer’s book. And in fact, Tarr’s films often start with a gaze. Take Damnation, for instance, the almost endless scene of cable cars that makes us feel as if we’re positioned somewhere outside. A zoom out and subtle camera movement, however, shows Karrer sitting at the window observing those cable cars. Is the beginning a POV shot, or is it not? If not, what exactly is it then? I’m not entirely sure whether or not Film Studies could solve this riddle.

The theme of characters sitting behind a window is recurring. There is the doctor in Sátántangó, who is the narrator of the story, and who observes everything that happens in front of his window. Then there is the daughter in The Turin Horse, a film in which Tarr uses the exact same aesthetic as he had done in Damnation. First we see only the outside, until a zoom moves us into the interior, revealing the back of a longing (or hopeless?) character. Hetzenauer points out that if you only studied this very gaze alone you’d see the slow but sure end of Tarr’s filmmaking career. It is well known that Tarr has stripped his last film of pretty much everything and turned it into a very austere work. A pure form of cinema, as Tarr called it at the EIFF 2011, if I remember right.

Interestingly, he has also gradually minimised the amount of objects his characters are looking at through the window. There are the cable cars in Damnation.It’s not much, but it’s something, and as they’re moving, they must be moving somewhere. There is a definite spatial end to this route. There is a another location, perhaps a less desperate space nearby. Fast-forward to The Turin Horse, and all the girl is left with to look at is a tree in the far background. Other than that, there’s complete nothingness. No path, nothing that indicates a potential hope for the characters. Not that The Turin Horse is hopeful anyway. It’s as depressing and hopeless as Tsai Ming-liang’s last film Stray Dogs, and both endings are fitting to the directors’ films and their filmmaking career. But it’s those small visual pointers that are often overlooked, and which Hetzenauer stresses.

I particularly like the fact that Hetzenauer mentions Tarr’s famous long-takes without putting them at the centre of his work, which is usually the case with writers nowadays. In putting the long-take aside – without rejecting it completely – Hetzenauer’s book has space to explore more intriguing things. The gaze is a perfect example of this, and Hetzenauer analysed it with brilliance in my opinion. There is one aspect I miss in the book, though. He merges Tarr with Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, thus aiming for a philosophical approach. He also returns to the gaze, as personified by the camera, several times throughout the book.

Now, I wonder why he didn’t make use of Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy. I got obsessed with that book a few years ago, and could see every bit of Frampton in Tarr’s films, or the other way around, depending on how you want to see it. Reading Hetzenauer’s book was like reading Filmosophy again, and I’m surprised that he doesn’t mention it, not even in the slightest. Hetzenauer has a particular way of describing the gaze in Tarr’s films, which makes me think of the film / the camera having its own mind, making decisions, simply acting as an individual being or character in the film. Nowhere is this more visible than in Tarr’s films, so I believe that if you do study the specific aesthetics of the moving camera, Frampton should at least be mentioned.

In any case, the book is worthwhile reading and it’s a fast-read, too, if you’re worried about your time. Hetzenauer’s work, in its quality, isn’t surprising. I have long realised – through talking with people, and my own reading – that the most groundbreaking work in Slow Cinema is done by MA and PhD students, not so much (yet) by established academics. This is perhaps the case because students still see things afresh and out-of-the-box, which makes it likely that they do not trod the same path.

It reminds me of my experience with scholarship on trauma cinema. The progress is minimal in that field. Scholars write the same thing over and over again, quote the same people, the same text passages and there’s nothing new coming to the field. Now, I did have problems with Dirk de Bruyn’s book on trauma in avant-garde films because of terrible editing and errors from page one to the very last page. But I can nevertheless say that he did have original thoughts. And he’s an academic as well as a practitioner, which explains his out-of-the-box thinking. This is what any field needs. Bernhard Hetzenhauer shows this with his book on the gaze in Béla Tarr’s films.

Costa da Morte – Lois Patino (2013)

The film starts with a beautiful shot of fog hanging over a couple of slim high trees about to be felled. In an extreme long shot, we see first one man, then three men deciding over the fate of the trees. At times, it is difficult to detect movement, and yet this is a film. Lois Patino’s Costa da Morte (2013) is part film, part photo album. Again, it is a striking that ‘slow’ films are often more photograph than film, more static image than moving spectacle. Patino observes. He observes the landscape of the Galician Costa da Morte. He observes the people. He observes their interaction.

Even though Patino does speed up the cuts from time to time, he generally allows the viewer to study the beautiful landscape in detail. It feels as though we are on a journey along the coast, encountering a new piece of land, and, yes, falling in love with it (I did, anyway). Costa da Morte is a succession of strong compositions, which highlight both nature’s beauty but also its incredible power. There has certainly been a photographer’s eye involved in the filmmaking process. Some parts of nature are naturally beautiful, but you nevertheless have to capture it in such a way that it conveys this beauty to the audience. I often find myself disappointed looking at my photographs whenever I haven’t managed to convey the beauty. In fact, it is extremely difficult to do this. Patino manages this throughout most of his film. Visually, Costa is a stunning film that made me wish to return to both photography and film again myself one day.

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Patino combines the imagery with oral history, or simple chit-chat amongst the locals. The latter is particularly interesting because it overlays extreme long shots of people, who appear so tiny in the frame that they trigger thoughts of Chinese painting again and the role and position of Man in landscape. To be more precise, Man was just one part of nature, but it was by no means the “crowning glory” of it. This Chinese aesthetic fits very much to Costa. I haven’t yet made up my mind whether the dialogue between people in the far distance has a positive or a rather negative effect on me. I was drawn into it at first. Then, however, the longer the film lasted, the more I thought that the dialogue actually disrupts the beautiful imagery. It is distracting at times, though I do admit that this is here mainly a matter of being a foreigner, who needs to read subtitles. I usually don’t have a problem with subtitles at all. But with this film, it would be better to be a local, or simple speak the language. Then you would be able to enjoy the landscapes without any interruption.

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Very interesting to me was the dialogue between two men who were hiking up a mountain. One of them spoke about old legends, the other countered it by “what geologists” say about the landscape. Tradition versus modernity, oral history versus scientific proof – I returned to the interview I conducted with Lav Diaz in which he said that he was keen on combining oral with scholarly history, the latter being “very clean” and full of scientific proof, which never takes into account experiences. Costa hints at a similar perspective, but it doesn’t develop it properly. It is not necessary in this film, either. It is just the right degree of involvement with local people and their history, and contrasting this with “neutral” and “objective” history.

Costa is a subtle film at times. We are, after all, speaking about the Coast of Death, which received its name because that is precisely what the coastline was for many ships; a coast of death. Patino seems to draw the circles of death much wider, though. I did feel death seeping through in several scenes. Maybe it was intentional, maybe it wasn’t. In any case, there is a strong sense of something passing in Patino’s film. I’m not only speaking of the oral history, which is crumbling. There are the trees felled, the fires extinguished, the foxes hunted. There is this graveyard Patino spends quite some time on. It feels as if this specific area in Galicia has not only received its name because of the ship wrecks. There is a very eery feeling that death is much more prominent. Everything comes to an end.

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I would describe Costa as a fantastic journey, but also as a journey that took too long. The film is only 81 minutes. It is a comparatively short film that shouldn’t stretch your patience. And yet, it does. An hour would have been enough. It would have made the film more concise, more powerful, more to the point. I felt that the last ten to fifteen minutes stretched it a bit, and even though the footage was wonderful, it felt as if everything had been said by then. The imagery – beautiful as it was – merely dragged the film to an end that should have come earlier. I have very rare moments of actually waiting for an end of a slow film. Unfortunately, Costa was one of the few that made me lose my patience a bit in the end. The film started off exceptionally strong, but Patino lost the strength over time. However, Costa makes for an interesting study of landscape, nature and our relationship towards it. I’m certainly hoping that Patino will make similar films in future.

The concentrationary universe in the films of Lav Diaz (paper)

RPG Conference, University of Stirling, 4 September 2014

Introduction
At the end of 1943, Primo Levi, a trained chemist from Italy, was arrested, and a few months later sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. At the end of the war, he left the camp as a survivor, but also as a living corpse. His treatise “If this is a man” became well-known and is a first-hand account of atrocities committed under Nazi rule. Levi writes about his day-to-day life in Auschwitz and about the many deaths he encountered. He also writes about the torment that prisoners were put through. “If this is a Man” describes the concentration camp as a place of slow death. In one part, Levi writes,

This is hell. Today, in our times, hell must be like this. A huge, empty room: we are tired, standing on our feet, with a tap which drips while we cannot drink the water, and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens and nothing continues to happen. What can one think about? One cannot think any more, it is like being dead already. (28)

This is only one example of the regular torments in the camps. If not selected for the gas chamber, the prisoners waited for death through starvation, disease, hard manual labour and/or torture. The very focus on suffering and the delay of death shows strong similarities between life in a concentration camp and the life of characters portrayed in the films of Lav Diaz.    In this paper, I will attempt to illuminate this ‘concentrationary universe’, in which Diaz creates conditions of fear, angst, torment and paranoia for the character as well as for the viewer. In doing so, I will draw from sociological writings on life in the concentration camps and a new field of research in the Humanities, which has its origins at the University of Leeds under the direction of Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman. I will also include parts of the interview I conducted recently with Diaz at the Locarno Film Festival, where I asked him specifically about the treatment of suffering in his films.

Slow Suffering
To begin with, the term ‘concentrationary’ is taken from the French ‘concentrationnaire’, which in itself stems from the title of the 1946 book ‘L’univers concentrationnaire’ by David Rousset, a former political prisoner of Buchenwald concentration camp. It has also been used extensively by Primo Levi in his last book ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, or rather by the translator Raymond Rosenthal, as far back as the 1980s.

Pollock and Silverman attempt a characterisation of the concentrationary by juxtaposing the specific uses of concentration and extermination camps during the Second World War. They write,

The extermination camp subjects its victims to immediate death, often within the hours of     arrival at the extermination point. Its space is void of life, attended only by a small work     detail and its SS guards. In the concentration camp, however, death is not the main object; terror and the enactment of the terrifying idea that humans qua human beings can become superfluous are its purpose and its legacy. (2014, 11)

In principle, concentration and extermination camps differed from one another in their uses of time. It was a difference of speed and slowness. In his book ‘The Order of Terror’, German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky (1997) describes it this way:

The death factory was an apparatus that functioned smoothly, virtually trouble-free, working at high capacity and speed. A death train arrived at the ramp in the morning; by the afternoon, the bodies had been burned, and the clothing brought to the storerooms (259).

In the concentration camps, on the other hand, prisoners often died slowly, as a result of a continuous infliction of hardships. Paul Neurath (2005), survivor of Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, contends, “The camp usually kills its victims in less spectacular ways. It is comparable not so much to a ferocious murderer who runs amok, as to a dreadful machine that slowly, but without mercy, grinds its victims to bits” (47-48).

As I am hoping to demonstrate in this paper, a major characteristic of Diaz’s films is the focus on suffering. His films represent characters who are or have been target of oppressive governmental forces, and turn into living corpses as a result of it. What stands out in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), and Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012) is that the characters are caught in a web of persistent fear and terror. Death, while at times desired on the side of the persecuted, is prevented, or rather not granted.

Rather, according to Pollock and Silverman, the aim of the concentration camp, and in extension of the concentrationary universe, is “to submit inmates to a prolonged process of psychological disintegration, reduction to bare life and, hence, to becoming a living corpse” (Pollock, Silverman 2014, 11).

This focus on psychological processes in the characters is supported by the aesthetics Diaz employed for these films, first and foremost by the particular length of his films. The in-depth depiction of fear, angst, and paranoia over the course of, at times, nine hours is an aesthetic of Diaz’s concentrationary universe. It is further supported by the use of extreme long-takes. As Sam Littman (2014) contends with regard to contemporary Romanian cinema, “the long take len[ds] itself perfectly to expressing psychological realism.” There is thus a link between slowness and the concentrationary, which I want to explore in more detail now.

Analysing the concentration camp system as a site of terror, Wolfgang Sofsky (1997) points to the presence of an “endless duration that was constantly interrupted by sudden attacks and incursions. In this world of terror, a single day was longer than a week” (24). This very cycle of endless duration and sudden attacks is most prominent in Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, which portrays a young woman being subjected to repeated rapes. The film follows her mental degradation as a result of CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain, whose onset stems from brutal treatment at the hands of her father.

vlcsnap-2014-08-25-14h11m25s47Just as concentration camp or even Soviet Gulag prisoners were deemed to be more useful as long as they could work, so Florentina, too, is denied death foe economical reasons. Her body is a mere product her father sells in order to earn a living. Her treatment thus attempts to strike a balance between a sufficient degree of subordination without gravely compromising her ability to “work”. Diaz disrupts this endless suffering of Florentina with attacks on the viewer’s senses, mainly by shock moments delivered through high-volume noise or absolute silence. Juxtaposing almost endless scenes of Florentina’s suffering with sudden attacks delivered through sound, Diaz’s six-hour film is a close representation of the concentrationary universe in which Florentina eventually, after six hours, dies as a result of a continuous infliction of miseries.

Sofsky’s above-mentioned remark about the change of time-consciousness in the camp inmates is similar to the shattered time-consciousness one encounters in Diaz’s films. The very length of his films exemplifies the endless duration of terror and marks the characters’ entrapment in a world of fear and uncertainty about death. Time begins to stretch, a characteristic very similar to that of a traumatic event, which survivors often describe as a slow-motion effect. In the words of Diaz:

At some point, death will come. It’s like a premeditated thing. … hell is coming, and it’s always like that. It’s like a concentration camp. You’re compartmentalised; this is the new group, we need to orient them on how to work on these things, then, next compartment, we will not feed them, and the next compartment is the gas chamber where we kill them. So it’s a part of compartmentalisation. There is slow death.

He adds that the concentrationary “applies so much to the character of the Filipino psyche … It’s exactly the word for this kind of suffering.”

Sofsky argues that this slow pursuit of gradual destruction of the human being “allowed death time” (1997, 25). This argument can be extended to the treatment of characters in Diaz’s films. Neither Florentina in Florentina Hubaldo, nor Hamin in Encantos, or even Renato in Melancholia see a sudden death. Their death, which is not always visualised on screen, comes rather as a result of repeated inflictions of attacks, both violent and non-violent. Death always comes slowly, which aggravates the characters’ suffering to an unbearable degree.

What I would like to highlight in this context is Sofsky’s use of “death time”. Even though it looks unlikely that Sofsky meant to create an entirely new term here, I would like to read it as such as it makes for an intriguing factor in the analysis of slow films. Slow Cinema has been repeatedly discussed in terms of temps mort, or dead time, as a governing factor of the aesthetics of slowness. In very simple terms, dead time in film means that nothing is happening in a scene, often quite literally at the end of a scene, when characters have exited the frame and the camera remains focused on an empty setting. I would argue that more than any other slow-film director, Diaz uses “death time” more than “dead time” in his films. In doing so, he puts emphasis on the use and effects of terror on individuals as well as on entire societies.

The use of “death time” is most evident in Diaz’s eight-hour film Melancholia, a film about three characters, who have self-devised a coping mechanism to get over the loss of their loved ones; activists who disappeared. They immerse into different roles in society, “so that we could regain our feelings. So that we could survive. So that one day, we could live again” as Alberta, one of the main characters, describes it. The film ends with a ninety minutes long flashback of Renato, an activist, and two other resistance fighters trapped on an island, after the military surrounded it. In those ninety minutes, little happens on-screen. In fact, all we see is three men sitting and waiting for their death. Or else, we don’t see anything as Diaz resorts to night-time shots without artificial lighting.

jungle 2Renato, one of the activists, writes letters to his wife, giving an insight into the conditions of the resistance fighters. He reveals that they are aware of death coming, but Diaz refrains from granting them the relief one of the fighters is demanding, as we will see shortly. Instead, Diaz follows the military’s play on psychological warfare and creates an unnerving situation for both character and viewer, through oppressive silence, lack of action, night-time shots, and endless periods of waiting. I want to show you a brief extract of the film, which demonstrates Diaz’s approach, and which also shows the effects of the persistent terror on the fighters.

(extract)

What we could see in this extract is the mental degradation of one of the fighters, whose resistance has been crushed by psychological warfare. The certain death, yet uncertain point of death causes a slow degradation of the character’s mental state, in similar ways we can see in Florentina. The man loses his sanity, which is not only apparent in his erratic and incomprehensible movements and behaviour throughout the second half of this part of the film. Especially at night, his visual and aural perception is distorted by severe paranoia. Here again, as indicated in previous brief reflections on Florentina, Diaz creates a concentrationary existence for the characters.

He generates a so-called “torment of duration” (Ibid., 81), which Wolfgang Sofsky emphasised in his discussion of “camp time” that was very specific to the concentration camps. Time was manipulated; it was slowed down by endless roll calls every morning and evening, or experientially accelerated by sudden attacks and beatings. Diaz’ trilogy of post-trauma contains this very combination of what I would term “time terror” for the characters as well as for the viewer; seemingly endless long takes in which little happens are juxtaposed with sudden scenes that invoke shock.

Conclusion
In conclusion, I would like to refer to Matthew John (2014), who contends that “the horror of the concentration camp system lies not with the abrupt and immediate extermination of human life, but rather with the slow and agonizing decay of the body and mind” (83, emphasis added). This is precisely the feeling you get as a viewer if you have the stamina to sit through a Lav Diaz film.

I would also like to add that the concentrationary is a site of trauma. Just like trauma, “terror [and in extension the concentrationary] destroys the flow of time” (Sofsky 1997, 78). Trauma thus locks the survivor-victim into a continuous, cyclical past. And this is where the concentrationary meets my previous research into the representation of trauma, forming a new powerful framework, based on Diaz’s own experience under Martial Law in the Philippines in the 1970s. He was beaten, locked up in a school house with 150 other families without permission to leave, with the military deciding how much food the people receive per day. People were guarded like prisoners, and shot when they left the school yards because of “communist activities”. Diaz called it “our own version of the concentration camps”. He witnessed atrocities committed against men, women, and children and has lost several friends to torture and extra-judicial killings.

While Pollock and Silverman’s study into the concentrationary is very much limited to art that makes explicit references to Nazi concentration camps, I intent to broaden the area. I am not only led by the aesthetics of Diaz’s cinema, but also by David Rousset’s warning that “it would be duplicity … to pretend that it is impossible for other nations to try a similar experiment [as Nazi Germany did] because it would be contrary to their nature. … under a new guise, similar effects [of the concentrationary universe] may appear tomorrow” (1951, 112).

As I have hopefully demonstrated today, my thesis will, in parts, add to this new research into the aesthetics of the concentrationary, but suggests a different approach to it by focusing on the experience and the time-consciousness in concentration camps and in the films directed by Lav Diaz.

If you want to use any of the material above, please get it touch and cite it appropriately. Thank you!

Edit (22 September 2014): Lav Diaz pointed out that he was not tortured under Martial Law, as described in my paper. I’m not sure why this mistake has occurred. I suppose I start to mix up literature. Thank you, Lav, for clarifying this!