Landscape / Character

The end of the year proves to be busy, and it’s not easy at the moment to sit down and watch a film. I hope that I soon get to see Wang Bing’s Dead Souls. This is the one film I still want to see this year, if I don’t manage to see more than one. Although I should. There are still two Nikolaus Geyrhalter films waiting for me. So much slowness, so little time. This irony… 🙂 In any case, I need to prepare an article on the uses of sound and silence in the films of Lav Diaz because I have been invited to Lyon for a study day on the director. I might publish this one either here on the blog or in the next issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine. 

In any case, there is an outstanding project from, believe it or not, seven years ago. In October 2011, I wanted to submit a paper abstract to a conference on landscape and film in Ireland, but had never found the time in the end. At the same, my interest in Slow Cinema was still in its early stages. Nevertheless, I knew that there was a special relationship between the landscapes, the streets, the empty and degrading houses of BĂ©la Tarr and his films’ characters. In many ways, what I have noticed in the films of Tarr only returned once I began to discover the work of Lav Diaz. These two directors are special in their assigning a sort of character status to their landscapes, turning them into ghostly characters that mirror the characters’ inner psychological landscapes; their pain, their angst, their suffering, their devastation. 

Anything that surrounds a character becomes a character itself. This isn’t the case with all slow films, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is a particular characteristic of Slow Cinema. BĂ©la Tarr, however, used to be one of those few directors who persistently followed this alley and who also assigned a special role to his camera. Everything became a character, everything played a decisive role, and everything added to the heaviness and power of his films. For that conference in Ireland seven years ago, I had planned to look at how the landscape/the surrounding becomes a mirror of the characters’ psyche. In particular, I had wanted to look at Karrer, who is, of course, the main character in Tarr’s Damnation, and at the woman he seems to be infatuated with. I believe that Damnation is really the first vertical, in-depth film, which looked specifically inside the characters. Characters began to have extraordinary depth and were more than just elements used to push a narrative forward. 

We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information. … If you have a chance to make some really deep things, I think everyone can understand everything. The question is always the deepness: how you can touch the people. (BĂ©la Tarr)

At the same time, Damnation is perhaps the most obvious example of how directors can use landscape in order to underline the characters, if I could say it in this way. According to interviews, Tarr spends a lot of time looking for the right background to his story. And it pays off. He selects his landscapes carefully, making sure that they’re in perfect alignment with his characters and his stories. The beginning of Damnation is already a good pointer towards this. It is perhaps the most iconic opening of all of Tarr’s films, perhaps even of all slow films (I’m sure you think the same!). We watch cable cars passing by, a remnant of the city’s coal mining past. The sound is perhaps even more incisive. I can still hear it when I think back to the film… The camera slowly, very slowly zooms out and we realise that we don’t actually watch the cable cars, but a man (Karrer) watching the cable cars. We watch someone watching something. This is repeated several times in Tarr’s oeuvre. Just think of his 1994 seven-hour masterpiece Satantango, in which we watch an old doctor watching his neighbours. Bernhard Hetzenhauer wrote a fantastic book about this, Das Innen im Aussen, which, if you can read German, is a must-read. 

The cable cars, buckets that used to carry coal from one place to another, are a pointer to the past, the death of the mining industry having plunged the village into its own death spiral. The houses we see are in a sad state. The persistent, continuous rain adds to the atmosphere of something passing by, of something that is clinging on but knowing that it won’t have strength for much longer. The decay of the houses foreshadows the decay of the characters. If anything, it is perhaps the rain that acts as the most faithful interpretation, or rather mirror image, of Karrer who is in love with the wife of another man. He doesn’t accept being rejected and, in the end, loses everything. 

Take it or leave it, this is what you’re stuck with. What can you do? You lose your words, yet you cannot go. It’s been over for a long time. It’s good that utopia exists. Good to know I won’t be here for long. Take it or leave it. (song in Damnation)

The identities of landscape and character overlap in Damnation. They merge to become one. When Karrer offers the woman’s husband to do a smuggling job for him in order to get him out of the way, he becomes morally corrupt. He would do anything to be able to continue his love affair. Karrer’s offer shows his own downward spiral, the moral corruption becoming a picture of his internal degradation. Tarr intercuts this degradation with scenes of the village. Damnation is interesting because throughout the film, the focus remains on the actual characters alone. The director presents a village that is pretty much emptied of people. The only constant companion is the rain. This makes is easy to establish a link between the few characters we follow (Karrer, the woman and her husband) and the empty landscapes we see in scenes before or after them. Who is of more importance in the film?

Interestingly enough, there are scenes that question the importance of the characters and which focus more intensively on the landscapes, or the surroundings in general. This is helped with Tarr’s independent camera, independent in the way that it moves wherever it wants without necessarily following a character. There is one scene that makes this absolutely clear. After initially having rejected Karrer’s offer to go out for dinner, the woman allows him into her flat and they have sex. This sequence says more than a thousand words. The camera doesn’t bother much with the couple. It looks around the room, panning slowly and carefully to allow us an in-depth study of the austere flat and the rundown streets outside. The non-passionate and loveless act between the two characters is seemingly unimportant. What matters is the expression of the characters’ inner lovelessness through the expression of an austere mise-en-scène and natural elements like rain that carve deeper and deeper holes into a slowly dying internal and external environment. 

Writing on the film Barren Lives by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Jean -Claude Bernadet suggests that the structure of the film

“is not conditioned by the action of the characters, but rather by nature: it is the rain and the drought that decide the beginning, the middle, and the end of the film.” (in Representing the Rural, p156)

One cannot deny that Tarr follows the same principle in Damnation, perhaps more so than in his other films with the exception of his last film, The Turin Horse. What characters may not be able to express is expressed through their surroundings as metaphors. Tarr’s characters are not easy to read. There is little emotion involved. Everything happens inside them. When Karrer leaves the woman’s flat after they had sex, he doesn’t give any hint as to how he feels. But for once, the rain has stopped. Things brighten up. It is nature that tells us about Karrer’s feelings, not Karrer himself. Tarr makes himself deliberately dependent on nature, on psychologically charged landscapes in order to give his seemingly flat characters an extraordinary depth. 

The end of the film is most emblematic of the director’s pursuit of blending characters with their surroundings so that they become one. Over the course of two hours, Karrer slowly disintegrates, as does the village. With nothing left, Karrer becomes no more than a dog, on all fours imitating the stray dog who barks at him, drenched in rain and mud. Damnation is a story about the life of a dog in human disguise, whose mask drops ever so slowly, but continuously, just like the persistent rain slowly but surely swallows the village. It won’t leave any traces, and Karrer, too, will disappear.

Good Luck – Ben Russell (2017)

It’s been quite some time that I have been told to explore the films of Ben Russells. I think the very first recommendation dates back to 2012, when I have been asked to watch his Let each one go where he may (2009). I have never taken the time for this film, primarily because at the time it didn’t fit quite into what I had in mind for my PhD thesis. I am, however, very happy to have finally seen my first Ben Russell film, albeit many years later. Russell’s Good Luck (2017) is an impressive observation of mining in Serbia and Suriname, and is divided into two parts, which aesthetically differ from one another, but which, in the end, tell the same story.

The film begins with a long distance shot of trees, which slowly fades into a shot of what looks like a mine. The camera remains with this scene for a little while. Rather ominous music plays in the background. Music doesn’t function as an entertaining medium here. It rather reinforces what is to come. The camera retreats, very much in BĂ©la Tarr style (with a pointer to Damnation), and it reveals that we were, in fact, standing inside old ruins, possibly those of a family house. The camera also reveals that the music we hear is played by seven men, a small orchestra, if you want. They leave the building (always followed by Russell’s camera), stand for a little while on the cliffside of the mining site, then walk down a street. The camera is always with them, slowly moving ahead of the seven man, almost steadily pulling them towards itself, until they stop their walk and their music for one man to tell us that he was born in that very city. He regrets that there’s nothing left of it but memories.

This is the introduction to Russell’s Good Luck, a title that might surprise at first, but whose meaning becomes very clear in the course of the film’s running-time of over two hours. After this quite impressive intro, the film switches from colour to black-and-white. A miner sits in front of a camera. He’s smoking, looking into the camera, looking behind the camera. This portrait is arresting. It not only stops the film’s steady progress for a moment, but it also arrests our eyes. It is almost like having a photograph, or a collection of photographs, inserted into a moving image presentation. After less than a minute, the miner gets up and turns off the camera. These portraits, which, to me, are iconic of this film and which seem to contain so much more information than Russell’s other shots, function as bookmarks, or even bookends. They function as definite stops, perhaps even as minor shock moments which disconnect us from the almost omnipresent movement in previous and following frames; the movement of the camera, of machines, of people.

It is those portraits that I found most fascinating, containing, as they do, so much information about each miner. In many instances, Good Luck might appear as an almost anonymous portrait of underground and illegal collective mining. In some cases, the director does interact with the workers, both in Serbia and in Suriname, asking them whey they work in a mine, or what they are afraid of. But overall, the film appears removed from the individual until a black-and-white portrait, beautifully shot in 16mm, reminds us that the story is about individuals. Those portraits allow us to study their eyes – where they go, where they stop, what they focus on; their facial features – do they smile? do they seem to be worried? do they play with the camera?; or their posture – are they imposing? are they strong? are they scared? We can study those people we often only see from the distance in detail and therefore get to know them. The workers, who risk their lives in mines in order to earn money for their children’s education, as one worker told the director, become individuals, familiar like you and me. Especially those men working in the underground mine in Serbia, who are, by the nature of their job, hidden from our eyes, are put into spotlight so that we can see those faces, faces of men who simply dream to earn enough money to leave the area.

The two parts of Good Luck almost function as mirror images. The film begins as described above, introduced also by information regarding the whereabouts of the underground mine in Serbia. The man, who speaks about his memories, sets off the first part of the film. The second part, set in Suriname, receives no such introduction. Instead, Russell continues in his usual filmmaking process until the very end, when one of the miners speaks about the existence of gold in the area and the fact that many people come to find it. He’s positioned exactly like the miner from Serbia, slightly to our right. Only at the end do we learn that this part was shot in Suriname. Structurally, these are mirror images, and yet the two parts are different in that they look, and therefore feel, miles apart from one another (which, truth be told, they are in any case – Europe and South America).

Good Luck begins with its exploration of mining in post-war Serbia. For most of the time, we are underground. A lift brings us and a group of workers in the dark underworld and leaves us there for over an hour. The soundscape is important, and Russell recorded a very clear soundtrack to help with our orientation process. And yet, I believe that unless you have been to a mine before or worked there yourself, it is not always immediately clear what is happening. The camera moves slowly, and until it has reached the source of the sounds, the viewer has to get engaged and imagine where the sound could come from. Some scenes, such as two workers drilling a hole into a rock, appear endless, slow but also creating a turmoil because it upsets our senses and the usual smooth duration of the frames that come before and after those explorations of work mechanics. But it’s not all about work. Russell also accompanies the men to their coffee and cigarette break, also in the dark, cut off from civilisation. Their posture, their behaviour – a lot reminded me of the lunch breaks I saw in Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks. There is very little that distinguishes the two, if put next to one another.

Almost everything that happens underground seems magical. Sometimes, we see only torch lights. Sometimes we only see silhouettes. Underground mining is ugly, and even though this film doesn’t fail at making this clear, its aesthetics also add some magic to the visuality of it all, a visuality that is for our eyes only. At one point, I was reminded of fireflies populating the mine. With the beginning of the second part, torches are replaced with bright sunlight at the northeastern coast of South America. We follow a man searching with a metal detector for possible gold stacks. In some ways, this is somewhat similar to what we have seen in the underground mines in Serbia; the jungle envelopes the young miner, there is only little light, until the film cuts and we follow a young man carrying a canister to a for us unknown destination. “No one likes working here”, one of the workers say, mirroring what miners thousands of miles further east have expressed earlier in the film.

And yet, we are in a different world. We’re told about traditions: if you enter a new part of the jungle and want to work it, you have to make an offering to the jungle. Never kill an animal you find while digging. If you spill blood, the jungle is asking for more blood and it’s not a good omen for the mining business. People here are mining for gold, hoping for a better future, for a good salary, for a better life. What this part makes very clear (and I have only noticed it towards the end of the film) is that Russell clearly paints a personal portrait. There are documentaries that focus on the work of machines, on their processes. Russell doesn’t remove the people from the process. On the contrary, he puts them into the centre of his work. We focus on the workers’ faces, their arms, their bodies, without ever fetishising them. The human takes centre stage in an otherwise inhumane work that risks the life of those people. And with that, the title comes attached with a variety of meanings. Good luck surviving underground? Good luck finding gold? Good luck improving your living standard? Good luck earning enough money to fund your kids’ education? Good luck going through this without having an accident?

A lot is there for us to think about. A lot is there to see, and Good Luck is definitely a must-see this year. I was fortunate enough that Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it the other day. Big thanks to the ARTE team!

 

Waiting

What does it mean to wait? What does “waiting” mean nowadays when everyone seems to be always, eternally busy? Are we still waiting, or have we essentially replaced waiting by simply doing stuff? I use this blog post in order to respond to a post on Geyst blog that ended with the question “what does it mean to wait?” I felt that there is plenty to say, also in regards to slow film. If waiting has perhaps indeed been almost replaced by us doing stuff in order to keep ourselves busy – while waiting for the train, the bus, a friend to arrive – then it is slow films that return us to the idea of waiting, the feeling of time standing still.

Chantal Akerman didn’t want people not to notice time passing. The point of her work was to make the viewer aware that time was passing. We notice the power of time, I would say, most often when presumably nothing is happening, exactly in moments of waiting. Time feels heavy, feels burdensome. “With my films, you’re aware of every second passing through your body”, she famously said. What is important (and characteristic of slow films) is the act of waiting, in several different ways. For one, it’s the characters who wait. Think of Lav Diaz. In Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I think it is, that characters are walking from one village to another, but because of the heat they take several extensive breaks. They sit in the shadow, simply waiting for the sun to subside. Diaz said once that this was characteristic of the Filipinos. The heat, the humidity – it’s too much, so people sit down and wait for the heat to subside. They wait, doing nothing.

BĂ©la Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without BĂ©la Tarr? The endless, now almost characteristic scenes of people in front of windows, looking outside, looking for nothing in particular. They just sit and watch. We don’t know whether they wait for something to happen, or whether they just stop and allow time do its work. Whether it’s Damnation, The Man from London or The Turin Horse, these scenes are iconic, and they force us, the viewer, to wait, too. Because as Akerman suggested, the viewer is always waiting. We are waiting for the next take to commence, for the current one to stop. Slow films pause, and they develop in their own time. Events are not cut short, which would suit our impatience. Something is always happening in action films, something that relieves us from the claustrophobic feeling of time, the heaviness of time. Time is flying, it’s passing as fast as could be (albeit this is artificial and misleading).

When people who dislike slow films try to reason their feelings towards this type of film, they tend to say that nothing happens on screen, i.e. that it is boring. This “nothing happens” is, in fact, another word for “you actually have to wait for something to happen and we don’t have time for this”. People are impatient. Waiting seems to mean being passive, perhaps being impotent, immobile, all the while being told everywhere that time is running so fast that you’re losing it when you wait a minute or two for the bus. You cannot wait. You need to haste, or else you will lose those precious two minutes. One could perhaps say that people who reject slow films for the simple reason that nothing happens never learned to wait, or forgot the joy of waiting. Because what does waiting mean? What does it do to your body, your mind?

I mentioned several times on this blog that slow films helped me to slow down and deal with PTSD. PTSD introduces an incredible speed into your life, which causes severe anxiety. It’s not just that you’re scared of death. It’s the fact that you can no longer keep up with the speed around you, which makes you unstable and insecure. So what happened was that slow films helped me to pause, and, yes, to wait. Waiting does not mean doing nothing, although it appears as such to a great deal of people. It does not mean being passive, although some people would tell you otherwise. Waiting means being in the moment, being in the present, being present, something that has become increasingly difficult. There is “no time” to be in the present, but this is only the case because we don’t take time for it. To wait means to be mindful. It is a chance to take a look at what surrounds you, at what is going on in your body and mind.

This state is embodied by characters in slow films, when they sit and look out of the window; when they sit in the shadow of trees doing nothing; when they sit in the fields and watch the sky. They’re in the present moment, and the directors ask us to do the same. Be with the characters, be in the moment with them, and become mindful of our surrounding. Become mindful of time, as Akerman suggests, yet without feeling anxious about wasting it. Slow films are a way to see the chances of doing nothing, the liberties of waiting, even the joy in waiting. If only more people took their time to wait and considered the pleasures of nothingness and emptiness… Just how enjoyable is the end of Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea? A man sits at a fireplace outdoors, the soundscape gives us a feeling of being there with him. He’s doing nothing. He simply watches how the fire consumes the wood. A beautiful scene, seemingly endless, that allows the viewer to be.

Los Ausentes – Nicolas Pereda (2014)

Knowing Nicolas Pereda’s early work, I’d be inclined to say that his medium long film Los Ausentes marks a new era in his filmmaking. The trailer already looked haunting and different from Pereda’s usual filmmaking. The colour palette is the same, the actors have the same aura around them. And yet, and yet…

Los Ausentes is, first of all, about an old, fragile man who loses his house near the beach. I assume he has lived there all his life, so loss (absence) is at the heart of Pereda’s film. It’s the very core of it, and Pereda perfects his usual aesthetics in order to transmit this feeling of loss to the viewer. Los Ausentes stands out in Pereda’s work because of its camera work. The director has always favoured long-takes, temps mort, and a very minimalist storytelling. But this film goes a bit further. In fact, it reminded me strongly on the films of BĂ©la Tarr and the fascinating work by cinematographer Fred Kelemen (who himself made films, amongst them Krisana).

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Pereda uses a kind of independent camera, which I have marvelled upon when I saw Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). This is also when I first understood Daniel Frampton’s filmind, film as thinking independently. If you put Los Ausentes and Werckmeister Harmonies next to each other, you can see that they both make use of an independent camera. The camera is not really following the protagonist, unless the character is walking down a road. The camera has its own mind and moves to whatever place or whatever action it would like to record.

I haven’t seen it to such an extent in Pereda’s previous films. I even wonder whether it is an homage to Tarr. The beginning must be at least a very obvious wink, starting with a medium shot of a cow facing us. And then, slowly, very slowly, the camera zooms out and reveals first some kind of structure, which then turns out to be a window frame. The camera zooms further out, very smoothly, totally beautifully, and reveals the old man sitting at a table eating. If faithful Tarr-viewers are not reminded of the famous opening scene in Damnation or the beginning of The Man from London, I don’t know what those people have done with their lives 🙂

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In any case, this independent camera transmits the film’s idea of loss, of the absent, fabulously. It feels as though there was a ghost walking around, looking at things or moving places. At times, we see the protagonists. At others, we don’t. But nevertheless, we can feel an eerie presence. There is someone there with us, but who is it? Los Ausentes is a perfect example of how aesthetics can convey absence. I had come across this very subject in my research on the films of Lav Diaz, but Diaz is doing this in a very different way. This independent camera movement also feeds well into the idea of the fragile, old man losing his sanity. Again, this is a theme that pops up comparatively often in slow films, and it is interesting to see how directors deal with this differently.

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When I saw the old man standing somewhere in the woods, with his skinny back towards me, I wasn’t quite sure whether what I saw was supposed to be real, or whether Pereda wanted me to believe it was a dream. There’s only ambient sound, and because I was in a state of dreaming already because of the superb camera work, I wasn’t so sure anymore what I was seeing or what I was asked to believe. This became even more difficult when the old man’s younger self appeared and it wasn’t clear anymore what happened when and where.

I began to wonder whether the title Los Ausentes applied to more than just the film, because in the end, you do lose yourself in the film. You might be physically present when you watch the film, but where are you mentally? Are you home? In the cinema? In an imagined Mexico? In a dream? In real life? I would say that Los Ausentes is Pereda’s strongest film. As I said before, it looks like his previous films but it feels very different. The combination of narrative and aesthetics is just right, perfect even, and I think that the length of the film – medium length – helps to keep the film focused. It feels like Pereda’s most polished film and I wonder where he will go from here. I hope that we will see more of this!

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

Bernhard Hentzenauer’s book on BĂ©la Tarr, Das Innen im Aussen: BĂ©la 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 BĂ©la 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 SátántangĂł, 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 BĂ©la Tarr’s films.

Day 9 – Journey on the Plain (Tarr)

It was new to me that BĂ©la Tarr directed a short film called Journey on the Plain in 1995, a year after the release of his seven-hour epic (and masterpiece) Sátántángo. I was only familiar with the usual canon of his films, and I’ve never come across this short in any writings I have.

Anyway, Journey – I think the film is for me a pretty good demonstration of how habitual film viewing can become, and how much we identify a director by his or her dominant techniques. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks of stark black-and-white films if hearing the name BĂ©la Tarr. Little dialogue, a lot of walking, deserted landscapes –  all that together used to create an astounding atmosphere of doom in all of his films (with the exception of Almanac of Fall).

Journey on the Plain (1995), BĂ©la Tarr
Journey on the Plain (1995), BĂ©la Tarr

If you go into Journey like this, you will be utterly disappointed. Initially, I had troubles to identify this as a Tarr film. I would be inclined to say that this was mainly because his short was in colour. This evoked a completely different atmosphere. On the other hand, I have to be fair and say that Hungary is for me black-and-white after having been an avid follower of BĂ©la Tarr (and MiklĂłs JancsĂł in parts). I was in Hungary once, so I’m well aware that the country is not monochrome at all. But I associate the depiction of the country in Tarr’s films with monochrome aesthetics. The same goes for Lav Diaz’s films and his use of black-and-white. I find it immensely difficult sometimes to imagine the Philippines in colour.

Journey has, however, more or less the same themes as his other films. First of all (what a surprise!) it’s slow. It’s very close to Sátántángo and indeed, it was shot on pretty much the same locations. At the beginning when the protagonist, who is, by the way, Tarr’s usual composer Mihály Vig, walks away from the camera into the horizon for two minutes or so, you could imagine this scene in black-and-white and were transported to the set of Sátántángo.

Journey on the Plain (1995), BĂ©la Tarr
Journey on the Plain (1995), BĂ©la Tarr

In addition, Journey is rather a non-narrative film, which is an interesting experiment. In general, I would go as far as saying that the film functioned as an experiment for all of his future films. There is a scene in which the camera circles around, focusing on the sky shot through a roofless building. The camera keeps circling around, slowly tilting down until Mihály appears in the frame. A very similar shot had been used in Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).

Maybe I should mention that throughout the film, Mihály is reciting poems by Hungarian poet Sándor Petöfi. It’s deeply sad and kind of fits to the general Tarr-esque feel to his films. I guess most telling for me is the following line: “I don’t have a sweetheart, I don’t have money. I only have grief.” For me, this goes right to the heart of Damnation. It is a film of only thirty minutes, and yet, there is a lot of BĂ©la Tarr in there. Minus the black-and-white aesthetics. But then, you can easily use your imagination and make it black-and-white.