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-scĂšne 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.

Pripyat – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (1999)

A woman is walking through a dead landscape. Nature has taken over what Man has built. It’s wilderness we see. “These wild apples grew after the accident. There weren’t apples here before,” she says while slightly turning towards us. She doesn’t stop. She keeps walking. Always on the move. She is a scientist, spending her day in a contaminated lab and checking radiation levels. She had worked in the city centre, she says. And at the nuclear power plant. Of her flat, nothing is left. She enters a rundown building that used to be her home. In one room, she finds a book on the ground that used to belong to her son. “It’s all radiated,” she says, and puts the book on top of the window sill.

It is an eerie but magnificent, haunting but beautiful end to a ghostly film. At the end of the 1990s, Nikolaus Geyrhalter explored “The Zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It often feels like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, more modern perhaps, less philosophical, but just as important. The extensive ending, the woman walking through a wilderness which used to be her home, turns into a hypnotising journey through a place out of time. Pripyat is as timeless as Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens. Although it is anchored to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in 1986, it feels as though the film tells more than one story. The black-and-white shots of a rundown, deserted area speak of universal calamity.

Pripyat used to be a workers’ city. A city built from scratch, with a cinema, a stadium. Entertainment – that was important for those who worked at the nuclear power plant. And the city had it all. Geyrhalter introduces us to the now deserted landscape with long shots. His shots are memories, old photographs of things that have been. The deserted buildings become scars that have been left behind by a disaster, which disjointed time. It has blurred the line between past and present. Pripyat shows that both exist at the same time. Life and death – they’re always in one and the same frame. A broken-down electricity pole in an otherwise deserted landscape. A bird’s nest on top of the pole. A sign of life? Absence and presence. (In)Visibility. 

“Well, we don’t call it ‘The Zone’,” an elderly couple tells us. The man confesses that he had been homesick after he and his family had been evacuated, so they returned to live in Pripyat, right in the centre of the contaminated zone that might remain lifeless for decades to come. “I can tell you, there’s no life here. There’s no on else, no neighbours,” he says.

What you see is what you believe. Geyrhalter sure shows us the dying city. Every day, a bit more of it is taken back by nature. Grass, fern, weed, trees. Despite several interviews, the film frames are drained of people. They’re drained of life. And yet. One security guard on the scrapyard for cars says that he got used to the danger. “You cannot see the radiation,” he says. But it is in every frame, an invisible presence that is really the core of the film. A hovering ghost from the past that makes what we see appear timeless. And so do those who have lost their lives in the disaster. They’re still there, invisible reminders of man’s self-destructive development in the name of science and progress. “He has never been found,” a foreman of the power plant’s Unit 3 says while standing in front of a memorial set up for one of the victims who died in Unit 4. Unit 4 – symbol of the worst nuclear destruction since WW II. An accident. An accident that should have been a reminder of the dangers of nuclear development. We didn’t listen. Fukushima was next.

“Even if I’m sent to prison for this. They can lock me up,” the woman scientist says when she speaks about helpers who had arrived from all over the Soviet Union and the world in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. She believes that many have since lost their lives. They needed experts, she says, not young man who didn’t even know what radiation was. She accuses the government of sending unknowing people intentionally to the disaster area. 

There is anger. There is concern. One woman is still waiting to be evacuated. For six years. Six years. She has given up believing that someone would ever resettle her. You have to make do. “You have to live and you have to work,” an old woman at the doctor’s says. “But how are you supposed to live?” Geyrhalter shows us people who have been forgotten by the government. The present become the absent on a larger scale, in another dimension. Only a few years after the disaster, the Soviet Union collapsed. The responsibilities shifted. Those outside the zone continue their lives. Those inside are stuck in an atemporal bubble.

Pripyat is very much a precursor to Homo Sapiens. You cannot ignore the similarity between the two films. What he had started in Pripyat, namely the investigation of what mankind possibly leaves behind one day, Geyrhalter pushes a bit further in Homo Sapiens. There are no more men, no more interviews. Only empty frames, deserted buildings. An apocalyptic feeling which starts with Pripyat. Homo Sapiens feels like a sequel, and which, I might say, deserves another instalment. Geyrhalter is, next to Wang Bing, one of the most important documentary filmmakers working at the moment. Interestingly, the two directors from two different corners of the world share a lot, even simple frames that show up in both directors’ works.

There seems to be a silent conversation between the two, a conversation through film, a conversation that is so often absent in their films. Scarce, basic, casual. If communication exists, it’s a form of communication by those left behind, forgotten, those on the margins who are cut off from the rest of society. Whose livelihood has been destroyed and who make do with what they have. Pripyat is one of those powerful films that makes one aware of the many blind spots that exist around us, of people who, despite everything, simple keep living, defiant of all external threats and neglect. Film becomes a tool to acknowledge this, to take our hats off in face of their courage, and to let them know that not everyone has forgotten.

(Pripyat is part of the newly released DVD Box set of Geyrhalter’s films called Six Films By Nikolaus Geyrhalter. You can check the website of the distributor, Icarus, for more information. I can highly recommend getting the box set!)

Man With No Name – Wang Bing (2010)

Anonymity and intimacy – these two characteristics work hand in hand in Wang Bing’s Man With No Name (2010), which is a mere glimpse of the life of a hermit, given the director’s otherwise very extensive and lengthy observations of people in their given environment. With a running time of around 90 minutes, one could almost describe it as a “normal” film. At the same time, Wang Bing’s normality differs from that of the standard viewer, showing this again and again, most recently with his eight-hour long documentary Dead Souls, which runs at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. Man with no name feels like an insert, perhaps a bookmark or even a pause. A pause in which the director follows an anonymous subject and creates an intimate portrait of a man, of whom we know nothing but with whom we spend enough time to feel as though we’ve known him all our life.

Wang Bing’s sixth film has no beginning and no end. This negation that finds its expression already in the film title is one of the main forces throughout this observational documentary that jumps right in there, right into the heart of the story, if there was any. Wang Bing doesn’t introduce the man we’ll follow for the following ninety minutes. Stylistically, this is great, and yet it wasn’t so much by choice the director has done this. It was a necessity. The hermit he became fascinated with while shooting for another film simply did not speak. Even when Wang Bing asked him if it was okay to film him, he didn’t respond. If I remember correctly from a text I read not so long ago, the man merely responded by looking into the director’s eyes. And that was it.

All there was for Wang Bing was what he could observe. The man, perhaps in his fifties or sixties, has no name, no history, no personal stories. He is what he is: a man without a name. In a style that reminds one of West of the Tracks (2003), Wang Bing often follows the man wherever he goes. Staying behind, literally just following him, the director establishes a distance between himself and the man, but also between us and the man. He positions him in his natural environment with long and mobile shots. Over time, it becomes a film as much about the natural surrounding as it is about a man living in it and making use of it. The man uses what he can find to survive, to feed himself, to protect himself from the weather. His cave is his home, his kitchen, his bed. The cave is a microcosm in which everything and nothing happens. We have three meals with the man. Wang Bing takes us into the cave, shows us how the man cuts vegetables he’s harvested with a pair of scissors, shows us how he cooks with broken pans and little else.

Nothing seems in a good shape. Everything is used, damaged, dirty. Wang Bing doesn’t paint a utopian picture, but shows life in this man’s microcosm as it is. And in doing so, he creates a remarkable admiration of some kind. An admiration of a man who has (possibly) left everything behind, who lives in solitude, removed from civilisation, in the middle of nowhere but who sustains himself without seeming to bother. Instead, it looks as though the man enjoys his freedom. Yes, if there is perhaps a third characteristic of the film – on top of anonymity and intimacy – then it must be the idea of freedom. The hermit doesn’t speak. Nor does he communicate through other ways. But the longer we stay with him, the more we get the feeling that the man is not outwardly unhappy. It feels more like a film that places a genuine emphasis on breathing space. One cannot neglect the important aspect of time and duration in Man with no name. Nevertheless, I believe that the film is more about space (in its many forms) than it is about time. It is, in some ways, an ode to space, to emptiness, to absence…and it all begins with the title.

The fact that there is no dialogue makes the film appear much slower than Wang Bing’s other films. Usually, the absence of dialogue gives way to ambient noise. Man with no name gives way to very little. We don’t hear birds, or anything else that would make us think of life. Sometimes we hear a few steps on the ground, and we also hear the heavy rain plunging from the sky towards the end of the film. But besides this, there is little else. The soundscape seems as empty as the surrounding environment. Sound tends to make us perceive the narrative progression as being faster. Dialogues, monologues, music – everything that attracts the ear is perceived faster than a collection of still images. However, it is the latter which Wang Bing focuses on. Time is seemingly stretched. It seems slower. It feels as though it is running at a different pace. And indeed, I had to think of an interview I had heard on the radio with a scientist whose name I sadly cannot remember. He said that it had been proven that time was running slower in the mountains (where our hermit is living) than in the plain. It is a very small, barely perceptible difference, which only shows on our mechanical clocks after at least 10 years. Nevertheless, it is a fact that time is different in different places. While watching the film, I could feel this difference for the first time.

I have to say that I was not a fan of what I saw at the beginning, but I became more and more enveloped by Wang Bing’s footage. I began to marvel about the idea of freedom, of the return to a life where man and nature live in harmony. For me, it was this aspect that stood out in the end, a feeling of longing in some ways, something that is easier to achieve if you’re surrounded by nothingness, regardless in what form. I believe that Man with no name is, in its very simplicity, one of the best Wang Bing films (albeit they’re all good!) and I might actually see it again!

Visitor – Sebastian Cordes (2018)

“It is said that man has always wandered. Out of need or curiosity, across deserts and oceans.”

This is how the new feature film by Danish director Sebastian Cordes begins. After his Bolivia-set A Place Called Lloyd, which is currently running on tao films for free, Cordes took a journey to the island of Chios, Greece. As he states at the beginning of his film, the years 2015 and 2016 were seminal in the European consciousness. Indeed, they were. They will remain with us for years to come, perhaps especially for me as I’m originally from Germany and my country was the only one that had heart enough to open the borders. The German chancellor paid dearly for this, politically, which is still difficult for me to grasp. You don’t have to agree with a politician, but you can agree with another human being on helping other people to find refuge, people who flee from war, from certain death, people who have lost their home, possibly even their entire family.

This background represents the core of Cordes’ Visitor. Set on the island of Chios, the director films life on the island as it is, an obscure parallel world of normality for the local population and an extraordinary world for those who have landed in Chios, “where Turkey is always at the horizon”. A static low level shot that shows a police car on the right hand side and the raging sea on the left opens the film visually. The shot sets the tone of the film. Its emptiness, its anonymity, is something that will return over and over again throughout Visitor. The raging wind, too, is always present, right at your ears, in the weeks before Christmas. Not much later, there is a poignant shot of a stone wall. A very simple shot. There is nothing beautiful about it. It is a wall, nothing more, nothing less. Water flows underneath it. The waves push the water onto the land, right underneath the wall. “No borders” – this is what’s written on this stone wall, stone, which stands for harshness, hardness, durability, for a definite attempt to keep other people out of your territory. It is this phrase that dismantles the wall. Two words: No borders.

Visitor is an observational documentary. It is self-reflexive. It is contemplating itself and what is happening around it. Time and again, Cordes cuts to a black screen and makes us think about who we are. Visitor poses the question of who the visitor is which Cordes names in the film’s title. First of all, the viewer is at all times aware of the director’s presence. He’s got a shadowy presence in one shot. In another, we can see (parts of) him at a restaurant. Cordes doesn’t hide his presence. He’s the visitor, he’s the person whose “body is blue eyes white skin”. He’s the one who shoots the footage, who assembles it and who tells the story of life on Chios. But this isn’t the whole truth, the full meaning of the title. What are the refugees Cordes is, except for the very end, filming only from the distance, the refugees who have an absent presence, an almost haunting presence throughout the film’s running time of just over an hour?

One of the defining responses to the refugee crises in Europe was that countries expected the refugees to keep moving on. No country wanted to shelter them permanently. The response, not new at all, sadly, is at the core of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, which is set in Marseille just after German troops have invaded France. Transit painfully shows that the whole idea of giving refuge to someone is to help him or her to move somewhere else. The novel is a representation of the inhumane treatment of those who flee from persecution. It is all encapsulated in the attempt of getting a visa to stay in Marseille: you can only stay if you prove that you’re leaving again. The situation Europe faced in 2015 did not change anything in our response to something we had seen and dealt with before. Cordes’ film title makes a point, a point that you might not see at first because you consider the director as the only visitor present in the film. But Visitor also speaks of the “visiting” refugees, of temporary shelters, temporary safety, and the expectations that they just move on. It doesn’t matter where to, as long as they do not stay in “our” country.

Poignantly enough, Cordes includes a shot of the shopping window of a transit ship agency. Transit – keep moving, keep moving. Don’t stay, don’t stop. There are shots of the open sea interspersed with more static and empty shots; a contrast which Cordes creates deliberately. The raging sea, the wind in our ears – this is it, this is movement, this is a continuous forward movement. But where should those people go if no country wants them? 

“My body is not the capsized boat in the open sea, the stillness when the sea again falls still.”

Voice-over parts like those cut through the narrative like a sharp knife. While at the beginning, the question could be whose body the voice-over speaks of, it becomes inevitably clear in the course of the film that this body is our body. Cordes not only speaks of himself here. This has a larger, a more wide-ranging meaning. He tells the story of those who died, those who suffered on their way to a hoped-for refuge. He tells the story of who we are not, because we are the “blue eyes white skin”. We are the privileged, those who look at refugees from a safe distance, possibly sitting in front of our telly on a sofa, with the radiator on full blow so that we don’t get cold.

Visitor becomes a real force towards the end, really bringing home the idea of visiting, the idea of repetition, in particular when the director speaks to an old woman who was aged 5 in 1940 when she suffered from hunger and cold, just like the refugees do now as a result of war. History repeats itself. History doesn’t move forward in a linear fashion. History is an eternal circle of repetitions. What has been, will be again. What we have seen in the past, we will see again in future. The only question is when. But there seems to be little doubt about the actual occurrence. And yet, with this rather bleak feeling that I had at the end of Visitor, Cordes did something. He added hope. Two refugee children making faces for the camera, laughing, playing around. There it is, this hope that I had been missing throughout the film. There it is, in the face of children who have been through so much, who have, in some cases, seen more than one of us does in his/her entire life. But hope is not lost, Cordes tells us, which makes Visitor an important film to see this year.

The art of emptiness – Itzhak Goldberg (ed, 2017)

After a rather long break from writing due to health reasons, I’m trying to embark on finally writing something about that book I bought last year, which intrigued me with its title. My avid readers might remember just how keen I am to link painting (or static art in general) to Slow Cinema. Not because I think that they’re the same. They cannot be. They each have their individual characteristics that sets them apart from the other. But there is this use of empty frames, of static frames, of little to no dialogue in slow films that has always reminded me of standing in a gallery in front of a painting, contemplating the scenery I see in my own time.

Like almost all French books I have so far bought for reviewing on this blog, L’art du vide (2017) is the result of a colloqium on the subject which united scholars and artists alike. The book contains chapters on paintings, drawings, even animation films and one chapter that I really enjoyed titled “The dimension of absence in contemporary art”, written by Nadia Barrientos. Some of you might know the works by Jean-Luc Nancy, French philosopher, who also wrote a preface to the book, in which he states that we cannot penetrate emptiness. It is emptiness that penetrates us, pierces through us, and it’s not so much that it leaves emptiness behind. Emptiness means, in fact, fullness. It’s this Chinese adage, which I had read about during my PhD research: emptiness and fullness complement one another. One cannot exist without the other.

This is, as Nancy demonstrates with several examples, clearer in the French language than in English. I was quite baffled when I read that section, and was then glad that I could speak French. Indeed, nothingness in French doesn’t come without fullness. Nancy points out that the French word rien (nothing) comes from Latin res, whose accusative rem became rien in French. In fact, res means thing. It doesn’t mean nothing. It means thing. In French, rien therefore only becomes nothingness if you negate it: “Il n’y a rien Ă  dire” (there is nothing to say). If you don’t negate rien, it remains a positive word.

In his introduction to the book, editor Itzhak Goldberg points out that (as I have previously argued in the context of Slow Cinema) the larger visibility of emptiness as a subject is, as such, not a recent phenomenon. Rather, emptiness has always been there, but external circumstances, such as the increased speed of our lives, make us more aware of the opposite: of slowness, of nothingness, emptiness. It’s like you searching for something to do when you’re bored. Nothingness gives way to fullness, and the other way around. In his online article about emptiness in art, AndrĂ© RouillĂ© argues – to me quite convincingly – that art has the opportunity to set itself apart from all other mediated images in a world full of images by putting emptiness (or nothingness) at their centre. According to RouillĂ©, the media are condemned to be fast all the time. It is about grabbing the spectator, about reporting first about an important event. It is, as he says, all about the spectacle, which makes me think of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and his own comments on it. In any case, RouillĂ© suggests that art can function as the antidote of this ever-increasing speed, which is being normalised by the (spectacle of the) media.

I think what resonates strongly with Slow Cinema and my work on it, is a quote by Norman McLaren Goldberg uses in order to strengthen his own arguments of emptiness being a central part of art. McLaren famously said that it’s not the image that is important, but what can be found between the images. It’s not so much about showing, but about suggesting, and in order to suggest something on a screen, you have to use nothingness. you have to use the off, something that isn’t there, something that isn’t easy to grasp at first. A great deal of slow film directors use this strategy in order to engage the viewer in their films’ stories. If I speak about the use of absence, as I have called it throughout my work, I inevitably think of Lav Diaz and his magnificent use of the off in order to suggest trauma and create an almost slo-mo progression of narrative. But, Goldberg argues correctly, the use of nothingness (or absence) confronts the viewer with problems. Goldberg does not go into detail here. Yet, I have argued elsewhere that the problem really comes from the fact that the viewer is conditioned. S/he is used to getting everything served on a silver platter, so that s/he can enjoy a film rather than have to work in order to “get it”. This conditioning is also the reason of slow films or “empty” artworks being rejected because they do not conform to what one is used to. In the end, Goldberg argues, this is a very Western attitude: seeing is believing. Something invisible doesn’t count, isn’t worth mentioning.

I could go on about the introduction of the book, which is genuinely interesting and contains a lot of good points. But I would like to draw your attention to one chapter at least, which I found particularly fascinating. I have mentioned on this blog before that slowness/emptiness can be an antidote to anxiety induced by external factors. The hectic 24/7 we-are-always-live news is one example, but by far not the only one. What struck me in L’art du vide was the chapter on the American artist Jacques Brown, who was absolutely afraid of emptiness. He suffered from severe anxiety when he just saw an empty canvas. At one point, he wrote in his personal notes: “I died 36 times in this canvas.” He coudn’t deal with or handle a white page, an empty canvas, anything that was empty. It prevented him from creating something. If it created something, then it was utter fear and debilitating anxiety. So what did Brown do? He used old account books of his wife to draw on. Those pages were not white, not empty. He could draw freely on it without being inhibited by “the fear of emptiness”.

In her superb chapter on the aesthetics of absence in contemporary art, Nadia Barrientos writes that absence forces us to shift our attention to something that had previously escaped us. Absence functions as a reminder of something previously forgotten, and to show us this something in a new light. Absence works like silence, which is often used to enhance what has been or what should be said. I have been fascinated by something I’d perhaps call “temporary art”; a work of art that disappears after a while. In some ways, those are wonderful examples of the interaction between fullness and emptiness, combining both to generate a powerful message. Barrientos mentions 2017 by Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong, for instance, which is a sort of mural painting written with a special ink that slowly but surely disappears the longer it is exposed to daylight. This is not only about fullness and emptiness. It is, to me, a statement about forgetting, something that happens very slowly, almost invisible until one day a certain memory is gone. As Barrientos correctly points out, Phinthong’s artwork goes against the famous adage “the medium is the message”. Here, it is the process – of change, of forgetting – that is the message, and that stands above all and invites the viewers to reflect upon this.

Nothingness, or emptiness, has, as this book shows, wide-ranging meaning. What stands out in all chapter is the idea that nothing doesn’t mean nothing. On the contrary, nothing always stands for something, and helps highlighting this particular something. The use of emptiness/absence is a way to engage a viewer, to reflect about major themes as large (but important) as humanity. Nothingness can be anxiety-inducing or soothing. It can be the centre of an artwork, or it can be one of many characteristics. Nothingness can be there from the start, or an artwork can disappear in front of a viewer’s eyes. This “nothing” is multi-facetted and more than just “nothing”. I think this is the easiest, and quickest (oh, the irony) way to describe this collection of essays!

VanitĂ  – Kevin Pontuti (2017)

A bare room. The walls are seemingly made of cold stone. The lighting is low, the darkness overpowers the image, which director Kevin Pontuti has created at the beginning of his new short film Vanità (2017). The image itself could be mistaken for a medieval still life, a painting that represents the dark ages that have left their indelible marks on our present lives. Pontuti, a visual artist first and foremost, uses his skill to merge the art of film with the specifics of a still life painting in this film in order to strengthen the concepts of dark- and coldness, and which foreshadows what is to come.

Pontuti creates an almost palpable soundscape at the beginning, a soundscape that makes the scene come to life. One could think, believe even, that one is part of the film, standing there off-screen and looking at the old wooden table. The result of the director’s sound design is an immersive nature that cannot be shaken off throughout the film’s duration.

VānÄ­tās – emptiness – permeates every scene of the film. It is not only about the utter scarcity of the mise-en-scĂšne. There is also the actual process of emptying oneself. This is primarily metaphorical, as is often the case in Pontuti’s work. In Onere (available on tao films), for instance, this metaphor is one that symbolises the burden of identity, the burden of the I, in the form of a shapeless, and yet almost human-like “package” that a woman carries through the woods under extreme efforts. In Vanita, Pontuti is more explicit in his representation, but he remains faithful to his approach of not showing. Rather, his work demands of the viewer to interpret, to read, the frames he has constructed. What underlying meaning is there in a woman pulling hair out of her mouth? Is it an extension of Onere’s burden, a burden one wants to rid oneself of? Why does this woman, previously calm, brushing her hair, vomit excessively only to then return to complete normality as though nothing has happened? Is there a meaning?

Pontuti’s latest instalment of his Poetry of Penance series represents strongest the sentiments of horror, of darkness, even of violence, albeit not explicit, that the viewer might associate with the Medieval Ages. What remained under the surface in Onere comes to the fore in Vanità. The horror of the unexplainable, of the mysterious, is the core of the director’s representation of vānĭtās, which comes to life through the strong acting of his regular lead actress Alexandra Loreth, who lives her role despite all the horrors that comes with it in this film.

More than perhaps his previous works, VanitĂ  asks one to reconsider the idea of film. Pontuti has created a cinematic piece that challenges our belief that films must be seen in cinema, by seemingly merging static and moving image art. VanitĂ  is more than just a film. With the help of utter simplicity, it creates strength and challenges, and poses questions that are not always easy to answer.

(The original title of this short essay is “VanitĂ  – The horror of the unexplainable” and is part of the promotional efforts following the release of Pontuti’s new film.)

Nothing

Certainly, I could leave this blog post blank and let you do the thinking. This is what “nothing” is there for; it allows you to fill in the gaps that others have left, deliberately or by accident. “Nothing” can be liberating.

What brought me to this post is a film I saw last night. In Praise of Nothing by Boris Mitic is is a satirical documentary about Nothing. Narrated by Iggy Popp, it’s a humorous take on our lives, on how we deal with others, with difficulties, or even with nothing. But the film also invites profound thinking if you do more than just let the film wash over you. It contains beautiful long shots, minimalist shots in most cases, a kind that one finds regularly in other slow films, although I’m not yet entirely sure whether or not I would classify this film as Slow Cinema. In the end, it matters little because In Praise of Nothing contains a lot that made me think about the more general nature of slow films and also returned me to a book I had read as part of my doctoral research, but which I have, if I remember correctly, never reviewed as such on this blog. I’m speaking of François Cheng’s Empty and Full (or Vide et plein – Le langage pictural chinois in the original French).

François Cheng’s work teaches us a lot about how to look (at something), and how to appreciate nothingness, absence and emptiness which is so common in slow films. As Iggy Popp tells us quite rightly in In Praise…, “I (nothingness) am in every shot.” And it’s true. There is always en empty section in a film frame, or even in a painting. Even seemingly “full” paintings have their areas of what I would call rest. We struggle seeing this nothingness because we have gotten used to the capitalist idea that nothing(ness) means non-profitability. Non-profitability in turn is not desired, and so everyone needs to create something in order to fit into this system, in order to take part. Nothingness often only plays a role when we are exhausted from the capitalist hamster wheel and need to slow down. Then people flock to meditation where they often learn that nothingness is profitable after all, just perhaps not in monetary value.

What I feel more and more, especially now with film submissions I receive for tao films, is that slow film directors, just like Chinese painters during the Song dynasty period, for instance, use nothingness (either through a rigorous absence or positioning a certain something in the off) in order to express the state of their soul, or that of society, or even that of the world. The films are an expression of the soul; they’re not necessarily factual or try to teach us. Cheng puts emphasis on the importance of the soul throughout his work because it is key to reading (traditional) Chinese painting (but also slow films, I find). I have never felt so many souls, have seen so many takes on the human condition than in the films I have seen for tao. They go further than the classic Slow Cinema canon we know. They genuinely align themselves (unconsciously, I’m sure!) with what Chinese painters have described all along as how they approach their work and what they intend to show. And this has nothing to do of being aware of the painters’ desires at the time, or not. It’s about putting oneself into a mindset that favours nothingness.

According to Cheng, nothingness is a crucial means to create a relationship that blends us with nature, as well as the artwork and the viewer. It is not so much that we become one, but that we become aware of the other while acknowledging that whatever it is, it is our creation. That means that, again, whatever it is it is part of us, we’re part of it. When we speak about cinema, this element of nothingness might come through strongest in experimental films which present you with little else than slowly moving blurred images. It is the idea of an experience in which we create the meaning because the director has given us nothing; how to read his/her images, how to respond to them, how to make sense of them. These films leave you with nothing, and we blend into it because only when we see such a film is the film really complete. We play an essential role.

I have mentioned several times before the concept of a “vertical axis”, which Maya Deren so wonderfully described in the context of poetic film. In Chinese cosmology it is exactly there (as opposed to the horizontal axis which is all about fullness) that nothingness and fullness interact. Fullness always comes out of nothingness, while nothingness lives on in fullness. Again, we have this blending, this dependency. And again, this is, in a good film absolutely the case as I have seen so many times in the last five years of writing for this blog and in the last two years of my watching film submissions for tao films. There is a real understanding of this interaction between nothingness and fullness that allows one to contemplate, to think, sometimes to marvel at images. it is those times “where nothing is happening” that the real fullness of a scenes comes to the fore because suddenly we notice crucial aspects of the scene we’re seeing at the moment, or others that have already passed and return to our mind. But this can only happen in nothingness and not while being bombarded with fast-cut scenes in an action movie.

There is more in Cheng’s book, but I will return to this another day as I know that not everyone likes long-reads 🙂 For now this shall suffice to give you food for thought, and do try see In Praise Of Nothing. It’s a lovely film!

Tremor – Annik Leroy (2017)

It was in the French national paper LibĂ©ration that I first came across the work of Annik Leroy. I added a note to myself and thought I really needed to get my hands on her work. Her latest film Tremor – Es ist immer Krieg is my first Leroy film, and I found it magnificent, embalming, haunting. I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It contains so much I’d like to talk about. At the same time, I’d like for the images to linger a bit longer before I try to explain them with words. So we will see where this post will take me and you.

Even though I cannot confirm it for the rest of her filmography as yet, Leroy is known for her meditative films, to which Tremor is not an exception. It starts off with a mind-boggling image that makes one wonder where one is positioned. Where is top, where is bottom? Is the camera tilted, or is it just an illusion? The first image is, I believe a mountain range, perhaps a volcano, but shot with a camera that lays on its side. The sky is to our right and not above us. This disorientation through illusions is one of the main characteristics of Leroy’s film. There are several scenes such as the one I have just described, albeit some of them are much more straight forward.

I love the simplicity of it; a camera on its side, on the ground, recording a lonely tree in a wide field. It’s disorientating, and yet you know what you see. This curious discrepancy keeps one engaged, it keeps one in wonder perhaps, even more so when Leroy turns the camera on its head. We’re on a boat, but the sky is beneath our feet, the water above our head. It’s the opposite of freedom. We have eternity beneath us, but above us…it feels limited somehow. Even though water can have a seemingly endless depth, Leroy’s shot suggests otherwise. It’s more like positioning us like a balloon (as my husband noted) that is stuck at a ceiling, that wants to go further but cannot do so. Leroy keeps us in chains, so to speak, which fits well with the subject of her film.

That said, it’s perhaps not easy to pinpoint a single subject in the film. I believe that Tremor is multilayered, although the focus is history, history of Europe, of art. But it’s also about brutality and violence, about emptiness. Tremor doesn’t contain dialogue, it is a chain of monologues, of book readings in part. Only at the end of the film do we know to whom the voices that accompany us belong.

 

“We all hate the power we endure. It manipulates us and creates false values.”

“Fascism doesn’t start with the first bombs you drop, or with the terror that one can write about in the papers. Fascism starts with the relationship between people.”

It’s quotes like these that give extraordinary weight to Leroy’s frames, long takes of empty places, ruins, rundown areas.The use of black-and-white and the stillness that prevails in many shots add to the power of the film. Especially the first half of the film is void of people, it feels almost apocalyptic, enhanced by quotes from artists and madmen that makes one think. Tremor is a thinking piece; it is not only a film that forces one to think, it is thinking itself. Yes, there are some films that demand a return to Daniel Frampton’s wonderful book Filmosophy, and I feel as though Tremor is one of those. I never had the feeling that there was a director, if anything the director might have just been a guidance to the film’s development but the film progressed in a way that was natural to itself. It took the director on a journey, not necessarily the other way around.

Tremor couldn’t be more topical and I think that the film was released just at the right time, the world being in tatters due to inexplicable decisions on the world stage of politics. The sound design of Leroy’s film is somewhat ominous regarding this and the monologues we hear: sirens of ambulances; helicopters above our head but we just cannot see them. Are these warning signs? Warning signs of what is to come? Warning signs of our madness? I should try to see the film a second time in order to be able to grasp the full power of Leroy’s cinematic creation.

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 BĂ©la 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.

Sixty Spanish Cigarettes – Mark John Ostrowski (2015, repost)

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

There is something sublimely beautiful about Mark John Ostrowski’s film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes (2015). Fifteen minutes into the film, an extreme long shot captures the sea and coast in the background. From the right hand side of the frame, a small boat comes into view. Ostrowski’s camera stays with the boat and follows it. Even in this extreme long-shot, we can see how the boat is moved by the wind and the waves. The sun is shining from behind a few clouds, it seems. The image is not in colour, even though you would perhaps think that. Coastal images in colour are always superb.

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But no. Ostrowski works against our expectations. He frustrates us. Scenes of blissful contemplation are interrupted by hard cuts to a black screen. Those contemplative scenes of land- and seascapes, for instance, feel like a carrot Ostrowski is hanging in front of our eyes. But he takes that carrot away as soon as we have almost reached a state of contemplation. We cannot contemplate everything at once. We have to give it time. We have to be patient in order to reach this desired state. Ostrowski works well in alternating beautifully slow shots with a black screen, the latter making us hyper-aware of where we are.

Paradoxically, Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is about movement, and yet it gives us no feeling of speed at all. We see the protagonist walking through several different (beautiful) landscapes, which reminded me strongly of those used in Albert Serra’s Birdsong (2008). The clouds are brushing slowly over the hills, while the man is often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. He is alone, alone on his way to an unknown location. At times, he stops to light a cigarette. At other times, he simply rests. It is this solitude which gives us a feeling of slowness, a sense of pause. The repeated scenes of a man’s walking through an empty landscape brought a wonderful book back into my head; The Philosophy of Walking. If you haven’t read it, please do get yourself a copy.

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Ostrowski’s film shows the director’s superb photographic eye. Many of his shots are beautifully composed. They could easily be photos in an album, or large prints in a gallery. To me, the visual beauty of the film was also its strongest asset; the viewer in awe of nature, in awe of simple but expressive architecture. Ostrowski’s long-takes of those “photos” helped me to pause, to be in the present but also to wonder what the protagonist was really up to. I’m not entirely sure whether this is ever fully revealed in the film, but it is of little interest in any case. Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is more of an atmospheric film than about a set narrative persistently progressing within the film’s 60 minutes running time. It reminded me of Martin Lefebvre’s modes of viewing; the narrative mode and the spectacular mode. Many slow films, which most certainly includes Ostrowski’s film, operate very much in the spectacular mode, even though there is a narrative mode in all. But the narrative mode is suppressed in many instances to give way to contemplation.

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I believe that the film could have been a tick shorter in order to make full use of its shots. I’m not entirely sure when this shot appears, perhaps after around 45 to 50min. There is a beautiful extreme long shot of a landscape at the coast, with the protagonist sitting on a rock or something similar. He has his back turned to us and is looking at the scenery, like us. I expected the film to cut there. It would have been the most fitting and most suitable ending for the film, but unfortunately Ostrowski did not cut there and kept going instead. The final images, to me,weakened the film slightly because they were not entirely necessary.

Nevertheless, with Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, Ostrowski has created a beautiful piece of Slow Cinema, which, regardless of whether or not he continues this slow journey, adds him to my list of directors to look out for in future. If the film runs at a festival near you, I highly recommend watching it!