Waiting Time

The end of the year 2018 was, in France at least, a period in which the media focused on the subject of time. The quantity of things published was impressive and made me think about the possible reasons behind this seemingly mutual choice of journalists and podcasters alike. What happened in 2018 that became the trigger for a return to the subject of time and a reminder that time, as we know it, is an artificial construct?

It was, perhaps, Donald Trump and his presidency. In part, at least. An American president, impulsive, tweeting, can quickly take over the news. What I noticed last year is that it felt as though news faster than ever before. One tweet by a politician was enough to create a newsworthy item. Breaking news was the order of the day. Trump, Brexit – you name it. 2018 was characterised by immediacy, heightened by social media and people’s use of it for “news”. I don’t want to write a political post, albeit I could because there is so much to say about last year. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of time today. In an earlier post, I already wrote down my ideas on the theme of waiting, triggered by a blog post on the subject.

Today, I want to go into a bit more detail because I think that if we speak about Slow Cinema, we still don’t speak enough about the subject of time itself. Academics love to explain slow films with Bazin and Deleuze, but this approach has always felt incomplete, or even inadequate to me. It is Sylvain Piron, who, in his magnificent book L’occupation du monde, writes about, what he calls, an artificialisation of every part of society. This, I believe, can also be found in the debate on Slow Cinema. There is no natural conversation about it, but slow films are being explained by artificially constructed frameworks that we have created merely because we humans have to categorise everything in order to keep track of what is happening around us.

Prologue – Béla Tarr

The simple aspect we forget while creating artificial frameworks is that time is an illusion, a question of perspectives rather than a universal truth, as physicist Carlo Rovelli describes it in his new book on time. There is, he suggests, neither space nor time, but instead a continuous progression of processes. Not so long ago, I spoke of Sylviane Agacinski’s thought-provoking book Le passeur du temps, in which she argues that everything is always passing, is in constant transformation. Nothing remains the way you see it right in this very moment. In a second, it’s already different, which, as we may remember from previous readings and discussions, makes it difficult to define what the present moment is, because the present is fragile. If you speak about “the present”, it sounds like a stable temporal entity, but it’s the opposite. What’s present now, is already past in a nano second. So what does this say about time? Rovelli puts forward a pretty good argument. Reality, our reality, is merely a fragment. No one’s reality is the ultimate reality. We create those fragments in order to handle the world. He describes this process, in fact, as a way of blurring of what is around us. In order to contemplate the world as it is, we need to fragment it. We do this, for example, via time, and time is nothing but a marker of our unawareness, of our ignorance.

For Rovelli, time is primarily an emotional and psychological experience, which resonates so strongly with everything I have thought to express on this blog in relation to slow films. From the beginning, I have considered slow films as an experience, rather than as a sort of movement that is defined by frameworks, which tick certain boxes. I have reviewed over 250 films and have seen more without having (yet) written about them. If there is one thing that I have learned, then it is about the necessity of experiencing the films before one poses questions as to what they mean, why they are so slow or so long, and why the director didn’t cut at a specific point. Slow Cinema is, if I take the argument of Rovelli to heart (which I do), the perfect illustration of what time is: an experience, a passing experience, a continuous movement towards something – the end in most cases.

It is, I believe, this experience that we struggle with. In a fast-paced, knee-jerk epoch, are we still capable of truly experiencing something? In order to experience something, this something needs to last, and what actually still lasts? The 21st century, in particular, has cut short everything. Except, that is, for slow films. They last. Their duration allows us to experience, which can be a scary experience. Maybe this is why people say that they are bored. Perhaps they are just scared of letting something happen to them und use boredom as an easy way out. This something – it matters little what it essentially is as it is different for everyone – appears by itself, but one needs to wait for it. We spend so much of our lives waiting, we don’t even realise it anymore. It is so normal to wait for the bus that we no longer notice it as something out of the ordinary. Besides, as Reiner Niehoff and Sven Rücker explain in a three-part podcast series on waiting, everything is being done to make this period of waiting look and feel as though we are not waiting at all. Newspapers and journals in the GP practice, games on mobile phones while waiting for the bus or the metro. We keep ourselves busy all the time, even during periods of waiting.

Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd

Waiting, Niehoff and Rücker say, doesn’t have a quality in and of itself. Its goal is to end the period of waiting. What I found truly thought-provoking, even though it is so simple and easy to recognise that, precisely, I had never thought of it before, is that no one chooses to wait. Waiting is always imposed upon us. We have to endure it and we are at its mercy. This alone tells us why we struggle with waiting. Of course, we like to be in control, and if we are not, it makes us anxious, angry or simply uncomfortable. Whoever it is who makes us wait has power over us, because s/he plunges us into a hole of non-productivity. Remember that time is nothing but a psychological experience? In waiting, we can feel this most strongly.

Do you wait for the director to cut the scene? Do you wait for something to happen? Do you wait for the film to end? The key here is that we perceive a slow film as a form of waiting, and then we say “I don’t have time for this”. Some people might even say that the director shouldn’t steal or waste our time. At the same time, I consider waiting for something to happen in a slow film as the one way of waiting that is not imposed from the outside, but from the inside. Waiting is imposed on ourselves by ourselves, and we project this fear of waiting and our disappointment onto the director, who merely shows a passing experience without any obligations. Because we are, as Rovelli suggested, busy with “blurring” our surrounding, it becomes difficult to accept those films as they are. Instead, we consider them as time experiments, as a “tour de force”. People’s rejection of those films comes from their misconception of what time is, and I think that seeing the subject from a different angle might help them to find their way into the films one day.

Fresh from the press: new books on Chantal Akerman

I took a literary journey through the works of Chantal Akerman thanks to two new books that have been published on her work. Not so long ago, I wrote about Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit by Corinne Rondeau, which I found to be a great book, something that gave you a sense of how a Chantal Akerman film feels. It wasn’t a dry description, it was a book about experience.

So from that point of view, it was a pleasant surprise to have yet another French-language book in my hand that dealt with feelingssensationsmemories. The most recent book on Akerman, Chantal Akerman – Dieu se reposa, mais pas nous, published just a week ago, was written by Jérôme Momcilovic, who also gave a lecture on the director as part of the major retrospective that is currently running at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. What struck me first of all, from page one, is the way Momcilovic approached the task of writing about a director whose oeuvre is so vast and so complex (albeit it looks simple at first) that it would be easy to miss most of the essential stuff in a book of less than 100 pages.

Momcilovic begins his book with a quote by Sylvia Plath, American poet and writer: “Light, as white as bones, like death, after all things…” A description of a scene from Akerman’s New from Home (1976) follows, an interpretative description, rather than a mere statement of what one sees. Once more, here’s a book which is very much in line with my own writing. I see it so often that “analytical” books contain more film descriptions than analysis (as we will see later on in this post), and the uses of synopses are, nowadays at least, limited. Brief, two- or three-sentence synopses are fine if you want to give the reader something. All other details are online. Books can focus on the depth and the experiential nature of films if only more writers would do it. In any case, Momcilovic does a great job here, carefully using short paragraphs for each essential thought, an essential feeling that one might have when one sees a certain scene.

The book is not a description of Akerman’s films. Its a journey through it. Not necessarily going chronologically in his writing about her main works, Momcilovic follows thoughts, follows ideas, interrupted by Akerman’s own thoughts on specific films or her filmmaking career. He describes hers as “cinéma errant, nomade, vagabond” (nomad, wandering cinema) which is very much in line with Akerman’s being.

“Le temps n’est pas le même pour tout le monde, mais les films d’Akerman nous ont donné un temps à partager avec eux, temps électrique, dans l’hôtel et à l’arrêt de bus, un temps délimité par le miracle de l’apparition et le deuil de la disparition qui oblige de revenir pour effacer le deuil dans le miracle…On ne sort jamais des films d’Akerman, il faut y rester tout une vie.”

Everyone has a different perception of time, but, Momcilovic writes, Akerman’s films gives us a special time which we can share with her films, with her work, be it at a hotel or at a bus stop. What matters most, however, is that one can never leave a film by Akerman. One has to stay with them one’s entire life. I was struck by this powerful statement and noticed that, without ever expressing it this way, I had the same feelings about the films by Lav Diaz. As Momcilovic suggests in his writing, you can leave the auditorium for a cigarette or for a pee break, but you stay with the film, or rather the film stays with you for longer than any screen time at a cinema. That reminds me of a very important aspect Andrei Tarkovsky mentioned: a good film is never finished at the end of post-production. A good film lives on in its viewer and its meaning is created only by the viewer. This is, Momcilovic seems to suggest, precisely the nature of Akerman’s films.

“Par un réflexe facile à expliquer, parce que ses plans durent et nous font regarder longtemps, l’arbitraire des classements l’a rangée parmi les cinéastes “de la durée”. Mais dire ça, c’est toujours faire peser sur l’expérience des films le soupçon d’une douloureuse endurance, c’est voir les films comme une prison de temps, belle prison mais prison quand même.”

Akerman’s films are regularly classified as belonging to a group of films that focus on duration, Momcilovic says. And yet, this classification – and I agree wholeheartedly here – creates a tension, potentially a rejection on the part of the viewer because it sounds as though those films are an endurance test, a “prison of time”. But, he argues, quite the contrary is the case. Akerman’s films, and I’d like to add all slow films, liberate the view, liberate the viewer, and therefore invite an active engagement with the film text.

Momcilovic spends quite a good part of his books on recurring sounds in Akerman’s films, arguing at some point that no one has forced his/her viewers to listen to the silence of waiting the way Akerman had done in some of her films. And if it’s silence in some parts, then it is the outdoor noise that invades a room through wide open windows in others. I haven’t yet thought much about sound in Akerman’s films, but Momcilovic gave me a couple of ideas, which I’d like to investigate more in future.

I’d like to finish this part of my blog with another quote by Momcilovic, which I found touching and will stay with me for a while: “No Home Movie is not a film about death, but about a gradual obliteration of two images bound to disappear together.”

I wished I could finish this whole post with this quote, but there is still one more book I’d like to speak about briefly. Quite some time ago, I reviewed a book on Pedro Costa, an edited collection that appeared in edition text + kritik (Germany). They published one on Chantal Akerman last summer, edited by Fabienne Liptay and Margit Tröhler. The two books couldn’t be more different from another. One feels like a collection of thoughts, liberated and liberating. The other is a rather rigorous study of Akerman’s oeuvre that allows little room for the reader’s own thought. In nine chapters, various themes are explored, albeit I had the feeling that synopses and detailed descriptions played a major role, which, at times, put me off actually watching more of Akerman’s films because everything was said, and in such descriptive detail that, technically, I wouldn’t need to see the films anymore. This is a shame and something I always dislike about writers, academics, and especially editors who decide to publish stuff like this. Giving away everything from a film means ruining it for the reader, unless you want your readers to see everything beforehand or if you want readers without an intention to discover. That, for me, is a bit how Chantal Akerman felt at certain points.

At other times, the authors make several good points which are useful for my own work. Eric de Kuyper, for instance, argues that Akerman’s work is so extremely autobiographical that it’s no longer noticeable. It’s everywhere, and yet not always as visible or as easy to grasp as in other works either by herself or by other directors. Furthermore, his point on the use of a static camera is interesting. It’s something I had never thought about this way. Kuyper argues that the absolute stasis of the camera highlights the presence of the director, making his/her presence behind the image we see palpable. There is someone recording the scene we see, he writes. I personally always thought of a static camera in the context of an arresting image, of photography, of death in certain ways. Kuyper speaks of presence, meaning life, which makes me rethink a bit what I had argued in the past.

In her chapter on Hotel Monterey and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Michelle Koch suggests that the contemplative look at empty rooms and the way certains scenes are edited turns physical architecture into a mental space (or “room”, as Koch writes). I have seen neither of the two films yet, but Koch’s argument reminds me of something I myself have argued in my PhD thesis regarding the use of makeshift and run-down houses in the films of Lav Diaz to reinforce an image of despair and mental upheaval. I also wrote an unpublished essay on the uses of architecture and double framing in the films of Béla Tarr and who immediately comes to mind in this context is, in fact, Tsai Ming-liang. Akerman’s use of physical spaces to evoke a mental space, to me, is consistent with other directors’ uses of physical spaces in order to show their characters’ mental upheavals.

The longest chapter in the book, I believe, is Heike Klippel’s thoughts on Jeanne Dielman, which is situated somewhere between Momcilovic’s free thinking and this very book’s rigorous descriptions. Nevertheless, there are some points to take away from it. I’d like to point out just one here. Klippel suggests that the way Akerman films everything in detail would normally suggest an abundance of information. Her long takes show everything in detail. And yet, especially in Jeanne Dielman, you have this discrepancy between showing and not showing. One example is Jeanne doing the dishes, but she’s with her back towards us. We know what she’s doing, but we cannot see it. So, can we actually know what she’s really doing in detail? Akerman blurs the line between the visible and the invisible, between the idea of showing detailed everyday activities and hiding details, keeping secrets about what’s going on.

Overall, both books have their own way of approaching the rather comprehensive and complex oeuvre of Chantal Akerman. I believe that Momcilovic succeeded in getting to the depth of Akerman, really focusing on the vertical axis (the experiential, the emotional) in many cases, whereas the other book is more for people who prefer a rigorous reading of single scenes. One is French, the other in German. I hope that at least Momcilovic’s piece will be translated into English soon.

First thoughts on Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (2014)

This post will be no more than a few possibly unrelated thoughts on Ceylan’s new film and its connection to slowness. Winter Sleep is so rich that I have serious doubts about the critiques that have surfaced by critics who watch several films a day and have deadlines to meet. I remember Jonathan Romney saying in Newcastle in March 2012 that this was exceptionally difficult when it came to certain films, such as those of Béla Tarr or Lav Diaz. Ceylan’s film is no different, and even though I’m fully aware that critiques have been largely favourable, I wonder just how thorough they can be after a three-hour intense experience of lengthy dialogues which hit wound points on so many levels for all the characters that it needs more than one viewing for a critique to be genuine.

Hence, I’m not even trying here to write up something nice about Winter Sleep. Suffice to say that the film is a long journey through sadness and frustration, but also through love that is not necessarily mutual. The cinematography is supportive of the melancholic atmosphere of the film. Just the stunning location alone made for a magnificent environment for the narrative.

These things are easy to say when you leave the auditorium. The narrative, even if it appears to be driven by sheer boredom on the part of the characters, is more complex than it looks at first sight. And this is the very part of the film that I do not want to touch yet until I have seen the film a second time.

What ran through my head when I was watching Winter Sleep, though, was how the film may fit into a now growing repertoire of slow films. Compared with films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or, say, Albert Serra, Winter Sleep is not a slow film in the traditional sense. There are very few sweeping landscape shots and almost no ’empty time’. The cuts are plenty and the takes are rather short for a slow film. The film itself, with three hours running time, is comparatively long, but length doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the pace of a film. And yet, for some reason this film felt slow and I couldn’t quite explain why. Perhaps it was the location, hidden in the middle of nowhere that supported the idea of slow time, away from bustling Istanbul. The film was exceptionally heavy on dialogue, which is another characteristic that goes against the ‘tradition’ of slow film.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that it was precisely this dialogue-driven aesthetic that made the film appear slow. There is a lot of dialogue in the film, and most of the really heavy scenes are so long that they test your endurance: for how long can you listen to a rather personal chat between brother and sister who accuse each other of this and that, but without getting really angry, as in raising their voices? It felt uncomfortable after a while, because I didn’t think I should be listening to this. This scene between brother and sister is a pivotal scene in fact, lasting for something like twenty minutes. They go on and on. It never seems to end, and for some reason I never felt that it should end. There was simply nothing that could have signified the coming end of the conversation.

There is a lot said that would not normally be said in a film. Very little, in fact, pushes the narrative forward and this is precisely why the film felt slow. You would expect the dialogues to help narrative progression. This is the classical use of dialogue in film, and you can find this classical type even in Lav Diaz’s films, which is strange to say. But putting Ceylan’s films against Diaz’s films makes me see that dialogue in Diaz’s films has the classical purpose. There are few instances where the dialogues are unrelated to the overarching narrative. Winter Sleep is the complete opposite. Most that is said in those three hours, while making an interesting character study, does not seem to be related to the overall narrative. While the dialogue is nevertheless rich in what it reveals in relation to the characters, for some reason a great deal of it was something that would have been cut in a ‘normal’ film. Precisely because of these ‘boring’, endless everyday dialogues the film appears slow. Both characters and viewer are trapped in a loop of boredom, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The many cuts have, surprisingly, little effects on the pace of the film. It’s a strange thing to say because you would expect otherwise. Winter Sleep goes against pretty much everything Slow Cinema is about. But it makes for a really interesting challenge of which aesthetics ‘define’ slowness. I’m looking forward to a second viewing once the DVD is out, and then I’ll return to my initial thoughts and see just how right or wrong I was.

Ambiancé (teaser) – Anders Weberg

You may ask yourself why I review a teaser. Teasers are short, and don’t give away a lot. In fact, Swedish artist Anders Weberg has released a very short teaser for his 720h film Ambiancé, which is due to premiere in December 2020. There is, however, a longer teaser, which lasts 72min, and somewhat defies the actual meaning of a teaser. Yet considering the length of the overall film, a 72min teaser is probably still extremely short.

For those who are not yet aware of Weberg’s project: Ambiancé will be his last film, the longest film ever made, at least this is how he himself advertises it. The film will run over the course of a whole month and will then be destroyed. Teasers and trailers will be released in the coming years. In 2016, Weberg will release a seven-and-a-half hour trailer. If you’re familiar with Lav Diaz’s films, this “trailer” shouldn’t be a big problem for you. Two years later, you will have to invest about ten hours more to see the second trailer of the film. It’s an endurance test, and for this reason somewhat more relevant to the research of Glyn Davis from Edinburgh University rather than my own. And yet, it somehow fits my work in some strange way.

Weberg’s Ambiancé is an experimental film. A lot of his short films can be seen on his Vimeo page, and if you click through those, you will get an idea of how the final product will eventually play out. Ambiancé is not exactly slow the way we define it in terms of slow film. But it’s a superb contemplative film. I was naive and thought that because I have the stamina to endure a Lav Diaz film, it would be easy for me to watch Ambiancé. I caught myself thinking about time, only to realise that it is not about time at all. If you’re interested in the subject matter, then an eight-hour Lav Diaz film isn’t going to be a problem for you. Watching this is not much different from watching a normal film, unless you make it different and repeatedly think about the length of the film. If you just follow the narrative, you will sometimes catch yourself thinking that the films are, in fact, very short.

It’s rather different with Ambiancé. I did stop the film after fifty minutes for a break. Strangely enough, I found the 72min teaser – in its own way – extremely moving. There’s no dialogue. It’s not a narrative film as such. It conveys everything through visuals, and these visuals are strong. I watched it a few weeks ago and I initially didn’t want to write about it, and I still find it difficult to do so because words cannot describe this piece. I’m not sure what the whole film will be about in the end, and no one will probably ever know because no one will ever be able to see the entire film unless you want to live off energy drinks for thirty days. It’s one of those gallery films that are, perhaps, not meant to be watched in its entirety.

With Ambiancé, I’d say that this is the case. You don’t even need to watch the whole thing. There is so much in only 72 minutes that the full 720h piece would probably blow your mind. I could be wrong, and it could merely be my own reading, but this film says a lot about emptiness, absence and sadness. It feels extremely personal and sometimes I wondered whether I was really meant to see it. There is nothing obscene, nothing violent, nothing shocking. And yet, I wanted to close my eyes from time to time. I’m not sure whether it was to savour the beauty of the images, or whether it was because I felt I shouldn’t see it. It was such a peculiar, and nevertheless rewarding experience.

I’m looking forward to the seven-and-a-half hour “trailer”, although I know that I will probably not watch the whole thing in one go. I always find myself struggling to digest Lav Diaz’s films. Weberg’s Ambiancé was a very similar challenge. I’m a visual person, and some images simply stick and I can’t get them out of my head. There are several scenes I still have in my head, playing out in slow motion, but I’m not even trying to describe them. I think it would ruin the film.

The 72 minute teaser will be made public in the summer. Then you can all see it for yourself. I will post the link here as soon as I have one.