Closing Time – Nicole Vögele (2018)

The beauty of Slow Cinema is that directors welcome you to their world and let you explore it in your own way. If you follow one director in particular and have seen all of his/her films, then each new film feels like coming home. I hadn’t realised to what extent this seemed to be true until I saw Nicole Vögele’s superb Closing Time, set in Taiwan, in an environment that feels so familiar after several films by Tsai Ming-liang. It is like sitting on that nice, comfy sofa that Tsai Ming-liang had prepared for me and which Vögele invited me to sit on to see her film. It is marvellous to notice the true force of slow films, which sink in and stay with you unconsciously, films that do make you feel as if you are there with the filmmaker.

The wind howls around us. Strong waves brutalise the coast. And then – peace. Absolute peace. The stormy sea gives way to an empty street at night. There is a large part of an uprooted tree on the pavement. Faint music. Rice cooking in boiling water.

This sequence of scenes feels almost like dream. It is like a ferocious journey at first, before it becomes an almost magical dream-like state. The alternation between noise and silence, movement and stillness, is a key element in Vögele’s film. Taipei at night, a city of contrasts. Closing Time tells the story of Mr Ku and his night-time eatery. His life, it happens at night. He chops veg, he cooks, he helps his wife serving customers. Despite the work in the kitchen, the eatery seems to be a haven for peace during the busy nights in Taipei. It’s a meeting point, it’s where workers come to eat, to have a chat. Mr Ku knows a lot of his customers. Eating there means becoming part of the family, part of a circle of people who follow their routine jobs in order to keep their heads above water.

The night in Taipei isn’t black. I was reminded again of the thought-provoking book Nuit by Michaël Foessel, the idea that the night has become something rare. Darkness has become light. The time for rest has become the time for work. Taipei never sleeps in Vögele’s film. The black of the night that used to be is now tinted in cold blue. The night that used to be is now an artificial day. At a vast market hall, shop owners on scooters shop ingredients. After a typhoon destroyed local harvests, people have no other choice but buy their products from the mainland. Mr Ku complains about the costs. Every month, he spends more on the ingredients, but the eatery cannot keep up.

Closing Time is about fragile existences, created by the night, by economic conditions, by a multitude of circumstances. There is life at the margins, a life which we don’t (want to) see, but which continues regardless. People make do. There is a beautiful scene half-way through the film that struck me as one of the most special scene cuts I have come across in recent years. For approximately an hour we follow the fragile existence of people, at times accompanied by the sound of ferocious winds and heavy rain, the coming typhoon threatening the people’s fragile existence even more. And then, Vögele cuts to a park, a literal but also a visual breathing space. There is a man playing the saxophone somewhere. He’s difficult to spot, but the beautiful, peaceful melody is just… it opens your heart.

So does a long, slow pan, which allows us to see the nature outside Taipei, a world that allows us to breathe, but that also shows the clear contrast between the world of the Nachtschwärmer, the night owls, and the world that seems to be out of reach for them. Mr Ku speaks about the necessity to take a break. His fragile existence also depends on his ability to rest, to break out of the hamster wheel which his life has become. Closing Time is very much about this hamster wheel, about the constraints that those at the margins have to abide by. But it is just as much a film about agency, about the liberty to take a decision that allows you to be. Instead of returning home and back to work, Mr Ku takes a detour with his scooter one day. He doesn’t seem to have a specific destination in mind. The only destination he drives towards is a badly needed escape, in much the same way the saxophone allowed us to escape from the eternal blue night earlier in the film.

Vögele’s film is a genuine gem. It feels as though she continues where Tsai Ming-liang had left off. It feels like a continuation of a world that slow-film fans might recognise, but she adds her own touch to this world. In an interview, she once said “For me, it’s not important if I shoot a film in Taipei or in Zurich. I think what really interests me is a really deep humanistic thing. Why are we here? What is human? I think that it’s not important where you do that.” But it’s important how you do it, and Vögele shows in Closing Time that she is well-equipped to explore those questions with her camera.

A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on cinema

It’s been almost a year that I have seen Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a film I remember was very good, but I was reminded of it only when Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it not so very long ago. But what is there to write about this film, a film that is only a part of a trilogy which, taken all three films together, is so much stronger than a single film? I therefore watched the other two films of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”, albeit I would probably refrain from using this description and use “The Human Condition trilogy” instead. Together, Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You the Living (2007) and A Pigeon make for an entertaining view on us as humans, on us as a society, of life as sometimes being completely absurd and we still follow it endlessly like that famous hamster in his wheel.

After having seen the first two films in that trilogy, I was annoyed that I saw A Pigeon before, so that the chronological development didn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, I could see connections, contradictions, additions – all of that made the trilogy throughly interesting, especially if you have a dark humour and are willing to laughing about yourself. It’s difficult to write about three films in a single blog post, but I try to keep it as contained as possible.

I should start, perhaps, with the most obvious characteristic of the Living Trilogy: all films look the same. I’m not sure whether I have seen a trilogy of films before where everything seems to be the same. Even the characters look the same. Andersson does use different actors from time to time, but they’re always white. I mean, make-up white. They’re pale, exhausted, looking almost sick, half dead. The interior of their flats and houses makes you see (and feel) that time literally stands still. Andersson took a long time to complete this trilogy. Between the release of the first part and the release of the third part (all three films played at Cannes), there was a gap of 14 years. So maybe make it 18 years or so, between the conception of the first film and the release of the final part of the trilogy. This is slow, but it resulted in quality work. And while the years passed, life seems to stand still in Andersson’s work. This is ironic, of course, giving the title of the trilogy (Living), whereas it should perhaps be called otherwise. Or maybe this is the whole point? Maybe it is to show us that we’re running in circles and that we don’t really go anywhere?

The interior design of buildings in all three films is the same. Sometimes I would even go as far as suggesting that he uses the same flats for some scenes, shot from a different angle. This is what Béla Tarr used to do. If you watch his arthouse films from after Sátántangó (2000), you see a link between them all, which is not necessarily connected to the films’ narratives, but to where the films are shot. Everything repeats, nothing moves forwards. Andersson uses a very sterile environment, 70s or 80s style, cold. Almost exactly how his characters look like. The bars change, but the people who drink their beer there are more or less the same. And why do they drink? Usually to drown their sorrows, the ridiculous existence of humans in a world that is so absurd that it makes you laugh.

Andersson shows us this absurdity in slow, long-takes. Those who like Slow Cinema and have followed my slow journey on this blog know that cinematic slowness serves different purposes in different films. In Andersson’s, I find, cinematic slowness serves the heightening of absurdity. It really brings home how ridiculous life can be sometimes, or how ridiculous we can be in certain situations; such as when a man’s hand is stuck in a train door and everyone stands around and, rather than being concerned, they wonder how it happened, they remember their own accidents, they watch. They watch more than anything else. An accident becomes a sort of animal in a zoo that you simply watch. You gather around and you do nothing. This stoppage of time, this absurd watching, is reinforced by the use of a static camera. Andersson usually doesn’t move his camera. There are very, very few pans or traveling shots in this trilogy.

And in fact, Andersson reduces the aesthetics to a bare minimum over a period of over a decade. It feels very much like the development of Béla Tarr, who became more and more minimalistic in his approach to filmmaking. From Sátántangó to Werckmeister Harmonies to The Turin Horse, Tarr reduced the aesthetics more and more; less characters, more barren mise-en-scène, less camera movements, less dialogue. His films were steering towards an end. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang, whose last feature film Stray Dogs was, perhaps, his most minimalist film. Andersson, I feel, works very much in the same manner. Songs and You the Living were stronger in their narrative progression. If something wasn’t clear in one scene, he would usually show us what really happened or what the previous scene meant in the next scene. In A pigeon, Andersson fragments the narrative almost to an extreme. It feels more episodic than the previous two films, albeit everything does come together in the end. But there is a sense of fragmentation, of a fracture that disrupts the narrative flow. Is this a sign of trauma? Perhaps, given that the trilogy contains elements to the brutal reign of the Nazis.

Andersson’s trilogy is tragic and humorous. Albert Serra was the first slow-film director I got to know who used comedy elements in his films. Slow Cinema as comedy, as entertaining…Andersson goes there, too, but makes more persistent use of it. He does so in order to open our eyes, to hold a mirror in front of us and show us to ourselves. Perhaps it is not spoken about often in the context of Andersson’s films that the director uses a direct confrontation with history and the way we deal with it. The first two films show this explicitly; one character, a sort of hardcore rocker, wears a T-Shirt with the Nazi SS symbol on the front. You only notice it once he gets up from the bench, once his partner pushes him away because she no longer wants to see him. (Or does she?) It would go unnoticed if you were focusing on the frame’s foreground only. There is another scene in which a man, in an attempt to do the famous magic stunt, tries to remove the tablecloth at a big family gathering all the while keeping the (expensive!!) china service on the table. Once the table cloth has been removed, the table shows two swastikas. It’s still there, we haven’t finished with it. The Nazi past, the Nazi support, is still there; almost dormant and yet very present, if only one takes the time to look. Andersson encourages us to do so. I laughed about those scenes, and also about the 100 year old admiral who had been placed in a nursing home and receives high-profile guests for his birthday only to make a Hitler salute. In any other film this wouldn’t be funny, but Andersson has created a bizarre and absurd trilogy that you have no choice but to laugh. And this, I have to say, absurd reaction to things that should shock me made me reflect about where we are. I became the pigeon sitting on a branch reflecting on existence.

With Andersson’s work more so than with other directors I need to say that a lot of action is happening in the background. If you watch the films as usual, expecting things to happen right in front of your eyes (just as we expect it in life – we don’t want to look deeper than that), then you will miss a lot in the trilogy. It is worth taking your eyes of the obvious and look beyond the surface, both in terms of the framing and in terms of the narrative. It is in the background, underneath the surface, where life really happens. There is this wonderful trilogy The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s trilogy speaks of what it means to be a human being. He focuses on our hearts, on everything that goes on inside of us. Andersson’s trilogy is a different take of the same thing, 40 years later. It is also about the haunting of the past. Whereas in Kobayashi’s trilogy, events were happening, Andersson returns to the effects of the past on our present society, our current politics, our current life. It is impossible to say that these two trilogies are the same. But there are similarities, extensions, additions. They are are different ways of making us see and feel of what and who we are. And yet, both trilogies are about the human condition.

The Living trilogy – do Andersson’s characters live, or are they dragged along? Do we ever move on, which is what living is actually about? The pigeon who sits on a branch reflecting on existence is the perfect metaphor for what the viewer is encouraged to do while watching Andersson’s trilogy. What does “existence” even mean? We exist, but do we live? Where does life start and mere existence stop? Are we merely passively watching life going by, suffering from the weight of our existence and everything it entails? Strangely enough, even though none of the three films is very cheerful, Andersson’s trilogy triggered optimism in my heart and in my mind. What exactly causes that, I don’t know. But I do know that the Swedish director has created a very effective trilogy about us, the living, hearing songs from the second floor all the while we sit on a bench reflecting on existence.