The weeping meadow – Theo Angelopoulos (2004)

It took me much longer than usual to write my new blog post, which is primarily down to health reasons. An inflamed elbow could, in theory, be a blessing if you want to see films. What do you need your arm for? The problem was that Ì couldn’t take notes over the course of three hours, as it would have been the case with my very first Angelopoulos film. I had to give my arm a rest, all the while trying hard to progress with The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine, which is almost, almost, very nearly done! 

There isn’t always a particular reason for why certain directors are not yet in my A to Z list. Theo Angelopoulos, from Greece, is one of those filmmakers that have been named in the context of Slow Cinema pretty much from the beginning. Yet so far, I have never written about him. I have been asked about the reasons for this several times before. There has never been anything in particular which made me avoid Angelopoulos until now. Once my PhD took a turn towards the films of Lav Diaz, I felt that I had to focus on those first of all, or on others that seemed slightly similar.

Now, there is something about The Weeping Meadows that I find difficult to put into words, and I’m not even sure what it really is. Let me say it with a screen grab…

This is not only a beautiful shot, albeit it needs to be seen in movement in order to be appreciated properly. The Weeping Meadow is a film, which continues where Andrei Tarkovsky left off with The Sacrifice. In this very film, Angelopoulos is the most Tarkovskian of Slow Cinema directors. All slow films are, in one way or another, put into the context of Tarkovsky’s “sculpting in time” concept. Especially at the beginning of writing about Slow Cinema, the Tarkovskian philosophy was everywhere. This has receded quite a bit in the last two years or so. Perhaps, critics have realised that Tarkovsky itself isn’t as present in most slow films as they had wished for. Of course, Slow Cinema as a genre, or whatever you might call it, is indebted to the work of Tarkovsky, but the Russian director wasn’t the only inspiration. He was a late inspiration that, I believe, helped Slow Cinema reach its fulfilment. 

But let’s return to Angelopoulos whose The Weeping Meadow is the first part of the director’s trilogy about modern Greece, a trilogy he could sadly not finish. I’m almost sure that I might create a neologism here if I said that Meadow was a “wide” film. Every scene feels like a deep inhale, visuals that fill and feed your lungs. Do we ever exhale? To be honest, I’m not sure. Meadow felt like a series of inhales, or even one very long, three-hour long inhale. Scenes are wide-angled, and even if the frames are tight from time to time, a delicate zoom out allows us take a breath. Angelopoulos’s visual mark is width more than anything. It is about taking a step back, about taking a look at the wider picture. There is something about the smooth and delicate camera movement and its angles that makes it feel perfectly organic. It certainly is, after Tarkovsky’s Mirror, the most explicit example of Daniel Frampton’s ‘filmind’, which I have mentioned several times on this blog already.

The particular camera movements, which Tarkovsky had used in Mirror, for example when he explored Andrei’s seemingly empty flat, find their perfect copy in Angelopoulos work. Delicate zoom outs or zoom ins, a searching camera that very much embodies a searching person – one cannot deny that Angelopoulos created a major homage to the Russian director. And then there is The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last piece which I considered to be a cinematic theatre play. The entire nature of the setting, of character behaviour, of dialogue – nothing really felt as though the aim of the film was to create a film. Rather, the aim seemed to have been to merge different art forms and their different natures, create a crossover and thereby create something new, or, if not that, showing how similar all art forms really are. 

Meadow has very little of a film. The screen grab above, of Spyros, an elderly man – lonely, depressed – who has been betrayed by his son, who fled with his own wife-to-be, is the most explicit statement of it, and the scene didn’t come as a surprise in terms of its aesthetics. It was the fitting culmination of the feeling I had had about the film until then. I’m allergic to films in which actors and actresses stage something from their life, instead of live the role they’re meant to embody. Yet, Meadow falls into another category. The perfect orchestration between wide, observational camera movements and the specific theatre-like play of the characters creates a special cinematic experience, an experience that questions the strict categorisation of art forms and, therefore, also of audiences. 

Angelopoulos’ story isn’t extraordinary as such. We follow Eleni, adopted as a young girl by Spyros and his wife, who, at the beginning of the film, flee the Russian Revolution and who return home to Greece. Much later, Eleni becomes Spyros chosen one, but his son, Alexis, runs away with Eleni. The two, always on the run, become a prism through which the viewer travels through Greek history up until the Greek civil war. It is a story that has been told dozens of times, by people from other countries, from other regions, other backgrounds. The theme of seeking refugee during political upheaval is very much the core of the film, interspersed with love scenes that are almost too much. It is a traditional film, with a traditional structure, and yet Meadow is standing out from those classical treatments of love, change and refuge at times of war. 

Of course, there are the specific contemplative aesthetics, which help the film to stand out. Without them, the film would have been forgotten by people long ago. Essentially, Meadow‘s downside is its horizontal development. It is a look at the outside of things, at the outside of characters and their lives. Angelopoulos didn’t create a psychological film. He didn’t allow the film to develop vertically, i.e. we never really get into the characters. It is a “surface film”, a piece that stays on the surface, but Angelopoulos covers this weakness so cleverly, so breathtakingly, so rigorously that there is never really a doubt about its power and its strength. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the second part of the trilogy.

New books on Pedro Costa & Béla Tarr

The initial wave of I-want-to-be-the-first has subsided, and after quite a few not very good books on Slow Cinema or on slow-film directors, we’re slowly (of course, slowly) getting to a point where it is worth opening books on the subject because they have been researched properly. Or because the authors have taken the time to experience the films without trying to squeeze them into theories and statistics. This has been done already, primarily by András Bálint Kovács. When Béla Tarr had the book in his hand and saw Kovacs’s attempt at turning his films into statistics, into numbers, he said “Fuck off”. Yes, he really said this and spoke about it in one of the worst interviews I have read with any filmmaker, published on MUBI. But that happens if people try to force a meaning onto a film that isn’t there and the filmmaker has been trying for twenty-odd years to avoid this in interviews.

Anyway, this year saw the publication of two very good books. One of them, a German-language book, deals with the work of Pedro Costa. The publisher is quite impressive, to say the least, and I took the chance of suggesting an edited collection on Lav Diaz. They were very open to this and will discuss it in their next meeting (fingers crossed!). Edition text + kritik focuses on one director at a time, and they avoid turning a director’s work into mere theory.

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The book on Pedro Costa – with its simple name Pedro Costa – is somewhere between a thorough introduction to the director’s work, and an elaborate investigation of his films which goes beyond introductory remarks. It is a journey through Costa’s entire oeuvre. What I enjoyed most in this book is the authors’ focus on Costa’s collaboration with his actors. Those who know Costa and his films are aware of the close collaboration, which somewhat started with the famous “Stop the faking!” expressed by Vanda Duarte after the production of Ossos (1997). Costa began to live with his actors. No, he lived with the people, who then became his actors. Non-professionals, who live their roles. It seems as though this is the red line that is woven throughout the book.

The book consists of seven chapters. The eighth is a written contribution by Pedro Costa himself, or rather it is a text written by Costa which, for the first time, was translated into German for this particular book. There is a general attempt at really understanding the artist and his work. The book is not an attempt at creating something that isn’t there, at telling the filmmaker what his films are really about, which scholars love to do. Pedro Costa reads like a genuine exploration of Costa’s approach to filmmaking, to the subject he chooses and to his aesthetics. One chapter in the book deals with (non-) images of violence in Costa’s films, especially in Casa de Lava (1994). It is a fascinating piece which is complemented by another chapter on aspects of ghosts. To me, those two go hand in hand, and they’re not only characteristic of Costa’s work. The themes of violence and ghostly haunting are pretty widespread in slow films, especially those that deal with a people’s colonial past.

If you’re German, or a German-speaking cinephile who’s interested in Costa’s work, this book is definitely for you. I’m surprised that this book is the first coherent piece on the Portuguese director who’s been making films for decades. I wonder why English-speaking scholars have not yet picked that up. More than journal articles doesn’t seem to be in their interest. I wonder why that is.

So while German scholars have produced the first book on Pedro Costa, France slowly but surely turns out to be a hub for really good books on Béla Tarr. The new book Béla Tarr : De la colère au tourment has been published in March this year. Jacques Rancière’s book Le temps d’après was great already, but this new book tops this. First of all, the book is a feast for the eyes, which makes it a more entertaining read than the German book on Pedro Costa. You can see that a lot of work went into the design of the book; the screen grabs, positioned one underneath the other, have something of photo strips.

Even more so than the book on Pedro Costa, this new book on Tarr tries to explore and convey what a Béla Tarr film feels like. There are two chapters, if I remember correctly, which are very theoretical and which make for a difficult read. I do believe that the authors of those chapters kind of missed the point. But overall, the book is about what we see when we watch a Tarr film. It is about how it looks like, how it makes the viewer feel. I could be wrong and just read something into all this, but to me the book seems, perhaps not openly, but nevertheless focused on the viewer and the viewing experience.

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The interesting aspect is that a viewing experience is always individual. What I feel during a film may be very different from what you’re feeling. But somehow I, as the reader, felt pretty much on the same wavelength as the authors. It’s not difficult to guess why this is the case. I believe that the authors let the film happen to them, which is so important to Slow Cinema. I could see the films right in front of me while reading the book. Tarr’s cinema, his fans would probably agree with me, is special. It has a certain something, which is difficult to put into words. This new book manages it somehow, and while discussing the characteristics of Tarr’s oeuvre as a whole it is at the same time exploring vital aesthetics of Slow Cinema in more general terms. There’s talk of the emancipation of the gaze, of hypnotic emptiness, of a “tactile” experience of film.

The book is divided into three parts, and starts with a long interview with Tarr, which is revealing and I’m grateful that the interviewers didn’t ask the same old questions. We actually learn something from it, which is rare these days. Interviews, especially those with slow-film directors, tend to revolve around the themes of “Why are your films so slow?” or “Why are your films so long?” In some ways, this one is a very moving interview. Tarr also speaks about no longer having enough oxygen as a filmmaker to work in his country. He always thought he would make more films. He never saw himself teaching at a film school. He wanted to create a new genre of Hungarian cinema. But it all came different. He had to close his production company, stopped filmmaking, because of the political situation in Hungary. He isn’t the first to say this. The most recent high-profile example is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This new book on Tarr is definitely a must, if you can speak French. It starts to dawn on me, after previous experience, that you might need to look for something in a language other than English, if you want to read something that is not overly academic and tries to complicate everything by pretending to explain films to you which perhaps shouldn’t be explained. So far, the best books I have read about slow-film directors are not in the English language. I’m looking forward to a book on Slow Cinema in French or something. Maybe this will be better than what we have come across so far. Anyway, if you speak either German or French, or maybe both, go get yourself those two treats!

The different slowness in Evolution of a Filipino Family

After my initial thoughts on Lav Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I am now in the position to say a bit more about it, though I need more time studying the content. My time is now spent drawing up a shot-by-shot analysis, which, as you can imagine, takes ages for an eleven hour film. These things are incredibly helpful, but become a real pest if you work on Lav’s films 🙂

What struck me during the first two hours of detailed viewing didn’t strike me at all the first time round. I suppose we’re all agreed that Lav Diaz is a slow-film director, and we don’t question it. A look at the film’s aesthetics however shows just how much Evolution goes against the unspoken rules of Slow Cinema. And yet, it is a slow film. Why?

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The reason for this is – and I mentioned this before – the very narrow definition of Slow Cinema, which is based on only a handful of characteristics; long-takes, little dialogue, often static camera, no elaborate camera work in general, emptiness, both of characters and of the environment. Evolution contains long-takes, and the most famous is probably the scene in which Kadyo, bleeding from a wound inflicted by knife, first walks then crawls down a deserted street. That is a twenty-minute take. It feels endless, but it is one of the very few very long takes in the entire film. In fact, there are plus-minus 158 takes in the first two hours (interrupted by archival footage, the scenes of which I have not broken down separately). This, I think, is more than in his usual eight to nine-hour movies. I don’t want to quantify Diaz’s films. But my point is that he does cut quite quickly in Evolution. There are periods of six or seven cuts occurring in only sixty seconds. That is fast for Slow Cinema.

The film also contains substantial camera movement. There are persistent pans and tilts. There are even zoom ins and outs, an aesthetic characteristic you will not find in his later films. The cuts to radio drama studio recording completely disrupt the slow, rural feeling. There is very little “dead time.” There is always something happening, so there is nothing that could invite the usual “This is boring” argument, because Diaz does push the narrative forward and does not waste time in doing so. There are also very typical “mainstream” shots. Not many. But they are there; reaction shots, for instance. In Slow Cinema, you usually do not see what the characters see. We are not granted visual access to what the characters see. Not immediately. Nor are there usually changes from medium shots to close-up to make it clear what a character looks at or fumbles around with. Access to visual information is, in fact, limited in Slow Cinema. Evolution holds pretty much against it.

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We need to remember that Evolution is Diaz’s first real arthouse film, and I mean real. He made Batang West Side before, but Evolution looks like the beginning of a new era in his filmmaking. So his using these aesthetics is not bad at all, or things we should complain about. Rather, my point is that Evolution is a slow film without its complying to a lot of characteristics. If you take a very close look at it, you wouldn’t label it Slow Cinema. And yet, it is.

Slow Cinema is not only about the aesthetics. I’m inclined to say that it has more to do with the time consciousness that is created within certain films. Evolution‘s narrative stretches over ten years. The eleven hours running time give Diaz and the viewer immense time and space to follow a part of history. It is the subject matter that supports slowness, if the characteristics are not foregrounded. A repeated example I give is Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac I & II. It’s over four hours long, but it wasn’t slow at all. It was just long. The story of a nymphomaniac is not exactly a subject matter that promises and invites slowness. On the other hand, if you follow a family, and record their history over a period of ten years, then this is bound to be slow.

I’m obviously walking right into the trap here, because my argument could be read this way: only long films can be slow. This isn’t the case. Again, I would like to point to the time consciousness. This is not only achieved by time itself (via long-takes or length of films). It also comes with subject matter, and this does not only involve the mundane, even though critics of Slow Cinema make us believe this. Diaz is a good example of this. His films are not about the mundane at all. You will not find someone staring out the window for ages, as is the case in Béla Tarr’s films. You will not find yourself watching a character on the loo until his/her bladder is totally emptied, as is the case in Tsai Ming-liang’s films. You will not find characters traveling without doing anything else, as is the case in Lisandro Alonso’s films.

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None of those characters have something to do. They are waiting for something to happen. In Diaz’s films, something has happened already, and the characters react to it. They’re set in motion by an event, often a not very mundane event – we’re speaking of torture, for instance, or rape. But they are in motion, and they have been put into exceptional circumstances. The time consciousness here comes from the way Diaz treats the psychological development of the characters. Take Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012); repetitive monologues, degrading mental state, increasingly fading memory – time passes. In Encantos, Hamin shows more and more repercussions of the torture and persecution he had to endure.

Trauma is a very good subject matter for Slow Cinema, actually, as I argue in my doctoral thesis. Trauma Cinema, as it is defined by scholars, is usually characterised by flashbacks, rapid editing, shaky camera movements, etc Given these characteristics, Trauma Cinema cannot be slow. But trauma is slow. It is slow in its onslaught and in its development. The healing process is slow, too. This is where Diaz’s “time consciousness” and Evolution comes in. Despite its aesthetics, it is creating a sense of slowness by focusing on the development of trauma, not only in a single character, but in a whole family, and in extension an entire society. These things do not appear in a blink. They take time. In Evolution, it takes eleven hours.

Interview with Zhengfan Yang (Distant)

Before I go ahead with more blog posts on the relation of Slow Cinema and Chinese painting, here’s a brief email interview with director Zhengfan Yang, director of Distant. I have posted a comment on the film a while ago and he was kind enough to answer a few brief questions for me.

Why “Distant”? The title of your film appears to comment on the aesthetics of the film. But there also seems to be more. 
The aesthetics of the film refers to the the wide shots, the long takes and the way I connected the audience with the film, all these are about “distance”. And it’s also about the subjects, each long take contains a small story about distance.
The characters in your film are a mystery to the viewer, because you refrain from employing close-ups, which could show their facial expressions or their body language. Why do you refuse the viewer access to the characters?

On one hand, the film is not about the characters but the distance between characters. I was trying to show the distance between the characters and even the distance between the audience and the characters, so it’s ridiculous to give close-ups to bring the audience and the characters closer. It’s not about how to let the audience to understand the characters but how NOT to. All I wanna do is to avoid the audience to understand them. We are strangers and strangers. That’s our situation today.
On the other hand, for me, the atmosphere of a film is more important than the characters. I denied the viewer access to both the characters and the story. I deliberately cut off the connections between all these 13 shots, I mean, I could have built up many connection between all these stories and leave some more imagination to the audience. They might think, “oh here’s the police I saw in the hospital scene”, but I didn’t. There will be no distance if they are connected.
For me, each long-take was a film on its own. 

Yes. As I said, I disconnected the 13 sections, so naturally each long take can be one on its own. And the story in each long take is a fragment I collected from the reality, from what I have heard, or from my own experience or imagination. I kept them as fragments as they were at the very beginning instead of developing into a whole full story, with built-up, climax and conclusion.
 Is “Distant” an active engagement with the canon of Slow Cinema?
I am not sure, to be honest with you. But by slowing the film, it allows more sense of time to come from the image and sound, and allows more observation on the space too. Most of the time we see only actions or dialogue in a shot, because many filmmakers just don’t work on time and space and so when the action is done, they have to cut it away. But there’s also time and space. I am creating a world on the screen with the time and space, using the image and the sound, and I want to introduce the audience to feel them.
Do you see yourself as a slow-film director?
Same, I am not sure, I don’t want to define myself as a certain kind of filmmaker, although it is true that the film I made is slow because it is dealing with a certain kind of subject, and the time and space, which I concern as the most important issue for me in cinema. Actually I believe that we are all dealing with time and space, but it doesn’t means that “slow” is the only way to do so.
What is your background? When did you start making films?
I have a bachelor in law but I spent most of my time watching films in that four years. Then, I started making short films around 2007 after I finished my study in law school. I was taught by a film professor, Zhou Chuanji, in a one-on-one film course for one year. After that I went to Hong Kong for a Master of Fine Art program in film production. I just graduated last year and Distant is my first feature film.
Are there any specific directors, writers, philosophers or general artists who have influenced your work or from whom you take your inspiration?
Well, Michelangelo Antonioni inspired me by his way of exploring the space in a film while I see how time has been captured and sculptured  in Tarkovsky’s film. For contemporary cinema, I consider Lav Diaz as one of the greatest filmmakers, together with Apichatpong. Both of them are shaping the future of cinema. But when it comes to something about influence, I believe I was influenced a lot by Tsai Ming-Liang, mostly the image, the sound, and the ambience he shaped in his films…
 Are you working on a new project?
Yes, I am going to premiere a documentary, Out Of Focus, in Cinema du Reel (France) at the end of March. The documentary is directed by Shengze Zhu, producer and cinematographer of Distant. I worked as producer, cinematographer and editor in this documentary.
I also have several projects and some interesing ideas that I want to make, but it’s getting more and more difficult to get funding for films. Most people want good stories instead of good films.

Third (Slow) Cinema

In my last post, I hinted at the peculiar phenomenon that quite a substantial amount of slow films are made in third world countries, or that they deal with themes that cover this area of the world. It didn’t let me go and I began to read a bit about Third Cinema, or Third World Cinema. Somehow these two are used interchangeably. I am aware that categorising films like this is problematic, but I’m still having problems with the term Slow Cinema, because my intuition tells me that it’s frankly wrong, and until I have solved this issue it’s going to turn my head round every time I have to use this term in my thesis. There is something that doesn’t quite work for me.

Let us recall: Slow Cinema is often characterised as dominated by long-takes, the use of long shots instead of close-ups, and the scarce dialogue, if there is one. Slow films put people from the margins of society into the spotlight. The everyday is highlighted. Story has prevalence over action. Observation is key.

I am aware that not all films that are regarded as Slow Cinema have been made in third world countries, but I nevertheless wish to put a few things into perspective here. Not least because Lav Diaz, the director I’m working on, comes from the Philippines, a third world country with a long history of colonisation.

Third Cinema originated in Latin America, but the term was then also applied to African filmmaking. At least filmmaking beyond Nollywood. I flicked through a few books about the issue and realised that there is so little written on the subject with regards to Asian films. You can find separate works on Southeast Asian Cinema, for instance, which sometimes highlight the exact same things, i.e. aesthetics, without mentioning the term (which is probably wise, but never mind). Consistency is apparently not a strength in this scholarly field.

Anyway, I came across the works of Teshome Gabriel, who wrote two illustrative essays on third world cinema. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but safe to say that his observations of third cinema are the exact same we can find today in what is termed Slow Cinema.

A few points:

  • Film aesthetics are indigenised. They represent the country/area of the filmmaker and the themes he aims to put on the screen.
  • Long and wide shots are used preferably, so as to highlight the vastness of nature and man’s surroundings.
  • The focus is on space rather than time.
  • Story is more important than action.
  • Long takes are used in order to realistically represent the (third world) viewer’s sense of time.
  • Close-ups are rarely used as they would not depict man adequately in his surroundings.
  • Silence is dominant.
  • Location shooting.
  • Characters in the films are played by non-actors.
  • Formal aesthetics and oral traditions co-exist.

Is there are box we can not tick here? This all looks very much like Slow Cinema. In the case of Lav Diaz, we can add the box of return to pre-colonial culture, and the depiction of the effects of colonialism and dictatorship on society. With regards to the oral traditions, it is worth stressing that Lav’s films (their narrative) make use of Filipino epic tales.

Generally, if you try to find writings on Third Cinema, it very much looks as if it’s a dead subject. Most writings are from the 80s and 90s. A few books have been published at the very beginning of the 2000s. Since then it’s been quiet.

I wonder whether Slow Cinema is for today’s scholar merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because Third Cinema is quite an old and used term, and perhaps debatable.

Did we just give it a new name?