Son of the lovely capitalism – Suranga Katugampala (2015)

What a lovely surprise I received in my Facebook inbox last week! Suranga Katugampala provided me with a short film of his, which acts as a form of test for his upcoming feature film. Aesthetically, his work looks more than promising and I thoroughly enjoyed the 18 minutes in his world.

Suranga is from Sri Lanka, but lives in Italy and, according to him, he wants to capture the current situation of the young in today’s Europe. There is some stunning cinematography involved. Simple, but very effective. The director makes us watch a young man in each of his long takes. Rarely does he move. The young man (not necessarily always the same one) is static more often than not, or moves only sporadically. Given the subject matter of the film, this non-movement of the character seems plausible; today’s drive for capitalism is a trap for young people. Capitalism leaves little breathing space for people, but especially for young people, who are only just beginning to build their lives, wanting it to be better than their parents’, perhaps.

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The way Suranga frames the characters strongly reminded me of Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series. One scene, in particular, stands out: a young man, bare-chested, curled up on the stairs of a subway station. He’s in the centre of the frame. The camera angle is high. It looks as though the young man is suffering. Is it because of increasing poverty perhaps? Regardless of the possible reason, no one cares. Just as people hurry past Tsai’s monk in Journey to the West, so do people walk past Suranga’s young man without so much as a glance at him. Their behaviour then led me to think about German poem called Städter, which describes the situation in big cities – so many people, so much loneliness. Everyone fights for himself.

After about half of the short film, Suranga begins to insert experimental features, which have a striking effect in that they disrupt the slowness induced by long takes. Superimpositions, a quick succession of cuts, a haunting and threatening hammering in the soundtrack. A long shot shows a painting or a sort of graffiti on a wall. It took me a while to find the young man in the shot, but there he was: positioned under the drawn hoof of a seemingly wild horse. Is the wild horse capitalism? The image is, to me, the strongest in the entire film and gives you a taste of Suranga’s talent and goal. He plays with us, he disorientates us – for instance by putting the camera on its head, which really turned my head round! – and in doing so he turns his film into a complex experience for the viewer.

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There is something eerie about the end, with its archival footage projected onto the young man’s back while he covers in front of a screen. It’s a quiet, powerful ending, which made me want more. If this short film was a test, then I certainly can’t wait for the feature film!

Suranga has uploaded his short film Sun of the lovely capitalism on YouTube and I’m pleased to share it with you. Please click here.

Death Time

Oh yes, a cheery title for this blog post. I apologise. But this only comes because of an email I received from one of my website’s avid readers. I was asked – and this isn’t rare – what I think the difference between slow film and Slow Cinema is. Two and a half years into my research, I still have no idea, and perhaps I will never be able to answer this questions. Slowness is relative. Whatever is fast for me, may be slow for you. It is true that slow films use very similar, if not the same kind of aesthetics. So where do we draw the line?

I was thinking about one of my arguments, which you can revisit in the paper I uploaded a little while ago. In the paper I linked the use of time in concentration camps and the way Lav Diaz uses time in his films about terror and trauma. I saw similarities and talked about “death time”. Slow Cinema is characterised by temps mort, or dead time. I switched this around and began to look into death time, which is such a characteristic feature of Diaz. Time is used as a form of power, of punishment. Endless duration drives the characters insane (and maybe the viewer, too). There is a curious mixture in his films of shock and duration, of the instant and endless waiting. I call this complexity death time.

Now, in what ways can we see Slow Cinema as a whole in this? I briefly thought about the other films I know. They are aesthetically close to Diaz’s films, and yet totally different. They also use time different. This is primarily the case because Diaz makes incredibly long films, while most slow-film directors stick to a more usual running time of about two hours. Diaz can therefore play a lot more with duration. His films are also different in that they deal specifically with the trauma of his people, which makes his films stand out in the classical Slow Cinema canon.

But if I were to expand a bit on the notion of “death time”, going a beyond my previous argument that it’s an expression of a complex interaction of the instant and duration in order to inflict miseries on film characters, then I could actually make it fit to Slow Cinema. This is way too new for me now, so it may be the case with slow films in general, so the whole idea of finding a structure which sets Slow Cinema apart from “normal” slow films becomes rather redundant. Personally I think that Slow Cinema is an experiential thing, but no one likes experience because you can’t prove anything. So I’m still trying to find something less abstract.

Anyway, let me expand on the notion of death time and say that death plays a major role in Slow Cinema. Slowness has often been equated with death. The Futurists were keen on speeding up life because it meant exactly that: life, living. Speed means progression, therefore a forward movement. Slowness also means movement, but it is more often associated with stagnation (which makes it particularly interesting for my study of terror and trauma). Death is not necessarily the kind of death we imagine. It is not necessarily associated with humans. Not a lot of people die in Diaz’s films, for example, but we know that they eventually will. They’re on the verge of death all the time. They’re walking dead.

Fogo by Yulene Olaizola is also about death, only in a different way. It is about the death of an island. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are all about ghosts, which imply death by default. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is another example. Or even his Sátántangó. And what about Carlos Reygadas? Japon and Battle In Heaven use death as an underlying narrative feature, too. I also remember Nicolas Pereda’s Summer of Goliath (and I hope I remember this correctly); the death of a child, the departure of a husband and father and therefore the death of the family structure. Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert depicts the death of the traditional postman.

So are these films slow because they deal with death in one way or another? Can you deal with death appropriately in fast films? I think there is something in there, and it’ll be worth researching further (on my list!). And for some reason this all links vaguely to my very early arguments about static art; stasis always implies death in some form or another. So my original thought of death time looks a lot more complex now and I’m looking forward to looking into this in the near future.

The Ditch – Wang Bing (2010)

Wang Bing’s films have been high on my watch list for quite some time. West of the Tracks, a nine-hour documentary, is still waiting for me. But DVDs can be exceptionally patient, more so than humans! I finally got round seeing The Ditch (2010) after a recommendation by Michael Guarneri, who thought that the film’s content chimed well with my work on Lav Diaz. And it sure does, and yet it’s so very different.

If you’re looking for a nicely photographed film, then The Ditch is not for you. It’s a simple film. The style is pretty rudimentary at times. I’m not saying that Wang Bing has chosen to make the film look amateurish on purpose. Nor am I saying that he cannot do any better. For some reason, regardless of the director’s reason and background, the style fits well to the content. Set in 1960, The Ditch tells the story of inmates of Jiabiangou, a “prisoner correction camp”, or simply a labour camp, in the Gobi Desert. The film was shot without official permission on the actual location. So that gives you an idea of how far Wang Bing is willing to go in order to tell repressed histories of his country. It also explains the rudimentary aesthetics.

Wang Bing is best known for his documentaries, and if you didn’t know that The Ditch is supposed to be a feature film, you could be fooled. I found the aesthetics very documentary like. I had the feeling that Wang Bing was present at something that was, in reality, unfolding in front of him. It may have been the handheld camera. It also felt as though the characters didn’t mind the camera. They just “lived” their roles, so I felt torn between what The Ditch really was; documentary or fiction. I knew that it couldn’t be a straightforward documentary, and yet the aesthetics reminded me of it.

The film is a strong image of suffering and slow death, exactly what you find in Diaz’s films. But it’s portrayed more head-on, down-to-earth without any intention to create something special. This would have turned the suffering into spectacle. By remaining at a distance, Wang Bing counters this risk.

I do feel as though The Ditch should have been longer and I’m not saying this because I like long films. In order to get to the bottom of such a subject and the psychology of the characters you need to spend more than 90 minutes with them. I’m aware of the restrictions the secret production brought with it. Nevertheless, an hour more would have been sufficient to add more power to the film.

The prisoners suffer from cold and hunger. One inmate is seen eating the vomit of another. Another is killing and cooking a rat, for which he is later punished. We also learn in conversations between characters that inmates cut flesh off dead inmates out of sheer desperation over their hunger. The characters’ psychology isn’t as visible as it is in Diaz’s films, which use their duration in order to demonstrate the power of the concentrationary system, i.e. terror, degradation, reducing the inmates to bare life, aiming for psychological disintegration.

And because all of this needs time (the main component of the concentrationary), the film is too short for its in-depth portrayal of the subject. It’s good but too short. Some shots are beautiful and give you a sense of the vastness of the Gobi Desert. There’s no escape possible for the inmates. There’s nothing but emptiness surrounding them. There’s no hope. Even if you tried to escape, it’ll likely mean death. Nevertheless, I would like to see The Ditch as part of a bigger project, a project that positions time/duration more in the centre because it is essential for this subject.

I believe that The Ditch needs a second viewing. I became extremely irritated by the arrival of a female character, who shattered my sensation of seeing something unfolding in real time. She’s the wife of an inmate who had died 8 days earlier and I don’t understand Wang Bing’s decision to include her. His film was extremely focused, to the point, and powerful. The woman was terribly artificial in her acting. She was over the top and got on my nerves. I found her unrealistic. Coming from the city, carrying a handbag – that’s fine. But carrying the handbag around in the desert while looking in despair for her husband? Taking shovel and handbag? And while the men are all wrapped up and freeze, she can stay a night without blankets and is perfectly fine.

It all felt like stupid mistakes as seen in Hollywood films; completely over the top, nonsensical things. With her arrival, I became impatient with the film, which until then had been great. The female character was not necessary and took away screen time for the actual portrayal of suffering. This may be the reason why I thought that the film was too short.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to more Wang Bing films. I was my first, and certainly not my last!

André Bazin 2.0

This post may be a bit of a rumble rather than a coherent line of thought. But I want to jot down a couple of thoughts that struck me while reading Bazin’s What Is Cinema? If you look through writing on Slow Cinema, Bazin and Deleuze seem to be the people to quote. Again, I suggest that this has something to do with frameworks and the belief that if you haven’t dug through and used those classic pieces, then you haven’t done your job properly. I’m fully aware of their contribution to film studies, yet I wonder just how applicable they are to today’s cinema and whether we should really still make heavy use of this literature.

It feels as though bits and pieces of Bazin’s work are used without looking at the whole work and how this applies to modern cinema. Just in the first five pages of The Ontology of the Photographic Image I find questionable arguments, and I know that this is one of the founding texts Film Studies uses when teaching students. The idea of ‘true realism’ through photography and cinema, i.e. through a mechanical eye, is at the heart of Bazin’s work and his arguments were possibly true at his time. But they are no longer applicable and should be considered as such when used in academic work.

Take this example: the essential factor of photography “lie[s] in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part.” (p12)

Even at Bazin’s time, man did play a part in photography. He mentions it in passing, in fact. But even though you have a mechanical recording machine, which makes us believe that the subsequent final product is objective, it is subjective and someone had his/her hand in the production of it. Now that we’re talking a lot about manipulation, which is as old as photography (and which I believe Bazin completely overlooked in his idealisation), we should re-evaluate Bazin’s argument here.

A second example: “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind.” (p13)

Again, Bazin glorifies the objectivity of photography without realising that he contradicts himself and notes precisely the point that makes photography subjective. First, he argues that man has no hand in the making of mechanical reproduction. Then, on the next page, he says that a photographer does “enter into the proceedings”. He writes that he does so “only” to select the object. Selection is already an interference and is the first step of subjectivity. What do you take a photo of? What do you not show? What angle do you choose? Bazin mentions a photographers “purpose” he has in mind while selecting the object of his photograph.

This defies objectivity. Every selection is a personal choice, which renders whatever we see in cinema or photography subjective. Bazin considers painting subjective because the painter had his hand in the production of the painting. I agree, painting is subjective. Yet, it is the result of only one hand, one painter. If we take cinema, the cameraman isn’t the only one who chooses what should be shown and how. There’s also the director, the producer, the editor etc etc

I always had problems to read Bazin. It’s my third attempt now and if it wasn’t for final touches on my thesis, I would give up again. It’s contradicting, and certainly not applicable to today’s times. I wonder what he would say about the World Press Photographs, those which have been manipulated. I’m not only speaking of digital manipulation. Photographs and films, just like paintings, are, especially in the arthouse section, often an expression of the artist’s inner feelings. How can this be objective?

As soon as you put a lens between you and the real world, you have a mediation. No mechanical recording mechanism can and will ever record reality. Reality can only be lived and seen with our own eyes. Things may feel real, but they’re not, and this is the main fault in Bazin’s work, because he doesn’t seem to acknowledge this.

Default Setting: Bored

Just last week I read Jakob Boer’s interesting paper “As Slow As Possible: An Enquiry Into the Redeeming Power of Boredom for Slow Film Viewers” (2015). I’m partly immensely grateful for this paper. I’ve lamented for a while that Slow Cinema scholarship is running in circles and there’s very little new material that comes out of it. We’re still discussing mainly the subjective issue of (slow) time and its roots in Neorealism, which isn’t exactly true. Based on Matthew Flanagan’s PhD thesis, Boer, too, refers to these roots.

His paper is an investigation into the aspect of boredom, also often discussed in the context of Slow Cinema. But Boer’s paper is a philosophical take on the issue and therefore makes an interesting point within Slow Cinema studies. It’s clearly audience centred, which I find particularly vital for the study of Slow Cinema. Slow Cinema is a form of cinema driven by experience for the viewer. I personally think that you lose the whole experience of slow films if you try to read them exclusively through the lens of film theories. As scholars, we’re obliged to do it, but it’s not always helpful and maybe (hopefully) Slow Cinema teaches academics to back down a bit, ease up on theoretical framework-thinking.

What is Slow Cinema? A genre, a movement? Neither? Boer takes the stance that Slow Cinema is a genre. The most widespread term is ‘movement’. I haven’t really made up my mind and, in effect, it doesn’t matter that much. It only does in scholarship, so that we can put these films into already existing categories. The viewers possibly don’t waste a minute about those things. If there’s one thing that Slow Cinema really does is visualise the extreme differences between academic and viewer, and the former often forget that they’re also the latter.

What strikes me in Boer’s article, but not only in his, is that it is assumed slow films create boredom by default. Boer does consider the positive effects of boredom, such as creating contemplation. But it seems as if you have to be bored first, and then, if all goes well and the boredom turns out to be positive, you reach a state of contemplation. Contemplation is seen in the context of boredom. Can I not contemplate a film or an image, say a painting, without getting bored? That is the ultimate crux here: Boer’s paper is, among others, based on Heidegger’s thinking on boredom. Because this literature is there, it feels as though we have to make Slow Cinema fit.

But isn’t it a fact that Slow Cinema challenges existing literature? I’m wrapping up a thesis on the way Lav Diaz’s slow films challenge both Slow Cinema and Trauma Cinema. You can make it work, but you need to be a bit creative. I do believe that slow films do not create boredom by default. If it was like this, it would mean that people would only go see those films because they wanted to be lazy. It reminds me of this well-known media model of the passive spectator who merely sits in his/her seat and the messages are injected straight into his veins…or his brain, for that matter.

When I read Boer’s paper I had this very model in mind, wondering whether active spectatorship has ever been considered. I don’t think that someone who’s bored is actively engaged in a film. And yet, for most slow films you need to be actively engaged in order to grasp the meaning, the narrative, the twists and turns. There’s more happening than writers often make readers believe. But rather than many different forms of action happening in time, Slow Cinema depicts often only one action. And yet, lots is happening, but not necessarily on the time-axis. It’s more about depth. I mentioned Maya Deren in one of my early posts. She talked about poetry being vertical (rather than horizontal), because it describes and investigates themes in depth. For me the vertical means depth, the horizontal is the surface. Slow Cinema is vertical, and you have to be actively engaged in order to dig your way into the film. Even contemplation can distract in that matter. I know that myself – give me a beautiful photographic shot and I forget the narrative.

I think a study of boredom would perhaps make more sense for films like Warhol’s Empire or similar video art. I don’t think it’s applicable to slow-film viewers who watch fictional narratives or docs. They do not see Lav Diaz’s films to get bored. They want to go on a journey, and if your journey is boring, then you have clearly done something wrong.

Manakamana – Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez (2013)

If you’re looking for a very zen film, then I believe that you cannot find many films that are as zen as Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’ Manakamana (2013). Slow Cinema has often been considered in the context of “watching paint dry”, and I may remember this wrong, but some critics did mention this explicitly after a screening of one of Tsai Ming-liang’s films. I think it was Walker. In any case, if Tsai’s film was about watching paint dry, Manakamana is about watching ice cream running down an elderly woman’s hand for ten minutes towards the end of the film.

For inattentive viewers, or those who just go with the flow of traveling to and from the Manakamana temple with pilgrims, the film may appear to be shot in one very long take, similar to that of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. There are cuts, of course, but the entire structure of the film is so smooth that you’re fully immersed in your own journey with people from different backgrounds, both cultural and geographical. The set-up is as simple as it can be: a camera, a cable car, pilgrims. This simple recipe leads to a remarkably peaceful and interesting cinematic experience that is unlike any other.

The film’s beginning is based entirely on visuals. If you were to close your eyes and only followed the sound, you would be on a fascinating journey into the wheres and whats. Only after about twenty minutes or so do we hear the first spoken words; a clever strategy by the directors. It allows the viewer to contemplate the natural scenery in the background without many distractions. Once we have spent time with nature, we shift our focus to the pilgrims; their dialogues, their silences, their postures.

Manakamana is an intimate portrait of many different people. It is a slow portrait. But the use of long-takes which tends to point to slow time is misleading here. In effect, you could see every long-take as a form of speed dating, which, yes, sounds opposing to the entire concept of Slow Cinema. Yet, you only have a certain amount of time with the pilgrims. The position of the camera makes us believe that we’re making the journey with them. We study their faces, their body language. We listen to their conversations. We get to know them precisely because of the medium-shot static camera. But we only have one take. Once the characters start to become familiar, they arrive at their destination and leave the cable car and we go on a journey with someone else. We’re literally running in circles, up and down, to and from the temple.

Throughout the film there is an admiration of technical progress and modernity apparent: “When I think of the old days, it now seems better.” Local pilgrims remark on the building of houses and roads, and on how long it used to take to go to the temple. Before the cable car was built, they had to walk to the temple, often for three consecutive days. This is a rather interesting aspect, because here modernity is shown as a good thing. I suppose it has something to do with the geographical setting of the film. It is not so much that Slow Cinema rejects modernity or progress. But the films are seen in the light of a rejection of speed, which is exactly what modernity is now known for. Not all slow-film directors oppose cinematic speed deliberately and consciously. But the bulk of the films is regarded as anti-speed, that means anti-modernity. So, where do we position Manakamana?

It’s an observation of the advantages of modernity, in fact. It is not only a portrait of pilgrims on their journey to the Manakamana temple. The film does tell a story after all, and even though the discussion on modernity may not be as foregrounded as I make it here, it is nevertheless there. It’s a really interesting study, actually. Nepalese pilgrims conversing about progress and an American woman taking photographs with her old camera, which still uses analogue film. You have a forward and a backward movement, all in one film, which makes Manakamana a very dynamic piece, not only because we’re constantly on the move.

At first sight, there isn’t much happening in the film. But there are undercurrents, which are well worth looking into more closely.

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

Bernhard Hentzenauer’s book on Béla Tarr, Das Innen im Aussen: Béla Tarr, Jacques Lacan und der Blick, makes me glad that I’m a German native, and can therefore read and fully understand his arguments. I’m not sure whether an English translation is in the making, so you may want to teach yourself a bit of German if you want to read a really interesting take on Béla Tarr’s films 🙂

Hetzenauer’s work is based on a Master’s thesis, which makes the book with only 100 pages neat, brief and to-the-point. It is a philosophical take on Tarr and brings some intriguing aspects to previous writing on the filmmaker that are worth looking at in more detail. What Hetzenauer looks at is ‘the gaze’ in Tarr’s films. Based on Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, he explores the meaning of the gaze but also the aesthetics of it.

I’ve seen every single of Tarr’s films apart from one of his earlier social-realist films. I’ve always been fascinated by them, but I never noticed just how prevalent the gaze is in his films. It’s true, though, and it becomes a kind of eureka effect once you read Hetzenauer’s book. And in fact, Tarr’s films often start with a gaze. Take Damnation, for instance, the almost endless scene of cable cars that makes us feel as if we’re positioned somewhere outside. A zoom out and subtle camera movement, however, shows Karrer sitting at the window observing those cable cars. Is the beginning a POV shot, or is it not? If not, what exactly is it then? I’m not entirely sure whether or not Film Studies could solve this riddle.

The theme of characters sitting behind a window is recurring. There is the doctor in Sátántangó, who is the narrator of the story, and who observes everything that happens in front of his window. Then there is the daughter in The Turin Horse, a film in which Tarr uses the exact same aesthetic as he had done in Damnation. First we see only the outside, until a zoom moves us into the interior, revealing the back of a longing (or hopeless?) character. Hetzenauer points out that if you only studied this very gaze alone you’d see the slow but sure end of Tarr’s filmmaking career. It is well known that Tarr has stripped his last film of pretty much everything and turned it into a very austere work. A pure form of cinema, as Tarr called it at the EIFF 2011, if I remember right.

Interestingly, he has also gradually minimised the amount of objects his characters are looking at through the window. There are the cable cars in Damnation.It’s not much, but it’s something, and as they’re moving, they must be moving somewhere. There is a definite spatial end to this route. There is a another location, perhaps a less desperate space nearby. Fast-forward to The Turin Horse, and all the girl is left with to look at is a tree in the far background. Other than that, there’s complete nothingness. No path, nothing that indicates a potential hope for the characters. Not that The Turin Horse is hopeful anyway. It’s as depressing and hopeless as Tsai Ming-liang’s last film Stray Dogs, and both endings are fitting to the directors’ films and their filmmaking career. But it’s those small visual pointers that are often overlooked, and which Hetzenauer stresses.

I particularly like the fact that Hetzenauer mentions Tarr’s famous long-takes without putting them at the centre of his work, which is usually the case with writers nowadays. In putting the long-take aside – without rejecting it completely – Hetzenauer’s book has space to explore more intriguing things. The gaze is a perfect example of this, and Hetzenauer analysed it with brilliance in my opinion. There is one aspect I miss in the book, though. He merges Tarr with Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, thus aiming for a philosophical approach. He also returns to the gaze, as personified by the camera, several times throughout the book.

Now, I wonder why he didn’t make use of Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy. I got obsessed with that book a few years ago, and could see every bit of Frampton in Tarr’s films, or the other way around, depending on how you want to see it. Reading Hetzenauer’s book was like reading Filmosophy again, and I’m surprised that he doesn’t mention it, not even in the slightest. Hetzenauer has a particular way of describing the gaze in Tarr’s films, which makes me think of the film / the camera having its own mind, making decisions, simply acting as an individual being or character in the film. Nowhere is this more visible than in Tarr’s films, so I believe that if you do study the specific aesthetics of the moving camera, Frampton should at least be mentioned.

In any case, the book is worthwhile reading and it’s a fast-read, too, if you’re worried about your time. Hetzenauer’s work, in its quality, isn’t surprising. I have long realised – through talking with people, and my own reading – that the most groundbreaking work in Slow Cinema is done by MA and PhD students, not so much (yet) by established academics. This is perhaps the case because students still see things afresh and out-of-the-box, which makes it likely that they do not trod the same path.

It reminds me of my experience with scholarship on trauma cinema. The progress is minimal in that field. Scholars write the same thing over and over again, quote the same people, the same text passages and there’s nothing new coming to the field. Now, I did have problems with Dirk de Bruyn’s book on trauma in avant-garde films because of terrible editing and errors from page one to the very last page. But I can nevertheless say that he did have original thoughts. And he’s an academic as well as a practitioner, which explains his out-of-the-box thinking. This is what any field needs. Bernhard Hetzenhauer shows this with his book on the gaze in Béla Tarr’s films.

Merry Xmas

I wish you all a Merry Xmas and a joyful period of festive days. Remember to take everything slow. Use the festive days for some well-deserved downtime. You can watch a slow film, for instance. Or a slow film every day until the end of the year. There are plenty on offer to help you slow down.

Admittedly, things have been a bit quieter than usual in the last few weeks. I was in a different slow universe, having focused exclusively on writing my thesis. So I’m not getting lazy and there will be lots more to read on this website next year. Slow films are piling up – there’s still Manakamana to see. And Ben Rivers’ new film A Spell to Ward off the Darkness. Then there is this slow film from Paraguay, whose title I can’t remember, but which I can’t wait to see. Wang Bing’s films are slowly piling up, too. I also need to return to a few earlier films by Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and write at least a brief comment on them so that they’re logged in my database of slow films. I’m also waiting for Tito Molina’s interview answers. There’s a book I recently bought on Green Cinema, or something that comes close to it. It’s all about environmentalism. There’s a chapter on contemplative cinema in there, so I’m keen on exploring this further in the next couple of months. I’ll also review the German-language book on Béla Tarr, which I’m reading at the moment (and which is promising indeed!).

The way it looks, I shouldn’t get bored next year, and you should get new material to read. For this year, however, I withdraw into my slow cave of slow work and festive days and I’ll be back next year with more written slowness.

Prologue to the Great Desaparecido – Lav Diaz (2013)

It’s rare that Lav Diaz creates a short film. His contribution to a film omnibus for the Venice Film Festival last year was, I think, his shortest film to date, followed by his eight minute film (one take only) for Imahe Nasyon, another film omnibus. His thirty minute short Prologue to the Great Desaparecido sits comfortably in this range of short films, though it is difficult to judge whether this one can be seen as a stand-alone film. The title says it all – it is merely a prologue to a feature film.

The film had been produced with the help of dissidenz films with seat in Paris, and even though dissidenz is not a mainstream company at all, the film has a feel to it that is not entirely Lav Diaz. I’m not entirely sure how to describe. I can only say that I had a similar, albeit much worse feeling with Norte, The End of History (2013). You can kind of feel that there is a Western producer involved, I don’t know. You could call me paranoid, but I really had a weird feeling watching this.

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Anyway, Prologue is a rather difficult film in that it is a mere snippet of what the full-length feature will be like. Plus, it is a direct depiction of a historical event that may be totally unknown to most of the people who have seen the film so far. For all of Diaz’s films it is advisable to read a bit about the history of the Philippines. But I think that Prologue, and the coming feature film, demand a bit more knowledge about the revolution and Bonifacio’s role in it. I gathered that this film would be even less of a sit-down-and-eat-popcorn film than all the others. It’ll probably use more of your brain instead.

When I watched his most recent feature film, From What Is Before (2014), I had the impression that he began to experiment with the camera, which was no longer static and on eye-level. He used canted angles in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), but there was one shot in From What Is Before that looks very deliberately artistic – something you hardly ever come across in his films. It’s something I always liked in a way.

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Truth is, signs of experiments are visible in Prologue already. I felt that there was generally more movement, which he did experiment with before – a handheld moving camera is particularly visible in Encantos. But the most striking difference to all other films is that many shots are low angle shots. You are always looking up to something. It brought a new feeling to his films, which was awkward at first, but only because I’m very used to his usual static eye-level camera shots. Are we looking up to the Heavens? Maybe…

Prologue, overall, makes little sense on its own. Because it is only a prologue, it feels very rushed for a Lav Diaz film. It is a snippet, and this is the one thing Diaz is usually not known for. He depicts conditions in detail. In slow and very long detail. Now, this is not to say that I didn’t like Prologue because it was short. I simply find it an unfortunate project that doesn’t quite live up to what it had promised. If it had been a stand-alone short, it would have been great. But this really deserves to be extended to a full-length feature film in order to get to the bottom of history again. So I’m looking forward to the final project. I kind of wonder just how long a woman can look for her disappeared husband. Hours (on screen), I guess.

The weight of time

If you study Slow Cinema, or time in film in more general terms, you cannot avoid reading Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time (2004). It is a kind of bible for those who are interested in how cinema came about, although I do find it, in fact, too little concerned with cinema itself, and more with everything that came before. I haven’t managed to read the whole book yet, though, but I’m definitely missing something there.

In any case, Doane made reference to something that I had come about when I started reading about Futurism and Futurist art. She writes,

“One could argue more generally that at the turn of the century time became palpable in a different way – one specific to modernity and intimately allied with its new technologies of representation (photographs, film, phonography). Time was indeed felt – as a weight, as a source of anxiety, and as an acutely pressing problem of representation” (2004: 4, original emphasis).

Writing this, Doane had an increased speed in the arts in mind. Again, Futurist art is for me the point when speed became so evident that you could not avoid it anymore. It was everywhere. Speed, or rather the passing of time and therefore the seemingly increased pace of walking towards one’s own death caused anxiety, and made people move even faster, because they thought that they could accomplish more if they just did things faster. Indeed, many people – me included – have problems to be in bustling shopping centres or high streets, where everyone is walking swiftly from one shop to another, always on the phone.

What I find interesting is that Doane links this anxiety to speed. I do not argue against her statement. It is more than appropriate. But how about anxiety felt in Slow Cinema? Slow time as triggering anxiety? When I read this passage in Doane’s book, I returned to my paper on the concentrationary universe in the films of Lav Diaz, in which I argued that Diaz created ‘time terror’ for both the characters and the viewer. In his focus on trauma and history, Diaz is surely an extreme example of using slowness as a means to create anxiety. But there are more directors, who use slow time to show the actual ‘weight of time’ as Doane put it.

How much time do we spend waiting when we watch a slow film? How much time do we spend wondering what is going to happen? And with that, how much time do we spend seeing characters suffering?

This anxiety is also visible in Pedro Costa’s films, a fact that makes for an interesting point. The weight of time, infused by slowness, is the weight of the past. It’s the opposite of what we saw with Futurist art, where time was more infused by the weight of the future. Slow films (not all of them) look back to the colonial history of the countries they are made in, and it is not only a traumatic history, which still wears heavy on local populations. It is also a degree of standstill. Can these people – the former colonised subjects, the people depicted in those films – move forward? Can they move at all, or does the weight of time, of the past, prevents them from doing so?

There is certainly an interesting point to study in a bit more detail here, but for some reason it would take me a bit too far astray at the moment, so this will have to wait a little while before I return to it. But I wanted to mention it at least 🙂