Los Ausentes – Nicolas Pereda (2014)

Knowing Nicolas Pereda’s early work, I’d be inclined to say that his medium long film Los Ausentes marks a new era in his filmmaking. The trailer already looked haunting and different from Pereda’s usual filmmaking. The colour palette is the same, the actors have the same aura around them. And yet, and yet…

Los Ausentes is, first of all, about an old, fragile man who loses his house near the beach. I assume he has lived there all his life, so loss (absence) is at the heart of Pereda’s film. It’s the very core of it, and Pereda perfects his usual aesthetics in order to transmit this feeling of loss to the viewer. Los Ausentes stands out in Pereda’s work because of its camera work. The director has always favoured long-takes, temps mort, and a very minimalist storytelling. But this film goes a bit further. In fact, it reminded me strongly on the films of Béla Tarr and the fascinating work by cinematographer Fred Kelemen (who himself made films, amongst them Krisana).

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Pereda uses a kind of independent camera, which I have marvelled upon when I saw Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). This is also when I first understood Daniel Frampton’s filmind, film as thinking independently. If you put Los Ausentes and Werckmeister Harmonies next to each other, you can see that they both make use of an independent camera. The camera is not really following the protagonist, unless the character is walking down a road. The camera has its own mind and moves to whatever place or whatever action it would like to record.

I haven’t seen it to such an extent in Pereda’s previous films. I even wonder whether it is an homage to Tarr. The beginning must be at least a very obvious wink, starting with a medium shot of a cow facing us. And then, slowly, very slowly, the camera zooms out and reveals first some kind of structure, which then turns out to be a window frame. The camera zooms further out, very smoothly, totally beautifully, and reveals the old man sitting at a table eating. If faithful Tarr-viewers are not reminded of the famous opening scene in Damnation or the beginning of The Man from London, I don’t know what those people have done with their lives 🙂

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In any case, this independent camera transmits the film’s idea of loss, of the absent, fabulously. It feels as though there was a ghost walking around, looking at things or moving places. At times, we see the protagonists. At others, we don’t. But nevertheless, we can feel an eerie presence. There is someone there with us, but who is it? Los Ausentes is a perfect example of how aesthetics can convey absence. I had come across this very subject in my research on the films of Lav Diaz, but Diaz is doing this in a very different way. This independent camera movement also feeds well into the idea of the fragile, old man losing his sanity. Again, this is a theme that pops up comparatively often in slow films, and it is interesting to see how directors deal with this differently.

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When I saw the old man standing somewhere in the woods, with his skinny back towards me, I wasn’t quite sure whether what I saw was supposed to be real, or whether Pereda wanted me to believe it was a dream. There’s only ambient sound, and because I was in a state of dreaming already because of the superb camera work, I wasn’t so sure anymore what I was seeing or what I was asked to believe. This became even more difficult when the old man’s younger self appeared and it wasn’t clear anymore what happened when and where.

I began to wonder whether the title Los Ausentes applied to more than just the film, because in the end, you do lose yourself in the film. You might be physically present when you watch the film, but where are you mentally? Are you home? In the cinema? In an imagined Mexico? In a dream? In real life? I would say that Los Ausentes is Pereda’s strongest film. As I said before, it looks like his previous films but it feels very different. The combination of narrative and aesthetics is just right, perfect even, and I think that the length of the film – medium length – helps to keep the film focused. It feels like Pereda’s most polished film and I wonder where he will go from here. I hope that we will see more of this!

Slow Cinema in the News (February 2014)

This blog goes from strength to strength thanks to my readers. The views are now beyond the 10k benchmark, and I have readers from all over the planet. This helps enormously to make people aware of fantastic slow films, and it’s great for me to learn from you. Not all slow films show up in the news. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is something of a move towards “popular” Slow Cinema. These are films from directors, who you will find everywhere nowadays. I’m hoping to tackle this move with the help of you. It’s been a pleasure so far. But let’s shift to the news of this month:

Nicolas Pereda, slow-film director from Mexico, known for his films Interview with the Earth (reviewed here) and Summer of Goliath, has a new film, which apparently ran at the Berlinale. I must have overlooked it in the programme. The film’s title is Killing Strangers (Matar extraños), and is, in fact, a collaboration with a Danish director. Every year the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen encourages a European and a non-European filmmaker to work together. It’s called DOX:LAB. In 2012, it was Pereda and Jacob Secher Schulsinger. The trailer looks wonderful. Not that I expect something else with Pereda. Here you can read an interview with Pereda and Schulsinger.

Without an official release date yet (as far as I know), Lisandro Alonso’s new film Untitled Lisandro Alonso Project has already attracted a sales company, namely Mexican based NDM. They have acquired world sales rights. NDM also holds the rights to Carlos Reygadas’ latest film Post Tenebras Lux.

The 16e Festival du Film Asiatique de Deauville (France), which is to take place from 5-9 March, has special screenings for Tsai Ming-liang, as an homage to him and his work. They will screen his latest feature Stray DogsGoodbye Dragon Inn, and What Time is it there?

Tsai’s Journey to the West premiered at the Berlinale and, as far as I can see, the reviews were throughout very good. Here you can read an interview with Denis Lavant about working with Tsai. Remaining with Tsai, there’s a two months long retrospective of his work scheduled in Belgium from March to May. They screen gems like I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Visage

In Jerusalem, at the Cinematheque, they organised a retrospective of Fred Kelemen’s work, both as filmmaker and as cinematographer. Amongst the films chosen for this programme, were Tarr’s The Turin Horse, for which Kelemen acted as cinematographer, and his exceptional Frost, which is part of a trilogy. I watched it at the Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle in 2012, and can only recommend it. 

Mexico will be home of Slow Cinema next month. The FICUNAM festival will screen Tsai‘s Journey to the West, the new film The Joy of Man’s Desiring by Denis Côté, Lav Diaz‘s Norte The End of History, Albert Serra‘s Story of my Death, Ben Rivers‘ new film A Spell to Ward off the Darknessand finally we have the two slow suspects Costa da Morte by Lois Patino and Manakanama by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. Slow paradise?

Finally, a few videos for you:

Intriguing interview with Denis Côté about his film Bestiaire. You can, in fact, watch a couple of his earlier films on his personal vimeo page. I wanted to link to a YouTube video. Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing appeared on the platform. But it has been removed. Culture – deleted. What more is there to say!?

Day 24 – Surprise (me)

I finish this year’s advent calendar with a self-experiment in slow-filmmaking. It’s one thing to watch slow films all the time. But as I was to find out, it’s an entirely different matter to sit behind the camera and keep quiet for only five minutes just so that you don’t ruin the sound. It was fun to do, though, and I enjoyed it. You can find the video at the bottom of today’s entry.

The last 23 days have taken me to many countries. I was in Argentina with Lisandro Alonso, and in Mexico with Nicolas Pereda. I was in imaginative, historical spaces with Albert Serra, and in dark and evils spaces with Béla Tarr. I found myself in cramped apartments in China, in vast spaces of Turkish forests. I was in Japan, Iran and Sweden. Oh, and not to forget, I joined a couple of monks in France. The films I watched were a glimpse of suffering in the Philippines, of longing in Taiwan, of past memories in Thailand.

Over 37 hours of slow film. I cannot deny that it became difficult towards the end to find words for the films. Watching a slow film is, I find, an entirely different experience. Slow films really take you on a journey. You spend so much time with the characters that you feel as though you have been through what they have been through in two hours.

It was a great idea, though. It is one thing to watch a slow film here and there. It is a wholly different matter if you watch 23 films in a row. It gave me a real grasp of what Slow Cinema is about, how many nuances there are, what themes they actually tackle, and how similar and yet different the filmmakers are in their approaches.

I hope you enjoyed the excursion into slowness. This blog will now return to the usual weekly or fortnightly posts, and film comments whenever I’m lucky enough to find a diamond somewhere.

Merry Christmas!

Day 17 – The Man from London (Tarr)

This film has to be in this year’s advent calendar. Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) was the very first slow film I watched. It was the beginning of a deep love, and a slowly growing obsession. Re-watching the film brought up nice memories. The first scene, in particular, is something I will never forget. Not only because the lighting was so impressive, and the use of black-and-white was spot on. I sat on my sofa and waited for the first cut. I kept looking at my watch. I wasn’t impatient. If anything I was surprised that it was possible not to cut. You don’t exactly learn this with mainstream film. Cuts must be made, and must be made swiftly in order to keep the narrative going (and the audience awake).

The intro lasts eleven minutes, and is exemplary of Tarr’s complaint that there is a kind of censorship going on if you use film rather than digital. Film would only ever get you to eleven minutes, then you have to cut. A curious, but at the same time valid statement, as I was to find out later when I came across Lav Diaz, a filmmaker using digital. With digital, he’s able to extend his shots, sometimes to twenty minutes and more.

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

The Man from London is an adaptation of a Belgian novel of the same name by George Simenon. This makes Tarr stand out from other slow-film directors. Other works, such as his seven-hour epic Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) were adaptations of works of his long-time Hungarian collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Tarr manages to extend the viewing time so that it’s not all too far away from the (book) reading time. Just as a writer gives time to his or her characters, he gives us time to study the screen characters and their development. There is thus a very intriguing link here to the time one spends (is allowed to spend) with a specific medium, and I suppose also how this shapes one’s impression of it.

Black-and-white is used to perfection in the film, especially because many scenes are set at night, so that the whole darkness and all its connotations (evilness, danger, uncertainty) come through. It also helps to anonymise the surroundings. If you really wanted to, you could look up the shooting locations. But as Tarr pointed out in interviews, his films showed events that could happen anywhere anytime. Colours (by day) would make it easier to identify the location, and therefore link it inevitably to that certain location, which influences our reading of the film. The black-and-white allows for a more neutral reading of all of his films in general, and this film in particular.

I could write a celebration of the many achievements of this film, which let my heart jump the first time and still does today. Kelemen as cinematographer gave the film a haunting feeling. The smoothness of the camera makes it feel as if there is a secret additional character, who is observing the events. It’s simply beautiful. And, even more so than The Turin Horse (2011), a wonderful photo album. And because of this, I will say no more, and let you take a look at some screenshots as well as an extract, which clearly demonstrates Kelemen’s superb cinematography.

One last thing, though: Tarr explained that everyone on the set spoke a different language, and they didn’t need an interpreter. There you go – filmmaking, a universal language!

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

Day 10 – Krisana (Kelemen)

In some ways, I stick to Bela Tarr. Fred Kelemen, German filmmaker and cinematographer, had been a regular at Tarr’s set. He was cinematographer for his latest and last film, The Turin Horse (2011), for instance, as well as for his 2007 Cannes entry The Man from London. This collaboration between Tarr and Kelemen made perfect sense to me from the minute I watched one of the latter’s film at the Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle last year.

Frost (1994) was a film in a trilogy that showed the characters at the very bottom of dignity. No, actually, they didn’t have dignity anymore. They merely tried to survive somehow, in between alcohol abuse, domestic violence, rape, and other things that can turn life into hell. Which is one thing, Frost demonstrated.

Krisana (Fallen) is, I believe, Kelemen’s first solo project since his 1990s trilogy Frost, Nightfall and Fate. Released in 2005, the film follows a man’s attempt at trying to learn more about a woman, whose suicide he perhaps could have prevented if he hadn’t kept walking on the bridge she planned to jump of. The man looks at her, then turns around and keeps walking, until he hears a splash and a cry for help. But he is unable to find her.

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

The beginning of the film sets the tone, and is very similar to all of Kelemen’s films, and, in fact, not all too different from Tarr’s films. The man calls the police, and when he gets questioned in the backseat of a car, the police man begins a monologue-like rant on suicide and the downfall of society. He argues:

“Man has lost his way. He’s lost himself. Something in him is torn apart. There is an open wound in this society. It’s bleeding. And I’m surprised at those who haven’t done it yet. Not to mention those who are vegetating on the edge, who are living like animals, who are murdering, robbing, and running amok for one more day of life, their bloody life.”

Appropriately, the film is shot in stark black-and-white. I tend to prefer monochrome aesthetics in film, but in this case especially, I don’t think it could have been different. The film treats dark (and often very much neglected) subject in society. A film about despair, vegetating, the downfall of society etc wouldn’t be nearly as effective if shot in colour.

There is also an interesting presence of the night. I have come to find the theme of the night quite interesting. There is something about black-and-white films making use of the night. Perhaps, this is a way to reinforce the darkness. On the one hand, it could denote danger and uncertainty. On the other, it is a definite veil for anonymity and solitude. If there is something terrible we imagine, then we usually link it to the night. There is the suicide in Krisana, a possible murder in The Man from London, a rape in Frost. This all complies with our perception of the night. However, in choosing black-and-white for the entire film, the directors, in this case Kelemen, make a statement.

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

There is darkness in every hour of the day. Just as the policeman said, there are so many people who suffer, but we don’t notice them, until they commit suicide. Only then we start to really care about them. The black-and-white aesthetics – in Kelemen’s but also in Tarr’s films – bring exactly this to the front, in combination with their themes. The same is true for Lav Diaz’s films.

I would say that there is a group of filmmakers who use specific colour aesthetics to comment on going-ons in society. I find this to be a neglected field in the context of Slow Cinema. There is always talk about the long-takes, and the mundane activities they are representing. But there is a huge lack of detailed analysis of aesthetics (that’s what I’m here for!).

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

One last thing: Krisana appears to be a blueprint for the cinematography for The Man from London. One scene in particular reminds me of it; the circling of the camera around two characters sitting in a pub and talking to each other. Kelemen has perfected it a little two years later, but you can pretty much see why The Man from London turned out the way it did. Besides, it always reminds me of how important cinematographers are. We tend to celebrate directors for their work. At the same time, we forget that some other people, like the cinematographer, have a huge stake in the production of films, too.