The spirit of absence

I have long been fascinated by the power of absence. I hadn’t known that this was one element that drew me towards Slow Cinema until I saw my first of a number of Lav Diaz’ films, which so clearly play on the nature of the unseen, the present absence. More and more I also realise that my attraction towards this ghostly aesthetic probably stems from several holes in my family history, which I’m now seeking to clear up. There is always a reason for one’s attraction to a piece of art, or a film, and often one isn’t aware of the underlying reason for being emotionally moved by something.

The fascinating aspect of absence, which, to me, is related to the element of space, is that it distorts our perception of time. In many ways, time appears to pass slower, in extreme situations perhaps even in slow motion. There are various reasons for “holes” in our life narrative. Absence is always connected to a loss of something, and this can take different forms. Death is probably the one we can all identify with, and the days and weeks after having lost a loved one always feel different. Time has a different meaning than before. There is a before and an after.

I have long been an admirer of the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman, whose work seems to overlap with my own more often than not, and the further I move through his work, the more I see just how much value his books and essays have for Slow Cinema. Didi-Huberman is not an expert in cinema, which would perhaps rule him out for a lot of people because he just doesn’t know the field. Interestingly enough, it is probably precisely because he is writing from several vantage points – philosophy, art, history, and yes, cinema – that allows him to see things clearly, to take a step back, and to introduce new ideas. Or to simply open our eyes to what’s really in front of us.

One would not necessarily pick up a study on the Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani for an informed reading on Slow Cinema. But Didi-Huberman’s in-depth focus on “air, dust, traces, and haunting”, as indicated in the book’s subtitle (Génie du non-lieu – Air, poussière, empreinte, hantise), is exactly what one should pick up for a better, or even new understanding of the uses of absence in slow films. I have long used art books for my work on Slow Cinema, and there is a lot of remarkable material that many people, especially academics who think only in their own field, have overlooked. Claudio Parmiggiani is an exceptional artist, whose work focuses on absence, silence and fragmentation. Ignoring everything I have read, looking at Parmiggiani’s pieces online conjures feelings of loss, of pain, of longing, but also of searching and hoping.

The power of time in form of patience, desire and waiting, Didi-Huberman writes, can never exist without an event, an action, that tears it up. There is nothing like a homogenous forward movement of time. There is a persistent alternation between calm and shock. This shock, as I have argued above, usually comes about through the loss of something or someone. A loss is always traumatic, like when you thought, in your childhood, that your dad really stole your nose when he made this weird finger movement in front of your face. You’re shocked, you cry. The calm disappears. The alternation between the power of time in form of slowness and its shock moments can be found in several slow films, but is most visible in the films of Lav Diaz, whose narratives live of this back-and-forth, especially his six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012).

There is this famous opposition in the works of Roland Barthes: what is and what has been. Parmiggiani, on the other hand, works on what remains. Barthes’ has been is absent, but continues to haunt the present. Parmiggiani shows the residues. He creates a picture of this haunting absence in the form of dust, or imprints. He makes it palpable, brings it out into the open. Didi-Huberman argues that dust (poussière in French) has its own time, it doesn’t follow the rhythms we establish throughout our lives. What’s more, dust survives us. It always will. Even though, as Didi-Huberman points out, dust is in permanent movement, it is perhaps the only permanent remnant of everything we do, of everything that our life is and has been. It’s what remains after our death. Dust is temporary and yet permanent. It is in movement, shifting from place to place, and yet remains where it is.

The survival of traces, of dust, of imprints threatens our own survival, Didi-Huberman writes. Is this the reason why we feel uncomfortable about it? Is this why feel haunted, why we try to run away, in whatever way? The nature of slow films reminds us of those traces, and they usually do so by using the off-screen very effectively (and affectively). Parmiggiani’s work is all about the literal meaning of imprints and dust, at least in his magnificent series Delocazione. In effect, I find that he gives an image to what those two elements can also mean, namely memory. Persistent memories, haunting memories, memories that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Memories survive us, and this very survival, this longevity, threatens us and our calm existence. They bring upheaval, pain, change.

This “dust” forms the core of most slow films that I have seen. I have argued previously on this blog that slow films centre around Barthes’ what has been. In fact, after having seen Parmiggiani’s art, I more and more believe that we’re actually speaking about what remains in those films. We’re speaking about remains, residues, dust. We speak about what survives us, what remains after we’re gone. We feel our own impotence of something much larger than us. Do we not?

Shoah – Claude Lanzmann (1985)

It is clear to me that Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) would never make it into a Slow Cinema list. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, it should simply remain a film apart from the rest in order to preserve its sheer monumentality. And truth be told, it might not feel like a slow film at all. It certainly feels different from the Béla Tarrs, from the Apichatpong Weerasethakuls, from the Pedro Costas of the world. Nevertheless, I would like to jot down some notes and try to establish a to me inevitable link to the nature of Slow Cinema.

I have become aware of the rather limited approach we seem to have in terms of establishing what is and what isn’t slow. Of course, the respective and perceived pace of a film is entirely subjective, and what is slow for me might well be fast for you. At the same time, there seems to be a sort of mutual agreement that slow happens primarily in feature films. Fiction films, to be more precise. Documentaries don’t pop up very often in our discussion on Slow Cinema. This blog is also a good mirror of this. There is, of course, the work of Wang Bing which has been so often used as an example of Slow Cinema. Apart from a sole exception, Wang Bing is, and possibly remains, a documentary filmmaker whose cinematic slowness is so essential to the stories he tells. He couldn’t tell those stories in any other way. At the same time, he seems to be pretty much the only widely known slow-documentary director, who pops up time and again in people’s writings and in their lists.

Why is this? Why do we seem to have problems to classify documentaries as slow? I believe that documentaries are, often in any case, slower than fiction films. It is somewhat “acceptable” to make a poetic documentary, a piece that takes its time and which allows people to tell their stories. Documentaries are only categorised as special when they are particularly long, which is the case with most of Wang Bing’s films, or Claude Lanzmann’s. Shoah is, by and large, the slowest documentary I have seen, which made me think about its “ingredients” and how they compare to the slow films that have become somewhat canonical.

I do not intend to write a review of the almost ten-hour long film. I would fail. And I would fail miserably. Whether one can write an adequate review at all, I have my doubts. There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions to mention, so many complexities to unravel that written words would never do justice to Shoah. Instead, I want to note a few aesthetic particularities, which I noticed were in sync with what I have written about in the last couple of years.

It remains true that not all slow films are long films. It remains true, too, that not all long films are slow films. Shoah is a particular case, however. Lanzmann set out to create a portrait as detailed as possible of what has been called the “Endlösung”. Similar to any major books you find on the subject, there is little you can cut out. The subject is complex, based on so many orders, on so many levels, in so many administrative regions, so much bureaucracy – it is impossible to recount this part of the Second World War in the usual, narrative way. Take the work of Saul Friendländer, “Nazi Germany and the Jews”, a two-part investigation into the persecution and extermination of the Jews. Overall, the French version (as an example) counts around 1,500 pages. A monstrous piece, in many ways. Just like some people argue that the Holocaust defies representation, certain writers (like Friedländer) and filmmakers (like Lanzmann) have shown that the Holocaust dislocates time and space. It dislocates narrative coherence, albeit it needs to be said at this point that Lanzmann tried to allow the “story” of Shoah to progress in an almost linear fashion. The Holocaust defies cinematic cuts, or ellipses to push the narrative forwards faster, to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. There are no gaps. Not only to prevent the viewer from filling gaps with escapist ideas, romantic ideas which they take from Hollywood films, which in most cases always have a Happy End. It is also about forcing the viewer to listen, to hear, to imagine the unimaginable.

Shoah doesn’t cut. It listens extensively to testimony of survivors, of bystanders, of perpetrators. If there is one thing that narrative convention in cinema, which has developed over decades, has done to us is that we no longer have the patience to listen to survivors. We expect them to tell their stories quickly, in a classical three-act structure, and please do not give any details. Our obsession with narrative conventions has silenced survivors. Alexandre Dauge-Roth has noted this problem in his writing on the genocide in Rwanda. The camera in Lanzmann’s film, on the other hand, remains with the one who speaks. Certain monologues of survivors feel endless, filled with horror, and yet it is impossible to stop listening. The very characteristic of Slow Cinema – giving time to a monologue, a dialogue, an event – is crucial here because time, that means long duration in this case, can assign the witnessing function to the viewer. And in becoming witnesses, we lift at least some of the burden on the shoulder of those survivors who were willing to talk to Lanzmann. Long duration, perceived slowness expressed through little to no movement within a frame, and the use of long takes, all parts and parcel of Slow Cinema, become vital in the representation of trauma.

It is of little importance who is speaking in front of the camera. Survivor, bystander, perpetrator – they all contribute to film as trauma. And the two aesthetics I looked at during my PhD research – duration and absence in Lav Diaz’s cinema – are very much the centre of Lanzmann’s work, not only of Shoah, but also of his last film Four Sisters. The latter film shares a lot with Wang Bing’s Fengming, which also consists of a single interview with a single woman in a single room. Minimalism becomes a vehicle for the transfer of traumatic memories. The focus on interviews, of people talking in front of the camera, their words translated on camera so as to keep the authenticity of what happens alive, all of this results in one major theme: absence.

Shoah is perhaps one of the most haunting films, precisely because it doesn’t show anything. It can’t. It is a post-trauma film, a film that is visually set in the time after the traumatic event occurred, but where the monologues position us inside the traumatic event itself. It is common practice in films by director Lav Diaz, for instance, that traumatic events are spoken about but never shown. Perpetrators are mostly spoken of, not seen very often, or not seen at all. Trauma resides in the past. Shoah is one of those films, albeit it must be so by default. The absence of traumatic imagery results from the absence of real imagery of the Holocaust (excluding four photographs that have been found – see further Georges Didi-Huberman). This means that the haunting nature of the event, as well as of the film, is entirely natural, is consequential rather than forced upon from the outside. There was no choice, there were no options – the particular present absence / absent presence, which is so vital to slow films and their treatment of trauma (for example, the films of Lav Diaz or of Pedro Costa) stands at the core of Shoah.

This particular point is most visible, perhaps even haptic if you wish, in the second half of the film. Filip Müller, a Czech survivor, speaks in detail about the process of the extermination; the arrival of a train, the undressing, the hair cuts, the way the people had to walk, their way through the so-called Schlauch, their screams. Lanzmann overlays most of Müller’s detailed description with images of the ruins, the remnants of the Auschwitz gas chambers, with images of what has remained; nothing but the mere skeletons of the past. There’s a friction here; the images of ruins invites one to imagine, invites one to let the imagination wander, perhaps even wonder. Yet Müller’s monologue, in painful detail, doesn’t allow for imagination. He doesn’t allow for gaps, for holes to open up. There is a constant push-and-pull between what we would possibly like to do as viewer, and what the survivor wants us to do, namely to listen.

Nothing is more effective than not showing. Nothing brings out (post-)trauma so well as does a rejection of visibility, of showing. Nothing makes the past more palpable than using time and space invested in listening, and not only simply listening to words. It is about really listening, not just hearing some words. Lanzmann’s Shoah is so minimalist, so simple that it creates an adequate space and an adequate time for traumatic events to resurface in the survivors’ memories, which can then be uttered, be brought to the surface, be brought into the open. Only slowness, only unconventionality, only long duration and absence, only minimalism can do this. Only Slow Cinema, I personally believe, can really be a cinema of (post-)trauma because all types of aesthetics that are favourable of an exploration of post-trauma are at the filmmaker’s disposal. Slow Cinema can become a vehicle for survivor testimony, if used adequately.

(NB: I began this sort of work in my PhD thesis. If you want to read it, it’s available here.)