The Essence of Place – Susannah Ramsay (2017)

It is 8.30 in the evening. It is dark and wet, although it has stopped raining for a little while. I’m at the RSPB reserve in Loch Lomond, Scotland, and embark on a journey through the reserve. My way is lined on both sides with candlelights, guiding me in my way through the reserve. It is pitch black and the rain slowly begins to fall again. The atmosphere is stunning. I can barely see something but my ears listen to every sounds that comes out of the darkness around me. Not out of fear. It is an engaged and curious listening to nature. It is about being present, which, in some cases, only our ears can make possible. It is our ears that have first become deaf as a result of the drastic change towards a speedier life. It is the ears that have lost most of their real value nowadays, filtering even more than do our eyes. Our ears are confronted with noise all the time, overpowering noise that silences the natural world around us. It takes will and effort not only to listen but also to actually hear (which somehow makes me think of Chantal Akerman’s thoughts on “seeing” and “actually seeing”).

I did listen, and I did hear on 21 October, when I saw Susannah’ Ramsay’s new film poem The Essence of Place, a work that was directly connected to the place it was shown at. Shot at the RSPB reserve it was also shown there, under the night sky, on a huge screen. A walk through the pitch black night allowed for a real sense of the surrounding nature, of life embalming us, of the preciousness that we’re no longer aware of. It was impossible to walk speedily towards the screen; the darkness robbed you of your vision. You had to be careful, attentive to what was around you. Darkness, especially the pitch-black night, is an invitation to slow down. Perhaps it is a demand, a request that cannot be turned down. Slowing down is a must, and is rewarded by a beautiful auditory perception of life around you.

“This is where I am. My body is inscribed in the contours of this landscape… Contemplation, nature’s secret language… I remember those need for words that sorrow brought and left with it long spells of nothing.”

After a walk through the darkness, one begins to see the contours of a huge screen at the horizon. The soundtrack of the film becomes audible. One is almost drawn to the light of the screen, like a moth that is attracted to the light in the pitch-black night. Ramsay’s The Essence of Place plays on a screen that is surrounded only by the vastness of the reserve. It is a short film/poem that beautifully captures – in writing and in image – the simple and beautiful wonders of nature, wonders we have come to forget. In her work, Ramsay demonstrates quite literally what the title of her film suggests: the essence of place. It is a phenomenological thought and conviction, the idea of watching Ramsay’s images at the exact same place where they have been shot. The viewer, the viewed, and the place become one; a sort of symbiosis actually in which we become aware of our relationship to one another and the ways in which our behaviour affects the other. It is awareness that Ramsay’s film instills, from the beginning of your walk through the reserve to the very end. It is awareness that is now more important than ever, and it is awareness that takes time to develop.

 

“I walked past your footprints again today. I still didn’t hear your voice. Here is where I am, consoled by the beautiful wonder of nature.”

The film, or rather the film experience, made me reflect about the importance of place in the context of film viewing. I said several times on this blog that a place (or space) influences the way we approach a moving image piece. We have expectations when we go into the cinema, and we also have specific expectations when we go into a gallery to see a video installation. Those expectations differ greatly, and it is the place/space that can also influence our perception of whether a film is “good” or “bad”. It is well known nowadays that slow films as shown in a cinema usually lead to walkouts. The cinema as an institution has, in its history, not been a place that invited contemplation. The cinema is a place for entertainment that tends to come with fast cuts. Now, slowness in a gallery is perfectly acceptable because we have come to accept that in a gallery one usually contemplates pieces of art anyway, so if you were to add a slow film into this mix it wouldn’t really upset your expectations. Ramsay goes even further, however, by showing her film outside, in nature, the same nature we see in the film. So where does this position the viewer? How does she position the viewer, and in what way is there an active rather than a passive spectatorship? Lots to think about!

The nocturnal and the slow

Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) impressed me with its images that had been shot at night. The almost complete blackness of the night, seen through the eyes of a watchman in his tower at a harbour, was stunning. Most of the film is set in one way or another in the darkness of the night. It has something uncomfortable around it, something mysterious. The night is a time of disguise. It’s not just people who want to disguise who they really are. It’s also trees, bushes, buildings – everything around us looks different than during the day.

The Man from London (Béla Tarr, 2007)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2010, also has extensive night scenes. These are the scenes when mysterious figures appear, ghosts, people who return from the afterlife in order to connect with loved ones they had left behind when they died. The night is a time when the living and the dead come together. Ghosts can only be seen at night.

Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Horse Money, the latest film by Pedro Costa, is an investigation of memory and trauma. A lot of the film is set in the dark, which stands for the uncertainty about memories. The darkness doesn’t allow to see clearly; memories are everything but clear. It takes a journey through this darkness in order to see clearly, if one can manage at all.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

Quite a number of slow films make use of the night. I only realised this when I read a new book, which has just been released earlier this year, and which I picked up in our local book shop in preparation for an installation event I’m working on. It is difficult to think about the night nowadays. There are lights everywhere. Unless you live in the countryside, far away from civilisation, there is a chance that you have difficulties seeing the night as what it is, namely as dark time which embalms you. What I never realised until I had picked up La nuit : Vivre sans témoin by Michael Foessel is that the night / the darkness has a significant influence on how we perceive time, and this might be quite a fascinating aspect to follow when it comes to Slow Cinema. In many action films, the night is used for chases, for police operations, for illegal deeds.

In slow films, the meaning of the night is, in most cases, quite different, as the above examples show, albeit Tarr’s film is based on a crime the watchman watches at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, the night then becomes something else.

Penser la nuit, c’est penser la manière dont l’obscurité change notre perception, transforme notre rapport aux autres ou modifie notre expérience du temps.

Foessel makes very clear throughout his book that the night changes our perception. The darkness we’re surrounded by makes it at times difficult to see. Let’s take a journey through the woods, for instance. No street lamps, no torch. Just you and the woods. This might be an extreme example. However, it best illustrates Foessel’s point: our perception changes and because of that, our sense of time changes, too. Why is that the case? There is no clarity in our vision. We cannot see details. If at all, we can see no more than silhouettes. This ultimately means that we have to walk slower in order to make our way through the woods. It’s not just our walk that slows down, though. For many people, being alone in the woods at night is a scary thing. You need to be on alert at all times in order not to become the victim of wild animals. Time stretches. The night feels so much longer than it usually does when you go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 7am.

La nuit impose cette suspension au moins le temps nécessaire pour reconnaître une forme ou distinguer un visage.

The lack of clarity, of visibility, means that we need more time in order to identify what is in front of us. We’re not entirely blind, yet our vision is restricted. While we have no problem at all to see during day time, the night challenges our eyes, and slows us down. We depend more on our hearing than on our vision, because we have no other choice.

I don’t want to suggest at all that slow-film directors use the night in their films for exactly those reasons. I’m sure they don’t think about stuff like that at all. But there is quite an interesting link between the meaning of the night in their films, and the cinematic slowness that is employed. In the end, it is not only the character that faces the darkness. If the screen goes dark, the viewer faces the same darkness as does the character. That means that our reading of whatever is on screen (or of what isn’t) becomes a slow adventure and adds to the feeling of slowness of the entire film. I will certainly keep thinking this through and maybe follow this blog post up with another one, one that is more detailed!