Year 2018 in review

Here we are again. Another year comes to an end. It’s not easy to look back at 2018, which began with a complete breakdown of body and mind and which ended with complete exhaustion. In between, I tried to watch films and write articles. On top of that, I have managed (don’t ask me how!) to create a new baby: The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine.

But let’s look at something else first. Social media as well as news sites are full of annual Best-Of lists. I don’t think in lists, as many people do. Classifying everything is one of those quirks of our time, primarily because we can. Social media, in particular, allows us to judge everything. Whether continuous and subjective judgment of good and bad brings us forward, or helps the art of cinema in anyway could be a lengthy debate at a workshop, or a conference. I think the issue is that some people watch too many films, and I have trouble to believe that they can actually savour each one of them them or choose wisely. I was forced to take a step back this year and watched less films than usual. But I can say that all films were good. And so they were last year. To me, it’s about giving a film time to make an impact. This can come after a few days, sometimes even after a few weeks. If, by that time, you have seen another 20 films, the impact of a really good film will be drowned by all the others. Images merge and become one. In the end, it’s like a slow coffee filtering process. The more time it takes, the better and stronger the taste.

This is quite literally the case with Wang Bing’s new film Dead SoulsEight hours long, with the film getting stronger over the course of it running time – this is really what, to me, cinema is all about. Yes, I could say that Dead Souls, a collection of testimony from survivors of Chinese labour camps, was the best film I have seen this year. But then, so is Elsewhere by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, which really drew me in, and which is still with me, even months after I have seen in. Both films create the weight and the urgency with which they tell their stories through the use of long duration. The filmmakers took their time with their subjects. It was not only about listening, but also about understanding the stories the people in front of the camera tell us. This is perhaps the element that stood out most for me this year. It was a year of seeing and of listening to people.

Seeing – this reminds me most strongly of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmann. It’s one thing to watch the ordinary in Slow Cinema. It is something entirely different if one watches Jeanne doing her routine housework until this routine cracks. I had thought it would be a laborious viewing session, but it was a revealing experience instead. And so was Jacqueline Zünd’s Almost There, a truly marvellous poetic documentary that made me think, and almost cry. It is unfortunate that it’s difficult to find female slow-film directors. I’m sure they’re there. The challenge is to find them. Jacqueline Zünd is a great example of exceptionally good female filmmakers, with an eye for detail and an ear for (extra-)ordinary stories.

My year 2018 was a year of long-form cinema. I have mentioned Geyrhalter’s Elsewhere and Wang Bing’s Dead Souls already. This year, I also took the time to watch Claude Lanzmann’s ShoahLav Diaz’s four-hour long The woman who left and Andrei Tarkovsky’s equally long Andrei Rublev. There is something about long-form cinema that, for obvious reasons, the average film cannot give you. Long-form cinema can be the ultimate example of vertical cinema, a form of cinema that gives you a real insight, an in-depth exploration of a subject matter. Of course, it is not easy to find time for long films, but every time I do it I have to say that spending a couple of hours with a single film is worth it and I start to like them more than shorter films.

This also shows in my posts. I have written 15 posts less this year than in 2017, and yet I have written 7,000 more words. There was more to say, more thoughts triggered by the films I have seen. And despite the longer posts, people keep reading The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. Thank you! 2018 was the most successful year ever and even more people than last year found their way to the site. Thank you to everyone who is linking to it!

So, what’s next for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema? At the beginning of January, the first 20 copies of Issue 01 of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine will be shipped. The paper version, with previously unpublished material by artists, filmmakers and cinephiles alike, is a new way forward to broaden the output. I want you to read other opinions, other views, instead of always only my own 😉 If you want to check the first issue, do take a look at the contents and you can order it via tao films.

I’m hoping to publish the magazine twice a year, but it really depends. I’m not pushing it. If the content for a new magazine isn’t there, then I will wait until it’s all there and ready. Slow film, slow magazine. A new project for 2019 is a Slow Cinema podcast. Once I have recovered and recuperated my energy, I will start experimenting with different things and see how I can best approach this. Each episode will be a more in-depth analysis, or a conversation with someone about a film I have previously written about on the blog. That’s the plan. How it will look (or sound) like in the end, we’ll see. But this will be the next step for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.

The first post in 2019 will probably be thoughts on seven podcasts, which deal with the concepts of waiting and slowing down. I’ve come across them this month and found that there was a lot in them, which I’d like to expand on here on this blog. Apart from that, however, I will take 2019 the way it comes. I have two more films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter to watch and the rest is open. Let’s see what I’ll find!

Finally, I’d like to take the opportunity to make you aware of my profile on Steady. Steady works a bit like Patreon and offers you a chance to support the growing body of work I’m doing for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. It becomes more and more demanding, but it is work I have been doing happily for free. I have also said that the blog will always be for free. And I stick to this. On the other hand, you can support me on Steady and make it a bit easier for me to dedicate myself to this work. Take a look and if you could circulate it, advertise it or contribute, I would thoroughly appreciate it. Thank you!

I wish you all a fantastic end of the year, and I’ll see you in 2019!

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Chantal Akerman (1975)

On. Off. On. Off. On. Off.

A really fascinating, almost hypnotising focus of Jeanne turning on the light whenever she enters a room and turning off the light whenever she leaves a room stays with me after those almost four hours I spent with Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece yesterday. Of course, Akerman says a lot more in this film. Yet I felt absolutely drawn to this small, ordinary action we all do every day, which the director, in her exploration and recording of a housewife’s routine and daily chores, highlights almost to the extreme. I cannot recall a single film that renders this ordinary gesture extraordinary to such an extent. I’m aware that Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) has been talked and written about from various angles, but there is something in this persistent turning on and off of the light that really struck me as marvellous, as simple as the action may seem or actually is. Perhaps one can call it a visual meditation, a meditation on screen, calling on you to be present, to be in the moment and notice your surrounding and be present with everything you do. Don’t get caught up in thinking. Just be…with the light switches, in that case, something in your house that I’m sure you never even think about until it stops working.

Jeanne Dielman is a magnificent piece that really is as brilliant as it is simple. Akerman’s long takes of repetitive actions cause the images to dive very slowly into your brain. They dig into it and take roots there. At the very beginning of my exploration of Lav Diaz’s films, I had the feeling that I could remember an entire film, scene by scene, because Diaz places emphasis on time, on duration. Unless we’re speaking of traumatic memories, which are often distorted and incomplete, creating memories of something takes time. On a basic level, we can think of learning a foreign language; learning vocabulary, learning grammatical structures. Over and over again. Until one day, we become fluent and no longer need to actively think about the right word to use in a sentence. It becomes natural. One begins to live a language. While watching Jeanne, I felt as if I learned something, as if I learned each scene as a form of language which Akerman tries to teach me, a language that I would become fluent in at some point.

I couldn’t help but think about all the other slow films I have seen since late 2009. It’s been almost ten years that I have been following this, and yes, of course, even though Jeanne has always been one of the icons of Slow Cinema, I have admittedly watched it late in my personal and professional exploration of the film movement. At the same time, I believe that it came at the perfect time. It was with my discovery of Lav Diaz that I began to see the real value of slow films. Contrary to the argument that nothing ever happened in those films, I realised that there is a lot going on, but it’s rather small, almost unimportant things that we tend to overlook, just like the repeated action of turning on and off the light. Jeanne is a hyperreal film, in which a lot happens. Not much is said. Dialogues are rare, and emphasis is placed on Jeanne’s daily chores. She follows her daily routine. Always the same thing, for the same amount of time. Until something upsets the routine.

It’s the little changes that are fascinating in Jeanne and that really drive the film. All of a sudden, she forgets to turn off the light in the bedroom. All of a sudden, she leaves the door to the bathroom open. All of a sudden, she forgets to turn on the light in the hallway. All of a sudden, she takes her coffee at a local bar later than usual. All of a sudden, dinner isn’t ready when her son comes home. All of a sudden…

Those small things we wouldn’t worry about become a real source of tension on the one hand, and exhaustion on the other throughout the second half of the film. The film, or rather Jeanne, becomes a collapsing house of cards. Her routine unravels. Given her absolute insistence on it, it is spiralling out of control. To add to this, Akerman creates a tension here between narrative and mise-en-scène. The director maintains her well-organised, rigorous, static framing and opposes it to the collapse of Jeanne’s routine, to the collapse of her protagonist’s state of mind, to her exhaustion. Stasis versus movement, rigorousness versus upheaval, stability versus collapse – these are the underlying themes that collude over and over again.

Perhaps an example is an order. Not long after the start of Jeanne Dielman, I began to think about Liu Jiayin’s 2005 Oxhide I. The experience of the film, of the actions that take place in Jeanne’s appartement, had a degree of claustrophobia to it. I remember Liu’s film creating this tense atmosphere that was impossible to escape. Akerman doesn’t always use the same tight framing, but her mise-en-scène feels tense. There is a pretty strong discrepancy between the (medium) long shots and the obsessive-compulsive action that takes place in front of the camera. The former allows for freedom, the second imprisons you. It’s not easy to create a clearly-defined feeling about this film, because there is a constant shift between those two extremes.

Just as Jeanne shifts between those extremes in the second half of the film – she upsets her routine while trying to pursue it – so does the viewer. This is what makes the film, despite all its routine, its repetition, its ordinariness, its simplicity, so exciting. It reminded me of a peaceful river that, here and there along the way, shows little swirls. And it’s perhaps the perfect illustration of slow film and my own personal belief that it’s best represented by the Chinese concept of time; time as a river that carries its water at different speeds, with swirls at some points but not at others, swirls that introduce speed to the water flow, but also circularity. I cannot think of a clearer example of this than Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. It is a shame that writing on the film focuses primarily on Jeanne, on the chores of a housewife and on feminism. Akerman always said she wasn’t a feminist filmmaker, and I think that by focusing on aspects of feminism exclusively, you actually miss the complexity in simplicity and the shifts, twists, swirls and constant changes that makes this a great film rather than “only” a representation of the hard life of a housewife in Brussels in the 1970s.

Autoportrait en cinéaste / Ma mère rit (Chantal Akerman)

In the last fortnight or so, I have read two books by Chantal Akerman. One of them, Autoportrait en cinéaste, is, in fact, a sort of exhibition catalogue, published at the occasion of a retrospective dedicated to her work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. This isn’t the usual catalogue, however. Akerman has written most of the book herself. It is personal, and only in parts about her films or her filmmaking. More evident, to me, is the insight into the director’s troubled mental health and her continuous suffering. This becomes the driving force in her 2013 book Ma mère rit, which makes you feel that in those ten years, between one book and another, a lot seems to have changed.

In a way, both books are speaking about the ordinary. There is as little happening as in slow films. Neither has a narrative with an intro, a middle and an end. Ma mère rit even less so than Autoportrait, the former, if I read this correctly, seemingly jumping between different phases of her life without indicating which year it was, without clarifying who said certain things (she uses dialogues, in a way, but without indicating that something is a dialogue and without indicating who the protagonists are, though it’s most often her and another person).

Chantal Akerman

I began to think whether the style in Ma mère rit was representative of her state of mind, sort of jumping from one place to another, speedily, while at the same time being exhausted. So often does she mention her “maladie”, her (mental) illness, that I sometimes cringed. It is, of course, now with hindsight that I was reading this book, knowing that she killed herself in autumn 2015. The book is more personal than Autoportrait. It is very much about her family, specifically about her relationship to her mother, very much in the context of her mother’s accident and her subsequent stay at hospital and her suffering at old age. Trauma is present on almost every page, though you have to read between the lines. And sadly, she does announce her suicide in that book, a death that shocked the world of cinema in 2015.

J’ai survécu à tout jusqu’à présent et j’ai souvent eu envie de me suicider. Mais je me disais je ne peux pas faire ça à ma mère. Après, quand elle ne sera plus là.

But I would like to go into more detail here about Autoportrait which is, while personal, an important read because it contains material on how Akerman thought about film. I think what struck me was the following:

Le livre avait et a sans doute toujours plus d’importance pour moi que le cinéma.

If you read her own writing, you do not get the feeling that she is a passionate filmmaker. In fact, if this was indeed the case, Akerman showed throughout her oeuvre that you don’t have to be passionate in order to make good films. You need ideas, first of all, and she had plenty of those. But yes, it feels odd (primarily because we don’t expect it) if a filmmaker says that the book, that literature, always had and still has more value than film. I don’t think she explains why this is the case, but it is interesting for us to think about. It is true, for me, that literature can give you something film cannot. Most evident to me is that you have to imagine the story you read, the characters, the natural environment, everything. In film, these things are given. Unless you have a striking experimental film, there is, usually, not much left for imagination. Another point about literature is that you have time… Just as Lav Diaz said once, novels can be 900 pages without anyone complaining, but long films are not acceptable. Because books can have any length, you, as the author, can go into as much detail as you want. You have time and space, and so does the reader. Slow films are a beginning, they’re an attempt to rectify this, and I believe Akerman’s https://partenaires.amazon.fr/home/productlinks/customize?asin=B000NDDTCA&request_source=quicklinks&subflow=sp_ shows this best.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

The issue of time in film does pop up, in fact, a few pages after Akerman’s argument about literature.

Une rue longtemps. Ou un arbre. Mais pourquoi longtemps et par rapport à quoi et puis c’est quoi longtemps? C’est plus que pas longtemps de tout façon. En tout cas, c’est plus longtemps que pour informer. En une seconde ou deux, on reconnaît une rue, un arbre. Donc, longtemps, cela peut être plus que le temps de le reconnaissance. Cela peut être le temps de la connaissance, enfin d’un peu de connaissance comme d’un peu de vérité.

In her usually, dry funny style, Akerman says that “long” is certainly longer than not long. So, if someone ever asks you, there you have it! But she elaborates on this, to be fair. She argues that “long” means that a filmmaker spends more time on something that would be dedicated to that something if the filmmaker merely wanted to inform his/her audience. What length suggests is that a filmmaker wants the viewer not just to recognise, to notice something, but to get to know it.

D’Est (From the East)

She also suggests that waiting for the next (long) take means to live, to feel that one exists. Time, for Akerman, is not only part of a film. It is also part of the viewer. To me, this was clearest in her film From the East. Even though Akerman is using a moving camera, she gave us time to see, another important aspect of her filmmaking.

Regarder est-ce la même que voir, non. Il faut regarder pendant combien de temps pour avoir vu et vu quoi.

To look is not the same as to see. One must look for a long time in order to see. Slow films follow this mantra, especially those films with very few characters and almost empty frames. Static cameras also support the idea of looking in order to see. I think that this single, and, in fact, simple Akerman quote sums up the nature of slow films.

Her death is a big loss for all of us, for film, for filmmaking. However, behind the genius of this “sad clown”, as she had been described by some, there was so much trouble, so much suffering, so many problems, fears, anxieties that no one saw, as the books, especially Ma mère rit, show. But her legacy will remain for as long as we want it to remain.

10 questions for… Jenni Olson

Jenni Olsen (C) Lydia Marcus / www.lydiamarcus.com Photographed July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, CA at the Directors Guild of America
Jenni Olsen
(C) Lydia Marcus / www.lydiamarcus.com
Photographed July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, CA at the Directors Guild of America

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a few thoughts on Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, which is a wonderful piece. I hope you can see it on a big screen some day. Jenni has kindly agreed to answer a couple of questions about her film and her approach to filmmaking. Happy reading, and thanks Jenni!

1) The Royal Road is situated somewhere between an exploration of American history and a personal essay on love. The Royal Road is most likely unknown to the vast majority of your viewers because, as you say in your film, there are only fragments of it left these days. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you came about making a film about it?

I moved to California from Minnesota in 1992. At some point after I’d been here awhile I started noticing there were these odd bells installed at certain points along the highway. I love finding unusual historical artifacts and researching their histories so that was the beginning of my interest in El Camino Real. I learned that they had been placed their in the early 1900s as a way of memorializing the original trail (but also as a way if encouraging tourists to drive up and down the state — remember this was around the time that automobiles were becoming more popular: You have a car, now here’s where you should go.) Using the road as the central organizing point for the film seemed like a great way to be able to talk about the more serious and generally lesser-known history of California (the decimation of the indigenous population by the Spanish colonizers and the conquest of Mexico by the US in the Mexican American War) while also using the road as a plot device to tell a story of a character going to visit her love interest from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

2) What brought you to filmmaking and what does filmmaking mean to you? What role does it play in your life?

I have a deep and abiding love of cinema that began all the way back in my childhood. I loved watching classic Hollywood movies as a kid and I was a Film Studies major in college — where I also read Vito Russo’s pioneering book, The Celluloid Closet and then created the first gay and lesbian film series on campus (at the University of Minnesota in 1986) and started writing reviews of gay films for the local gay newspaper. I then became the festival co-director at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival in 1992. It wasn’t until that point that I decided to actually make films myself, and even then they were always very modest productions. 

It’s only recently that I have realized that my style of urban landscape filmmaking is really just a natural outcome of the way I look at the world. I tend to envision the world around me as a series of compositions. I notice the qualities of the light, the textures and surfaces of buildings, the distance and depth of what is in front of me. And I feel compelled to try to capture this on film. 

3) You said you felt compelled to try to capture qualities of light etc on film. Do you think you have succeeded doing this, or are you still looking for the perfect composition?

I am extremely happy with the majority of the footage I’ve shot over the years. I have about five hours of footage total that I was working from to create the film. In this reservoir of images there are still tons of great shots I wasn’t able to fit into this film which will hopefully be in my next project. And I hope I will be able to continue shooting at some point in the future (I can’t afford to these days) and be able to make another film.

4) The film feels very personal. It feels as though, between the lines of history, we can read your film as a kind of autobiography. How autobiographical is the film?

My voiceover is very much drawn from my personal experience but the film is not at all a straightforward autobiographical story. There are many things that are completely fictional in the stories about the women in particular. The woman in Los Angeles is named Juliet mainly because I liked it as an evocative name. She is very much a fictional character (sometimes a mash up of real women, other times totally made up). Since my wife’s name is Julie I have had a few questions from people wondering whether they are the same person. There really is no connection. As W Somerset Maugham once said of his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage: “This is a novel, not an autobiography; though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention.”

As a writer I like to use some kind of topic or thing as an area of exploration which helps provide a structure to my storytelling. I tend towards a very discursive style involving a lot of tangents and associations and allusions to other texts so it helps to have something in the center that I can circle around and bounce off of. Virginia Woolf once said something similar about To The Lighthouse and it has always stayed with me. She said that having the lighthouse as an organizing principle was the thing that enabled her to explore all these other emotions and topics. So I very much think of El Camino Real as a similar central device that organizes the film as a whole.

5) I get the impression that you’re very much drawn to literature. Having seen your film, I’m not surprised about that. Is your film perhaps a “visual novel” rather than the photo album I mentioned in my review?

I like the idea of it as a visual novel but maybe creative non-fiction would be more accurate in terms of literary terms. I have a few different terms I’ve used to describe it: as an essay film, as a hybrid film, an experimental film. It has played in many documentary festivals simply as a documentary but it is of course more complicated than that.

6) You make extensive use of long-takes in the film. I had the feeling of sitting next to you while looking at photos you are telling me stories about. What’s the reason for those long-takes? Are they an aesthetic you generally use in your films?

I have always felt drawn to urban landscape filmmaking as a mode of storytelling. The viewer is put into a certain unique state of receptiveness and is made susceptible to feeling their own emotions — the static, open space provides a calming, comforting reassurance that allows the viewer to relax and take in the voiceover. Ideally the images I like to capture are visually interesting in their compositions and content, and yet they are also somewhat mundane — they have to be not TOO visually interesting or else the viewer will be distracted by them. 

The length of the takes is also crucial to creating a spaciousness for the viewer. I always like to establish the grammar of the film in the first few shots so you know to expect these very long takes and can begin by experiencing the joy of just looking at the landscape, relaxing into it and starting to notice the small details of each shot which emerge as hugely dynamic given the minimalist palette of the film — so when a bird flies across the shot, or the light gets brighter or a puff of fog blows past it can actually take your breath away.

I also especially love to have urban landscapes that seem somewhat timeless, as though they might have looked like this fifty years ago. So I crop out as much as possible things that look more contemporary and modern (like newer street signs, billboards and such). 

7) Your voiceover is guiding the viewer through history, if you want, all the while seeing modern, but as you said timeless, urban landscapes. How, do you think, can your long-takes help the viewer reach a state of contemplation despite your voiceover providing a persistent auditory background of interesting information?

I think this meditative state is not the same as actual sitting meditation where one is focusing on the breath per se. But it is in the realm of a meditative state in that one emerges in a more mindful and present state, attuned to the physical environment and seeing the world around us in more vivid attentive ways.

8) The film was shot in 16mm, which, unfortunately, isn’t all that common anymore. Why do you still work with 16mm film?

I have a great affection for the look of 16mm film — the quality of the grain, the saturation of the colors and also the 4:3 aspect ratio since I shoot in regular 16mm, not Super 16. I have an underlying agenda in my filmmaking that is about the joys of being present in the moment, in the landscapes in which we live. In The Royal Road I talk about our exceptionally digital age and the importance of “staying connected to the physical, analog world in which we live.” And so there is something very organic about using actual film to create my films.  

9) Do you develop the films yourself? I’m reminded of Ben Rivers who develops his films in his kitchen sink.

No, I’ve always depended on the kindness of skilled and talented strangers to process the film (at Fotokem in Los Angeles). I’m dependent on many people to create my films and I’m especially grateful to my good friends Sophie Constantinou (my primary cinematographer) and Dawn Logsdon (my editor) for enabling me to fulfill my creative vision.  

10) The 16mm film seems to disappear slowly. Are you worried that you will eventually lose your medium? 

Yes, when I talk about making my next film I do worry that I may not be able to pull it off simply because of the level of effort involved. And yet in some ways then it becomes even more compelling to me to continue to use this medium the more arcane it becomes. It really does feel organic to what I’m trying to achieve in my work — qualities of emotional resonance that actually arise from the medium itself (the grain of the image, the quality of light, etc.) The genuine qualities of feeling these generate in the viewer can’t be achieved through the digital medium even by using digital effects that try to recreate the qualities of film. 

Personal note by Jenni Olson: 

I have to just conclude by saying that I have felt so impacted by the suicide of Chantal Akerman earlier this week and would like to take the opportunity to convey a brief appreciation of her as her work has had an enormous influence on me as a filmmaker over the years. I woke up to the news of her passing on October 6th (my 53rd birthday). As a pioneering filmmaker, Akerman is frequently celebrated for her portrayals of women characters and for elevating women’s stories and offering a unique female perspective in her films. All of which is the case. First and foremost though, she was a filmmaker with a singular vision whose distinctive approach to the possibilities of the medium encompassed a painstaking awareness of the smallest cinematic elements and their potential impact not just on conventional aspects of storytelling but on the emotional, psychological and physiological experience of the audience (of course I identify with this in my own filmmaking and feel deeply indebted to her as an influence). It is this consummate craftsmanship that produced such masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It is this craftsmanship that created so many stunning works of art that will change the way you see the world, and that will never leave you — even though their creator has. May her memory be for a blessing. 

Today's My Birthday - Akerman's News from Home