Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting IV

I want to continue with the slow and painterly journey today. You can find the previous three parts here, here and here. Last time, I briefly outlined the theme of verticality both in Chinese painting and in Lav Diaz’s films, with particular regard to the relation of Heaven and Earth, and the role of man in the universe.

Today, I want to add to this a brief summary of the concept of emptiness, which has its origins in Chinese painting. Emptiness never meant “empty” the way we would interpret it nowadays. Emptiness, or absence, always meant presence at the same time. It was the source of all things. Also, it has its roots in meditation. Painters meditated before they picked up a brush. They cleared, or “emptied”, their minds. This emptiness was thus a prerequisite for tranquility. This is particularly obvious in Zen painting. Here, objects are presented in front of a completely blank background.

I mentioned last week that there is always a space of emptiness sandwiched between the planes of Heaven and Earth. At least in traditional Chinese landscape painting. This emptiness was conveyed through the depiction of vast landscapes. This appears very similar to many slow films, as the landscape often plays a major role in them. Characters are often dwarfed, nature is dominant.

This is, obviously, a very literal reading. It is possible to extend the argument, though. In many slow films, but in Lav Diaz’s and Béla Tarr’s films especially, emptiness describes subjective mental states, which are then mirrored by (empty) landscapes. In Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos, for instance, emptiness stands for both the landscape – the film is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming – and the characters and interviewees, all of which have lost either family members or their entire property. Emptiness is here more absence, more destruction than actual non-existence. However, the strong typhoon did “empty” the region. Houses, rice fields, everything is gone. It is creepy to link this to what I said earlier: emptiness is the source of something new, but unfortunately, this is very much the case here.

In relation to the landscape as a mirror of a character’s mental state – this can be linked to the original Buddhist concept of emptiness, namely dependency. We’re empty of self-existence, meaning we only exist because of many other factors. We alone, without any influences, could not and would not exist. We’re dependent. Our life is the result of a combination of circumstances. This means in short that one thing determines another. We can thus also say here that the landscape determines its inhabitants and vice versa. They’re a mirror of one another. This is exactly what we see in Diaz’s films, as well as in Tarr’s films. Particularly the latter is a genius when it comes to showing the dependency of several elements. Everything is connected.

That leaves me with two more features. Stay tuned!

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting III

Time to go into more detail about Slow Cinema and Chinese painting. You can find Part 1 and 2 here and here.

I start with the perhaps most obscure of the comparisons. It needs a bit of thinking out of the box, or thinking around the corner. Whatever you prefer.

I haven’t really looked into much detail about the formats of Western landscape painting. The Chinese used horizontal scrolls and vertical scrolls. It’s the vertical scrolls that we tend to remember most often when we think of Chinese painting. I guess it’s because it’s out of the ordinary, and it is always the extraordinary that catches our eye (unfortunately).

Verticality had its root in Chinese culture. For instance, time was expressed in vertical terms in order to follow the flow of the water – from up the mountain down to the sea. What we describe as before and after with regard to time, is in Chinese an expression of up and down. Also, the social order was more or less vertical. Binyon argued that the tie of father to son and vice versa was overall stronger than the tie of husband and wife, which was a horizontal tie, if you wish.

Vertical paintings had as their roots the depiction of the interrelation of Heaven and Earth. Long before the arrival of the concept of perspective in the West, Chinese painters expressed perspective via the use of different planes, which we now know as foreground, middle ground and background; the first having been the plane of the Earth mostly containing the soil, man and animals; the second was a plane of emptiness usually expressed by flowing river waters or vast landscapes; the third was the plane of Heaven – the plane of mountains and the sky.

Importantly, man was never the dominant figure. He was a part of the universe, but he was never depicted as the most important part of the universe. The correlation of Heaven and Earth had priority. In this context, it is perhaps interesting to note the terms ‘host’ and ‘guest’, which stem from the same period. Nature is the host, man merely a guest – the roles each of them plays are shown clearly.

Without going all too much into detail, which I could (it’s a really exciting thing!), I want to make a few brief comments on Lav Diaz’s films here.

Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Lav Diaz
Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Lav Diaz

Especially in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), the comment on Heaven, Earth and man respectively is clear. Having the disastrous aftermath of typhoon Reming as its backdrop, Heaven and Earth play a major part in the film. The characters are often only tiny figures in the landscape – guests? – just as it had been the case in Chinese landscape painting. This minimal space for them is not only reminiscent of their comparatively little power over nature. The second narrative strand of persecuted artists is another demonstration of their being guests, or rather unwanted bacteria.

Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Lav Diaz
Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Lav Diaz

The framing is done in similar ways – whether consciously or unconsciously is of little importance. You tend to have frames that are seemingly divided into three planes: the Earth, emptiness and Heaven. In several shots Earth is most prominent, which is reasonable as Reming triggered deadly lahar from Mount Mayon and buried hundreds of people alive. The Earth has taken over, while in brief dialogues here and there the characters and / or interviewees question the existence of God. Giving Heaven a smaller place in the frame is thus sensible. In addition, especially because of the destruction depicted, the middle ground is more often than not veiled in emptiness.

Maybe you want to go back to the presentation scans I have posted two weeks ago. Take a look again and see if what I have just said makes a bit more sense to you. And then also, as I said, study a few screenshots of Lav’s film. It might help. I found verticality a bit abstract, but it actually works once you get your head round it.