Slow – Sascha Seifert (2013)

A film about snails – perhaps the most appropriate slow film you can imagine. Though I still think that a film about sloths, those beloved lazy animals that come down from their trees only once a week, would be an even better choice. We shall see what the future brings.

Slow is nothing more than a ninety-minute film about snails. It is a non-narrative film made entirely for contemplation. This is reinforced by the different sections within the film, which are introduced by Buddhist sayings. You’re not meant to do anything but watch. The film was shot in the Stuttgart Stadtpark, so a very usual environment with a very usual protagonist. But we would not stop to watch a snail for ninety minutes. In fact, we would likely not even notice the snails snailing from A to B. Life is too fast these days. The last thing people want is starring at a snail.

Truth is, there is some fascinating footage in the film, which, for me, triggered questions as to the life, anatomy etc of snails. The film made me curious, and made me realise that I had little idea of such a “basic” animal we all used to tease when we were little by touching – as we know now, now that we’re grown-ups – right into their eyes (poor things!).

Anyway, Slow is a nice meditation, and a nice argumentation between speed and slowness. It is also something that very much resonates with the concept of Slow Art, which asks you to slow down and look at things you usually walk past without noticing them. In some parts this works nicely in Slow. In others, I found the approach rather disappointing. This may sound like a paradox, but I stick to my belief that the film is too fast. It has little to do with the overall length. Even ninety minutes can feel exceptionally long. This reminds me of my first Lisandro Alonso film, Los Muertos, which was something like eighty minutes and I almost fell asleep.

The main problem with Slow is that the camera / editing work doesn’t do the subject matter justice. There is only one shot throughout the film that is a real long-take, which captured the slowness of a snail properly. All the other takes, while still longer than the average in popular cinema, were too short to give you enough time for contemplation. The editing work was just too visible. I wondered why a lot of the snaily scenes had to be cut. You could have easily waited until the snail was done with whatever it was doing, and then cut to another scene.

Unfortunately, it felt more as if Sascha Seifert wanted to show as much as possible of the snails, so he even cut repeatedly in order to show a snail from different angles. For me, it disrupted the process of contemplation. You cannot contemplate a scene if the director cuts it away from you. A film about snails needs long-takes à la Béla Tarr or Lav Diaz, a director who really has patience and the will to challenge the audience. Don’t get me wrong, Seifert is doing it here, but I wishes he would have pushed his concept a bit more to get to the very essence of slow-filmmaking.

Day 19 – Liverpool (Alonso)

I reviewed Alonso’s Los Muertos earlier this month. Liverpool is my third Alonso film, and I have the feeling that his filmmaking has slightly changed since he made his first feature film. Liverpool is a slow film, but it has, especially for my interests, some quite interesting differences to, say, La Libertad.

In particular the beginning, which shows Farrel, a merchant sailor, on a cargo ship, going about his day-to-day activities. The film frames are extremely tight. There is not left of the emptiness Alonso highlighted in his “landscape” slow films. The tightness of the frames has an impact on the reading time of the frame. There is so much to see, a lot of small details, that time flies past and it doesn’t feel slow at all. I wondered whether Alonso had changed his style completely, but he hasn’t really.

Liverpool (2008), Lisandro Alonso
Liverpool (2008), Lisandro Alonso

A different set-up, with a tighter framing, makes a huge difference. In general, this isn’t a film which shows the protagonist as being connected to his natural surroundings. Many scenes are set indoors. It’s often dark and cramped. There appears to be little (natural) freedom for Farrel. In fact, Farrel isn’t free at all. For the first time in years, he’s back in his home town. He’s known there for leaving everything and everyone behind, especially his mother and, I believe, his daughter (there’s no explicit confirmation for this in the film). He wanted to see whether his mother was still alive. She is, but Farrel acts as though he feels a burden on his shoulder and leaves quickly.

What I also took as an interesting novelty in this film is the theme of acoustic stress, which is evoked several times. Acoustic stress for the viewer. It reminds me of Tarr’s work, especially Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). In Liverpool the acoustic stress is caused, for instance, by the noise of machines on the cargo ship. These noises might be normal, but in the context of Slow Cinema they function as stress as slow films tend to play on silence, or at least quietness. It is a bit like an indirect message: nature is quiet, technology causes all the noise we have to put up with today.

I don’t think, Liverpool is Alonso’s best film. My feeling tells me that there’s something missing. Maybe it is the peaceful nature shots, the silence, which I have grown so accustomed to in the last couple of months. there you go, I’m spoiled.

Day 15 – Eternity (Kongsakul)

I was a very lucky person with this film (here’s a big thank you to Immanuel!). I’m not familiar with Thai cinema, apart from Apichatpong’s films, which, I more and more believe, are not really belonging to the realm of Slow Cinema that I have began to put my focus on. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a wonderful and peaceful film, aptly called Eternity (2010)Aptly, because most of the long-takes feel like an eternity. Not in a bad way, though.

The combination of long-takes, untouched nature and means of traveling reminded me of Lisandro Alonso. When I saw Los Muertos for the first time, I had difficulties to stay awake. This wasn’t the case because the film was boring. It was just so soothing… It was similar with Apichatpong’s Mekong HotelWhile the aesthetics differed greatly from Alonso’s film, the ongoing guitar music made the film feel like a lullaby. In a way, Eternity is similar. It’s one of the most peaceful films I have seen in a while. It is one of those lovely slow films that allow you to sit back, rest, and let everything unravel in front of your eyes. No effort necessary, a bit like in meditation.

Eternity (2010), Sivaroj Kongsakul

I don’t want to go too much into the actual content of the film. I have learned with Apichatpong’s films that attempting to explain to someone what the film is about is often a failure. They’re so deeply rooted in local traditions, myths, and beliefs that it is a difficult task for a Westerner to describe his films adequately. All I can say is that the film is loosely divided into three parts. The film opens with empty extreme long shots. First, there is the shot of a dusty road, and – as is so often seen in what I call “Slow Landscape Films” – a character appears in the background. He’s Wit, the main character, and he’s traveling on a motorcycle. Then we cut to extreme long shots of the landscape in which he only plays a minor role. He’s tiny compared to the overwhelming vastness of his surroundings; a distinct feature of the films I’m studying.

Wit arrives at a house, which turns out to be his childhood home. Whether he is human or a ghost is not exactly clear, though the latter would make sense giving the cyclic direction of the narrative. He enters the house, and what struck me instantly, was the large amount of photographs on the wall. Black-and-white photographs of people, most likely family members. This then lead me to think of Sontag and Barthes, and the themes of memory in Thai film.

Eternity (2010), Sivaroj Kongsakul

Apichatpong’s films are by default about past, about memory. There is always something haunting in them. I feel the same about Eternity. The photographs are an explicit reference to this. What is one of the many uses of photography? We want to keep the past alive. We want to capture people or events in their time, so that we can go back to them, and help us remember how things or people had been at the time. I also think that the second part of the film, in which we see Wit as a young man, an insurance seller, and his relationship to a young woman, is not really set in the present.

It is a romance we’re witnessing. Yet, when are we actually witnessing it, or rather when exactly does what we see happen? Film techniques help to orientate the viewer through past, present, future. This is what flashbacks, flash forwards, or changes of colour are for. Eternity doesn’t make use of this at all, which isn’t surprising. I didn’t expect Kongsakul to use those techniques. So even though it looks as if what we’re witnessing is happening right now, in the present, I would be inclined to say that it is a memory. They’re events that have already happened. This is what makes these (Thai) films difficult because there is little temporal orientation for the viewer. But at the same time, it makes them incredibly mysterious and interesting. It is an entirely different experience. Uncertain at times, but a wonderful journey nevertheless.

Day 7 – Los Muertos (Alonso)

Et voila, I am back on the South American continent, in Argentina to be exact. Lisandro Alonso is for me a special slow-film director. Not only because he is the only director who could really make me sleep within the course of a film (and his films aren’t very long). Although, watching his films and feeling tired is not necessarily a bad thing. It is merely a comment on the combination of camera movement, use of nature sounds, and the slowness of life in the middle of nowhere.

Los Muertos (2004) was Alonso’s second feature film after La Libertad (2001). In the film, we follow Vargas, an ex-prisoner, on a journey to find his daughter. The journey takes him through beautiful landscapes, and reminded me of the cinema of Bela Tarr. The two directors are utterly different from one another, true. But it is also true that both put emphasis on the aspect of walking. In general, walking or travelling are major themes in Slow Cinema.

Los Muertos (2004), Lisandro Alonso

In Los Muertos, Vargas is walking, but also going by boat for quite a substantial amount of time in the film. He’s floating on a river, and we get a sense of freedom somehow. It is a different way of walking / travelling from the ones we see in Tarr’s films. I get the feeling that the characters in Tarr are always walking against some obstacle. It reminds me of the characters in Satantango (1994), who walk in brisk wind. Or the characters in The Turin Horse (2011). Again, they walk against brisk winds. However, Alonso puts his characters into a more peaceful environment, which allows the viewer to be at peace as well. To just float one a boat with Vargas.

Los Muertos also reminds me of the beautiful Bal by Semih Kaplanoglu. Los Muertos is by all means a sound film. There is little said, or even done for that matter. But the sound of nature, of the water, the trees in the jungle, Vargas’ walk on a dusty road – they all make the film into what it is. It is also the sounds that lull you into a deep sleep if you don’t watch yourself.

Los Muertos (2004), Lisandro Alsonso

The combination of natural sounds and peaceful walking through the jungle, equally says something else about the type of slow film Los Muertos is. For me, it is clearly a landscape film. Vargas is by far not the only character, but the surroundings, the environment he lives in and travels through, are equally important to the “feel” of the film. As is so often the case in Slow Cinema.