Silence in Dreamland – Tito Molina (2013)

I know exactly where to put Ecuador on the map. Unfortunately, I do not know where to put Ecuador on the map of world cinema. It’s one of those countries that is shamelessly underreported. There is quite a lot of material about South/Latin American cinema. Yet, Ecuador plays only a marginal role and I wonder why that is.

Tito Molina has put Ecuador on the map of world cinema. With Silence in Dreamland (2013) he has created a stunning portrayal of – surprise! – silence and dreams, but also of ageing, loneliness, and love. The narrative can be quickly summarised: an elderly woman, lonely after the death of her husband, goes about her daily chores. The routine is broken when Cokie, a truly lovable dog appears in front of her window and both strike up a very special relationship. This summary is a good example for why I never read summaries. Indeed, many films have kind of the same thrust and summaries therefore make them boring. But it is the cinematic treatment that is interesting, and it is the same here with Molina’s work.

Silence is a superb slow film that has a meditative, observational rhythm, though partly disrupted by quick cuts so as to indicate brief dream interludes that come in a flash. Molina’s attention to detail, such as his close-up of the woman’s neck to focus on her pulse and her breathing, helps to create an intimate portray of her. I felt as though she was more than a simple subject of a film. There was a bond between filmmaker and character, even between viewer and character, which grew throughout the film. Another detail, which I loved was the persistent electricity cut. Sometimes you didn’t notice it until you looked at the oven behind her, which suddenly ceased to display the time. It’s subtle, but it’s also a reminder that the background of a film is just as significant as everything that happens in the foreground.

Molina introduces aesthetics to Slow Cinema that are unusual. I’m speaking of dissolves, a lot of music in the background, superimpositions. If I had read about these techniques in his film beforehand without having seen the trailer of Silence, I would have been hesitant. Yet, Molina uses these techniques and incorporates them superbly and lovingly into the genre, or movement, or simply this form of cinema. This combination of techniques greatly enriches the viewing experience. A while ago, I wrote about the effects of music and dialogue on our perception of slowness and came to the conclusion that both speed up the film. For some reason, I didn’t have the same impression this time. Either I have changed my point-of-view regarding the issue entirely, or maybe Molina makes better use of music and dialogue than Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Mekong Hotel. It is a mystery. In any case, there is quite a lot of music in Silence, which is a rather interesting contradiction. The music, however, is slow. Very traditional, kind of melancholic so that it works well with the subject matter of the film.

Silence awakened my interest in photography again. I know I say this with a lot of films. But despite this, it is actually not as easy to impress me visually as it sounds. Molina has a superb eye for composition, though, and I wonder what his background is. It doesn’t look painterly, but oh my, some of his shots are worth taking a snapshot of, have them printed and framed. Especially the shots at the sea are magnificent. Shot from above, we see the woman and Cokie walking along the beach, for instance. They both mere dots because of the sheer height of the camera. Molina’s capturing of the sea is truly beautiful and adds a hypnotic rhythm to the film, apart from its making you fall in love with his photographic eye.

In all, I wasn’t all too surprised to see such a fantastic film after the trailer perfectly convinced me that this would be a superb work. Molina is certainly an upcoming and very talented director, who is worth following in the future.

My thanks goes to Tito Molina, who has kindly provided me with a copy of his film. An interview with the director will follow on this website.

The invisible princes

When I watched Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos again, I had a nice encounter with a prince, the prince of the black dwarfs to be exact. The main character’s mother, who ends up in a mental institution, had been observed by the dwarfs. This is, at least, how the story goes. The dwarfs snatched her soul and from that moment on she was prisoner of the prince. I saw the film a couple of times, but only now I find the prince very interesting.

Reason for this is the use of another prince, namely in Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. It struck me that both directors use “the prince”, without any explanation, in order to refer to the dark side. It is a confusing game. I’m sure that most of us think of handsome men, when the word “prince” pops up. Both Tarr and Diaz, however, refer to the Prince of Darkness. The Devil. Lucifer. However you want to name him. In Encantos, the prince snatches souls. In Werckmeister, he incites violence. 

carmen and pongapong flower

Neither of them is visible. They are imaginary figures. The presence of the prince in Encantos is more or less announced via the use of the Pongapong Flower, which grows in the main character’s back yard. The mother takes it as a sign for the return of the prince. The flower is interestingly called the Corpse Flower; a poignant choice for the indication of a character’s descent into madness and finally into death. The flower is only a mere attempt to render the invisible visible. In fact, the prince remains unseen and is only talked about.

It is similar to the prince in Werckmeister. His (imaginary?) presence in the town square, accompanied by the whale, incites violence and anger amongst the townspeople. He’s spoken of, and advertised as an attraction of the circus. But he, too, remains a ghost. You may want to assign the name “prince” to the figure the people discover in the hospital’s shower room, if you desire to make him visible.

However, the use of the princes in those two films brings up an interesting thought: slow films have a dark side. Think about Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his use of ghosts (Mekong Hotel comes to mind). It is the acknowledgement of higher spirits. But it is also a return to classical stories. The devil used to be present all the time. In popular film, the baddy isn’t the devil. He’s simply a human baddy. Popular films are “earthly” if you want. Slow films, though not all of them, are kind of earthly-heavenly-spiritual. And they bring the devil back into play, suggesting that not everything can be explained rationally.

Day 20 – Interview with the Earth (Pereda)

Quite a while ago, I watched Summer of Goliath (2010) by Nicolas Pereda, a hugely interesting slow-film director from Mexico. Pereda is not only interesting because of the aesthetics he employs. He is also living in Canada, if I’m not completely mistaken. This means that he always returns “home” for filming. For me, it’s bound to result in an interesting, but also blurred line between objectivity and subjectivity. This isn’t the only blurred line in his films, though.

Pereda is known for his documentary / fiction hybrids. Interview with the Earth (2008), a short film of only twenty minutes, is in no way different from Pereda’s feature films. In fact, it contains material, he later used in Summer.

Interview with the Earth (2009), Nicolas Pereda

The opening of the film brought up one desire: to watch all of his films in the successive orders they were released. When I saw the elderly woman with a chicken on her lap, and the two boys – Nico and Amalio – I had the instant need to watch all of his films. I believe that Pereda’s films are closely linked to one another. It’s a bit like Tsai Ming-liang’s films. Every film has a specific link to the following work. You can watch them as separate, individual films, but the overall message only comes through if you watch them in their successive order.

For Pereda, I would say, it is similar, though I cannot say for sure as I haven’t seen enough films. It is only a feeling after all. The title of his short, Interview with the Earth, makes perhaps little sense at the beginning. You can probably figure it out at some point. But the embodiment of the title appeared right at the end of the film, when Nico recorded sound on a cemetery with a boom and a mic. He is quite literally conducting an interview with the earth, though not by asking questions. Simply by listening, an important asset to have as a viewer of slow films. 

Compared to SummerInterview is a striking experience because of its sound. Earlier this year, I wrote about the effects of music and dialogue on the perceived speed of films. I used the context of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel. Pereda made extensive use of music and sounds here. I couldn’t decipher the instruments that were used, but they created a strangely haunting atmosphere throughout the entire film. In the film itself, we learn about the death of David, a boy who fell off a mountain when picking cacti. Nico and Amalio are interviewed about this event, and there’s also talk about sacrificing a chicken, and burying it on the spot David died.

Interview with the Earth (2009), Nicolas Pereda

The haunting music underlines the seemingly omnipresent aspect of death perfectly. There was something that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Nothing grave, obviously. But what does this music represent? The ghost of David? The haunted or even haunting soul of the dead? In comparison to Mekong Hotel the music in Interview did not increase the perceived speed of the film. I’m not entirely sure why. Apichatpong used simple and slow guitar rhythms, which, on their own, shouldn’t have sped up the film. But they did somehow. It’s a curious thing I’d like to explore in more detail one day.

Anyway, Pereda is one of the discoveries of 2013 I’m really happy with. He’s a great filmmaker, and his films are worth your attention.

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.

The Effects of Music and Dialogue

Yesterday’s screening of Apichatpong’s Mekong Hotel in Glasgow made it obvious to me how problematic the term Slow Cinema is.

The name Apichatpong Weerasethakul appears almost everywhere you look for something written on Slow Cinema. His work is a trademark. Mekong Hotel, however, makes me wonder to what extent films are slow, and whether it wouldn’t be appropriate to narrow the term Slow Cinema to a more specific, cohesive and conclusive part of slow film (and I suggest here, for instance, the slow films that bear similarities to paintings).

Mekong Hotel is slow. Yet, compared to other films by Weerasethakul, and to other slow films in general, his latest short is fairly quick. The reason for this is his slightly different style.

Remember, remember – Michel Chion, and his vococentrism of film. Just like human beings, films are vococentric, that means their focus lies on speech as our ears react faster to external stimuli than our eyes do. I have argued that his point is a clue as to why slow films appear to be slow. They lack dialogue. Our ears are deprived of information, and have to pass on the command to our eyes. We need to read the film with our eyes, which is a much slower process.

Mekong Hotel features a lot of dialogue. There are lengthy passages, which feature two or three characters in conversation. In addition, the film contains a guitar tune which accompanies almost every scene. The ongoing tune in the background keeps feeding our ears with information. Our eyes don’t have to do much. Our ears do the job. I actually blocked my ears for a little while during the screening. The film appeared so much slower!

Both dialogue and music make films appear more time-based, more rhythmic. As soon as this is the case, the effect and perception of slowness is greatly reduced. My avenue towards (the Fine Art of) Slow Cinema as being similar to static arts in terms of their lack of kinetic objects, their framing, their frame composition, and their lack of dialogue and music, is going to address this problem in a bit more detail. But I would like to stress once again that the perception of slowness stems from more than only long-takes and the depiction of mundane every-day activities of characters. Hence the term needs adjustment. And Mekong Hotel serves as a great example for doing exactly this.