Dead Souls – Wang Bing (2018)

It seems as though Chinese director Wang Bing gets better and better. Each film improves on the previous one, and with this I don’t mean that he improves on his aesthetics. Wang Bing stoically, stubbornly continues to pursue his traditional aesthetics, which means nothing more than that he simply films in whatever way necessary or possible. His films are not about beauty, about photographic framing, about characters walking towards a horizon and returning (see Béla Tarr). No, each of his films instead dives deeper into Wang Bing’s overall aim of telling the story of his country, of (re-)writing China’s official history. His films are like lengthy books à la Dostoievsky or Tolstoy, using the entire span of 900 pages or more to create a fundamental piece that outlives a single generation. 

His previous film, Mrs Fang (2017), had already been an astonishing film, an important cinematic exploration of Alzheimer’s, of our slow death in the face of an impossible disease that doesn’t allow us to go gracefully. The director’s intimate portrait drew controversy. The ethics of filmmaking became an important part in our discussion as critics and cinephiles alike. What everyone was in agreement, however, was that Wang Bing had created something special, something that goes under the skin and that is not so easily shaken off. 

Dead Souls, the director’s new film, is a monumental achievement. In over eight hours, shot over the course of more than ten years, Dead Souls, too, is an intimate portrait, or rather a collection of intimate portraits that go under the skin, albeit in a different way than Mrs Fang. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare the film to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. On the contrary, one could go as far as arguing that Dead Souls was the Shoah of the 21st century. It’s difficult to explain in words. Both films need to be seen in parallel in order to see the similarities. Yet, I don’t want to place too much emphasis on this, because I believe that Dead Souls needs to be, and deserves to be, seen in its own light.

Wang Bing has always used film in order to tell untold stories. His films, shot without official approval and without treading the official way of making films, i.e. submitting scripts for approval with a final censorship part at the end, fill in those blanks left by history books that merely tell the heroic parts of a country that is fascinating and scarily powerful and dangerous at the same time. History is used to form a common basis for national identity. History is always written by those who have fought and won a war, those who have heroically fallen into the hands of the enemy during the fight for his/her motherland. It is written by those who have ideological interests, by those who have to justify their gruesome acts. 

Every country has this famous skeleton in the closet, and China certainly is no different. They seem to be even more secret about some of their excesses than other countries and those “black holes” make for a mysterious and frightening atmosphere. Dead Souls pierces this black hole. Wang Bing holds a torch into it to shine light onto the plights of hundreds of thousands so called rightists, people who have, in the eyes of officials, not been supportive of the movement, or have even been critical of the government. It was the late 50s, and there was a broad sweep particularly against intellectuals. Jiabiangu, the name of the camp complex, where people had been sent for re-education, has hoovered over Wang Bing’s work before. His film He, Fengming was part of his ongoing effort to collect testimony about the period. And so was The Ditch, a failed feature film that aimed at showing what life in the camps was like. 

In Dead Souls, Wang Bing returns to his way of filmmaking which he had used for Fengming. This means that what mattered most to him was the recording of testimony. He put the camera on his lap, on a table, somewhere stable (or not necessarily) in order to record a person’s memories of the time. “I am a former nationalist. I had to re-educate myself and adopt communist thought.” This is how Wang Bing’s new film begins. Zhou Huinan, 85 years old, speaks about the time when people had been encouraged to criticise the Party. It was a cunning way of the Chinese government to lure people into the trap that would kill hundreds of thousands in a form of auto-genocide that resembles measures takes by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia later on, or which the Stalinist rulers undertook twenty years ealier. Zhou Huinan’s fault was his criticism of the lack of democracy. The result: a lengthy period at a camp, in which people died slowly in front of him of starvation. Sitting on a bench next to his wife, who visited him several times and who struggles to make herself heard in front of the camera, he seems a proud man, someone who has put the events behind him. He mentions his brother, a highly intelligent man who had been tasked with evaluating already validated town plans. He had been promoted several times, before he, too, was taken to a camp. 

A harsh cut brings us into a completely different world. Despite his age and his experience in the camp, Zhou Huinan still embodies life. On the other hand, his brother, Zhou Zhinan, 82 years old, is a shadow of himself. Wang Bing films him in bed, suffering, dying, and tries to get a testimony. This very scene, painful and heart-rendering, hearing the whispers of a once strong man, is essential for the rest of the film. After a rather brief testimony, Wang Bing cuts to Zhou Zhinan’s funeral. In a lengthy sequence of scenes, we witness the burial of the man we had seen earlier, his son struggling with accepting the death of his father. Several times throughout the film, the director notifies us about the passing of those he spoke to. What this creates is a sense of urgency that wasn’t as clear in Lanzman’s Shoah. When I watched Lanzman’s opus, I had the feeling that the director had time for his project. Those he interviewed were elderly, but not yet on the threshold of death. With Wang Bing, this is different. 

Dead Souls is an urgent film. Testimonies of men aged over 90, as is the case with Gao Guifan (97) who, filmed with a shaky handheld camera, says little else than “It’s the end. I want to die as quickly as possible. Dead, I’ll suffer less,” are common and one feels the director’s desire to get those testimonies on record in order to allow their voices to live on. Men eating human flesh, men cutting open the dead in order to collect the intestines and eat them, a father killing his eldest daughter so that his family could eat and therefore survive a little longer (this story is based on a rumour one of the men heard), men turning into animals – all of this must not die with those victim-survivors. 

“You lose your humanity.”

“It had become banal to see dead people.”

“People no longer resembled human beings.”

Many of those Wang Bing speaks to go into a lot of detail of their ordeal. It becomes a collection of sort, but there are certain phrases that cut into you like a knife, and it’s those that will stay with you. The aim of turning humans into non-humans, of letting them slowly die – “People didn’t go in excruciating pain, they slowly passed away,” says Gu Huimin, 84 years old – is the most evident characteristic of a concentrationary system that has sadly found its application in so many parts of the world. China is no different, but China refuses to acknowledge the existence of those camps and the unnecessary deaths of innocent men and women. 

The people the director speaks to are different in the way they have dealt with their past experience. Or perhaps, they are still traumatised and what they have endured and seen has broken them forever. Lao Zonghua, 75 years old and interviewed in 2010, reminded me of Bomba in Shoah, the man who smiles all the time. Lao Zonghua became almost uncomfortable to watch with his persistent laughs about the terrible things he has experienced. Is he one of Wang Bing’s dead souls? 

Or are the dead souls those who Wang Bing and survivors look for in the desert? As in Lanzman’s Shoah, those who survived return to the place where everything happened, only to find almost nothing left. Nature has taken over. What’s left are bones and skulls. One doesn’t need to dig in order to find them. They’re there for everyone to see. An open secret of China’s brutal history. Just like Lav Diaz in his eight-hour film Melancholia, Wang Bing becomes an archeologist here. He uncovers, he unearthes. In discussions with survivors, in visiting the place of a silenced auto-genocide to record what is left. Every little helps to piece the country’s unwritten, and yet certainly essential history together for future generations who must know about this, and who, hopefully, take their government to account one day. 

“If we’re alive today, it’s at the cost of your lives.”

“Only death could have ended that suffering.”

Zhao Tiemin is visibly angry at what he had been put through. He is the first in the film who speaks without questions needing to be asked. Wang Bing intervenes rarely, letting Zhao Tiemin take over. His testimony is interesting not only regarding its content, but also in the way it is given; openly, freely, without fear, but with a lot of anger. Others, such as Zhao Binghun, are more reserved. This particular man reminded me of my grandpa who felt uncomfortable answering questions about his past and who had initially responded in short sentence to all my questions, followed by “And what else do you want to know?” There is hesitation. Can I say this? Do I want to talk about this? There is, of course, shame and the fear that the memories, if spoken about, become to vivid and painful. Chen Zhonghai, 85 years old, remembers having lied to a fellow prisoner who asked him for a bit of roasted flour. He told him he didn’t have any, a lie. It was about his own survival. The other prisoner died of starvation. One can see the feeling of shame, Chen Zonghai, sitting on a sofa with a jacket over his left arm and his left trouser leg rolled up, the man has endured since then. 

For those who have seen Fengming or even Lav Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) it is possibly evident what the director aims to do here. He blurs the boundaries of listener and viewer. Dead Souls is not so much a film to view, but a film to listen to. While the body language of those who testify in front of the camera can certainly be interesting, it is of much larger interest to simply listen, to lend our ears to those who have something to say. Wang Bing’s film gives them a platform for their experiences, for their shame, for their guilt, for their anger. With this part of history having been silenced, so have been the survivors. Film becomes a tool to break this silence and to allow those who need to tell their stories to find listeners. Only then can a traumatic narrative be turned into a normal life narrative and free the survivors. 

But what about the film’s title? Dead Souls. Over the course of eight hours, one aspects becomes undoubtedly clear: those who survived, no longer have a soul. They should have helped their fellows. And this is precisely where Wang Bing is going with this. Humans are no longer humans. They struggle for survival. They have been put into situations where humanity, where souls, don’t have a place. In order to survive, one needs to kill one’s soul, one’s human nature, one’s empathy. The men we see in Wang Bing’s film might differ from one another. They are different in the way they give their testimony, different in the way they narrate their suffering, different in how they have handled those horrible experiences. But they share the tragic loss of their soul. 

The weeping meadow – Theo Angelopoulos (2004)

It took me much longer than usual to write my new blog post, which is primarily down to health reasons. An inflamed elbow could, in theory, be a blessing if you want to see films. What do you need your arm for? The problem was that Ì couldn’t take notes over the course of three hours, as it would have been the case with my very first Angelopoulos film. I had to give my arm a rest, all the while trying hard to progress with The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine, which is almost, almost, very nearly done! 

There isn’t always a particular reason for why certain directors are not yet in my A to Z list. Theo Angelopoulos, from Greece, is one of those filmmakers that have been named in the context of Slow Cinema pretty much from the beginning. Yet so far, I have never written about him. I have been asked about the reasons for this several times before. There has never been anything in particular which made me avoid Angelopoulos until now. Once my PhD took a turn towards the films of Lav Diaz, I felt that I had to focus on those first of all, or on others that seemed slightly similar.

Now, there is something about The Weeping Meadows that I find difficult to put into words, and I’m not even sure what it really is. Let me say it with a screen grab…

This is not only a beautiful shot, albeit it needs to be seen in movement in order to be appreciated properly. The Weeping Meadow is a film, which continues where Andrei Tarkovsky left off with The Sacrifice. In this very film, Angelopoulos is the most Tarkovskian of Slow Cinema directors. All slow films are, in one way or another, put into the context of Tarkovsky’s “sculpting in time” concept. Especially at the beginning of writing about Slow Cinema, the Tarkovskian philosophy was everywhere. This has receded quite a bit in the last two years or so. Perhaps, critics have realised that Tarkovsky itself isn’t as present in most slow films as they had wished for. Of course, Slow Cinema as a genre, or whatever you might call it, is indebted to the work of Tarkovsky, but the Russian director wasn’t the only inspiration. He was a late inspiration that, I believe, helped Slow Cinema reach its fulfilment. 

But let’s return to Angelopoulos whose The Weeping Meadow is the first part of the director’s trilogy about modern Greece, a trilogy he could sadly not finish. I’m almost sure that I might create a neologism here if I said that Meadow was a “wide” film. Every scene feels like a deep inhale, visuals that fill and feed your lungs. Do we ever exhale? To be honest, I’m not sure. Meadow felt like a series of inhales, or even one very long, three-hour long inhale. Scenes are wide-angled, and even if the frames are tight from time to time, a delicate zoom out allows us take a breath. Angelopoulos’s visual mark is width more than anything. It is about taking a step back, about taking a look at the wider picture. There is something about the smooth and delicate camera movement and its angles that makes it feel perfectly organic. It certainly is, after Tarkovsky’s Mirror, the most explicit example of Daniel Frampton’s ‘filmind’, which I have mentioned several times on this blog already.

The particular camera movements, which Tarkovsky had used in Mirror, for example when he explored Andrei’s seemingly empty flat, find their perfect copy in Angelopoulos work. Delicate zoom outs or zoom ins, a searching camera that very much embodies a searching person – one cannot deny that Angelopoulos created a major homage to the Russian director. And then there is The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last piece which I considered to be a cinematic theatre play. The entire nature of the setting, of character behaviour, of dialogue – nothing really felt as though the aim of the film was to create a film. Rather, the aim seemed to have been to merge different art forms and their different natures, create a crossover and thereby create something new, or, if not that, showing how similar all art forms really are. 

Meadow has very little of a film. The screen grab above, of Spyros, an elderly man – lonely, depressed – who has been betrayed by his son, who fled with his own wife-to-be, is the most explicit statement of it, and the scene didn’t come as a surprise in terms of its aesthetics. It was the fitting culmination of the feeling I had had about the film until then. I’m allergic to films in which actors and actresses stage something from their life, instead of live the role they’re meant to embody. Yet, Meadow falls into another category. The perfect orchestration between wide, observational camera movements and the specific theatre-like play of the characters creates a special cinematic experience, an experience that questions the strict categorisation of art forms and, therefore, also of audiences. 

Angelopoulos’ story isn’t extraordinary as such. We follow Eleni, adopted as a young girl by Spyros and his wife, who, at the beginning of the film, flee the Russian Revolution and who return home to Greece. Much later, Eleni becomes Spyros chosen one, but his son, Alexis, runs away with Eleni. The two, always on the run, become a prism through which the viewer travels through Greek history up until the Greek civil war. It is a story that has been told dozens of times, by people from other countries, from other regions, other backgrounds. The theme of seeking refugee during political upheaval is very much the core of the film, interspersed with love scenes that are almost too much. It is a traditional film, with a traditional structure, and yet Meadow is standing out from those classical treatments of love, change and refuge at times of war. 

Of course, there are the specific contemplative aesthetics, which help the film to stand out. Without them, the film would have been forgotten by people long ago. Essentially, Meadow‘s downside is its horizontal development. It is a look at the outside of things, at the outside of characters and their lives. Angelopoulos didn’t create a psychological film. He didn’t allow the film to develop vertically, i.e. we never really get into the characters. It is a “surface film”, a piece that stays on the surface, but Angelopoulos covers this weakness so cleverly, so breathtakingly, so rigorously that there is never really a doubt about its power and its strength. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the second part of the trilogy.

Arresting trauma – Martti Helde’s In The Crosswinds (2014)

“On the night of 14 June 1941, more than 40,000 innocent people were deported from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The aim of this secret operation – done on Stalin’s orders – was to ethnically cleanse the Baltic countries of their native peoples.”

In the context of my research into the representation of post-trauma in the films of Lav Diaz, I have published a few posts here on this blog, which equally dealt with the subject. There is, first of all, a rather personal account of my dealing with PTSD and how Slow Cinema helped me to become more mindful. There is also an article on the link between Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory. In fact, throughout my research and my trying to come to terms with my own experience, I have realised that trauma research focuses almost exclusively on the aspect of speed (as mentioned in my PhD thesis). There is little doubt that life after trauma is different. Anxiety and panic introduce an aspect of speed to one’s life that seemingly spirals out of control. But there is also an aspect that tends to be forgotten: an aspect of duration and slowness. It can take a while before post-trauma, for instance, manifests itself in the body/psyche. Traumatic memories return over and over again, a circular repetition that makes the actual post-trauma life seem endless. You can read more about the aspect of slowness in the context of trauma in my thesis.

In my thesis, I have argued that Diaz’s use of absence and long duration effectively (and affectively!) represents post-trauma without ever showing the traumatic event that has led to the character’s suffering. What matters is the time spent on the character and on his/her suffering. Quite some time ago, I have come across an Estonian film, which I rewatched yesterday and I cannot not write about this film. Perhaps, it is not a traditional, straightforward slow film, and yet it is a film that uses slowness, duration and absence for a representation of post-trauma (or trauma-in-the-making), but in a completely different way.

The film begins with white letters on a black screen. There is no sound. The quietness reinforces the meaning of the dates and numbers that characterise the deportation of over 40,000 innocent people. Filmmaker Martti Helde sets a historical context and explains that his film In The Crosswinds (2014) is based on letters written by Erna Tamm, who had been writing to her husband from whom she was separated during the deportation. For me, Crosswinds stands out as a remarkable experiment on how trauma can be represented on screen without turning it into a spectacle, which is always an ethical problem filmmakers have to negotiate. There is one characteristic in which Diaz’s and Helde’s representation of traumatic events are similar: the directors’ use of absence. Neither Diaz nor Helde show traumatic events on screen. Even though Helde does focus on the actual deportation, his approach to its representation allows for empty space that needs to be filled by the spectator. Atrocities such as mass killings and rape are not shown on screen. Helde shows the before and after, or a voice over informs us about the traumatic event. Yet, the director positions us, confusingly, within the traumatic event without showing all the terrible details, all the while making sure that we cannot be mistaken about what’s really happening.

“Heldur, time has taken on another dimension. The temporary has passed. We measure time by the news that reaches us. That way the days and weeks seem shorter.”

All of this might sound like films I have spoken about before in the context of slowness and trauma. And yet, Crosswinds stands out in one specific way, and it addresses several themes I have mentioned on this blog before. The film has, in fact, two sides to it. Each follows its own temporality, its own aesthetic. Let’s begin with flashbacks, memories of the good times, times before the start of the deportation. The film starts in greyscale. A voice over says, “I received your letter. I’m in your homeland.” The camera, with its beautiful and graceful movements, explores a backyard. There is a blooming apple tree, Erna sorting the laundry. Inside the house, we see her, her husband Heldur and her daughter Eliide having breakfast. The sun is shining. It’s a wonderful image of peace. They talk to one another, but the viewer is excluded from their conversation. Helde silences the voices and focuses instead on ambient sound in order to reinforce this image of quietude and peace. These times of before return once or twice during the film. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the deportation, the journey to and life in Siberia, and the struggles of the deported to survive.

The deportation set something in motion that one would call traumatisme in French. The English language doesn’t have a clear-cut distinction between the traumatic event and the psychological reaction. Not all traumatic events lead to PTSD, albeit PTSD is the only term that makes it absolutely clear that you’re speaking about something post trauma. In Helde’s film, the impact of trauma (the event) is represented on screen by a literal arrest, a stoppage of time and of movement. Crosswinds is a film, in which, in the majority of scenes, characters do not move. They’re standing still, arrested in certain positions while the camera circles around them. It feels as though you’re walking through a haunted past, photographs that have arrested the atrocities committed on Stalin’s orders. It is as though the deported are put to rest (albeit not in a good way). When Erna’s family is arrested, we don’t see the actual arrest. Helde places all three characters on the back of a lorry, sitting still, watching in fear. The soundscape tells us that officers smash glass in the family house. But only the sound tells us of this violent attack. There is no image of it. When the lorry arrives at the local train station, the camera circles around hundreds of to-be-deported people: children, women, men, old and young, rich and poor. There seemed to have been no one who was spared. Everyone on the platform stands as though arrested. The violent scenes we know from Holocaust cinema, in which the spectator is confronted with crying children, begging mothers, shots in the air, forceful commands etc are not present here. What happens instead is that life comes to a halt. Trauma arrests time. Trauma disrupts the continuation of time towards the future. It’s a ghostly atmosphere. It is as though the people on the train platform are already dead, still, stiff, a mere memory of the past (to get a better idea of what I’m speaking of you should watch this scene!).

“We’re prisoners of nature. I wonder if there have ever been any prisoners with so much space that you long for boundaries.”

Crosswinds focuses on Erna’s story, her attempt at survival, the tragic loss of Eliide, who became weaker by the day. Starvation is rampant. So are diseases. Erna’s daughter is one of many who survive the deportation, but not life in Siberia. In a voice over, we’re told that of the 51 women in Erna’s train waggon, 42 made it to the destination. One mother killed herself and her child on the journey.

Every woman is expected to work. They chop wood day in day out, in freezing temperatures with little food that is not even enough for a child. Erna strikes up a friendship with Hermiine, but even she cannot protect Erna from sexual assault and rape in exchange for a loaf of bread. The camera is constantly in movement. It is as free as the camera in Béla Tarr’s films, but its function is different in Crosswinds. Helde’s camera is searching for something or someone. It is always looking for something, not knowing what it would find. There are a lot of empty frames which the camera uses as a cue to keep moving, to keep looking. Here again it might be worth returning to my post about the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in order to see how a film can be created in such a way that it appears to have its own mind, its own ways of thinking. Apart from ZerkaloCrosswinds stands out as the other great example of this.

It takes almost fifty minutes before we see Heldur again, separated from his wife on the platform. Because of Erna’s letter, we learn that the men were deported into another direction. Whereto – this isn’t mentioned at all, but those with knowledge about the war have an idea of what this means. Heldur, dressed almost in rags, head shaven, stands in front of a table behind which three Soviet officers are seated. Helde let’s us guess that this is a make-shift tribunal where Heldur is sentenced to death. The camera spins around the room, while everything else is in arrest. This sequence of scene is the clearest in which the film’s aesthetics represent the action on screen. The non-movement, the two-fold arrest of Heldur (as a prisoner and as a character who doesn’t move), the ghostly images, foreshadow his fate. His non-movement means nothing other than his death.

“Because what is freedom worth if you have to pay for it with solitude?”

It takes the death of Stalin for Erna to be able to return to Estonia. Although she had promised Heldur that she would try to find him after the war, she no longer has any idea of where to look for. “Maybe below the soil?” Erna’s words are poignant, and it took her 47 years to learn that her husband had been murdered. What remains are still, arresting and arrested images of the past that continue to haunt. Because of their stillness, the images Helde has created stay with you. The long duration of the scenes, the stillness of the image, the haunting (visual) absence of atrocities all contribute to a remarkable film experience that, to me, represents perhaps most adequately the post trauma.

Phantom Islands – Rouzbeh Rashidi (2018)

What happens if you plan to write a post on a film that you have been sent to, but find yourself at a loss for words? What happens if the film you have seen makes you think not only of the actual film but about what cinema is and can be? How can I put everything (and all this nothing) that is in my head into words?

Last year, I wrote an article on Straub-Huillet and pondered what “cinema” really meant. Does cinema necessarily mean moving images? Does it necessarily mean a progression of narrative? I came to the conclusion that the definition of cinema could and should be much wider than is sometimes the case. Phantom Islands, which will premiere next week in Ireland, also asked me to consider cinema rather than a single film. Rouzbeh Rashidi has created an experiential film, rather than simple a film per se. Regardless of what I’m going to write here, it won’t allow you to actually feel what the movie does to its audience. Rashidi’s work is complex, episodic, mysterious. It is asking you to think, to reflect and to be with him on this journey to Phantom Island. A physical journey, maybe. But, most important of all, I found that Phantom Islands is a journey through the mind, through the mind’s eye, perhaps even through yourself.

There is something that permeates the entire film and that didn’t let me go. It was Rashidi’s decision to blur most images to varying degrees. No image is fully clear. Neither is it completely blurred. Rashidi plays with degrees of masking, something that gives Phantom Islands a feeling of being exactly this: a phantom. The film, the characters, the scenery, even the music – all of this has a strangely unreal, surreal feeling. As if a ghost creeps up on you without it being a horror film. As if you dream. As if you merely imagine things in your seat instead of watching something that has been created for you to see. It is as if Rashidi puts mind images on screen. Phantom Islands is not a film as such. It is a collection of mind images, sometimes mere flashes of thoughts, sometimes more complex thoughts that take time to develop.

There are several instances in the film, when Rashidi uses quick cuts. The cuts come at an interval that is close to a blink of an eye. A bit longer than that, but still short enough to allow a comparison to my blinking eye, my blinking mind’s eye. This way of cutting made me believe that what I saw was happening in my head. It was a story that played out in my mind. I was the one who blurred the images because I didn’t have clear recollections of the past. This, too, is Phantom Islands: a blurring of the lines between what is and what isn’t, between what is and what has been. The film works like memory: it remembers, but it also forgets. It distorts, it blurs. It makes sense, and it doesn’t. What often remains are images that you’re baffled by, a narrative element that you try to piece together to form an entity.

What do we do to piece memories together? What do we do to keep a record of the past? We take photographs, one of the small but very important elements in Rashidi’s film. The woman protagonist takes polaroid photographs, interestingly showing the photo towards the camera so that we can observe how the polaroid slowly develops into a photo, a photo that nevertheless never really clears up. In the past, photography has been associated with death. Photographs as arrested images, as “killing” something in order to keep it. The photographs the woman holds in her hands appear to haunt us, them, the viewer when s/he walks home. It is one of those uncomfortable situation that makes you wonder whether what you see is not perhaps something paranormal. Here it is once more: the phantom.

It is this very nature of Phantom Islands that asks the viewer to engage in the process of filmmaking. Tarkovsky famously said that a good film should never be finished at the end of the editing process. On the contrary, it should start a new life once it is viewed by an audience. This is precisely what’s happening in and with Phantom Islands. Rashidi hasn’t finished the film. We are the ones who finish it in our heads, both while viewing the film and after. Through the film’s specific aesthetics, Rashidi positions us as the main actor/actress. He makes us believe that what we see happens in our mind. He tricks us, and in so doing, creates a very powerful experimental film that I would like to see again and again, because I know that there is so much to see, so much to discover, to explore. So many questions to ask, so many answers to give.

Year 2017 in review

I’m not someone who likes lists, all sorts of The best films…The worst films… etc I never saw a point of social media getting obsessed with someone’s subjective opinion, with someone they have never even met or heard of rating a particular film at the top of their list. I have been asked whether I could put a list of my top slow films together, but I will do it differently here.

First of all, I’d like to thank the over 52,000 people who have dropped by this year. Of those, over 24,000 were unique visitors, new people who have discovered The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. The blog is now five years old. I changed servers last year, so I no longer have statistics for every year. But I think that this year has been the strongest in the blog’s history and I reckon around 200,000 to 250,000 people have so far viewed the blog since October 2012. These are abstract numbers, they quantify what’s going on on the blog. To me, those numbers show the growing interest in Slow Cinema / Contemplative Cinema. It’s not my work the people come here for. I know maybe 0,5% of those who drop by. It’s their interest in this type of film that brings them to The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, away from standard writing, from standard analysis. Those people want to discover what’s beyond the already-written, the already-said, and that makes me very happy. I will keep going for as long as I can, and you can help me with that by supporting the blog on Patreon.

2017 has been a year in which I did not discover single films as such, but rather almost entire oeuvres. I looked through my posts and noticed that, unconsciously, I returned time and again to the same directors; Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman. That was completely accidental. I usually try to vary my writing, but those two directors demanded more attention from me. I watched 4 films by Wang Bing alone; 15 hours of material that really struck me. I started of with West of the Tracks, Wang Bing’s nine-hour long documentary about the collapse of the Tie Xi Qu industrial complex. It was my first long film by the Chinese director, and the more films I watched by him the more I became fascinated by how much you can do with so very little. For those who know Wang Bing, it is a well-known fact that he often works clandestinely, with a small handheld camera and no real crew. He simply records what he sees. West of the Tracks is a masterpiece that was for me this year the perfect introduction to Wang Bing’s work. I had seen one or two of his works before, but that particular film had the effect that I had missed until then: the desire to see more. And so I did; Bitter Money, a superb film about young migrant workers trying to earn a living in clothes factories; Three Sisters, a look at the life of three sisters, aged 10, 6 and 4, who live alone in the mountains as their father is a migrant worker in a city nearby; and Mrs Fang, a film that was my personal discovery of the year. If someone really forced me to name a Film of the Year, it would be Mrs Fang. My aim for next year is to see and review Crude Oil and Till Madness Do Us Part. That would complete my journey through the lengthy works of Wang Bing, and I really cannot wait to see more films in future (although they do take up a lot of time!!).

The second director who stayed with me throughout the year was Chantal Akerman. It is perhaps the coincidence of my embarking on a journey through my family history during the war that brought me closer to the films of Akerman, films that are full of history, memory, and trauma. Of course, there are films in which those themes are not as present. But the two films I did see this year (I should have seen more!) had those very much at their centre; No Home MovieAkerman’s last film, and News from Home, albeit the former is much more explicit on this and, perhaps with Là-bas, the most explicit film about the family’s past. News from Home is, now that I think about the two films in retrospect, a great companion piece to No Home Movie, a sort of mirror image. Akerman left Belgium to live and work in the US. The film shows us images of the United States in the 1970s. We never see Akerman, but we do hear her reading letters she had received from her mother. There was anxiety in the words of Akerman’s mother; anxiety about whether her daughter could make it, about whether money she had sent had arrived, about not hearing from her daughter for a long time. There was a distance that could only be bridged by letters. Then there is this moving scene in No Home Movie, with Akerman filming a Skype call she had with her mother: “I want to show that there is no distance anymore.” Akerman’s portrait of her increasingly frail mother is superb and, in some ways, went well with Wang Bing’s Mrs Fang.

Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman hardly make for cheery films. And so my counterpart to all of this was the Living trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson, comprised of Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence (2014). With seven years in between each of the films, Andersson took his time to craft a superb trilogy on the human condition, on our mundane lives, our mundane struggles, and yes, also about our WTF actions, actions that make you go “yes, we do this but why the heck are we doing this in the first place?” The Living trilogy is one of the few slow films (or slow film compilation) that come with a lot of humour, even though it’s dark humour. It’s not that often that we find cheery slow films. It’s usually Albert Serra who makes up for the lack of humour in Slow Cinema. This year, I learned that Roy Andersson joins the rank of slow clowns, and I still have all his short films to watch! Very much looking forward to seeing more by Andersson in the next year.

Then there was the marvellous Five by Abbas Kiarostami, which I finally had the chance to watch, and it was one of those experiences that are difficult to forget. It’s primarily the last sequence that still stays with me, the long take of a lake at night, the moon light reflecting on the surface until dark clouds cover it and a storm arrives. An absolutely superb observation of a perfectly natural phenomenon, but filmed in a rather obscure way so that, for a long time, one wonders what’s happening. Outside my director studies this year, Five was the single most interesting film I have seen in 2017.

Overall, 2017 was a good year for slow films…at least on my blog. I have also read quite a bit. There was this great book about contemporary art and time, for example. And, of course, the most wonderful Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. I already have three books in store for next year, so there will be more to come in 2018. More books, more Wang Bing and who else? We will see that soon!

I wish all of my readers a peaceful end of the year, a Happy New Year in advance, and you’ll hear from me again very soon!!

The filmind in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo

What follows are bits and pieces from an article I drafted six years ago about the Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo and Daniel Frampton’s filmind. At the time, I approached several scholars with some thoughts on the issue and have been met with hostility. Scholars were not open to it, found it ridiculous even or plainly told me that everything that needs to be said about Tarkosvky has been said. The result was that the draft I’m copying from for this blog post ended up in a cardboard box never to be touched again, half way forgotten until I rewatched the film on a big screen. When I reread the draft, I was struck by its focus on memory and trauma, which I was to develop in full in my PhD. Personally, that was interesting to see. I found the roots, or at least some roots of my PhD.

So let me begin by explaining Frampton’s filmind, a concept which he developed in his book Filmosophy. Hugo Münsterberg already noted in his essay The Photoplay – A psychological Study (1916)“The photoplay obeys the laws of the mind rather than those of the outer world.” In a similar vein, Frampton considers film a thinking being, albeit he never actually equalises man and film. In fact, he stresses that film thinking is different from human thinking because first, it thinks in a different world (a film-world), and, second, it thinks in other dimensions. He grounds his arguments on complex research into previous suggestions by philosophers, psychologists and film theorists that there is a connection between film and the human mind.

The filmind is the origin and source of all images and sounds. It creates and designs the film world, it makes decisions, and “serves itself, the drama, its characters, its narrator, or even an outside force other than just itself” (Frampton, 2006: 81). Every action we encounter is the direct result of dramatic film-thinking. It visualises ideas, feelings and emotions, which distinguishes it from human thinking. Frampton speaks of three types of film thinking: 1) basic film thinking (general design, b/w or colour, places objects and characters into film world); 2) formal film thinking (adds movement, framing, speed, angles etc); 3) fluid film thinking (special effects and distortions). Basic and formal film thinking are always closely related; fluid film thinking is not present in every film. It’s presence depends on the overall purpose of said film.

Frampton gave film a hitherto unacknowledged human feature, and therefore releases it from the constraints of contemporary film analysis. If film is capable of thinking, if we assume that it possesses its own mind, then it is likewise capable of recollecting and remembering past events. I will explore the existence of the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in the following paragraphs and will look specifically at narrative construction, the use of colour, speed and sound. I will also demonstrate its ability to commemorate certain events. Again, this was written 6 years ago, but I now see very strong links to my later work concerning film and its ability to help commemorate and help start the healing process, both for the viewer and of the director.

Director Tarkovsky wrote in his book Sculpting in Time: “It occurred to me then, that from these properties of memory a new working principle could be developed, on which an extraordinarily interesting film might be built…It would be the story of [the hero’s] thoughts, memories and dreams…without his appearing at all.” (2008:29)

His autobiographical film Mirror was released in 1975, condemned as artistic failure in the USSR, acclaimed in the West. Following his idea of creating a new type of film, Mirror is a cinematic treatment of memory recollection through dream sequences and archive footage that trace the past of a dying man. It shows memories from his childhood prior to the Second World War, from his adolescence but it also reveals past-time experiences of Soviet society.

The filmind obscures past and present events, and makes the first visible in that it deliberately undertakes an act of remembering, which, as Biró stresses in her book Turbulence and Flow in Film, is an intentional “attempt to recapture the past.” (2008: 84) The obscurity of it derives from its possibility to visualise memory in its purest form; twisted and conjured, expressed through a mixture of colour palettes and, often enough, a change of paces of past events.

The thought of narrative

The first point I would like to discuss is Mirror’s narrative structure as part of an act of remembering. Sutton writes that “a temporal asymmetry is built in to autobiographical memory, in that (again) we are inevitably realist about the past, conceiving of past events as being all, in principle, integratable on a single temporal sequence” (2010). We therefore attach more “significance to specific events, so that our temporal orientation is by particular times rather than simply by rhythm or places.” (Ibid)

Mirror covers three distinct time spans; the mid-1930s, the time of the Second World War and the present day, presumably set in the 1970s. A direct translation from memory to moving image, Mirror juxtaposes scenes from all three times without giving clear signposts as to what era we find ourselves in. As Biró emphasises, signposts in form of intertitles, change of camera angle or a switch to a dramatic movement in music were inevitable at the age of silent films and early classic Hollywood productions. But, as she also points out, the lack of signposts in today’s films opens up a playful approach to linear narrative structure (2008:93). At the same time, it allows for a breaking of the cinematic spell in that it forces the filmgoer to actively interact with the elements he is presented with. Driven by unconscious frustration, he is required to arrange the plot elements chronologically and fill in gaps in order to create a solid story and thus achieve satisfaction from the narrative. Furthermore, for Tarkovsky, it is a step towards reality. In his book he poses the question of how it would be possible to “reproduce what a person sees within himself, all his dreams, both sleeping and waking.” (2008: 71) His answer is as simple as it is effective. The reproduction of a dream, or a memory, must be the exact copy of the natural phenomenon. Therefore, his filmind moves along the same asymmetric way as part of a journey in its inside.

Except for the very last scene, the filmind’s journey into the protagonist’s memories starts and ends in the present to establish a framework for the Here and Now. It also reveals what triggers the memories: Alexei, the protagonist, whose lack of physical presence allows for substituting his mind with a filmind which takes the journey for him, lies on his deathbed. His son Ignat turns on the TV and we become witness of a young adult liberated from his stuttering through séance. It is an allegory to the already mentioned cinematic spell, which, too, is broken through first paralysing the filmgoer due to its different nature, then bringing him back into reality.

What follows is a hardly clear-cut childhood memory of the protagonist, which again opens up a debate of the existence of a filmind. Maria sits on a fence outside her house looking across a field. A doctor approaches from afar and asks for the right way to Tomshino. He flirts with her, but his compliments fall on deaf ears. Maria rejects his advances, threatening to call her husband. Seeing that she doesn’t wear a ring, however, the doctor assumes she isn’t married at all. When he asks her for a cigarette, she turns around and watches her two children sleeping in a hammock. One of them is Alexei, the protagonist. His apparent inability to observe the situation prevents the filmgoer from connecting this memory with Alexei. It cannot be part of his memory, but that of a filmind, which takes over as an omniscient mind to broaden the perspective of the time. Frampton writes that “Integral to the power of the filmind is its knowledge of the whole – its transcendence” (2006: 84) and it can therefore visualise the memories not only of one character, but of an ensemble of characters.

A further example is young Asafiev, a boy of Alexei’s age, who, after having thrown a deceptively real hand grenade into the firing range, is expelled from the place and leaves to climb up a small hill to look over the range. Having reached the top, a bird lands on his hat. Meanwhile, Alexei, as the protagonist, is still undertaking the shooting practice. He would have been unable to see, and therefore, remember the bird on Asafiev’s hat. Once again, it is the filmind with its knowledge of the whole, which gives us access to that specific memory.

Likewise, the role of the newsreel images is vital as part of an omniscient presence. They are less an expression of personal memory, but that of a communal remembrance of a whole country. The first are almost violently interrupted by the latter in form of historical archive footage, which – contrary to the film’s structure – unravels in chronological order. Just as the film is set in separate times, so are the archival images. The pre-Second World War time shows images from the Spanish Civil War, a record-breaking Soviet balloon ascent as well as the successful flight over the North Pole by Valery Chkalov in 1937. The next set of footage includes the crossing of Lake Sivash in 1943, the liberation of Prague two years later and the iconic image of the Hiroshima bomb.

All events result in either personal tragedy, as for example in the death of the balloon crew during their ascent, or one for a country, as it was the case with Spain and Japan. This is striking in that it expresses (a) haunted soul(s) as much as an imperative feature of memory; the tendency to remember events with a high emotional attachment more vividly than any other collected memory. Ochsner draws attention to the still valid hypothesis that “emotion will increase the distinctiveness with which an event is encoded in memory” (2000: 244) and that this distinctiveness is dependent on the amount of attributes available (Ibid). The newsreel images, illustrations of collective memory (see The Thought of Memory for further analysis), intensify the act of remembering because they arouse powerful, emotional attributes; pride and triumph, loss and sadness.

Due to its fragmented structure, Mirror opposes the classic narrative cinema, which Hayward defines as “made up of motivated signs that lead the spectator through the story to its inevitable conclusion.” (2003: 46) The reason for this is Mirror’s similarity to the act of remembering. Memories are often recalled in fragments, which are neither in a clear temporal order nor with an apparent causality. Thus, the act of remembering seems to stand in stark contrast to a narrative.

Bordwell and Thompson give an illustration of the effect of the absence of both in a conventional narrative sense: “All the components of our definition – causality, time, and space – are important to narratives in most media, but causality and time are central. A random string of events is hard to understand as a story. Consider the following actions: ‘A man tosses and turns, unable to sleep. A mirror breaks. A telephone rings.’ We have trouble grasping this as a narrative because we are unable to determine the causal or temporal relations among the events.” (2008: 75)

Causality and temporal order are vital for a conventional narrative. Thus, in the early days of classic Hollywood cinema plot and story were alike. Films like Welles’ Citizen Kane, however, challenged this pursuit in providing the filmgoer mainly with a plot and it was his or her task to create a story by rearranging the fragments into a temporal order and hence establish causality.

Fragmented memories are akin to a plot, which doesn’t have an obvious narrative until, if needed and wanted, the remembering person puts them into a broader context of causality. As part of his intention to stick as close to the natural processes of memory, Tarkovsky structured Mirror through fragmented plot elements with an apparent absence of causality, and in so doing comes strikingly close to the real act of remembering.

How it differs is in the filmind’s capacity to “think the slow fast, the loose tight, the small large, the loud quiet, the tame violent, and the mythic real.” (Framton, 2006: 81) Furthermore, as already mentioned above, the filmind is additionally capable of thinking in specific colour palettes depending on its intentions towards characters or its overall aim. Accordingly, I would like to focus on three major formal points of Tarkovsky’s Mirror with respect to Frampton’s proposition; the thought of colour, speed and the thought of sound.

The thought of colour

The filmind remembers the different times dealt with through a specific use of colour palettes; something a human mind does not do. Frampton emphasises that “some of the most thoughtful moods of film are felt through colour. Simply put, the filmind can feel the drama to be a certain colour…” (Ibid)

Generally speaking, in the film memories are indicated through the use of black and white or sepia. These account specifically for the pre-war time, when Alexei was still a young child and his mother Maria was left behind by her husband. It is also true for Maria’s own memories and for the three dream sequences we encounter. Likewise, the archival images are monochrome. Contrary to this, most of the scenes in modern times are tinted in colour. It is vital, however, to bear in mind that “this is not always the case. Lack of colour stock meant that Tarkovsky had to film certain scenes, such as Alexei and Natalya’s last conversation in the flat, in monochrome, while the first scene after the credits, clearly a memory, is in colour.” (Martin, 2011: 120)

The act of remembering in Mirror is repeatedly linked to a feeling of loss and sadness, which continues to affect Alexei in the present. Consequently, the filmind tints all events set in the present in dull colours so as to underline both the protagonist’s detachment from his wife and his mother and, subsequent to his failing health, a lack of spirit.

The thought of speed

The filmind decelerates a considerable amount of movements in Alexei’s and Maria’s memories. Frampton points out that “slow-motion is a thinking of utter importance, brought in when a significant moment has the power to extend itself.” (2006: 124) One particular example is that of Maria running along the aisles in the printing house. Nervousness and rush are slowed down, the filmind lengthens the memorable episode. For Bordwell and Thompson, slow motion, linked to past events, is used “to express a lyrical quality.” (2008: 167) Biró goes further than that. She links back to French philosopher Bachelard, for whom lingering, caused, among others by slow-motions, as “a form of vacillation (…) [that] requires a pause before the momentous step is taken so as to consider the moment’s challenges, its contingencies and the weight of the decision.” (2008: 34)

Mirror is a combination of both definitions, dependent on the type of past events the filmind remembers. Exemplary for Bordwell’s lyrical quality is a memory near the end of the film. Alexei’s father looks towards us. Then he turns around to stroke the hand of Maria. Instead of laying in bed, however, Maria levitates over it. In addition, Alexei recounts a recurrent dream. He is outside the old dacha, but is unable to enter it. The door opens several times and yet he seems to be prevented from entering by a mystic force.

As indicated above, slow motion can equally express another, more challenging type of memory, illustrated, for instance, with Maria’s memory following her phone call to Alexei to tell him that her former co-worker Liza has died.

Maria dreamed of having made a mistake in her proofreading. She returns to the printing house to check the proofreading once again. This scene not only poses a challenge to Maria, but also to her co-workers, who are frightened of a mistake in a very important edition of the paper, and who also realise the weight of an error as they had been printing all night, which would have made a correction impossible.

Despite some memories being expressed in slow motion, lingering, as Bachelard describes it, is not exclusively tied to that form. The use of long takes as opposed to choppy cutting is another form of deceleration and therefore a demonstration of lingering, which can reinforce the challenges posed. A striking proof is Alexei’s memory of a hand grenade being thrown into the firing range during military instruction. The instructor throws himself on it. He lies in a foetal position covering the hand grenade and a bald patch on his head – presumably a scar from the war – reveals his increasing pulse rate, until Asafiev, the child who kept violating instructions, admits that the hand grenade is nothing but a dummy.

Just as Biró emphasised, this specific memory exemplifies that lingering opens challenges (a hand grenade in a firing range full of children), contingencies (Does the grenade go off? Will the instructor die?), and it brings decisions to the surface (The instructor chooses to sacrifice his life). It is here that the filmind expresses a memorable event by slowing it down in order to transmit the very danger of the situation, the fear and anxiety.

In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera takes up the issue of speed and memory, referring to mathematics: “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting…In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” (1996: 34-35)

Slowness is an expression of intensity. By enlarging the characters’ spatial and temporal awareness, the filmind defines the degree of suffering, despair and agitation.

The thought of sound

However, the filmind cannot only think the fast slow. It equally does so with sounds; asynchronous to the image or, in other situations, it accentuates them and excludes all other surrounding noises. The partially frightening memory of Maria’s washing her hair with the help of Alexei’s father is exemplary of the exclusion of noise. While seemingly enclosed in absolute silence, the filmind remembers clearly two distinct sounds: the hoot of an owl at night and the sound of water every time Maria puts her hands in, washes her hair and, in getting up, causes water dripping from her hair into the big basin underneath her. Here, the memory of sound and image is synchronous as both occur in slow motion. A contrast to this is the already mentioned memory of Maria’s in the printing house. Again, the filmind excludes all surrounding noises, apart from two distinct sounds: the sound of footsteps on the stone floor while Maria herself and Liza walk down the aisles. Both sound and image memory are synchronous. As soon as both walk past the printing machines, however, the filmind merely stresses the almost deafening noise of the machines and hence emphasises the turmoil Maria is in, supposing she made the mistake she had visualised at night. It is reinforced by opposing the slow motion visuals with the normal-paced rhythm of the machines.

In addition, Frampton stresses that “filmosophy finds a thinking of (…) danger, a feeling, through sound, of danger – either thinking the character’s emotions or thinking its own knowledge.” (2006: 120) Therefore, it is the filmind that takes over the memory of the incident in the firing range. The drill instructor throws himself on the hand grenade, awaiting its explosion. Once again, all other sounds are minimised. The filmind but discloses the instructor’s heartbeat to aurally display his anxiety and consequently thinks the immediate danger (again, this cannot be Alexei’s memory, as it’s a personal feeling of the instructor). It is exemplary of the filmind’s ability to transmit the “selective, perceptive thinking of a character’s subjectivity.” (Frampton, 2006: 121) In this particular memory, again the filmind doesn’t express the protagonist’s mind, but more accurately it bears the instructor’s near-death experience.

Perceptive thinking is, as slowness, an indication for a memory’s intensity. In filtering the sound of the heartbeat from all other irrelevant sounds, the filmind accentuates the almost unbearable loudness of life in an ostensibly fatal situation.

The thought of memory

Mirror’s filmind embodies what is called autobiographical memory. As demonstrated above, the filmind acts as a catalyst of individual recollections from the past and in so doing makes the absent present. Conway and Rubin highlight that “event specific knowledge [a level of autobiographic memory] tends to take the form of images, feelings, and highly specific details indicating the retention of sensory details of objects and actions in a general event.” (1994: 107) Reasonably, through the thought of colour, selective sound and the alteration of slowness and normal-paced rhythms the filmind visualises fragmented memory traces of a character.

At the same time, it can prompt collective memory in an attempt to portray the circumstances and conditions of Soviet society, linking all characters by supplying a socio-historical framework they share. Engel suggests: “Another way we learn about distant and historically significant events is by internalizing the memories of others. (…) You either remember an event as a participant, from within the middle of it, or you remember it from the perspective of an observer, on the edge of the scene.” (1999: 151)

The filmind is able to inhabit the role of the observer due to its transcendental nature. We have seen previously that transcendence permits the revelation of personal memories of an ensemble of characters. In addition, as the newsreel images disclose, it allows for access to historical events as part of collective memory. The filmind exposes, what McAdams calls nuclear scenes: “Our lives are punctuated by certain incidents – some of them seemingly critical or formative and others seemingly mundane – which we draw upon to define who we are, who we were, and perhaps who we are to become…They may entail private moments or a shared experience with an entire community.” (in Pillemer, 1998: 40)

The newsreel images the filmind employs have two specific purposes. First, it connects the characters in providing images of collective Soviet memory. The successful crossing of the North Pole by Chkalov was a moment of Soviet pride as well as the balloon ascent in the race for the conquest of the sky against America. And even though most of the soldiers died in the crossing of Lake Sivash, it is yet another symbol of a proud nation because it demonstrates the period of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. The filmind’s utilization of these images not only acts as a linkage between the characters, but it also links them to history instead of seeing them as separate entities.

Second, and most strikingly of all, the filmind expands this linkage to people around the world and therefore also to the filmgoer. It goes beyond the creation of a collective memory for Soviet society and shows newsreel images, which form a global collective memory, including the filmgoer as (and invites him to be) an active participant in recollecting and remembering the celebrations at the end of the Second World War, the extortionate destruction the nuclear bomb brought over Hiroshima and Mao’s revolution in China. In so doing, the filmind doesn’t leave the filmgoer as a passive spectator behind, but instead includes him indirectly in the film-world as he is strongly bonded with the characters in the process of remembering.

Frampton’s filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo

After all, there remains one crucial question to answer. If the existence of a filmind in Tarkovsky’s Mirror seems to be an obvious fact in my analysis, does it serve as a demonstration that all films are steered by a filmind?

The answer is twofold. Frampton theorized the concept of filmosophy to “reveal the complexity of film” (2006: 108) in an attempt to “organicise rather than technicise the filmgoer’s experience of cinema.” (Ibid., 106-107) His concept aims for a more liberated way of seeing films and thus for a proposition the filmgoer can either accept or reject. He describes the framework of filmind and film-thinking as a “conceptual ladder, to be climbed and then kicked away…it is a decision by filmgoers whether to use this concept when experiencing a film.” (Ibid., 98-99) He argues that his idea of seeing film as film is not a default state, but a mere attempt to show that allowing space for the existence of a filmind can enhance the cinematic experience of filmgoers.

However, although obviously intending to render film extraordinary in liberating it from contemporary semiotic and empirical analysis, he simultaneously creates yet another homogenous framework in applying his concept on a vast variety of films covering all genres. In so doing, Frampton develops a rather generic schema.

My argument is that of freedom of choice for the filmgoer. Indeed, as Frampton points out, Filmosophy is a proposition to the filmgoer. He alone decides whether or not he accepts the presence of a filmind. Like any other cinematic experience, this is based on individuality rather than conformity. Not only do historical and social contexts influence a willingness to break the cinematic spell. Accepting a filmind is as much dependent on the filmgoer’s individual and unique life experience, desires and interests.

Preminger stressed in an interview that “the ideal picture is a picture where you don’t notice the director, where you never are aware that the director did anything deliberately.” (in Perkins, 1993: 128) Even though he expresses his opinion about an ideal film in general, it is helpful to apply his statement to Filmosophy because it shows the significance of the nature of film itself. Not all films are made for a filmosophical journey because they are inextricably and strongly linked to the decisions of a director, which complicates an attempt to see film as an independent being. Barthes describes this linkage as the text directing “the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.” (1977: 40)

Tarkovsky’s Mirror bypasses this by giving neither the director nor the protagonist a visibly strong presence, and moreover by using only a small amount of subtle signifiers so as to allow the filmgoer where he wants to take the narrative to without directly interfering in his choice. Similar to the nature of memory, Mirror does not have a meaning, but many possible viewpoints, which evolve independently in the filmgoer himself.

In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky philosophises over the expression of time in film, also called time-pressure. According to him, time is felt “when you sense something significant, truthful, going on beyond the events on the screen; when you realise, quite consciously, that what you see in the frame is not limited to its visual depiction, but is a pointer to something stretching out beyond the frame and to infinity; a pointer to life.” (2008: 117-118)

He continues: “The film then becomes something beyond its ostensible existence as an exposed and edited roll of film, a story, a plot. Once in contact with the individual who sees it, it separates from its author, starts to live its own life…” (Ibid., 118)

Thirty years prior to the release of Frampton’s Filmosophy, Tarkovsky created with Mirror a film(ind) that is already rooted in the pursuit of film as having its own life independent of the director, which is capable of creating a film-world through its own characteristic thinking process.

Book review: Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit – Corinne Rondeau (2017)

A small book at the bottom of a shelf that is overwhelmed with books on the big names of Hollywood; films, directors, actresses. There, somewhere in between those oversized books, I found the new book on Chantal Akerman, smaller than A5 in size, almost invisible. Written by Corinne Rondeau, this French-language book is the latest work on the Belgian director. Without being too analytical, Rondeau makes reading the book an experience just as watching a film by Akerman is an experience. Rondeau’s work is poetic in writing, often following a chain of thoughts as they come into her head. Her writing suggests continuous movement, circular movement at times, rather than chopped off pieces of thoughts that appear for no reason.

In her little book Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit (2017), Rondeau suggests that it is futile to see Akerman’s work only in the context of her family’s traumatic past during the Second World War, the silence in the family that had affected her deeply, and her suicide in 2015. Even though, she argues, it is important – and she herself, in fact, returns over and over the aspect of silence as a result of history – it is not adequate, not productive, to consider Akerman’s oeuvre entirely as a result of that. A fair point, given that it is always futile to look at something from a single perspective. Rondeau sets an example, looking even at the small things. Her chapter headings are fascinating at the beginning, simply called “encore” (again) or “où” (where), chapters in which she brings to the fore the essence of Akerman’s work, I find.

There is plenty I would like to mention, but I will point to only a few arguments Rondeau makes, and leave it up to my French-speaking readers to get their hands on the book.

The first argument, which I thoroughly liked, is Rondeau’s explicit view of Akerman working in the context of the words “nothing”, “blank”, and “gap”. These terms appear over and over in Akerman’s films, as visual demonstrations rather than spoken words. Indeed, I find that these terms are particularly prominent in the films I’m interested in: Là basD’EstNo Home Movie. Although Rondeau refuses to read those films exclusively in the context of a traumatic family history, these three films are important in the context of memory, memory lapses, the silencing and suppression of traumatic events. It is impossible not to read them in this context, perhaps in the context of the second and third generation attempting to dig up the past that has formed them, affected them in the way they think, feel and behave. Perhaps, this way of thinking, my thinking, makes me feel so strongly about Rondeau’s description of Akerman’s films: “une nuit qui tombe peu à peu”, a slow nightfall. With No Home Movie, night has fallen.

Rondeau argues that it is obstacles that really help us to find a way, and it is silence that help us to find words. Akerman, according to her, makes use of this logic, and uses a kind of aesthetic that she describes as “suspense in absentia”. Tension is there, but it’s not overt. It’s the main ingredient of her films without putting it on the films’ sleeves, so to speak. Tension is present and absent, just like trauma, which disrupts time and space. This “suspense in absentia” is not only characteristic of Akerman’s work, but Rondeau has unwillingly characterised a large number of slow or contemplative films that use this aesthetics. I described it, though in other words, in my work on Lav Diaz. Béla Tarr’s films centre around this absent-present tension as well as more recent works. I’m thinking in particular of the works by Scott Barley and Enzo Cillo, whose videos make this covert tension palpable.

While reading the book, I came across several instances which contradict Rondeau’s initial claim that it was futile to see Akerman’s work exclusively in the context of trauma. And yet, she herself writes about it without mentioning the term. It is more by describing Akerman’s aesthetics that she gets to the bottom of the nature of trauma, which she, at the beginning of the book, so vehemently rejected as the sole centre of the director’s oeuvre. She mentions another characteristic of Akerman’s films: “on s’approche en s’éloignant”. We approach something by distancing ourselves. This is very much an extension of her notes about silence as a necessity to find words, and obstacles as a necessity to find a way. One is important in order to reach the other. The idea of approach through distance reminded me strongly, again, of the nature of trauma. You dig in your memories to find something. While speaking about it, you come closer and closer to the actual painful event, but you often bounce back, you distance yourself, precisely because it causes you pain. Approach versus distance, distance versus approach.

“Où vont les images?” Where do the images go? According to Rondeau, Akerman’s oeuvre centres around this very question. Why do all images move towards the night? Or “How can you remember something that you yourself haven’t experienced?” as Akerman formulated it. Rondeau identifies the circle as one of several main elements that appear over and over again in Akerman’s work, which to me, once more, is the perfect symbol of how the director deals with the effects of her family’s traumatic history. As much as Rondeau would like to disconnect one from the other, it is impossible to do so. This is the one thing that I did not like about the book; the forced attempt of disconnecting the symbols Rondeau identifies in Akerman’s work from the nature of trauma, which is so dominant in the director’s films.

Nevertheless, Rondeau’s book adds a lot of good stuff to existing writings on Akerman. The way it is written – in a fluid, poetic style – makes it a pleasure to read. The book takes you on a journey and makes you hungry, I find, to see more of Akerman’s films. I haven’t seen her complete oeuvre yet, but am very much aiming for doing exactly that!

Jean-Paul Curnier’s writings on the image

Something I genuinely love, now that I’m in France, is that I can walk into any book shop and I find amazing books that really get me. I open them, read the first page and buy them. It’s not necessarily good for my wallet, but it’s good to expand more and more my horizon, especially in art and film. I have Jean-Paul Curnier’s Montrer l’invisible : Ecrits sur l’image on my desk at the moment. I have long had an interest in the absent, the invisible, which, in some ways, was introduced to me via Slow Cinema. In popular film it is about showing. The directors use the common concept of the visible in an image as proof. I don’t want to go into too much detail about this just now, because I’m using this right now for another project and it will go public in its own time.

There is something else that fascinated me with Curnier’s book. First of all, Curnier argues that with the ever increasing number of images we’re now confronted with, it is the ordinary in those images that strike us as most poignant; showing the extraordinary in the ordinary. To me, this also means that photography now has the task of making people aware again of the beauty in their surrounding, something that is now often forgotten because we always look for something better. Curnier doesn’t go as far as this in his arguments, but I believe that his initial statement says as much. We can quite clearly see the parallel to slow films here, films that often show nothing but the ordinary, which is precisely what bores people. But if one takes one’s time with those images, we rediscover just how beautiful life is while at the same becoming aware that regardless of where we come from, we share more than we don’t.

What really struck me, though, were Curnier’s writings about time, primarily suspended time. Photography has always been considered as a means to stop time. It captures what has been, it therefore captures the past. A photograph is an arrested moment. But, Curnier, writes, this argument is rather strange, because

C’est à la durée que se mesurent la suspension et l’arrêt…(9)

Curnier argues that suspended or arrested time is, contrary to common belief and scholarly writings we know, essentially measured by duration (and you probably know where I’m going with this, if you’ve been a faithful reader of my blog). To Curnier, time cannot just be stopped, it also needs to continue, perhaps in another form than before (in terms of speed perhaps), but time always progresses or continues. Therefore, it can only really be duration that sets the degree of suspension of time. Is it perhaps, then, Slow Cinema, especially those slow long durational films that really fit the idea of photography’s long-thought “what-has-been”? In effect, this is perhaps best illustrated by long-form documentaries that are also slow in their progression. But Curnier goes further.

Rien ne peut être conçu hors du temps; c’est donc bien plutôt d’une suspension du temps dans le regard qu’il est question dans ce cas ou, ce qui revient au même, d’une suppression du temps dans le regard. (10)

It is not so much a simple suspension of time, but a suspension of time in one’s gaze/view/sight. In the end, as Curnier says, nothing is ever out of time. It can’t be. Time is all around us, and it cannot just stop. What art does, I believe, is giving us the illusion of arrested time, and it therefore means that arrested time can only really exist in our gaze alone, and nowhere else.

Curnier also speaks of “the temporality of non-time” and “the time of invented time”. The first is very much connected to a dream state. Curnier repeatedly makes reference to the invisible, to an aesthetic of absence, and to the fact that when we do look at a photograph, we start to rummage in our memories. We do not simply look at a photograph, we also try to identify parallels to ourselves, as far removed as those parallels might be. This journey through our memories is, essentially, this dream state, this non-time, that appears like arrested or suspended time, but is, according to the author, simply non-time. His second term is closely related to this. It is the time of viewing. By choosing what to look at, by choosing how much time we spend on it (which has nothing to do with speed or slowness), by choosing where our gaze is moving to across an image, we create, we invent our own time. It always differs from someone else’s time. It is the time we invent for ourselves in order to look at something.

Now, the last part may not be entirely applicable to Slow Cinema, and I’m not trying to make it work. What is interesting in regard to Slow Cinema, though, is the idea of duration setting the degree of suspension because time cannot be stopped. Also, I appreciate the terms non-time and the fact that time isn’t simply suspended (what has been argued for a very long time), but that time is suspended only in our own eyes. Lots of good stuff to think about, for you and for me!

 

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

My, my, my…another strong arthouse film this year. And another one which is too good to be written about, if I’m honest. There are films which cannot be described in words. Sebastian Mez’s Postcards from the Verge (2017) is one of those films, a film that, like postcards, takes you on a journey into a different land. That land or these lands, to be correct, are Israel and Palestine.

The film starts with a black screen and no sound. After a while, the image of a fire burning in the far background of the black frame shapes up. The camera remains with the fire, lingering on it, focuses on it. This very first shot gives us an idea, a feeling, of what the next seventy odd minutes will be like: they will invite us to observe, to be in the very moments the director proposes to be in.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Mez’s film consists of chapters. Each chapter has a very specific aesthetic, especially visually. The first chapter stunned me because it felt as though I was looking at something through a third eye. The frame was structured in such a way that it gave the impression of an eye through which you observed, in wide angle shots, the landscape of Israel and Palestine. The director uses a stark black-and-white contrast for most of his frames, a contrast that is, for someone who loves black-and-white photography as much as I do, a real pleasure to look at. It’s the sort of visual aesthetic that makes my heart jump.

For a very long time in the film, there is nothing but images. Mez shows us the landscape of conflict, a conflict that has been ongoing for several decades, and which seems to find no end. There is one frame that struck me. It was a landscape shot, a slow pan, if I remember correctly, but perhaps my memory tricks me. What is important is that there is a tank in that landscape and because of the director’s use of high contrast black-and-white, you don’t see it at first. To me, this is a very good depiction of this conflict. Violence, and everything that embodies it, has become part of the fabric of those countries. Wherever you go, there is military; in the streets, at checkpoints, etc It has become normal, and no one sees it anymore. Just like you might not see the tank in that very frame because it is no longer standing out in a region that is in constant upheaval.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

At some point a voice over comes in. The voice over disrupts the contemplative nature of the images and comments on the conflict. But it’s not going into details. It’s a simple observation: “I think peace will be difficult to find because we want the same thing. The Jews want Al Aqsa to destroy it and build their own temple on it, and the Arabs want Al Aqsa to pray.” The viewer is left with this thought, an idea that seems viable but that goes beyond the complex political circumstances that we have come to know. It is an observation from the inside, with a take on the conflict that goes beyond the violence that saturates our thinking.

Mez lets us alone with this thought, and continues his visual journey through the landscape of conflict – in a letter boxed super-wide angle (does that even exist?), for example. The effect of this is interesting. The wide angle allows us to breathe. We can easily shift around our gaze on a horizontal axis. At the same time, however, the letter box around the image contracts it. It limits our gaze on a vertical axis. And the (metaphorical) vertical axis is the one of feeling and experience (if we think back to Maya Deren’s thoughts on the subject). A contracted vertical axis in a film about a conflict where feelings are numbed…

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Which brings me to the film’s fourth chapter, titled Vivid Memories. Overall, the film is like a photo album, and this becomes most evident in Vivid Memories. The frames are almost still images. Or perhaps they are still images. Or maybe Mez uses super slow-motion. In any case, these images are an embodiment of remembering, of vivid memories, just as the title of the film’s chapter proposes. The frames felt like memories. They reminded me of parts of Chris Marker’s La Jetee. There is something tangible in those images, often dreamlike, blurry at first, then becoming clearer with time.

With Postcard from the Verge, Mez has created lasting images, postcards that stay with you. The final chapter of the film speaks about silence. In fact, it doesn’t. This chapter is quiet, almost completely silent…

Austerlitz – Sergei Loznitsa (2016)

I wasn’t prepared for this film being a slow film. Of course, I expected Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz to be slower than the average, but I didn’t expect the film to fall into my category of Slow Cinema. It does, however, and it’s a film that poses so many questions; questions about how we remember, how we deal with the past ethically, and whether we are still acting ethically in the ways in which we remember the persecution and attempt at total extinction of the Jews in Europe.

Austerlitz is set in the grounds of two concentration camps. If you hadn’t read about it before, you would notice this only in the third scene of the film. Loznitsa doesn’t make it obvious from the first frame where we are. Instead, we see people looking at something we do not see. Loznitsa is careful not to show us what they see. We do not get point-of-view shots. It is not that kind of film. What is important in Austerlitz is the study of people visiting former concentration camps that have been turned into museums. The film is not about the extermination of Jews. It is not about showing the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. On the contrary, Austerlitz is about how we today, in the 21st century, decades after the end of the war, deal with this part of our history.

Loznitsa uses a static camera throughout. A flow of people walks past, looking around, taking pictures. Yes, what the film is about is looking. It is about seeing. It is about what the French would call the éthique du regard, the ethics of looking, of watching, of internalising memory. The director stands back from what’s happening in front of the camera. It seems as though he simply put the camera somewhere and the rest unfolded by itself. And as such, he couldn’t have created a more interesting portrait of how modern society deals with a part of memory that it so important to keep. Two people that stood out for me right at the beginning where this young man wearing a t-shit saying “Cool Story Bro”. I’m not sure there could have been a more tasteless shirt for an occasion like this. Then there is a young woman who entertains a group of people by putting a bottle of water on her head while a guide is explaining the uses of prisons in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Loznitsa’s film shows the gulf between the second and third post-war generation. In several instances, his camera records an indifference of the latter. But it’s not just them, though. People of all generations take selfies in front of one of many infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates. People with selfie sticks are everywhere. They do not look at the remnants of the past; they merely record it with their phones. The culture of smartphones has changed the way we deal with the past. We take a picture of everything, regardless of what the photograph shows. People take photos first before they help other who’ve been in an accident just because.

I would say that we’re living in a click-culture, which is at odds with memory. Photographs do not help us remember. They help memory to fade. What is important is that we see things with our own eyes, only then can we feel what it means to be at a certain place. If anything, concentration camps (I’ve been to one) are about the experience of being at a place haunted with death. What Loznitsa shows is that, today, it seems to be about going there, taking selfies, and posting them on social media. Is that how we remember today? Is this how we can stop the past repeating itself?

In all of its long takes, Austerlitz shows that sites of memory are no longer used only to remember. The sites are consumed. They have become part of our devastating consumer culture, which makes it so difficult to make people to experience something for longer than just a few seconds. It often appears as though the visitors cannot grasp what happened at the time, yet the reason is very simple: time. Loznitsa takes the time to observe people not taking their time to observe. They take a photo and continue their way.

At the same time, there is something ethically questionable about the film itself. Several shots are beautifully framed, such as the one around half hour into the film. We see a group of people huddled into a small room, most of them trying to take pictures like paparazzis. The shot is beautiful. It’s simple, a white wall and an open door. Nothing but that. How do you frame death, or the present absence, in concentration camps? Should a director make his shots aesthetically pleasing in such a context while at the same time pointing to the malady of contemporary society to simply take nice pictures at a place of death? To pose at places of death? It’s something that I haven’t come across yet in reviews of the film, and it might be worth looking at the film from this angle, i.e. from the possible implication of the director in what his film seems to criticise.