Adam’s Passion, or What is cinema?

I can’t remember anymore in which context I saw the trailer for Adam’s Passion, a performance with music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and stage design by American Robert Wilson. The performance was advertised in German papers as a slow-motion performance, and after I saw the beautiful (!!!) trailer, I gave it a try. First of all, I must recommend it. It’s wonderful to look at. It’s also powerful, meaningful, and even though it’s slow, it’s very engaging.

Now, while watching Adam’s Passion, in particular the beginning when Adam (presumably) moves ever so slowly towards a tree branch (it takes him half an hour to do so!), I began to wonder what difference there was between was I was seeing right there and what I am currently watching for tao films, for instance. In effect, Adam’s Passion has, movement-wise, a lot in common with Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series. In the context of acting in Lav Diaz’s films, for instance, one often mentions the term “performance”, perhaps because of the films’ lengths.

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I have absolutely no idea where I’m going with this, and I could easily write utter nonsense. Yet considering the nature of Adam’s Passion I need to ask the famous Bazanian question: What is cinema? Very often, it is described in terms of motion. This is perhaps the only thing that sets cinema off still photography. Cinema is moving, it’s moving images. But what is theatre? What is a stage play? I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’m convinced that theatre is motion, too. Scenes are changing; actors and actresses may change their costumes; there is dialogue. Bodies move, the audience moves. Especially nowadays, the border between cinema and theatre is fluid when cinema houses broadcast theatre plays, which means there is at least one camera present during the play.

Except for the few shots where I could see the stage and the audience, there was absolutely no difference between a slow film and Adam’s Passion. Besides, it also had this certain something which only slow films create inside me (and which I still can’t describe). Combined with the stunning music of Arvo Pärt of whom I’m a great fan (although I try not to listen to him too often anymore because it depresses me – in a good way tho!), the performance appeared like an experimental film. This, I’m sure, was facilitated by the work of Robert Wilson, whose stage design was magnificent, and, indeed, cinematic.

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It reminded me on the famous description of cinema as “painting with light”. Can’t remember from the top of my head who referred to cinema in this way. In a way, Wilson did this with Adam’s Passion but on a stage. Isn’t a film set a stage?

I have long compared slow films to painting, pointing out that in classic Slow Cinema the camera is static and there is little to no movement in any given scene. Apart from those slight movements, there is no difference between painting, photography and slow film. Which is why I believe that many slow films should be shown in museums and galleries instead of in cinemas. The screening location sets expectations, and the cinema house raises the wrong expectations so that viewers get frustrated. The same viewers would have less problems sitting through a slow film while in a gallery, simply because the setting raises different expectations. Stasis and slowness are perfectly acceptable in galleries, and, I believe, also in theatres.

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In some ways, painting, photography and cinema are not the only three art forms where boundaries are blurred. Adam’s Passion made me see that theatre plays a big role in this, too. Or can do. It very much depends on how it is done, I suppose. And is Adam’s Passion even a theatre play? This performance posed so many questions I don’t have answers for. But the biggest question of all was “What is cinema?” I challenge the notion that cinema is movement, recorded by a video camera. Cinema is not a recorded scene with actors and actresses, and scene changes. It is not “painting with light”. All of this is Adam’s Passion, but no one would describe it as a film. I wonder whether it might not be time to rethink our definitions of the art forms we think we are critics of. Or, perhaps, all of these art forms are just one. It is art, so does the distinction between them, if there is any, even matter?

Expanded Cinema at St Andrews University

I’ll be presenting a paper at the postgraduate study day at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. The conference takes place on 3 April and lasts the whole day. The programme can be found here.

My paper will address the increased visibility of slow-film director’s work in museums and galleries. I’ve posted an entry on the issue here on this blog already. I argue that this is not a coincidence. Rather, it suggests that slow films are perhaps screened in the wrong venue (the cinema) at the moment. The paper reasons this by linking slow films to static arts, which, in itself, require contemplation on the side of the viewer. The cinema, however, is not a site of contemplation, even though Thomas Elsaesser argues that Slow Cinema has changed this considerably. I don’t agree with this. It’s more the fact that we try to make the equation slow film + cinema work, without actively looking or accepting alternatives.

Following my work on the static arts, I will then give detailed examples to what extent certain slow films can be seen as incorporating elements of painting. Clearly pointing out that there is a definite link between stasis and Slow Cinema, I then go on to argue that the home of slow film should be the gallery or the museum, as this environment of (static) art would trigger larger acceptances of the movies. This is mainly due to the fact that the films would be seen as part of (static) art. The movie theatre symbolises entertainment, and slow films cannot fulfil the viewers’ expectations with regards to this. If placed in a gallery, however, the films are specifically received in the context of art and contemplation, and especially the latter is of utmost importance when watching a slow film.

It’s a 15min paper, and I hope to get sufficient feedback on it for further development. If you are around on this day, do drop by.

Slow Cinema at the Museum!?

Slow Cinema is often, wrongly, seen in terms of boredom. For me, this has two reasons. The first one is the term itself. In an era of ever-increasing speed, ‘slow’ has negative connotations. It literally screams ‘boredom’. Second, no one has ever questioned why the films appear boring. Is it the long takes people can’t find the patience to endure? Is it the lack of dialogue that make people want to fall asleep? Or is it the emptiness of the frames that the audience interprets as not sparkling enough to keep their attention?

My view on it is this: Slow films are shown at the wrong venue. Cinemas have been an age-old venue for the entertainment of people. The films make you laugh, they make you cry. The cinema as an institution is capable of taking you out of this world and of leading you into a fictional one. The reasons for why people go to cinemas have been clear for decades; it ranges from entertainment to escape. Yet, what happens if you screen slow films, which have strong parallels to static art forms, in cinemas?

The expectations of the filmgoer are not, and cannot be fulfilled. Yes, compared to all films screened in cinemas (and I don’t mean popular films exclusively), slow films appear to be boring. But this is merely the case because the venue shapes the viewer’s expectations. We do not go to the cinema in order to contemplate a film. Contemplation is not part of the cinema-concept. Museums and galleries, however, have always been a place for exactly this.

Michael Newman writes that “once the moving image is placed in the gallery it is implicitly experienced in relation to art that does not move: painting, sculpture, and photography.” (Newman 2009: 96) Peter Osborne argues that the venue influences the temporalities of a video work (Osborne 2004). Does this mean that the temporality of slow films appears to be ‘slow’ only in cinemas, but as ‘normal’ in galleries? I suggest it does.

Interestingly, there is a movement towards adding films by slow-film directors to permanent museum collections, which should tell us something. The Louvre commissioned a film by Tsai Ming-liang, and added Visage (2009) to its permanent collection. Further, his short It’s a Dream (2007) was acquired by the Taiwanese Fine Art Museum in 2012. In 2007, Apichatpong Weerasethakul produced a short for the National Palace Museum in Taipei. And last year, the Walker Arts Centre commissioned a film by him; Cactus River.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Rather, I think that it gives us clues as to why the perception of slow films is distorted.

A matter of kinetics

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that I intend to draw parallels between Slow Cinema and the static arts. I also established a link between slow films and painting, and gave a reason for why this was possible. Apart from Michel Chion’s work on vococentrism in film, however, there is an additional aspect, which allows for my approach.

Kinetics, or Kinetic Art. The term “kinetics” implies motion, movement. Kinetic Art has become particularly prominent in the 1950s. Kinetic sculptures – sculptures with moving parts – were specially widespread. In his book Kinetic Art, Frank Popper (1968) explores the history and the development of kinetic art. He starts off with revealing how Impressionist painters had depicted movement by focusing on elements such as boats, horses, railways, etc.

What I find interesting in this context is the fact that film has apparently never been seen as a kinetic form of art, despite it’s being kinetic in itself, being comprised of moving images. Characters move on screen. So do objects. And if you think of video, the spectator moves, too. (Am I thinking things too easy here?)

Anyway, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren said that film was much closer to music and dance than to the plastic arts. In general, this cannot be denied. Film and music / dance are time-based art forms. Therefore, they have in common the characteristic feature of development in time. They’re rhythmic.

But what happens to film if you slow it down? Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho is a good example here. Gordon slowed down every frame of Hitchcock’s original, so that the film plays over 24h. The movement in the frames is barely perceptible. Slow films are not quite that extreme. However, most of them employ a static camera work, and characters move slowly or not at all (hence, they appear [almost] static).

Further, few of the films depict objects that convey the meaning of movement. I focus on the films by Lav Diaz at the moment, and movement (or kinetics) is almost non-existent. Say, you can hear cars and motorbikes, but you hardly ever see them. If I remember right, Heremias Book I has been the only film to date that featured cars and motorbikes. And an ox cart. But that one gets stolen.

Apart from this diversion, though, Lav Diaz’ films are more static than kinetic, more painting than moving image, therefore more related to the plastic arts than to the time-based art forms, like music and dance.