Andrei Rublev – Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)

It’s been weird lately. First, I struggled to find the time to watch films. I was immersed in books, really good ones, and I didn’t want to stop reading. Then, once I had a film I thought would be a really good fit, it turned out that it wasn’t really Slow Cinema. This was particularly disappointing for Sudoeste by Eduardo Nunes from Brazil. The film starts in a superb fashion. It stunned me, and drew me in. I felt like floating in those beautiful long-take shots, magic, ghostly, simply very affective (and effective). Unfortunately, the film’s aesthetic changed somewhat after the powerful beginning, so that I decided not to write about it. A new subject was needed, and I remembered that I still hadn’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s early piece Andrei Rublev (1966), which is his second film, after the really good Ivan’s Childhood which was a great portrait of war trauma and young adolescents. Rublev is perhaps not an iconic work of Slow Cinema, but the film shows Tarkovsky’s later trademarks, beginning, of course, with the director’s use of long takes and a camera that sometimes moves independent of the characters it is showing.

While watching Rublev, I couldn’t help think about Béla Tarr and his first social-realist films. The films by Tarr that are now so well-known because of their particular style, didn’t come out of nowhere. Tarr developed it over time, and so Rublev was a stage in Tarkovsky’s development towards perfecting his almost magical cinematic philosophy that we admire today. It’s quite a change to films such as Mirror and Nostalghia, and yet you can see Tarkovsky’s soul in the film, which begins to shine. Rublev is not a philosophical experiential piece the way the director’s other films are. While it does contain important discussions that demand an engagement with the film text, Rublev is almost a straightforward historical epic, which surprised me at first. It was not what I had expected. What I didn’t expect either was that the film would be a strange back-to-the-future piece with scenes that strongly reminded me of MirrorStalker and Nostalghia. Everyone would argue that it’s always best to watch a director’s entire filmography chronologically (with the exception of Semih Kaplanoglou’s trilogy, which includes Bal), I found that my watching Tarkovsky’s oeuvre almost the other way around added a magnificent ghostly atmosphere to Rublev.

The film starts with an episode of an unfortunate balloon flight. There is a scene, almost right at the beginning, which shows the fascinating camera work that would later become so vital for Tarkovsky’s experiential pieces. In a long take, one man enters a house, drops what he has in his arms inside the house, then exists the house again. The camera moves freely. It’s floating almost, has its own mind and even though it does follow the character to an extent, it is also taking its own steps. All of a sudden, I was reminded of Alexandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark, in which the camera followed its characters in much the same way. This type of camera has a dreamy, almost unreal nature to it. Something else caught my eye: once the balloon, which several people tried to keep on the ground before others arrived and attacked them, is in the air, Tarkovsky uses a remarkable POV shot that, once more, reminded me of Sokurov’s mirror lenses in Mother and Son. Now, the copy I have has not been restored, and I wonder whether those particular shots look slightly deformed and mirror-y (here’s a new term for you, which I have just coined….you’re welcome!) because of the age of the film, or the quality of the camera. I’d like to jump to the conclusion that it’s supposed to be like this, because it genuinely brings something disorienting with it, something bizarre, something uncomfortable.

We find a similar “look” later on, when Kirill, Daniil and Rublev arrive at a house, where they seek refuge from torrential rain. There is a jester singing and dancing, before he is being escorted away by the Duke’s men. Here again, the camera lens seems to be slightly deformed, alluding to a rather round picture. It doesn’t feel flat at all, but it’s almost as though the camera alludes to a third dimension. Of course, I could (and I probably do!) read too much into it, because this particular look is not one of the main aesthetics of the film. Moreover, I know that Tarkovsky tended to work with whatever he had and he might as well had problems with the camera. Nevertheless, I like the idea that this deformed view on the world from above and on those people who enjoy the sexually charged songs from the jester is not as accidental as one might believe.

Contrary to later films, Rublev is progressing in chapters, that means chronologically. Although there are dream sequences, which upset the temporal order established by the chapters, the film runs more or less in a linear fashion. The first chapter, which contains the scene with the balloon I have just described, begins in 1400. Fifteenth century Russia was a tumultuous country, never really at peace, and Tarkovsky shows this in particular in the latter half of the film. For financial reasons, he had to cut a lot of battle scenes, which he had in the script, but which he couldn’t realise for lack of funding. Those cuts sometimes lead to disorienting jumps in the narrative that are more startling than sophisticated philosophical omissions. There is, for instance, a scene in which Rublev’s assistant finds a dead swan in the woods. In films such as Mirror, which are deeply rooted in themes like memory and dreams, I wouldn’t have been startled. I would have considered this to be a memory that violently appears (appears violent?) and which has a connection to the stories of remembering and forgetting Tarkovsky tells so often. Rublev, however, doesn’t fell like such a movie at all. Because of its linear, straightforward progression and its non-mysterious images, the dead swan appeared out of place and made me wonder if there wasn’t something missing. Have I missed something? Is the explanation for this still to come? I wouldn’t try to find explanations for anything in dreamy films, but here, I have to say that I was almost annoyed about this scene, which could have been cut easily. (And I cannot believe I’m actually saying this about a film by Tarkovsky…)

Andrei Rublev, as we know, was a painter, whose The Trinity is supposedly his most famous work. Tarkovsky shows very little of his life as a painter. In ways similar to the struggling filmmaker in Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing (2011), we witness several discussions on art and the role of the artist. The actual act of painting is positioned in the background. Instead, we hear Rublev struggling with the task of painting The Last Judgment: “I can’t paint this, it’s disgusting.” Rublev doesn’t want to frighten people and would rather paint something of a lighter nature. I would agree with the fact that Tarkovsky makes a statement here about the struggle of the artists with his conscience. But the layer underneath that surface is the use of artists to promote certain images. At the time, painters worked on behalf of a duke, or other high ranking state officials. They had to paint what was expected of them, even though, as Theophanes, the Greek points out, their works and even they themselves are attacked for the images and messages they portray in their works. They do so on behalf of someone, and often suffer for it – either at the hands of others, or at the hands of their own conscience.

The theme of conscience is present throughout the film. The tartars attack the city of Vladimir. Andrei, who is in the city to paint the church, witnesses the atrocities. When one of the attackers kidnaps a woman (supposedly to rape and kill her), Andrei kills him with an axe. What has he done? Once the attack is over, and silence returns to the church – the camera shows us dozens of dead, among them children – Andrei is visibly shaken by what he had witnessed, by the sheer violence, by the fact that men are that cruel, that men simply kill other men (“We’re both Russians”, we hear a young man pleading while trying to escape), that Man is no better than a beast. This event leaves Andrei traumatised. He hallucinates and re-encounters Theophanes. Almost furious, Andrei tells him that he has worked for people all his life, but that people are not people, suggesting that they’re mere beasts. Consequently, Andrei takes a vow before God: he would never paint or speak again, the latter of which reappears in another context in Lav Diaz’s Heremias – Book One (2005). This vow is not only the result of what he has seen. I firmly belief that Tarkovsky makes a point on the painter’s conscience here. In fact, Andrei has sinned. Even though he rescued a woman from certain torture and death, he himself has killed a man. He himself has turned into a beast. He himself is no different than all the others.

Tarkovsky plays here with sound and silence, almost deafening silence, which he would later reuse in Stalker and Mirror. There is something ghostly about it, something traumatic, as though the explosion of violence has deafened not only Andrei, but also us. In minimising the sound, slowing down sound effects, the director disorientates us temporally. Andrei’s trauma and that of the village becomes palpable. What follows is a shift in narrative towards Boris, a young man, who pretends he knows the secret of bell making and is hired by the Duke to make a bell. Andrei moves into the film’s background. As a silent monk he is no more than an onlooker, a bystander, visibly angry at first, then quieter in later years. He becomes a silent observer of Boris, whom he seems to use as a mirror of himself; a talented artist, who struggles with himself, with his work, with the burden of having to create. The film comes full circle, picking up the same themes and applying it to another character, whose emotional torment pierces through Andrei’s shield, which he had kept up for 15 years.

It is quite remarkable to me that my first impression of the film was not a good one. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like the film. It was just too ordinary, compared to what I know of Tarkovsky. And yet, this is, except for one single essay (and conference papers which I have just copied and pasted), the longest post on this blog. Andrei Rublev seems to build a nest in my head after all…

tao film selection and other news

Welcome to a new selection tao films films for you, handpicked just for you 🙂 Before you dive into it, let me say that tao films will start a free collection very soon. We’re currently preparing it. In order to give you a taster of our work, some films will be available for free on our platform. I’ll let you know once everything is up and running for this. And now, please welcome…

BYRON JONES by Ashish Pant (2013, US/India, 108min)

“If there is something that characterises contemporary “Slow Cinema” in particular, then it is the directors’ focus on the everyday. They hold a mirror in front of us, in front of our pains, our joys. Ashish Pant’s Byron Jones belongs to this category of filmmakers., but he stands out, taking the focus on the ordinary everyday further than other directors do. Byron Jones is a two-hour long portrait of an elderly man. We see him sleeping, showering, preparing meals, eating. In particular the last two daily habits might evoke in some viewers the memories of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman; the almost hyper-real depiction of a woman’s day-to-day going ons. Jones, a widow perhaps, lives alone, which the director enhances with an almost oppressive silence that characterises the man’s solitude. With his insistence on showing Jones’ daily activities in detail through the use of almost extreme long-takes, Pant has created a hyper-real portrait not only of Byron Jones, but of most of us.”

ART 35.5. HOURS A WEEK by Mariken Kramer and Eli Eines (2017, Norway, 22min)

“The front security door opens and the first visitors enter the National Gallery in Oslo. Another day at the gallery begins. But while this is another day of leisure for local visitors or foreign tourists, several coming from far away to see the classics, it is another day of work for the security guards who surveil the precious paintings the National Gallery is home to. Artist-filmmakers Mariken Kramer and Eli Eines, both alumni of the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art, focus in their documentary on the behind-the-scenes at the National Gallery, singling out those people who spent the most time with the paintings in front of them. In careful long takes, Kramer and Eines evoke the required slow look at a gallery, all the while speaking to the guards in order to learn about their work, but most importantly about their relationship to art. In the background of the directors’ frames, viewers speed through the different rooms only to take a picture of a famous painting; a beautiful contrast that forces us to think about our relationship to art, our willingness to take time for what surrounds us, and our appreciation of it.”

ONE TIMES ONE by Chris Bell (2016, US, 20min)

“It is not easy to leave one’s home. It is even more difficult to build a life in another country, a country that is, perhaps, very different of one’s own. Ahmad emigrated to the US from Syria but struggles to find his feet. His days are spent idling, waiting for job opportunities that rarely arise for him. One Times One tells the story of Ahmad and a curious, if at times ambiguous, companionship with Mike, a 50-something American who lost his arm in an accident and keeps himself busy by drawing cartoon characters. Chris Bell uses the same patience he has shown in his feature film The Wind That Scatters in order to dig deeper into Ahmad’s daily life and struggles. It’s an episode that plays out so many times in our world that it gets overlooked and forgotten, but Bell brings it back into light and makes us aware of this enforced idleness that puts our life on hold.”

LADDER by Simo Ezoubeiri (2015, US/Morocco, 8min)

“An elderly man, alone, wakes up. He appears to be in a state of arrest. His movements are slow; he is sleepy. He is being drowned by something, something that weighs heavy on his shoulders. In one scene, we see a woman leaving the house with a suitcase. The house falls quiet, and it becomes clear what the weight on the man’s shoulder is. There is a profound sentiment of loss that Simo Ezoubeiri attempts to bring across in his film. The loss of a partner, through death of a break-up, causes a temporary stoppage of time and opens up a hole both in the person’s life and in the person itself. In long-takes which show the elderly man do nothing but idling, Ezoubeiri gets to the bottom of this sudden emptiness and loneliness, and lets us feel what it means to be left behind.”

KHOJI by Yudhajit Basu (2016, India, 20min)

“Set in the lower Himalayas, Yudhajit Basu’s short film Khoji is an ominous piece that uses the violent history of its people as a background in order to explore (and explain, perhaps) the people’s struggle today. And yet, this history is visually absent from the screen. In carefully framed long-takes, Basu lets the images speak as well as the dialogue in which parents consider sending their daughter to the city because it is no longer safe where they live. Or a dialogue in which a brother, almost surprised, asks his sister whether she wasn’t aware of what was happening in the neighbourhood. Something is happening; it hovers over Basu’s film, over every frame. The director suggests rather than tells, using still and quiet imagery that show resemblances to some of the big names in Slow Cinema.”

 

Other news

This autumn, Sebastian Eklund (director of The Blind Waltz) will open his first solo exhibition at the Konstepidemin in Göteborg, Sweden. He’s a great visual artist, so if you’re in or around Göteborg, do use the chance and see his work.

Pilar Palomero has been awarded a Special Mention at the Sarajevo Film Festival for her film WINTER SUN. The special mention has been awarded by one of the festival’s partner in the larger context of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Student Programme Award. Congratulations!

If you want to learn ore about the director of Onere, Kevin Pontuti, there is a new interview with the filmmaker available, conducted as part of the short film programme of the Prague International Film Festival. You can read the interview here.

Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her House will have its Canadian theatrical premiere on 24 September as part of Art House Theatre Day. You can read more about the event and book tickets here.

La Pesca by by Pablo Alvarez screened at the Camden International Film Festival this month . The film will come to tao soon, and I cannot wait to show this beautiful short film to you!

More news about Kevin Pontuti. The filmmaker has taken the helm of a new study programme called “Media X” at the University of the Pacific this semester. You can read all about the director’s new university programme here.

While his short film Ladder is being shown on tao films just now, Simo Ezoubeiri’s new project Inner Marrakech begins to travel the festival world, starting with the Kaohsiung Film Festival in Taiwan.

We hope you enjoy the new selection. Do join us in our tao films Facebook community, or follow our Facebook page, or our Twitter account for the latest updates on tao films and festival news from around the world.

Nothing

Certainly, I could leave this blog post blank and let you do the thinking. This is what “nothing” is there for; it allows you to fill in the gaps that others have left, deliberately or by accident. “Nothing” can be liberating.

What brought me to this post is a film I saw last night. In Praise of Nothing by Boris Mitic is is a satirical documentary about Nothing. Narrated by Iggy Popp, it’s a humorous take on our lives, on how we deal with others, with difficulties, or even with nothing. But the film also invites profound thinking if you do more than just let the film wash over you. It contains beautiful long shots, minimalist shots in most cases, a kind that one finds regularly in other slow films, although I’m not yet entirely sure whether or not I would classify this film as Slow Cinema. In the end, it matters little because In Praise of Nothing contains a lot that made me think about the more general nature of slow films and also returned me to a book I had read as part of my doctoral research, but which I have, if I remember correctly, never reviewed as such on this blog. I’m speaking of François Cheng’s Empty and Full (or Vide et plein – Le langage pictural chinois in the original French).

François Cheng’s work teaches us a lot about how to look (at something), and how to appreciate nothingness, absence and emptiness which is so common in slow films. As Iggy Popp tells us quite rightly in In Praise…, “I (nothingness) am in every shot.” And it’s true. There is always en empty section in a film frame, or even in a painting. Even seemingly “full” paintings have their areas of what I would call rest. We struggle seeing this nothingness because we have gotten used to the capitalist idea that nothing(ness) means non-profitability. Non-profitability in turn is not desired, and so everyone needs to create something in order to fit into this system, in order to take part. Nothingness often only plays a role when we are exhausted from the capitalist hamster wheel and need to slow down. Then people flock to meditation where they often learn that nothingness is profitable after all, just perhaps not in monetary value.

What I feel more and more, especially now with film submissions I receive for tao films, is that slow film directors, just like Chinese painters during the Song dynasty period, for instance, use nothingness (either through a rigorous absence or positioning a certain something in the off) in order to express the state of their soul, or that of society, or even that of the world. The films are an expression of the soul; they’re not necessarily factual or try to teach us. Cheng puts emphasis on the importance of the soul throughout his work because it is key to reading (traditional) Chinese painting (but also slow films, I find). I have never felt so many souls, have seen so many takes on the human condition than in the films I have seen for tao. They go further than the classic Slow Cinema canon we know. They genuinely align themselves (unconsciously, I’m sure!) with what Chinese painters have described all along as how they approach their work and what they intend to show. And this has nothing to do of being aware of the painters’ desires at the time, or not. It’s about putting oneself into a mindset that favours nothingness.

According to Cheng, nothingness is a crucial means to create a relationship that blends us with nature, as well as the artwork and the viewer. It is not so much that we become one, but that we become aware of the other while acknowledging that whatever it is, it is our creation. That means that, again, whatever it is it is part of us, we’re part of it. When we speak about cinema, this element of nothingness might come through strongest in experimental films which present you with little else than slowly moving blurred images. It is the idea of an experience in which we create the meaning because the director has given us nothing; how to read his/her images, how to respond to them, how to make sense of them. These films leave you with nothing, and we blend into it because only when we see such a film is the film really complete. We play an essential role.

I have mentioned several times before the concept of a “vertical axis”, which Maya Deren so wonderfully described in the context of poetic film. In Chinese cosmology it is exactly there (as opposed to the horizontal axis which is all about fullness) that nothingness and fullness interact. Fullness always comes out of nothingness, while nothingness lives on in fullness. Again, we have this blending, this dependency. And again, this is, in a good film absolutely the case as I have seen so many times in the last five years of writing for this blog and in the last two years of my watching film submissions for tao films. There is a real understanding of this interaction between nothingness and fullness that allows one to contemplate, to think, sometimes to marvel at images. it is those times “where nothing is happening” that the real fullness of a scenes comes to the fore because suddenly we notice crucial aspects of the scene we’re seeing at the moment, or others that have already passed and return to our mind. But this can only happen in nothingness and not while being bombarded with fast-cut scenes in an action movie.

There is more in Cheng’s book, but I will return to this another day as I know that not everyone likes long-reads 🙂 For now this shall suffice to give you food for thought, and do try see In Praise Of Nothing. It’s a lovely film!

Art and Therapy (Alain de Botton, John Armstrong, 2014)

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong had been on my list from the moment I saw it online. With my research background – film and trauma, and the interest in how filmmakers deal with their own suffering – I expected quite a bit of material from this book. What I didn’t expect was the many references to slowness, contemplation and observation, which are so fundamental to the way I read slow films. One could say that at least the first part of the book is entirely dedicated to slowness without mentioning it directly. In fact, it could be a companion piece to Slow Art Day (which, by the way, takes place on 8 April this year!).

Almost from the beginning of my research into Slow Cinema, I made reference to static art. I considered slow films as pieces for galleries and museums rather than as films made for the big cinema screen. I do agree that this isn’t the case with all slow films. A great deal of them, however, share characteristics with static art such as painting and photography. So why I was surprised to see the many similarities between de Botton and Armstrong’s writing and Slow Cinema is, to be honest, beyond me.

Richard Serra – Fernando Pessoa (2007-2008)

The first chapter of Art as Therapy is dedicated to what art can do for us, both in very simple terms and in specific psychological circumstances. It made me reflect about my experience with cinematic slowness and its healing potential in the context of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. I cannot stress enough how much Slow Cinema helped me to calm down, to fight anxiety, and to take part in life again. One of the arguments that seems to run through the book is that art, which we find attractive, often offers something we usually don’t have but which we desire.

…le goût dépendent de ce qui, dans la constitution émotionnelle, dort et a besoin d’être stimulé et accentué. … les préférences pour l’une ou l’autre reflètent différentes lacunes psychologiques.

When it comes to your choice of a favourite piece of art, or a favourite genre, it is, according to de Botton and Armstrong, very likely that you chose this particular piece or this particular genre because of what is going on in your head. It has psychological roots and is not a simple I just love it. For many people it is difficult to describe why they like certain things. Many resort to simple answers, not knowing that the reason for their preference is, perhaps, more complex than they had imagined. When I began to get into Slow Cinema, it was very difficult to explain why I liked it. I, too, resorted to a simple answer. I liked the slowness. I really did. But why? Only years later did the reason unravel. It took work to figure it out. What this reminds me of is the third meaning, which Luke Hockley suggested in Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen, which I mentioned on this blog before. The third meaning of a film derives from our unconscious. Sometimes a film moves us and we do not understand why this is the case. It’s our unconscious that is responsible for this, and in most cases, we will never know why a specific scene had such a strong impact on us.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler – Nocturne: le fleuve à Battersea (1878)

What Slow Cinema meant to me personally is that it allowed me to slow down, to take my time, to record what was happening on screen, which I couldn’t do with action blockbusters anymore.

On recherche les oeuvres capable de compenser ses fragilités intérieurs, d’aider à trouver un juste milieu. … L’art peut aider à gagner du temps, et même sauver la vie.

De Botton and Armstrong note a trait of art (and, I believe, film), which became essential in the early phase of my struggling with PTSD. Art(film) can save one’s life. This is very much connected to the unconscious I mentioned above and the attraction to specific art works and art genres during different phases of our lives. But it’s not all about individual deficiencies. Art also has a meaning to the collective, to society, to us as humanity. And one thing that stood out for me in the book is the very simple (but maybe too simple for us to consider it) argument that we tend to get used to things too quickly, especially in our developed, capitalist, consumer societies.

Un de nos grands défauts, et un des grans obstacles à notre bonheur, est la difficulté à prendre note de ce qui nous entoure.

We no longer notice what is around us. We simply don’t have the time (we think!). When have you last looked at a tree for longer than a couple seconds? When have you touched its bark in order to feel what a tree feels like? As the books’ authors argue, these things are not “spectacular”. But they’re necessary in our becoming one with our environment, and in our search for contentment and an emotional equilibrium. They argue that art can help with this by depicting the ordinary, the kind of things we overlook nowadays because we think they don’t play a major role in our lives. At the same time, and I argued this before here on this blog, this is exactly what our lives are about: it’s the ordinary. Our lives aren’t spectacular, for the most part.

Slow films, just like static art, can help us notice this, notice the ordinary, identify with it, realise that this is what our life is like…and, perhaps most important, that we’re not alone with this. Our life nowadays consist of a constant desire of something better, something spectacular, something that takes us out of the routine. What we forget in this constant desire is our own life, and ourselves. To me, Slow Cinema can play an important role in returning us to our roots. It can remind us who we really are and what we should focus on first of all in order to reach an equilibrium inside ourselves.

Frederic Edwin Church – L’Iceberg (1891)

I would like to mention one last essential argument, which brings me back to Slow Cinema and boredom. It is now THE argument against cinematic slowness: it’s boring. Slow films are not the only films that are considered boring. And film, as a form of art, is not the only art form which struggles with this. To me, it has always been like this, in part, because of the way we are taught film or art respectively. I was happy to see the same argument in de Botton and Armstrong’s book.

Les idées au sujet de la valeur artistique ne se forment pas spontanément. Elles résultent de systèmes complexes de mécénat, d’idéologie et d’éducation, soutenus pas l’enseignement universitaire et les musées, qui à eux tous forment notre conception de la valeur artistique.

It is, in short, our surrounding that defines artistic value. Political ideology, education, museums – they all have a stake in the way we look at art and what we consider to be “good art” or “high art”, and what is to be discarded as junk. In parts, I believe that Slow Cinema is rejected by so many because no one teaches them their potential value. There is nothing outstanding about them, no. As I said above, they show the average life, and I believe this is exactly why some people deny those films the value they deserve for making us aware of what we have stopped seeing, stopped valuing. If slow films are to be more acknowledged, educational institutions need to take part in this. At the same time, it is possible to break out of this circle and free oneself from the traditional teachings of what is good and what is useless. It is very much a mind thing. It’s about freeing your mind, about liberating your thinking, and then you can enjoy what you really like, and not what society tells us is worth liking.

(Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong was first published in English. If you’re not a French-language speaker, you will have no problem getting an English version of the book.)

Book review: Contemporary art and time (2016)

Towards the end of my PhD research, I noticed that quite a few interesting works in my area have been published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes. In particular work that has come out of Université Rennes 2 sounded promising, and, indeed, there is a lot going on. The reason for its comparative invisibility is that the scholars publish exclusively in French, which is a real shame, because I believe their work could shake up English-language scholarship in some areas. Now that I’m living in Rennes, I see the potential even clearer. It’s not just Rennes 2, which is pretty successful in its scholarship (in my area). Rennes is also home to a branch of the famous ESRA (Ecole supérieure de réalisation audiovisuelle / Ecole de cinéma, de son et film d’animation) as well as the EESAB (Ecole européenee supérieure d’art de Bretagne), where a lot of good stuff is going on. So, in some ways it didn’t surprise me when I read in the Avant-Propos of L’art contemporain et le temps: Visions de l’histoire et formes de l’expérience, edited by Christophe Viart, that there is a special research group located at the EESAB looking into “forms of time”. What more does someone like me need!?

The books subtitle is Visions of history and forms of experience, and it’s a great round up of thoughts on the matter, well-researched, well-focused. What I personally enjoyed a lot was to read about time in art in general. I had been primarily focused on time in film for a long time, but I became interested in time, especially duration, in other art forms as part of my research into the representation of (post-) trauma. So L’art contemporain was a great addition, and a wake-up call for me to keep looking into these things.

Christophe Viart’s introduction got me hooked because of a curious anecdote, or rather a description of an artwork by Alighiero Boetti: a simple light bulb in a box. The light bulb lights up only once a year, for a mere 11 seconds. No one knows when that will happen. Quite evidently this has an effect on the visitor’s experience of time. It’s one of those artworks of which you could say that nothing was happening with it, or to it. It’s boring. But that brings us back to an earlier post of yes-boredom and no-boredom. Do you accept standing in front of the box, which contains the light bulb, with the pretty high chance that you won’t see it lightening up? Or do you just walk past it and dismiss the whole idea behind it?

Boetti’s lightbulb is a superb introduction to the book, which is varied in its foci. It ranges from an investigation of Du temps de l’art au temps de l’oeuvre by Jean Lauxerois to Relectures postcoloniales de la temporalité et de l’histoire de l’art by Emmanuelle Chérel to Le temps suspendu, written by artist Bernhard Rüdiger. It’s this mixture of researchers and artists which I value the most, because it is important to me to give artists a say, too. Scholars tend to ignore artists and just pretend that their reading of an artist’s work is the right one, because they have read about it and think that they found the key to understanding, say, a sculpture, a painting, or even a film. I know from experience that all this reading can carry you away and you don’t see the actual work. So hats off to the editor for including a chapter by Rüdiger, which is, I have to say, a thoroughly interesting take on time, image and sound. It’s a chapter on shocks and on trauma, albeit not as foregrounded as you might expect it.

Rüdiger describes the processes behind his work, and how he arrived at a solution to the discrepancy between showing and not showing. He spent several months in Jerusalem in 2000 and noticed that he couldn’t take photos. He just couldn’t. Something inside him prevented him from doing so. He was convinced that regardless of what type of photograph he would take, the photograph would turn into a cliché. I will not describe his entire process here. The chapter is well worth reading if you’re interested in Rüdiger’s work. The result of months of thinking about the problematic became a very special engagement of image and sound, a strange combination of visibility and invisibility: sound recorded as an image (see picture above). Again, a curious starting point to think about time, duration, and the way the viewer/gallery visitor experiences it.

Another thoroughly interesting chapter is Jacinto Lageira’s Voir, revoir, pré-voir, which is perhaps the most complex chapter in this book, demanding, at least of myself, a second and maybe even a third reading. I find his argument that plastic art creates time quite fascinating, something that we possibly never think about. But it is true that those art works never adhere to either historical time or biological time. They have their own time, they create their own time, which is at odds with the viewer’s lived time. I believe, even though Lageira does not mention this at all, his chapter lays the foundations for an interesting debate about boredom at the centre of which we always find a simple discrepancy between two different and opposing experiences of time.

One more chapter I would like to highlight. The book is overall great, but I cannot describe it all. It would be an endless post. Worth mentioning, however, is the chapter Relectures postcoloniales by Emmanuelle Chérel. Colonialism changes a peoples’ experience of time. This is very often neglected in studies on post-/colonialism, as far as I can see. Chérel argues that post-/colonialism requires a redefinition of time and space, and quite rightly so. As I discovered in my own research on trauma, and as Chérel argues a little earlier in the chapter, the postcolonial period is not just a temporal marker in a history written by European powers. In effect, past and present always interact, especially in postcolonial times. The postcolonial is exactly where our idea of a linear historical time fails (which would bring me back to trauma here but I really need to finish this post!).

If you’re reading/speaking French, and you’re interested in the intersections of time and art, it’s certainly worth buying L’art contemporain, or getting it through your library. And you should keep an eye out for publications from this research group at ESSAB, just like I will do 🙂

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?

Monochrome Painting and Slow Cinema

At the very beginning of my doctoral research, I linked Slow Cinema to static art, especially Chinese painting. Traditional Chinese painting, I found, had characteristics that could also be found in the films of Lav Diaz. This was very specific though, and never allowed me to apply it to the whole of Slow Cinema. I’m nevertheless still keen on finding out more about the link between art and Slow Cinema. I do believe that there is more to find in art literature than in film studies literature, which can help us understand the aesthetics of Slow Cinema a bit more.

What set this off was a French language book titled La peinture monochrome: Histoire et archéologie d’un genre by Denys Riout. I bought it out of curiosity because I find monochrome art immensely interesting. I find it engaging, more so than pieces of art with several different colours. I was reminded of my preference of black-and-white over colour when it comes to films and thought I should give this book a try. More than half way through it now, I can thoroughly recommend it.

First of all I should say that I see the term “monochrome” in a much broader sense than it is used at the moment. The term is used only for colour, and yes, that makes perfect sense. But what does an artist do when s/he uses just one colour? Or even a no-colour like black or white? The artwork is reduced to a bare minimum. But, as Denys Riout points out in his book, this bare minimum does not necessarily mean simplicity. In fact he uses the term “image parfaite”, or perfect image; a representation through the absence of representation. We could certainly argue that this absence is asking for no-boredom, an active rejection of engaging with the artwork in front of oneself. But this absence is perfect precisely because it doesn’t manipulate you into thinking of what an artwork is about. Absence sets you free. It is up to you what you would like do with it.

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Riout gives more suggestions, which are as simple as they are mind-blowing. I believe the art of monochrome painting challenges our intellectual approach to literally everything we do. I cannot remember where I read this, but the phrase that intellect kills experience becomes clear once you’re faced with a Rauschenberg painting. Or a slow film in which little is happening. Most telling in this context is Riout’s description in the following paragraph:

Là où le lecteur attend une explication, il ne rencontre que l’occultation et se trouve ainsi brutalement renvoyé à la condition plus inconfortable de regardeur. À lui de ‘faire’ les tableaux; c’est-à-dire de leur donner sens. (Riout, 2006: 34)

Riout mentions here the viewer’s uncertainty with an artwork in which no explanation is given. The viewer is left to his/her own devices. Our dislike of uncertainty is deeply rooted in our evolution and its connection to survival. It may seem odd to connect our rejection of uncertainty in art in general, and film in particular, to our survival mode as humans (or animals, actually). But this is what it is. We often forget where our behaviour comes from. Certainty means safety and security. They’re essential for survival. But I don’t want to go on too much about it. It’s just a thought that is worth mentioning, I think.

Another quote I’d like to highlight:

Alors qu’il n’y a rien à voir, our presque … le regard s’attarde sans pouvoir jamais se fixer. … ‘Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs’. (Riout; 2006: 45)

Emptiness allows the viewer to move his/her gaze along the entirety of a painting. If there are several different elements with several different colours there is a likelihood that your gaze remains fixed on one element without you ever seeing the painting as a whole. The phrase “Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs” comes from Albert Camus,and says nothing more than emptiness giving you plenty powers as viewer. Monochrome art, or indeed emptiness, paves the way for the viewer’s emancipation…if s/he would like to take up this challenge. Because film is time-based, this emancipation is not only achieved through visual simplicity but also through time. The duration of the long-takes allows us to take our time to move our gaze along a frame without necessarily getting focused on just one element.

What I found most intriguing is the thought that monochrome paintings should perhaps not even be called “visual art”. The idea behind it is that whatever you see in, say, Rauschenberg’s black paintings it not actually in the painting. It’s in your head. It’s a spiritual type of engagement with a work of art. So we may ask where the visual ends and the spiritual begins, a very striking thought, if you ask me.

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Now, I do not say that everything I have so far mentioned (and I could say plenty more!) is applicable to Slow Cinema. But there are definite parallels between monochrome painting and Slow Cinema. First and foremost, I believe, we should mention the fact that both are, or tend to be, reduced – aesthetically – to a bare minimum. Complexity comes with simplicity. As odd as it sounds, this is true. The less you’re bombarded with information, the more you can experience what is happening in front of you. You’re given time to feel a situation and you can ponder about what it all means. As Camus says, power comes through emptiness, and I believe that slow films play on exactly that. I would suggest that Lav Diaz is one of the most striking and the most obvious example. But Slow Cinema in general lives off its reduction to simplicity in order to emancipate the viewers. Meanings aren’t given. They’re not imposed. The viewer has to make sense of them (that requires yes-boredom tho).

I also believe that what you actually see in slow films is not necessarily what’s on the screen. Many things happen in your mind, precisely because you have to create a story and make sense of the images and the story the directors give you. You could easily stare at the screen and be passive. Then indeed slow films would be entirely visual. But I suggest that, like monochrome painting, they’re more spiritual than visual. I guess the most recent example for me is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens (2016). This spirituality is perhaps more prominent in some films than in others. Perhaps it is even more prominent in experimental slow films than in narrative films. Nevertheless, it is a characteristic of slow, contemplative films.

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One last point before I stop for now. Painter Robert Mangold said that after everything had been tried in painting, “la seule façon de peindre un tableau consistait à repartir à zero, puis d’ajouter une chose après l’autre” (Riout, 2006: 208). Meaning, painters had to return to zero and start to reinvent painting. Start from scratch. Start with the bare minimum and then add one element after another without overloading the artwork. I cannot help thinking that this is the case with slow films. I have long argued that the actual roots can be found in the early days of cinema. Film has gradually become more complex in terms of aesthetics. Just think of the latest blockbusters and the special effects used for them. Just looking at the film posters shows that the films are basically the same (and do we not know this anyway?). In order to make cinema again, filmmakers have to return to zero, to the bare minimum. Start from scratch. I thoroughly believe that Slow Cinema is a means to return to the very basics of film, of how cinema used to be, and how, perhaps, it had been imagined in the early days.

I should stop at this point and leave you with this food for thought. I still have half of Riout’s book to go, so there might be a second part to this post in the near future!

 

André Bazin 2.0

This post may be a bit of a rumble rather than a coherent line of thought. But I want to jot down a couple of thoughts that struck me while reading Bazin’s What Is Cinema? If you look through writing on Slow Cinema, Bazin and Deleuze seem to be the people to quote. Again, I suggest that this has something to do with frameworks and the belief that if you haven’t dug through and used those classic pieces, then you haven’t done your job properly. I’m fully aware of their contribution to film studies, yet I wonder just how applicable they are to today’s cinema and whether we should really still make heavy use of this literature.

It feels as though bits and pieces of Bazin’s work are used without looking at the whole work and how this applies to modern cinema. Just in the first five pages of The Ontology of the Photographic Image I find questionable arguments, and I know that this is one of the founding texts Film Studies uses when teaching students. The idea of ‘true realism’ through photography and cinema, i.e. through a mechanical eye, is at the heart of Bazin’s work and his arguments were possibly true at his time. But they are no longer applicable and should be considered as such when used in academic work.

Take this example: the essential factor of photography “lie[s] in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part.” (p12)

Even at Bazin’s time, man did play a part in photography. He mentions it in passing, in fact. But even though you have a mechanical recording machine, which makes us believe that the subsequent final product is objective, it is subjective and someone had his/her hand in the production of it. Now that we’re talking a lot about manipulation, which is as old as photography (and which I believe Bazin completely overlooked in his idealisation), we should re-evaluate Bazin’s argument here.

A second example: “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind.” (p13)

Again, Bazin glorifies the objectivity of photography without realising that he contradicts himself and notes precisely the point that makes photography subjective. First, he argues that man has no hand in the making of mechanical reproduction. Then, on the next page, he says that a photographer does “enter into the proceedings”. He writes that he does so “only” to select the object. Selection is already an interference and is the first step of subjectivity. What do you take a photo of? What do you not show? What angle do you choose? Bazin mentions a photographers “purpose” he has in mind while selecting the object of his photograph.

This defies objectivity. Every selection is a personal choice, which renders whatever we see in cinema or photography subjective. Bazin considers painting subjective because the painter had his hand in the production of the painting. I agree, painting is subjective. Yet, it is the result of only one hand, one painter. If we take cinema, the cameraman isn’t the only one who chooses what should be shown and how. There’s also the director, the producer, the editor etc etc

I always had problems to read Bazin. It’s my third attempt now and if it wasn’t for final touches on my thesis, I would give up again. It’s contradicting, and certainly not applicable to today’s times. I wonder what he would say about the World Press Photographs, those which have been manipulated. I’m not only speaking of digital manipulation. Photographs and films, just like paintings, are, especially in the arthouse section, often an expression of the artist’s inner feelings. How can this be objective?

As soon as you put a lens between you and the real world, you have a mediation. No mechanical recording mechanism can and will ever record reality. Reality can only be lived and seen with our own eyes. Things may feel real, but they’re not, and this is the main fault in Bazin’s work, because he doesn’t seem to acknowledge this.

Slow Art Cinema

This is a brief post to say that an article by me was published on the Slow Art Day blog. Some of you may remember the short article “A cinematic approach to Slow Art with Nadin Mai” from 2013, which Naomi Klein assembled based on a few questions. This article now goes a bit further than the original, and is a very basic (slow) investigation into the links between Slow Art and Slow Cinema, as I do not see them as separate entities. On the contrary. I don’t think we can study one without taking the other into consideration.

Unfortunately, I cannot reblog the post, so I have to redirect you to the Slow Art Day blog, where you can find my article. Happy reading, but do take your time with it!

Costa da Morte – Lois Patino (2013)

The film starts with a beautiful shot of fog hanging over a couple of slim high trees about to be felled. In an extreme long shot, we see first one man, then three men deciding over the fate of the trees. At times, it is difficult to detect movement, and yet this is a film. Lois Patino’s Costa da Morte (2013) is part film, part photo album. Again, it is a striking that ‘slow’ films are often more photograph than film, more static image than moving spectacle. Patino observes. He observes the landscape of the Galician Costa da Morte. He observes the people. He observes their interaction.

Even though Patino does speed up the cuts from time to time, he generally allows the viewer to study the beautiful landscape in detail. It feels as though we are on a journey along the coast, encountering a new piece of land, and, yes, falling in love with it (I did, anyway). Costa da Morte is a succession of strong compositions, which highlight both nature’s beauty but also its incredible power. There has certainly been a photographer’s eye involved in the filmmaking process. Some parts of nature are naturally beautiful, but you nevertheless have to capture it in such a way that it conveys this beauty to the audience. I often find myself disappointed looking at my photographs whenever I haven’t managed to convey the beauty. In fact, it is extremely difficult to do this. Patino manages this throughout most of his film. Visually, Costa is a stunning film that made me wish to return to both photography and film again myself one day.

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Patino combines the imagery with oral history, or simple chit-chat amongst the locals. The latter is particularly interesting because it overlays extreme long shots of people, who appear so tiny in the frame that they trigger thoughts of Chinese painting again and the role and position of Man in landscape. To be more precise, Man was just one part of nature, but it was by no means the “crowning glory” of it. This Chinese aesthetic fits very much to Costa. I haven’t yet made up my mind whether the dialogue between people in the far distance has a positive or a rather negative effect on me. I was drawn into it at first. Then, however, the longer the film lasted, the more I thought that the dialogue actually disrupts the beautiful imagery. It is distracting at times, though I do admit that this is here mainly a matter of being a foreigner, who needs to read subtitles. I usually don’t have a problem with subtitles at all. But with this film, it would be better to be a local, or simple speak the language. Then you would be able to enjoy the landscapes without any interruption.

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Very interesting to me was the dialogue between two men who were hiking up a mountain. One of them spoke about old legends, the other countered it by “what geologists” say about the landscape. Tradition versus modernity, oral history versus scientific proof – I returned to the interview I conducted with Lav Diaz in which he said that he was keen on combining oral with scholarly history, the latter being “very clean” and full of scientific proof, which never takes into account experiences. Costa hints at a similar perspective, but it doesn’t develop it properly. It is not necessary in this film, either. It is just the right degree of involvement with local people and their history, and contrasting this with “neutral” and “objective” history.

Costa is a subtle film at times. We are, after all, speaking about the Coast of Death, which received its name because that is precisely what the coastline was for many ships; a coast of death. Patino seems to draw the circles of death much wider, though. I did feel death seeping through in several scenes. Maybe it was intentional, maybe it wasn’t. In any case, there is a strong sense of something passing in Patino’s film. I’m not only speaking of the oral history, which is crumbling. There are the trees felled, the fires extinguished, the foxes hunted. There is this graveyard Patino spends quite some time on. It feels as if this specific area in Galicia has not only received its name because of the ship wrecks. There is a very eery feeling that death is much more prominent. Everything comes to an end.

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I would describe Costa as a fantastic journey, but also as a journey that took too long. The film is only 81 minutes. It is a comparatively short film that shouldn’t stretch your patience. And yet, it does. An hour would have been enough. It would have made the film more concise, more powerful, more to the point. I felt that the last ten to fifteen minutes stretched it a bit, and even though the footage was wonderful, it felt as if everything had been said by then. The imagery – beautiful as it was – merely dragged the film to an end that should have come earlier. I have very rare moments of actually waiting for an end of a slow film. Unfortunately, Costa was one of the few that made me lose my patience a bit in the end. The film started off exceptionally strong, but Patino lost the strength over time. However, Costa makes for an interesting study of landscape, nature and our relationship towards it. I’m certainly hoping that Patino will make similar films in future.