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.

Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part III)

This is the third and last installment of my interview with Lav Diaz. Parts I and II can be found here and here. I have more material, but it needs to be incorporated into my chapters in order to make sense. So you will have to wait another year or so before you can read those passages 🙂

Nadin Mai: The brush was a good point. How familiar are you with the aesthetics of painting? If you remember I tried link your aesthetics to Chinese painting. There are so many similarities.

Lav Diaz: I didn’t become a filmmaker. Maybe I’m a painter or a musician, or a writer. So, it’s one of my passions, painting. Cinema and painting is almost the same in terms of playing with the light. Cinema is light, you know. You deal with the light. The same, painting is about light. You have to apply the same principle, the same philosophy. You’re like a painter. You’re sourcing the light of your work. You put the character, and then you check the sources, the particulars. What are the particulars? It’s about sourcing. The same with cinema. You just start doing the palette, the canvas. It’s about sourcing. Where is the light coming from? The very very first principle is the light with cinema and painting. So it’s almost the same.

NM: Are you still painting?

LD: I stopped. I couldn’t paint because of cinema.

NM: You didn’t have time, or you couldn’t focus on it anymore?

LD: I couldn’t focus. I respect that medium, so I don’t want to make it as a hobby. I can paint as a hobby. But I would feel bad for my peers, the real painters, who are really working hard to do painting, and I’m just doing it as a hobby. [laughs] That would be sad. The same with music. I want to compose songs but then I want to have focus also. I want to concentrate. It’s so easy to create music, really, for me. It’s so easy to compose songs. But then, I have to really focus so that I can be good. I don’t want to make it as a hobby also. It’s an easy thing to do for me, really. Compose songs. It’s really easy. I don’t want to make it like a hobby. Be able to make money out of it. No, no. It’s all hard work. You have to respect the medium. You have to be very responsible. Ethics – you put ethics always. You have to be very ethical. To be able to put (the medium) on a level on an art form.

NM: I don’t know whether you know the writer Milan Kundera.

LD: Of course I know Milan Kundera.

NM: He once argued that “a nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self.” Is you filmmaking an act against forgetting in that sense?

LD: Yes, of course. That’s very true. It’s a very honest statement. If you forget the past, you can’t really move forward. You’re in denial. Everything becomes pseudo. Everything becomes fake. You create a persona. There’s no rootedness. It’s not rooted in anything. … It’s not an honest existence anymore. It’s also about nations that just forget the past. It becomes a myth. … The Philippines are like that. You keep forgetting things. We don’t have a sense of history. It’s a myth. How can you call yourself a nation if you don’t know how to confront the past? If you don’t examine the struggle, it’s not a nation at all. Nation is all about that. There is this holistic view of existence; the past is important. Memory is important.

NM: So you’re the memory-keeper.

LD: [laughs] Sort of. I don’t want to be accused of being a revisionist one day. Somebody will say: all these things are lies. He’s not saying the truth. I may be accused of that one day. I don’t know. I just throw the thing out. I’m just trying to be very ethical and honest about these things. But then, if it becomes a lie one day, then…I’m okay with that. The works are there. It will create a discourse. Then I’m okay with that also.

NM: Have you ever thought of ending your career as a filmmaker?

LD: Every day I want to stop. Every day. It’s just a struggle also.

NM: Why is that? Béla Tarr once said he had nothing more to say. He would repeat himself. So he stopped. And then Tsai Ming said that it’s really difficult to receive funding and he gets tired of it. He’s still making the short films with the Walker, but he doesn’t want to make feature films anymore.

LD: It’s a different position. I know Béla’s position and I can understand it. I love his works. I love him. But at the same time I have my own struggles also. The condition of my country is a different condition. If I stop, then one responsible artist is gone. So that keeps me going. Fuck Lav Diaz. It’s about the work. I want to keep doing the works, so that I can create a model, some template, some model that will even in a very small way help my culture. It’s a responsibility. That’s why I don’t want to stop. But give me the chance, and I just want to go home and take care of my grandson, man. I’m better that way. It’s better for me. I would feel better, because I miss my grandson every day. I love him. I want to be with the children. But at the same time, there is this greater struggle also, this greater responsibility that needs to be done. So maybe in three years I will stop. Maybe in two years. Maybe five more films, maybe three more films and I’m gone. If I say, oh it’s enough, I have this body of work that can sustain the so-called model that I want to do, then I’m okay. I’ll do a Béla Tarr and a Tsai Ming-liang [laughs]

NM: I think it’s quite brave to say, I’m fed up, I quit.

LD: Yes, it is actually. I admire them for doing that, and I’m jealous that they’re gone. I’m jealous. I want to stop also. I want to be with my family. Maybe three, five more films. [laughs]

Slow Cinema at the Museum!? (Paper)

Expanded Cinema Conference – St Andrews University – 3 April 2013

Introduction

Slow Cinema – this phenomenon of increased slowness and minimalism on screen has been repeatedly discussed throughout the last decade. Nick James’ and Jonathan Romney’s articles in the Sight & Sound in 2010 are perhaps the most known recent examples of public debate on the issue. The focus usually lies on the use of long-takes in slow films, which often provoke a debate on boredom and suffering on the side of the viewer. There are, however, many more aspects that are worth highlighting and I want to illuminate one of them here today; the exhibition of slow films.

Tsai Ming-liang is one of the most prominent slow-film directors. His films The Hole (1998), Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), and I don’t want to sleep alone (2006) have propelled him into public awareness. His particular style – the striking opposition of lonely, slow-moving characters in bustling cities, combined with humoristic elements and musical interludes – has become a trademark that has attracted not only cinephiles. The French museum and gallery Le Louvre commissioned a film by Tsai Ming-liang as part of their Films by the Louvre project; a project that aims to showcase the museum’s audio-visual productions. Visage was the result of this collaboration; a slow film commissioned byand shot in a museum. Released in 2009, Visage is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

On the other side of the planet, the director of America’s Walker Arts Center commissioned a film from Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose popularity increased over night with the reception of the Golden Palm for his film Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives. Apichatpong had produced several films in the past, most notably Blissfully Yours (2003) and Syndromes of a Century (2006). His latest short, Mekong Hotel, was screened at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. His short film Cactus River for the Walker Arts Center was released in autumn 2012 and can be watched on the institution’s website. I would like to give you two more examples of these directors: Apichatpong produced the short film The Palace in 2007 for the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Tsai’s It’s a Dream, also made in 2007, had been acquired by the Taiwanese Fine Art Museum and was added to its permanent collection. In an interview with Noah Buchan from Taipei Times, Tsai points out that

“It’s the first time that I sold a video installation to a museum and this is the first time for a Taiwanese museum to buy a film as part of its collection. The Louvre was the first in the world to collect film. These events signal that we are now looking at film as a form of art.” (Tsai Ming-liang, quoted in Buchan 2010)

He goes on to say that “gradually, my movies find a home, and that is the museum.” (Tsai Ming-liang, quoted in Buchan 2010). There is a movement towards gallery spaces evident, in particular by Eastern slow-film directors. I propose that this is not a coincidence. Rather I suggest that it has, in fact, a plausible reason, namely the undeniable similarities between slow films and static art, which blur the line between moving and non-moving art, and therefore also question current exhibition practices. Let me elaborate on this point.

Slow Cinema and the Static Arts

Obviously, it needs to be stressed here that there are significant differences between moving images and static art, embodied by the aspect of rhythm as well as the exploration and representation of time. Slow Cinema is of interest in that several slow films merge the two forms of art, blurring the line between kinesis and stasis. I want to highlight three perspectives here:

First, although it had never been officially included in this category and therefore never really seen as such, film is a kinetic art form for two main reasons. By the sheer fact that film is made of moving images, kinesis is imperative. Without kinesis, we would not speak of moving images. In addition, film represents objects of movement, or objects suggesting movement. The representation of kinesis in art is not exclusive to film, however. Frank Popper (1968) traces the history of kinesis in art, with particular reference to the depiction of dynamism in static art forms, such as painting and sculpture. His study reveals that movement was a recurrent theme as early as the mid-19th century in the artworks of Impressionist painters. In part, this can be linked to the Industrial Revolution, when new means of transport, thus of movement, became major symbols of the time. Popper points out that Impressionists were keen on depicting kinetic objects such as railways, horses, water and dancers (Popper 1968: 11) The chosen motifs conveyed a sense of movement, and had been used time and again in later art movements. Especially in the early 20th century, Futurist artists picked up the aspect of movement and heightened its presence in their work. Speed-embodying objects such as cars or trains inhabited a special role in Futurist art.

Of interest to us in this context is the balance between kinetic and static objects in slow films. A close study of films directed by Lav Diaz from the Philippines, for instance, reveals that dynamism is largely absent. His films contain only few elements, which imply movement. One of those rare examples is an ox cart in Heremias Book I, but this one gets stolen early on, so that movement for the owner of the cart is greatly reduced and slowed down. If Diaz represents other objects of movement, such as cars or motorcycles, he does not make them visible to the eye. Interestingly, we can only ever hear them as off-screen sounds, but they are never in any way directly connected to the protagonists. The static camera as well as the little movement of characters within film frames further reinforce the sense of stasis.

With regards to this, I would like to point to a statement of experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Contrasting cinema and static art, she writes that cinema is

 “a time-form, and [therefore] it is really rather more closely related to music and dance than it is to any of the spatial forms, the plastic forms. Now it’s been thought that because you see it on a two-dimensional surface which is approximately the size and shape of a canvas … that it is somehow in the area of plastic art. This is not true.” (Deren, quoted in Jackson 2001: 51-52)

The validity of Deren’s argument cannot be denied. Indeed, film is a time-based art form, just as music and dance are. They share the characteristic of evolving, of developing in time. All three are rhythmic art forms. The limit of Deren’s argument is reached when we try to apply this to Slow Cinema. Due to the common absence of dynamic objects, as we have seen, as well as the lack of camera and character movement, slow films appear surprisingly static, and therefore less time-based; an aspect, which distinguishes slow films clearly from music and choreographic dance.

A third aspect to consider is the use of sound in film. Michel Chion’s study Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1994) contains hints as to why slow films embody stasis. Chion argues that films, similar to human beings, are vococentric (Chion 1994: 5). Research has shown that humans tend to focus on speech first, before their attention switches to other sounds around them. Moreover, our ears are said to react faster to external stimuli than our eyes do. This suggests that the extent, to which speech is used, alters the pace of the film. Slow films contain only little dialogue and music is scarce, a fact that slows down the reading process of the film considerably, as the viewer is dependent on his or her eyes. Combined with little character and camera movement, the cinematic frame appears static and thus has to be read in similar ways to paintings or other forms of static art.

To recapitulate, then, slow films share characteristics with static art forms based on the almost complete absence of kinetic objects or kinesis in general, and the lack of rhythmic speech or music, which demands our eyes to view a film in similar ways we would view a painting.

Lav Diaz and the Art of Painting

To take this a little further even, I want to demonstrate briefly now just how pervasive the aesthetics of static art are in slow films.

In an interview, Lav Diaz made a case in point. He said:

 “My films are just like paintings that are just there. Nothing changes. You can watch it for eight hours, and you can have a more fulfilling experience. Or you can leave the house, go to work, and when you come home, it is still there.” (Diaz, quoted in Baumgärtel 2007)

Diaz’s quote is evidence for my earlier proposition. He describes his films as paintings and reasons this by pointing to the almost static nature of his cinematic work. There is more to this, however, and this will facilitate an understanding of why slow-film directors such as Tsai Ming-liang are leading a renewed displacement of film; from the movie theatre to the gallery.

One major aspect to consider in the study of the relationship between slow films and paintings is the role of landscape and the treatment of nature. Bo Jeffares writes, “[a]s man’s urbanizing programme has increased and his control of his wild surrounding become more extreme, the kind of innocent interest in rustic life … has become an escapist obsession.” (Jeffares 1979: 6) Much similar to landscape painting, the focus in slow films lies on rural areas and nature. This is a key element of Slow Cinema, which only few filmmakers deliberately ignore. Elaborate shots of a landscape force the viewer to linger over what he sees, and thus slow down the narrative progression. The landscape is, what we could term the ‘argument’ in the language of art theorists. It inhabits a dominant role and becomes a character in its own right. It is an interesting point as landscape and character function as a mirror for one another.

A second link to painting is the way characters are framed. Photography popularised the close-up, especially of human faces. It was the key novel feature photography has introduced to the Arts. Nevertheless, painters remained generally keen on illustrating the whole picture, setting the character against his natural surrounding. You have to search really hard in order to find a close-up in a slow film. Filmmakers tend to approach their subjects in much similar ways to painters.

Overall, then, combined with earlier remarks on slow films as being similar to static art, the framing of characters in long-shots, shying away from close-ups, and the presence of landscape which acquired a special place in art in the, what Sherman Lee called, the ‘materialistic’ 19th century (Lee 1962: 3), Diaz’s films can, similar to a vast range of slow films, be read as static paintings.

Slow Cinema at the Museum

How does this affect the reception of slow films, then? Incorporating aesthetics of still art, such as painting, can Slow Cinema evoke a justified response in a movie theatre audience?

It is of interest here that Thomas Elsaesser has described Slow Cinema as the “musealization of the cinema” (Elsaesser 2011: 117). The screening of slow films in cinemas turn movie theatres into sites of contemplation, which has formerly been the case only of galleries and museums. Elsaesser’s point is crucial, yet I propose to read it in a different way. It is more intriguing to speak of slow films as exhibits, which demand a different venue. Reasons for this can be found in studies of video art.

Video artists have long combined aesthetics of static art with those of moving images. A good example is Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho in which he slowed down the original Hitchcock movie in order to extend the narrative over a period of twenty-four hours. It is so slow that movement is barely perceptible. So is 24 Hour Psycho a film, or is it still art?

Michael Newman argues that moving image art recontextualised cinema. It has introduced “a new dimension of reflexivity because of the frame provided by the institution of art and its history.” (Newman 2009: 88) In a nutshell: we associate galleries with contemplation, and cinemas with entertainment. The venue shapes expectations as films, or any other kind of art, are experienced in specific contexts. Therefore, Newman correctly stresses 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) Having established to what degree slow films share characteristics with non-moving art, it appears evident that the gallery space, as Tsai Ming-liang pointed out in an interview, is the most appropriate venue.

In her study of gallery films, Catherine Fowler argues that “gallery films are different from cinema films, and that if shown in a cinema they would not achieve the vertical expansion that takes effect in the gallery.” (Fowler 2004: 338) Similar to Chinese art, which sees vertical expansion as a method of in-depth analysis, slow films put the same emphasis on depth. This is a prominent element in gallery installations. In fact, in a study of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, Jihoon Kim speaks of “cinemas of the gallery” (Kim 2012: 129). Although slow films are not gallery films per se, I argue that Slow Cinema can be described as a cinema of the gallery. One example from personal experience: The screening of Diaz’s eight-hour epic Melancholia (2008) in Newcastle in March last year took place in a cinema. This, however, was not experienced as such. Sitting on comfy sofas and leaving the auditorium from time to time in order to grab a coffee or give my eyes a break, made it feel as if I had been in a gallery or a museum, a venue which offers me to return to an artefact when needed, and taking a break when desired. Yet, this film was part of a festival at which slowness was celebrated. The movie theatre as a venue implies that the viewer sits down and stays seated until the end of the screening. But this widely accepted and adopted cinema-behaviour-code is not even something the filmmakers themselves imagine. As Diaz points out:

 “I don’t believe in the concept that you have to sit in the cinema for two hours and watch a story that is compressed in this period of time. Cinema can be anything. My films are not purposely done for the cinema anymore.” (Diaz, quoted in Baumgärtel 2007)

Apart from the blurring line between moving image and static art, there is one additional intriguing factor. Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz – these slow-film directors talk openly about the link between slow film and gallery, or slow film and painting. It is remarkable that these directors are from the East, a region whose philosophy has traditionally seen time as irreversible and continuously flowing. This perception of time has influenced people’s artwork, and art tends to be contemplative, following Buddhist and Taoist teachings of a higher understanding. I believe there is a link between this and the push towards alternative screening venues. But further research needs to be done in order to explain this phenomenon fully.

[If you want to use parts of this paper for your own research, please reference it appropriately. Thanks!]

Slow Art Day 2014

I would like to remind all readers of my blog of this year’s Slow Art Day, which will take place on 12 April. The idea behind it is easy: slow down, and take your time with looking at a piece of art. Rather than passing by, skimming a painting, you take a good five to ten minutes to look at the details. In many cases, the artwork will start talking to you. Metaphorically, of course.

Slow Art Day is an international event. We have more than 160 venues so far from across the globe taking part in it. Some countries are unfortunately underrepresented, and I’m hoping to reach out to those, who are interested in the event but have never heard of it.

Let me briefly quote from the organisers’ website:

One day each year – April 12 in 2014 – people all over the world visit local museums and galleries to look at art slowly. Participants look at five works of art for 10 minutes each and then meet together over lunch to talk about their experience. That’s it. Simple by design, the goal is to focus on the art and the art of seeing.

Everyone can become a host. It’s easy. Just sign up on the website, tell us where you would like to host, and then we add you to the list. You get an Eventbrite page, which you can use to advertise your event.

Having organised a Slow Art Day last year, I can assure you that it’s a fantastic thing to do. It shows you art in an entirely different light. It is astonishing what you see, if you just take your time.

I will organise this year’s event at the University of Stirling, Scotland. If you are around, feel free to join me and my group.

Please circulate the news widely, and please become involved. Again, it’s a wonderful thing. You will not regret it!

Any questions, please get in touch with me [theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com] (I’m UK and Ireland outreach), or contact the main organisers behind the event through their website.

Is Lav Diaz is literati?

This post wraps up my brief excursion to the far-away lands of China, and my somewhat exotic reading of Slow Cinema. What remains is one last aspect, which I mentioned briefly before: the so-called Three Perfections.

Chinese paintings were more than just paintings. Painting alone wasn’t seen as sufficient for what the painter wanted to deliver. The idea was to enhance the painting by adding layers of meaning to it. These layers were poetry and calligraphy, the type of writing the artists used for poetry. If you come across a traditional painting, you will likely see Chinese symbols drawn on it. This is either a poem or an appreciation by one artist of another, or by an owner of the painting. Calligraphy, poetry, painting – all three were highly influential and acclaimed art forms. They constituted the Three Perfections.

Literati painters were at the forefront of this type of painting. They were scholar artists, and had to be sophisticated in more than just one form of art. They tended to work in black-and-white, and never painted according to someone’s request. They painted when they wanted and what they wanted. And moreover how they wanted. Literati painters kept their freedom, and often lived in solitude in the mountains (compared to court painters). Also, literati paintings would be full of suggestions. They left space for imagination. Paintings were rather open in that case, like open-ended films. Nothing was carved in stone.

It is not so much that I think Lav Diaz is a Chinese literati painter. Not at all. What I do think is that there are parallels that cannot be overlooked. First, Diaz is more than a filmmaker. He writes poetry (his poems are used, for instance, in Death in the Land of Encantos), and he composes the admittedly scarce music of his films. He is a one-man business if you wish. And it’s not only because he has to due to lack of funding for his projects. On the contrary. Diaz is skilled in everything he does. It comes natural to him.

His films (and I exclude Norte here) are not made to measure. He does what he wants, when he wants it, and how he wants it. He produces a piece of art and then it’s up to the audience to decide over approval or rejection. His films are hardly ever straight-forward. They’re metaphorical. He suggests things without making a clear statement. He thus leaves plenty space for the viewer’s imagination. This not only concerns the endings of his films, but the entire films. And don’t forget his preference of black-and-white over colour.

Yes, it looks abstract. But actually, if you think about it, you can see the parallels, and I find the thought of Lav Diaz being a kind of scholar artist an intriguing and interesting one. Perfect food for a slow-obsessed mind.

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting IV

I want to continue with the slow and painterly journey today. You can find the previous three parts here, here and here. Last time, I briefly outlined the theme of verticality both in Chinese painting and in Lav Diaz’s films, with particular regard to the relation of Heaven and Earth, and the role of man in the universe.

Today, I want to add to this a brief summary of the concept of emptiness, which has its origins in Chinese painting. Emptiness never meant “empty” the way we would interpret it nowadays. Emptiness, or absence, always meant presence at the same time. It was the source of all things. Also, it has its roots in meditation. Painters meditated before they picked up a brush. They cleared, or “emptied”, their minds. This emptiness was thus a prerequisite for tranquility. This is particularly obvious in Zen painting. Here, objects are presented in front of a completely blank background.

I mentioned last week that there is always a space of emptiness sandwiched between the planes of Heaven and Earth. At least in traditional Chinese landscape painting. This emptiness was conveyed through the depiction of vast landscapes. This appears very similar to many slow films, as the landscape often plays a major role in them. Characters are often dwarfed, nature is dominant.

This is, obviously, a very literal reading. It is possible to extend the argument, though. In many slow films, but in Lav Diaz’s and Béla Tarr’s films especially, emptiness describes subjective mental states, which are then mirrored by (empty) landscapes. In Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos, for instance, emptiness stands for both the landscape – the film is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming – and the characters and interviewees, all of which have lost either family members or their entire property. Emptiness is here more absence, more destruction than actual non-existence. However, the strong typhoon did “empty” the region. Houses, rice fields, everything is gone. It is creepy to link this to what I said earlier: emptiness is the source of something new, but unfortunately, this is very much the case here.

In relation to the landscape as a mirror of a character’s mental state – this can be linked to the original Buddhist concept of emptiness, namely dependency. We’re empty of self-existence, meaning we only exist because of many other factors. We alone, without any influences, could not and would not exist. We’re dependent. Our life is the result of a combination of circumstances. This means in short that one thing determines another. We can thus also say here that the landscape determines its inhabitants and vice versa. They’re a mirror of one another. This is exactly what we see in Diaz’s films, as well as in Tarr’s films. Particularly the latter is a genius when it comes to showing the dependency of several elements. Everything is connected.

That leaves me with two more features. Stay tuned!

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting II

Last week I began to point to some research I have done last year. Today I want to go into a bit more detail about it.

Perhaps, I should make clear that I do not say that slow films are Chinese paintings. Nor do I say that all slow films can be compared to Chinese painting. This isn’t my intention, and I’m aware that it can look like it. This is why I clarify my intention beforehand.

I suppose that it can be difficult to see a connection between Chinese painting and Slow Cinema. However, only the term “Chinese” is really irritating, and it is only irritating because we divide the world into East and West. And why, with our own rich culture here in the West, should I make a journey to the East?

Chinese landscape painting

I spoke earlier about slow films’ link to landscape painting. It is important to see this link in a historical context. I cannot simply take, say, a Spanish landscape painting and make links to slow films just so that it fits to our Eurocentric reading. If I were to use a Spanish painting, I would ignore a vital part of art history, namely that landscape painting originated in the East, in China (London’s V&A museum currently exhibits striking artworks from China). What I see in any landscape painting has its roots – as vague as it may appear – in China. So why should I not start with it!?

The aesthetics of Chinese landscape painting derived from their philosophy (Buddhism, Taoism) and their take on nature. Nature as a governing force, man as the one who is only one part of the universe, but not the most important part of the universe.

While Westerners chased after the mechanical clock and attempted to divide time into ever smaller entities (to save time, and do more, as is the case today), the Chinese continued to live true to nature. In fact, when Western colonisers tried to introduce the mechanical clock in China, they were laughed at. The Chinese used them as toys, not as time pieces. Unfortunately, with the defeat in the Opium War against the British Empire, the Chinese were forced to adopt Western technology etc.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting has four major characteristics; emptiness, verticality, monochrome aesthetics, and, for me, the Three Perfections. Each of them made a specific contribution to the look of Chinese artwork. Not all of them were visible from the beginning of landscape painting, which is supposedly linked to the 4th century. Rather, it was a (slow) development towards perfection.

I will explain each of the characteristics in more detail in the coming weeks, and put them into the context of Slow Cinema. I hope this will give you an eureka effect similar to the one I had.

Stay tuned! Slowly…

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting I

The results of research into this area will come in parts over the next two or three weeks as it would otherwise be too long a blog entry.

For those of you who have been reading this blog since the beginning, research into painting in the context of Slow Cinema isn’t new. This is, in fact, how I started my research because I found it fascinating. There was this strong sense of slow films being arty, in whatever way, until I found a connection to painting.

A link to Chinese painting appeared by accident and stems from pure curiosity on my side. When I flicked through books about the subject, it felt as if a slow film was unraveling right in front of my eyes. The next few blog entries will cover the context of Chinese painting and Eastern philosophy.

I’m not going to say anything today, though. I merely want to leave you with two images you can think about for a few days. One of them is a copy of a traditional Chinese landscape painting, the other is a screenshot of Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2009). Both of them have been used in conference presentations.

Vertical Scrolls
Vertical Scrolls
Vertical (Film) Scrolls
Vertical (Film) Scrolls

Happy thinking!

Day 13 – Mother and Son (Sokurov)

Another one of my favourites. And a classic, I suppose. Russian director Sokurov is more than just a slow-film director, though. In fact, I don’t find all of his films very slow. When I watched Faust (2011), I wasn’t drawn to the film because it was slow. It felt slightly faster than his other films, but it didn’t make a huge difference. It was actually a “normal” film speed, appropriate for the subject.

The one piece everyone can perhaps name when the name Sokurov comes up is The Russian Ark (2002), an entire film shot in one single long-take. It was a hugely interesting experiment, and fed in well later on with my engagement with Slow Art Day.

Let’s come to Mother and Son (1997)Apparently, it was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy, which was complemented with Sokurov’s later work Father and Son (2003). I’m not sure whether the trilogy will ever be completed. I truly hope so. Mother tells the story of a dying mother and her absolutely devoted son. The film is for me an exploration of love between a parent and his/her child. It also, perhaps, speaks of sacrifice and grief. But the main thing remains the dedication of the son towards the care of his mother.

Mother and Son (1997), Sokurov

I seem to like the number “two”, so yes, there are (once again) two things that strike me in this film. Both of them are linked to visual aesthetics, and are kind of interconnected.

I’m not sure whether I have mentioned it in earlier blog entires about the theme of painting in slow films. Sokurov’s Mother and Son is, for me, the most evident example of this. I cannot say with certainty that Sokurov intended the film frames to look like paintings, but they do. This was one of the slow films that triggered the idea. There are several issues to this.

First, the dominance of landscape and therefore the use of long, or extreme long shots. In some scenes, characters are only minuscule. This makes perfect sense if one considers where the film is set: in a remote area, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, in and around a cabin. This makes also sense if one considers the underlying theme of the film: evanescence, death. Man is only a small part in the universe. He’s mortal, he’s not permanent. Even though the landscape is impermanent, too, it will remain once man dies. Putting the landscape at the forefront of the film is thus plausible.

The second feature I would like to mention feeds directly into this; the way the film frames look. They do not only look painterly (I should say that for me the whole film looks like an oil painting to me). They also look pretty obscured. I found this to be the most stunning aesthetic achievement of Sokurov. If I remember right, he used those aesthetics in Father and Son as well, though not quite to the same extent.

Mother and Son (1997), Sokurov

Sokurov distorted the film image by filming through mirrors or very specific lenses. Apparently, he also filmed through painted glass panes (maybe this is where my feeling of “this is a painting!” comes from!?). The result is a film which, among other features, defies every logic of visual perception. Everything seems wobbly somehow. I sometimes wondered how to position my head to make sense of what I’m meant to see. Images are not always clear. Instead, the viewer is confronted with blurriness (dyssebeia has written a nice article on this). I don’t think that there is a fully “normal” film frame in the entire film. But then, I could be wrong. I got used to this distorted viewing that I’m not so sure anymore what a “normal” film frame looks like.

The startling aesthetics bring up one problem: they have the potential to divert the viewer’s attention from the actual content. I did focus on the content, but what did I write my blog post about? The aesthetics. Actually, the content of the film is just as interesting, Maybe I will write about this some other time.

From Painting to Drawing?

I have to admit that it sounds odd to bring drawing into my research. I have long argued that painting is the most appropriate art form some slow films can be compared to. Things have developed since I posted my first entry on this blog, and while I am still convinced that painting will be the focus in my thesis, there is something else that has caught my attention.

Jianping Gao (1996) argues that ‘painting’ means ‘to apply colour’. At least, this is our Western understanding of it. Indeed, my Oxford dictionary tells me that “paint” (noun) is a “substance applied to a surface in liquid form to give it colour“. Gao explained that there has traditionally been a difference in the west between paintings and drawings, the former incorporating colours, the latter being predominantly monochrome. This is, in fact, a fine line these days as art in general lives of mixing and merging concepts. However, do think for yourself: what do you associate with ‘painting’?

Perhaps the colourful works by Impressionists come to your mind. Or those of the Romanticists. No matter what period we’re looking at, I can almost guarantee you that you have ‘colour’ in your head. Maybe we could argue that Western painters wanted to create an image of the world, which comes as close as possible to reality. True, especially the Impressionists applied colours according to their own interpretation of the world. However, colour in general heightened the realistic effect of the paintings. The world was colourful, so the painters depicted it accordingly.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned analogous characteristics of Lav Diaz’s films and painting. The one thing I have never thought about was the absence of colour. Not in this context anyway. I did analyse the black-and-white system used in his films, but I never thought about whether it would make sense to apply the concept of ‘painting’ (applying colour) to his films. I’m not saying that his films are drawings, though if we looked at the definitions mentioned above, it would be true.

The main concern is that I can obviously not go ahead arguing easily for painting. While Diaz’s films show many similarities, and while all the points in my research make perfect sense, the term ‘painting’ can be controversial if not defined properly. Lesson learned.