Le passeur de temps – Sylviane Agacinski (2000)

More often than not, book flea markets are the best way to find gems that you might not find in book shops (anymore). Very old books from the 19th century, old film magazines, discontinued books – a whole range of literature that can genuinely enrich your reading, your thinking, your research. It was on a flea market last week that I picked up Sylviane Agacinski’s Le Passeur de Temps – Modernité et Nostalgie, quite a feast for the brain if you’re interested in the subject of time and modernity.

But let me begin with the actual beginning of the book, in which she describes a photograph, which shows a group of students somewhere between 1890 and 1900. All students are male. They look proud, sure of themselves. But there is, in the background and centred, a nude woman. She appears to be just the same: proud, sure of herself, confident. Only one man looks at her. The others look straight at the camera. Agacinski suggests that the nude woman stands in for modernity, appearing at the horizon and few people notice it coming. An interesting take, which, I’m absolutely certain, wasn’t the intention of the photographer. At the same time, we are at the end of the 19th century. Photography itself is part of modernity. The photograph itself is modern, the nude woman becomes a reinforcement of “the new” taking over.

Le Passeur de Temps is a threshold experience, just like this photograph. Written in the late 1990s and published in the year 2000, Agacinski’s book evaluates what has been and what is. It is not a book on the history of modernity and time. It is a philosophical book that poses crucial questions. I would even think that the faster we move forwards, the more essential those questions become. Agacinski’s passeur is taken and adapted from Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, the passeur being what characterises us, and our time, most: everything, including us, is merely passing through or by. With modernity’s aim of constant progress (forward movement), we have to keep going. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Augenblick, verweile doch. Du bist so schön” takes on an important meaning here. The desire for a moment to last, to become eternal, is perhaps stronger than ever before, but it is also less likely than ever before that we allow for a moment to last.

Agacinski reminds us in her chapter L’Heure Occidentale that it used to be religion and politics which created a temporal order in our lives. If history had a religious or political nature to it, so did time. This has changed drastically, however. Globalisation, Agacinski argues, meant nothing other than a homogenisation of rhythms around the world. All rhythms are now Western rhythms, and it is this Western rhythm that makes people believe that time needs to be productive and profitable. Using the work of Claude Levi-Strauss as a basis, Agacinski notes that we could essentially divide the world into two forms of civilisation: those “made to change”, those whose people believe in the possibility of infinite power and knowledge; and those “made to last”, those whose people live in an equilibrium with nature. It’s as though the fate of our modern civilisation is foretold…

This distinction is, in a very crude way, a difference between fast and slow. We have Western society persistently moving forward, and those societies which are meant to last. I like Agacinski’s description here. Societies meant to last…lasting, enduring, duration. Civilisations that live in harmony with nature, that follow natural rhythms. Western societies, on the other hand, live through an eternal passageway, albeit it’s not the mechanical clock, which dictates this movement towards an unknown goal. It is, Agacinski suggests, the stock exchange which waiting for its profits that govern our lives.

Notre monde, surpeuplé d’images, nous fait cohabiter avec des foules de fantômes et douter de l’homogénéité de notre temps. 

When the book was released, 18 years ago (sometimes I really do feel old!), the over-saturation of images was at its beginning. What we see now is something that perhaps no one could have imagined 18 years ago. But the sheer flood of images forces us to live with phantoms. What does that mean for our lives, for our societies?

Essentially, modern consciousness is a “passing consciousness”. It never rests, it never stays. Modern consciousness is aware that our lives are nothing other than a passing element. We come and we go. Agacinski notes that before the age of modernity, at a time when in particular religion still governed our lives, man had a goal. There was this idea of working towards an ideal. Everything one does, everything one creates, one lives through – everything is part of our progressing towards a higher ideal. This ideal was our goal, the reason why we were alive in the first place. This ideal is gone. What remains? There is a thought-provoking argument in the book, which still keeps me thinking.

Selon une longue tradition en effet – avec laquelle il est difficile de rompre – le passager a été conçu comme la négation de l’éternel, donc de l’être. Ce qui ne pouvait durer, rester absolument, ne pouvait pas être.

The idea of passing through”, as we do nowadays, negates eternity. It was our ancient dream to become, or at least to create something eternal. There is this Trauma Management Therapy, which I mentioned in my PhD. We know that we will all die eventually. It causes anxiety, which we tackle by working on something that might make us eternal in one way or another. Yet, modernity, which shows us every day that everything we do is what is called “vergänglich” in German, means that we have no means to tackle this anxiety anymore. Living becomes mourning our death in advance. But the most intriguing point is: if only the eternal, those things that last, are considered to be in the actual sense of the term, then how can modern man still be?

Passionate attachment to life and to youth, Agacinski argues, are only a symptom of the diminishing of the eternal. We try to hand over something to the next generation, something of us, which would make us live longer than our body ever would. Yet, we cannot stop the continuous forward movement towards our non-existence. A taster of mourning, as Agacinski describes it.

Let’s leave this heavyweight argument behind for now, though, and speak about her argument that our concepts and experience of time and space are acquired and not innate. We learn it depending on where we are born, where we grow up, in what kind of society we live. It is based on common human conventions. I would quite like to bring Slow Cinema at this point, because it is/can be a means to acquire a different concept and experience of time and space. If our experience of time is acquired, we can also unlearn our previous ideas and learn something new. Slow Cinema, with its concept of time very different from that of modernity, can be a tool to facilitate this movement. The present, Agacinski argues, is the opportunity for an event or a moment to last. It’s not like the past which is “a world outside of me, without me”, something that we’re merely looking at from the outside. Instead, we’re in a lasting moment. A moment that stretches.

Are slow films a form of the present tense, even if they tell stories of the past? It is an interesting question to which I have no answer. Cinema is a threshold experience, a modern invention which makes us looking at the world passing by in front of us in a much more extreme way than real life ever could. Cinema, by nature, is a passing experience. In this way, it couldn’t be more modern, more emblematic of us as the passeur. And yet, where can we situate Slow Cinema that, through lasting images, invites us to see our lives passing by? A form of film that, more so than popular film, asks us to “lose our time”, to “waste our time” but that, at the same time, invites us to be, to last? Is Slow Cinema a way to slow down the diminishing of the eternal, our attempt at stopping the inevitable progress towards annihilation? 

24 Frames – Abbas Kiarostami (2017)

One of the defining characteristics of Slow Cinema is that quite a number of films, in particular experimental films, question the difference between photography and cinema. Static art and moving image art interact and create a certain pull that only those films (can) have. At the beginning of 24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami notes: “I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it.”

Moving images have helped make recorded life more realistic. I believe that almost everyone shares this opinion. Cinema had, originally, been hailed at creating an almost too real version of reality. Cinema had become an extension of photography. It can go further. Just the movement is enough to make us believe that what we see is real, or so it seems. Kiarostami, a photographer and filmmaker, blurred the line in many of his works, and therefore posed questions about the nature of both art forms. 

With 24 Frames, the question becomes even more urgent. 24 Frames is not so much a film. It is not photography either. It is a question. 24 questions, to be exact, that make us drift into reverie. Most of Kiarostami’s shots are wintry landscapes, like those of a dream land, a land far away, peaceful, yet menacing. Shots, static, that suggest death, lifelessness, silence, contemplation. But death suggests life. Every death creates life in another way. It’s an eternal cycle. Nothing ever dies completely. And so the scenery, the reveries, beautiful, penetrating like the eyes of family members in photographs from a different epoch, begins to move. Snow is falling. Snowflakes are blown towards us. The wind is howling. Deer are running through a prairie after a shot went off. A shot in the off. Far away, and yet very close. The peaceful scenery is disrupted. The shot irritates, shocks, upsets the stillness. The shock of a shot of a deer is almost traumatising. What has happened?

Is this real? Did we have a nightmare? Is this our unconsciousness speaking? Kiarostami’s world is imaginary. It is a journey, several journeys, triggers that make us think about the nature of an image. 24 Frames creates 24 frames of a shamanic journey you are taking with the director. Crows fill the frames, making one think of Hitchcock perhaps. But Kiarostami is different. This is no threat. Kiarostami’s crow is a spirit animal, a prophecy. Wisdom, transformation, the act of change. It is a mysterious creature which, in almost literal terms, transforms a photograph or a painting into a moving image. The crow makes us question, makes us wonder. It initiates a journey into ourselves.

The sea. Endless, raging, wild. But also cleansing. Kiarostami’s sea is an important destination of his journey into the unconsciousness. Rain is falling, the wind is howling. It is a menacing scenery, yet soothing. The sea – a place without limits, without barriers. A place that frees our mind, that allows us to sink into reverie and to go wherever we want to be. That, too, is a journey. A personal journey to a place where we think we have to be. Our journey becomes our destination.

We travel through memories. Can you remember the day we arrived in Paris? Everyone was there. Grandpa wore his nice suit and his hat. He wanted to put on his best clothes for our trip. Can you remember what’s happened to him? 

Static images, Kiarostami said, capture only a frame of reality. 24 Frames is a collection of 24 snippets, of 24 mind images, of 24 destinations on a journey that we’re gently taken on. We look through open windows, open doors. Vast landscapes and the sea are at our finger tips. 24 Frames is an invitation, it is a hand stretched out to us. “Come with me,” the film says. “Let me guide you.” There is no other film whose underlying openness is so vast, so liberating, so fascinating, so personal. The film doesn’t allow refusal. It is there to be journeyed with.

Phantom Islands – Rouzbeh Rashidi (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh from the press: new books on Chantal Akerman

I took a literary journey through the works of Chantal Akerman thanks to two new books that have been published on her work. Not so long ago, I wrote about Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit by Corinne Rondeau, which I found to be a great book, something that gave you a sense of how a Chantal Akerman film feels. It wasn’t a dry description, it was a book about experience.

So from that point of view, it was a pleasant surprise to have yet another French-language book in my hand that dealt with feelingssensationsmemories. The most recent book on Akerman, Chantal Akerman – Dieu se reposa, mais pas nous, published just a week ago, was written by Jérôme Momcilovic, who also gave a lecture on the director as part of the major retrospective that is currently running at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. What struck me first of all, from page one, is the way Momcilovic approached the task of writing about a director whose oeuvre is so vast and so complex (albeit it looks simple at first) that it would be easy to miss most of the essential stuff in a book of less than 100 pages.

Momcilovic begins his book with a quote by Sylvia Plath, American poet and writer: “Light, as white as bones, like death, after all things…” A description of a scene from Akerman’s New from Home (1976) follows, an interpretative description, rather than a mere statement of what one sees. Once more, here’s a book which is very much in line with my own writing. I see it so often that “analytical” books contain more film descriptions than analysis (as we will see later on in this post), and the uses of synopses are, nowadays at least, limited. Brief, two- or three-sentence synopses are fine if you want to give the reader something. All other details are online. Books can focus on the depth and the experiential nature of films if only more writers would do it. In any case, Momcilovic does a great job here, carefully using short paragraphs for each essential thought, an essential feeling that one might have when one sees a certain scene.

The book is not a description of Akerman’s films. Its a journey through it. Not necessarily going chronologically in his writing about her main works, Momcilovic follows thoughts, follows ideas, interrupted by Akerman’s own thoughts on specific films or her filmmaking career. He describes hers as “cinéma errant, nomade, vagabond” (nomad, wandering cinema) which is very much in line with Akerman’s being.

“Le temps n’est pas le même pour tout le monde, mais les films d’Akerman nous ont donné un temps à partager avec eux, temps électrique, dans l’hôtel et à l’arrêt de bus, un temps délimité par le miracle de l’apparition et le deuil de la disparition qui oblige de revenir pour effacer le deuil dans le miracle…On ne sort jamais des films d’Akerman, il faut y rester tout une vie.”

Everyone has a different perception of time, but, Momcilovic writes, Akerman’s films gives us a special time which we can share with her films, with her work, be it at a hotel or at a bus stop. What matters most, however, is that one can never leave a film by Akerman. One has to stay with them one’s entire life. I was struck by this powerful statement and noticed that, without ever expressing it this way, I had the same feelings about the films by Lav Diaz. As Momcilovic suggests in his writing, you can leave the auditorium for a cigarette or for a pee break, but you stay with the film, or rather the film stays with you for longer than any screen time at a cinema. That reminds me of a very important aspect Andrei Tarkovsky mentioned: a good film is never finished at the end of post-production. A good film lives on in its viewer and its meaning is created only by the viewer. This is, Momcilovic seems to suggest, precisely the nature of Akerman’s films.

“Par un réflexe facile à expliquer, parce que ses plans durent et nous font regarder longtemps, l’arbitraire des classements l’a rangée parmi les cinéastes “de la durée”. Mais dire ça, c’est toujours faire peser sur l’expérience des films le soupçon d’une douloureuse endurance, c’est voir les films comme une prison de temps, belle prison mais prison quand même.”

Akerman’s films are regularly classified as belonging to a group of films that focus on duration, Momcilovic says. And yet, this classification – and I agree wholeheartedly here – creates a tension, potentially a rejection on the part of the viewer because it sounds as though those films are an endurance test, a “prison of time”. But, he argues, quite the contrary is the case. Akerman’s films, and I’d like to add all slow films, liberate the view, liberate the viewer, and therefore invite an active engagement with the film text.

Momcilovic spends quite a good part of his books on recurring sounds in Akerman’s films, arguing at some point that no one has forced his/her viewers to listen to the silence of waiting the way Akerman had done in some of her films. And if it’s silence in some parts, then it is the outdoor noise that invades a room through wide open windows in others. I haven’t yet thought much about sound in Akerman’s films, but Momcilovic gave me a couple of ideas, which I’d like to investigate more in future.

I’d like to finish this part of my blog with another quote by Momcilovic, which I found touching and will stay with me for a while: “No Home Movie is not a film about death, but about a gradual obliteration of two images bound to disappear together.”

I wished I could finish this whole post with this quote, but there is still one more book I’d like to speak about briefly. Quite some time ago, I reviewed a book on Pedro Costa, an edited collection that appeared in edition text + kritik (Germany). They published one on Chantal Akerman last summer, edited by Fabienne Liptay and Margit Tröhler. The two books couldn’t be more different from another. One feels like a collection of thoughts, liberated and liberating. The other is a rather rigorous study of Akerman’s oeuvre that allows little room for the reader’s own thought. In nine chapters, various themes are explored, albeit I had the feeling that synopses and detailed descriptions played a major role, which, at times, put me off actually watching more of Akerman’s films because everything was said, and in such descriptive detail that, technically, I wouldn’t need to see the films anymore. This is a shame and something I always dislike about writers, academics, and especially editors who decide to publish stuff like this. Giving away everything from a film means ruining it for the reader, unless you want your readers to see everything beforehand or if you want readers without an intention to discover. That, for me, is a bit how Chantal Akerman felt at certain points.

At other times, the authors make several good points which are useful for my own work. Eric de Kuyper, for instance, argues that Akerman’s work is so extremely autobiographical that it’s no longer noticeable. It’s everywhere, and yet not always as visible or as easy to grasp as in other works either by herself or by other directors. Furthermore, his point on the use of a static camera is interesting. It’s something I had never thought about this way. Kuyper argues that the absolute stasis of the camera highlights the presence of the director, making his/her presence behind the image we see palpable. There is someone recording the scene we see, he writes. I personally always thought of a static camera in the context of an arresting image, of photography, of death in certain ways. Kuyper speaks of presence, meaning life, which makes me rethink a bit what I had argued in the past.

In her chapter on Hotel Monterey and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Michelle Koch suggests that the contemplative look at empty rooms and the way certains scenes are edited turns physical architecture into a mental space (or “room”, as Koch writes). I have seen neither of the two films yet, but Koch’s argument reminds me of something I myself have argued in my PhD thesis regarding the use of makeshift and run-down houses in the films of Lav Diaz to reinforce an image of despair and mental upheaval. I also wrote an unpublished essay on the uses of architecture and double framing in the films of Béla Tarr and who immediately comes to mind in this context is, in fact, Tsai Ming-liang. Akerman’s use of physical spaces to evoke a mental space, to me, is consistent with other directors’ uses of physical spaces in order to show their characters’ mental upheavals.

The longest chapter in the book, I believe, is Heike Klippel’s thoughts on Jeanne Dielman, which is situated somewhere between Momcilovic’s free thinking and this very book’s rigorous descriptions. Nevertheless, there are some points to take away from it. I’d like to point out just one here. Klippel suggests that the way Akerman films everything in detail would normally suggest an abundance of information. Her long takes show everything in detail. And yet, especially in Jeanne Dielman, you have this discrepancy between showing and not showing. One example is Jeanne doing the dishes, but she’s with her back towards us. We know what she’s doing, but we cannot see it. So, can we actually know what she’s really doing in detail? Akerman blurs the line between the visible and the invisible, between the idea of showing detailed everyday activities and hiding details, keeping secrets about what’s going on.

Overall, both books have their own way of approaching the rather comprehensive and complex oeuvre of Chantal Akerman. I believe that Momcilovic succeeded in getting to the depth of Akerman, really focusing on the vertical axis (the experiential, the emotional) in many cases, whereas the other book is more for people who prefer a rigorous reading of single scenes. One is French, the other in German. I hope that at least Momcilovic’s piece will be translated into English soon.

Uzak – Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2002)

One of the three films I recently bought with the support of my patrons is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak, a film from 2002 and, even though not his first film, possibly the first well-known film of the Turkish director from Istanbul. It’s my third film by the director. After I had seen his latest film Winter Sleep, I really wanted to see more. I was curious to see the director’s development over almost two decades of filmmaking. Uzak was the beginning of my starting to watch Ceylan’s films chronologically. Let’s see what I will find!

The story of Uzak is quickly told: Yusuf, a rather uneducated factory worker, travels to Istanbul to stay with his cousin Mahmut while looking for a job as a sailor. Things are not going to plan, however, and Yusuf prefers following a woman around the city rather than look for a job. He lacks motivation but so does Mahmut. The two couldn’t be more different, more distant. I return to the meaning of distance further below, because it is multi-layered and speaks volumes.

As is the case in Winter Sleep, Ceylan’s 2014 film about the divide between rich and poor, and an investigation of power, Ceylan’s outdoor shots in Uzak are gorgeous. In Uzak, the director plays with different lenses, similar to Alexandr Sokurov (Mother and SonFaust). Ceylan doesn’t go as far as using mirrors, however. Rather, he uses painted lenses (or maybe even broken lenses?). In one scene, the top half of the frame is tainted in a very slight brownish colour, something that visualises the weight felt by Mahmut and Yusuf. It’s also a weight that comes from nature; the heavy, endless snow weighs down on the trees. The film feel claustrophobic throughout the 100 odd minutes with the exception of an outdoor scene in Anatolia. There doesn’t seem to be breathing space, neither for us nor the characters. Ceylan’s experimentation with lenses work well here because they reinforce this idea of claustrophobia, of weight, of heaviness, precisely because Ceylan positions the extra layer of light brown at the top of the frame.

In my head, I returned time and again to Winter Sleep, noticing the similarities Ceylan has kept up over the years. The use of snow is only one of many things. Ceylan uses it effectively to create an atmosphere of both peace and beauty, and of subtle, but boiling tension between his characters. Yusuf and Mahmut are different in everything they do…and stand for. Yusuf is a rather uneducated character, poor, aimless, without much motivation. Mahmut has worked his way up to become a renowned photographer in Istanbul. He has climbed the social ladder but now he no more than pretends to belong there. For him, “photography is dead.” He attempts to behave according to his position in society, but does so without motivation or aim. He simply aims not to lose face. It is for this reason that one evening he puts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s supposed to be for intellectuals, so he pretends to be interested but switches to a porn VHS as soon as Yusuf has gone to bed. In the end, the two characters are not as different as they might look like at the beginning of the film. In their heart, they are the same. They are only different because Mahmut plays a role that doesn’t seem to suit him. It is like a heavy coat that he cannot take off.

Ceylan contrasts rich and poor, educated an uneducated. But the quest for love remains the same for both characters. Both Yusuf and Mahmut long for love, the latter presumably still in love with his ex-wife who leaves for Canada with her new husband. The former sees a young woman in the streets when he arrives at Mahmut’s place, but whenever he is close to her or wants to approach her, something or someone comes between them. Unfulfilled love – a current that is running under the main storyline and unites the characters that seem so different. It is also here that the theme of “distant” and “distance” comes into effect. Ceylan creates several distances in his film. There is the distance between the two male characters and women. There is something they’re outside of. They cannot get into this world of love, of emotional bonds. It’s something that happens around them, as we see in one scene in which Mahmut sits in a restaurant by himself, having had dinner. A couple arrives. He knows her, she keeps awkwardly looking over to his table without trying to raise the suspicion of her partner. Mahmut leaves, avoiding the situation, putting a distance between it and the situation. Happiness with a woman – that happens elsewhere.

There is a distance between Ceylan’s two protagonists, as I have mentioned. There is also the distance between social classes that often cannot be overcome. Mahmut has alienated, distanced himself from photography, arguing time and again that photography is dead. Ceylan creates several forms of distance, all of which (apart from Yusuf having left his home) are an expression of his characters alienating themselves from their outside world. They close up, they detach themselves from what is happening around them, while at the same time longing for being a part of something, for joining. Uzak is essentially a film about growing isolation and solitude; it is about an often self-inflicted distance the reasons of which aren’t explained in the film. Indeed, this is one of the trademarks of Ceylan’s films: things are the way they are. The director doesn’t try to explain them, he simply shows them.

I’m not sure whether I can agree to the general opinion that Uzak is Ceylan’s best film. It is a good film, beautifully shot, and intelligent. But I would not (yet) go as far as declaring it his best work. I need to see the rest of his films first before I can judge this properly. I loved Winter Sleep but haven’t so far been able to put it into the context of the director’s full filmography. We will see!!

Mrs Fang – Wang Bing (2017)

The winner of the Pardo D’oro at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, and a brave decision of the festival jury headed by Olivier Assayas, if you ask me. I’m simply noting a few things, which I started writing while watching the film – I never do this. I never start writing my post while watching a film, but this one triggered some urgent thoughts in my head that needed to be written down immediately.

Wang Bing’s award-winning film Mrs Fang (2017) shows the last ten days in the life of Mrs Fang, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In less than ninety minutes, the Chinese director, who is usually known for his longer pieces, creates a strong, deep and powerful portrait of the most important part of life next to being born: the process of dying. In careful handheld shots, most of them in medium close-ups or close-ups, Wang Bing pictures Mrs Fang in her bed, hardly moving at times, utterly still at others. In his usual manner, he captures ordinary life because, indeed, life goes ahead for the family member of Mrs Fang. They think of the funeral, they go fishing, they eat. Life and death, often considered as opposites while they are, in fact, part of the larger nature of human existence, are perfectly captured as running in parallel.

I have tried not to read too much about the film, because what can critics say? There is nothing to analyse, nothing to make sense of. Mrs Fang is a film about a woman dying very slowly, portrayed on a big screen. I know that Wang Bing has been both heralded and slammed for bringing death to the screen, for breaking a taboo, the latter being a curious complaint given that the viewer wants his/her film to be always as realistic as can be. It can never be realistic enough, but if a film shows human death not as part of a fictional story, people are offended. The question that one should pose is, what are they really offended by? Is it really Wang Bing’s film? Or is it the idea of them dying themselves at some point, finding those images appalling because they reject the idea of death? Or do they fear that they may end up like Mrs Fang, vegetating in her bed and do they therefore prefer to close their eyes and ignore the possibility?

Wang Bing’s film is more than just about death. What I found curious is the way the family deals with it. It made me wonder about our appreciation of life and of people, of everything around us while we’re still alive. Mrs Fang’s relatives look after her, they notice every change in her breathing, her posture, even a stiffening of a tendon in her neck. They recognise details, details that had no meaning (I would guess) to them while Mrs Fang was still in the full capacity to live her life fully. They surround her, several times, and even though this might look like a curiosity show on screen, I cannot help thinking that Wang Bing is after something else: it’s only death that makes us become aware of what’s around us. The details of a person, the subtle changes in a person’s posture while sitting or lying in front of you – I’m sure you never take note of this. We tend to see the broader picture, which explains why we never actually live in the present. Only in the present would we commit ourselves to look at details, to commit time to noticing.

Photography has long been considered in the context of death; a photograph as the arrest of a certain moment, the arrest of time, a stoppage. It is said that, in some ways, photography always captures death because, once a photograph has been developed, it shows a moment that has been. But only film can capture death. Death is durational; it is a passageway; it is the passing from one state into another; it is movement. A photograph cannot portray this, it can merely show what leads to a person’s death and death itself as a fait accompli. Not, however, death itself. This is something Wang Bing has managed with Mrs Fang, and I salute him for doing so. I’m struggling with seeing my father-in-law dying slowly and have been for a while, and I myself have been wondering whether I should turn this suffering into an artistic project that creates awareness, not only of death but of certain diseases that do not allow for an ethical, graceful death. Can death be ethical in any case?

Wang Bing’s film poses ethical questions. Should he have filmed Mrs Fang in this or that way? Should he have brought it to a festival? Should he have won a prestigious award for it? But how about: why should he not have filmed Mrs Fang? Why should he contribute to the silencing of real death on screen, even though death is, actually, a major part of our lives? There is very little that you can say about the aesthetics about the film. What Mrs Fang does is pose questions. It opens a debate. This film demands more than a “I like it”, or “I dislike it”, because as soon as you start to explain your reasons for your preference, you must start a debate on ethics and death. Wang Bing has created a piece that needs to be engaged with on the level of society. It cannot be described, it cannot be formally analysed; it needs to be discussed. The usual words people use to describe a film – good, bad, amazing, awful – are insufficient, more so than with any other film.

To me personally, Mrs Fang is Wang Bing’s best film. He’s reached the height of his career. The sheer complexity he has shown by this simple portrait of death is overwhelming. Other films of his, such as Tie XI Qu (West of the Tracks), are also complex and demand a thorough engagement. But Mrs Fang goes much further. It is not simply a film about death and dying, but about our engagement with it, our willingness to acknowledge what will happen to all of us, about our (non-)acceptance. Mrs Fang goes deep, deeper than any other film I know dealing with the human being, the human as a living creature whose life is finite.

Jean-Paul Curnier’s writings on the image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

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

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

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

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

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

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

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

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

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

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

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

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.)

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?