The Red Turtle – Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016)

I believe this is the first animation film that I’m mentioning on this blog. I haven’t heard a lot about slow animation before, nor am I really a fan of animation. But it’s different with Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle. One could easily argue that the film doesn’t fit the Slow Cinema categories I have established on this site in the last five years. That was my very first thought, too, when the film had started. A lot of movement, comparatively quick cuts – there was something that made me wonder why some people have described this film as being slow or contemplative in the past. Just over an hour later, I agreed with those people and it is, funnily enough, the aspect of movement that, in parts, contributed to my change in thinking.

On the surface, The Red Turtle does not take its time with anything. In effect, the film tells the story of life in under seventy minutes. A man is caught up in a storm, is stranded on an island, tries to escape but a red turtle prevents him from doing so. In subsequent scenes, he falls in love, has a son, the son grows up pretty fast, leaves the island and he himself dies. So basically, it’s the natural circle of life told in a short time frame. In case you’ve been following my work for a long time, you probably know that I would always advocate for length in order to allow for an in-depth depiction of whatever is on screen. For The Red Turtle, this is slightly different and even though the sudden speed with which the story developed was startling at times, the film didn’t lose any of its smoothness.

And this is the key of the film that makes it so wonderfully slow and contemplative: its smoothness, its beauty. The Red Turtle is a magnificent, poetic piece that, despite looking like a speedy story-telling rollercoaster on the surface, takes its time. This sounds contradictory, I agree. And yet, apart from one sequence towards the end of the film, all scenes give the impression that life moves slowly, that it progresses in its own time. I mentioned the aspect of movement before. Especially character movement is not necessarily a major thing in traditional Slow Cinema. It’s there, but it’s limited. What struck me in The Red Turtle is the perfectly smooth, sort of zen movements. The film’s characters swim a lot, for example, and they do it, in parts, to enjoy the very act of swimming, to swim with turtles and imitate their slow and graceful movements, to become one with the still sea that surrounds them (up to a point, one should say).

Then there is the aspect of isolation and loneliness. The story is focused, first of all, on a single man only. He looks for food and for drinking water. He builds a raft in order to escape, but there is only so much you can do on your own on an island. So what the film does show is limited, is repetitive, is the daily survival of a man stranded in the middle of nowhere on an unnamed island. Curiously, once he gave up trying to escape, the film becomes very peaceful. It was his anger that gave the impression of a speedy story development, his rage against natural forces. But after that there is a real shift in tone in the film that, once established, made me sink into my seat and observe the images. I didn’t actually watch the film, I observed it. I wasn’t even distracted by the music. On the contrary, they helped me to feel the sort of isolated, limited life which, at the same time, is a life of complete freedom.

There is something mystic, something metaphorical about The Red Turtle. I felt that the film spoke about a million things, and yet only about one essential thing: life. In some ways, just like with major slow films spoken about on this blog in the past, the film’s utter simplicity, also in its drawing, highlights the beauty of it; of the film itself, of the story, of nature. I often thought about Chinese painting (I can’t let it go!), and was reminded of how often slow films focus on nature. Crucially, there is no dialogue in the film. Thoughts and feelings are expressed by actions only. Body language is the centre of the film, and aligns itself, once more, with other, more known and popular slow films. So maybe you begin to see the contradictory nature of The Red Turtle. Nevertheless, or maybe despite this, this animation film deserves being on this blog. It’s an interesting hybrid that made me rethink the framework I have established for myself. At the same time, it fits almost perfectly, and I’m absolutely delighted that it’s this film that has become the first animation mentioned on this blog. The year starts off well…

Homo Sapiens – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2016)

Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.

Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.

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What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.

The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?

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Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?

Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.

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I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.

Alimuom – Benjamin Agusan (poetry)

Benjamin Agusan is a fictional poet in Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007)A great poet on the verge of losing his sanity. He is also, in some ways, the alter ego of Diaz, who has written Benjamin’s poems, allowing us to look into his soul and his view on Philippine society. Encantos is, for me, a poetic film, rather than a slow film. I discussed this in an earlier post, taking the stance that Slow Cinema should be called Poetic Cinema instead. Slow documentaries are always “poetic” documentaries, but slow feature films are always slow (derogative, no?), which has never made sense to me. Either way, slow or poetic, I want this post to be poetic, and I want to give you a chance to discover Lav Diaz as a poet. Below is a transcript of the first poem recited in Encantos. It speaks volumes, if you ask me. But I let you decide.

Relenting as suddenly as it pours
Departing as suddenly as it arrives
Rancid air burgeoning from morning’s promise
Dispersed before noon out of keen jealousy
At the angels of earth and heaven and purgatory and the devil
You roamed the far-reaching river of triangles unable to complete themselves
In a consciousness made restless by torrents and waves and ever shifting curves
You’re Sisa of the desert and Tasyo spinning philosophy in a universe playing half-wit
To five-cent minds bequeathed and poured over by eras old and new
You were a tyke when they reached the moon
You were a kid when a mountain grew from the town lake
Daily you see land and sky, heaven and hell
No corner left in the world, no haven for everyone
A hundred thousand echoes will sink and rise
Behold the blood on the window of a vanished maiden
Angling for the star atop a mango tree
You were a tyke when the chapel fell
You were a kid when murders proliferated
A mysterious song persists in memory
A face from the past being glimpsed
A once muddy place turned into a street
The mountain pounded and crushed into gravel
Before burying your childhood friend
You protested in vain, but you’re hobbled
Your strength sapped, your vigor lost
Time in your hands is merely a cage
Zarzuela out of vogue, amusing no one
You seek to release the hidden curse
You recite poetry down the shoals where the fishes are
Alas a metaphor, alas a mystery
You sing in the abode of addicts
You dance with a ballerina, grasping her by the waist
On your way home in the deep of night
The wind whispers, the stars look down
The branches shake, some wailing in the air
The currents cease, the road not discernible
You will stop by the wayside and piss momentarily
And heat will be released, swirl upward from the soil
You will heave a sigh
Nothing is left
You know you have sinned
You know your days on earth are numbered
No one’s honorable
No one a hero
No one a criminal
No one a saint
No one miserable
No miracle
No one poor
No one rich
No soul
No memory
No more
No more memory
No escape
You grovel in the ocean of memories refusing to flee from the prison
of your solitude
Returning you to breaths that expire while in the womb
Ferrying you to a garden that withers before it blooms
Placing you in a season that becomes autumn before springtime
Laying you down in a world of tempests, a universe that cannot be pacified
None can assuage the bitterness of your every turn
None can take away the profound grief of every saintly image that falls on
the center of your eye.


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.

Day 9 – Journey on the Plain (Tarr)

It was new to me that Béla Tarr directed a short film called Journey on the Plain in 1995, a year after the release of his seven-hour epic (and masterpiece) Sátántángo. I was only familiar with the usual canon of his films, and I’ve never come across this short in any writings I have.

Anyway, Journey – I think the film is for me a pretty good demonstration of how habitual film viewing can become, and how much we identify a director by his or her dominant techniques. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks of stark black-and-white films if hearing the name Béla Tarr. Little dialogue, a lot of walking, deserted landscapes –  all that together used to create an astounding atmosphere of doom in all of his films (with the exception of Almanac of Fall).

Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr
Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr

If you go into Journey like this, you will be utterly disappointed. Initially, I had troubles to identify this as a Tarr film. I would be inclined to say that this was mainly because his short was in colour. This evoked a completely different atmosphere. On the other hand, I have to be fair and say that Hungary is for me black-and-white after having been an avid follower of Béla Tarr (and Miklós Jancsó in parts). I was in Hungary once, so I’m well aware that the country is not monochrome at all. But I associate the depiction of the country in Tarr’s films with monochrome aesthetics. The same goes for Lav Diaz’s films and his use of black-and-white. I find it immensely difficult sometimes to imagine the Philippines in colour.

Journey has, however, more or less the same themes as his other films. First of all (what a surprise!) it’s slow. It’s very close to Sátántángo and indeed, it was shot on pretty much the same locations. At the beginning when the protagonist, who is, by the way, Tarr’s usual composer Mihály Vig, walks away from the camera into the horizon for two minutes or so, you could imagine this scene in black-and-white and were transported to the set of Sátántángo.

Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr
Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr

In addition, Journey is rather a non-narrative film, which is an interesting experiment. In general, I would go as far as saying that the film functioned as an experiment for all of his future films. There is a scene in which the camera circles around, focusing on the sky shot through a roofless building. The camera keeps circling around, slowly tilting down until Mihály appears in the frame. A very similar shot had been used in Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).

Maybe I should mention that throughout the film, Mihály is reciting poems by Hungarian poet Sándor Petöfi. It’s deeply sad and kind of fits to the general Tarr-esque feel to his films. I guess most telling for me is the following line: “I don’t have a sweetheart, I don’t have money. I only have grief.” For me, this goes right to the heart of Damnation. It is a film of only thirty minutes, and yet, there is a lot of Béla Tarr in there. Minus the black-and-white aesthetics. But then, you can easily use your imagination and make it black-and-white.

Poetic Cinema

I have recently watched Jia Zhang-ke’s wonderful and impressive piece I Wish I Knew (2010), and a thought popped into my head. First of all, I highly recommend Jia’s work. The World is an equally impressive work, so is Still Life. As he told JP Carpio in an interview, Lav Diaz admires Jia for his dedication to making films his way without letting his work be influenced by the state.

Anyway, there was this fantastic slow shot fairly at the beginning of the film, which struck me.

I Wish I Knew (2010)

It triggered my interest in photography, and my curiosity as to how various art forms are connected to form a unique experience for the viewer. This is especially true but not exclusive to Slow Cinema.

During my research, I have come across Maya Deren and her contribution to the Film and Poetry symposium in 1953 at which she caused controversy with her remark about film having a horizontal and a vertical axis. The vertical axis is the poetic axis. It’s the axis of mood, of feeling. It is the axis that allows the viewer a more in-depth perspective on the artwork.

If I follow the strand from the film and poetry symposium, I cannnot help thinking that Slow Cinema should, in effect, be called Poetic Cinema.

Poetry is a very personal work. It comes from the soul of the artist, and is often an expression of an artist’s deep feelings for something; his or her love for someone, or for a country, for a specific region, for the moonlight. There is an endless list.

We all had to recite poetry at school I suppose. If you think back to that time, what exactly comes to your mind about the way you recited poetry?

It was surely a slow recital. And it was a slow recital because only slowness would have transmitted a sense of the artist’s soul, of his feelings, even of his thinking. If you rushed through a poem without taking your time to read through the lines and without trying to grasp the artist’s soul in it, then you missed the entire piece. You may have read or recited a poem, but you haven’t actually lived it. This reminds me of a lengthy scene in Diaz’s Encantos when Teodoro recites a poem written by Hamin, the main protagonist in the film. It’s a long sequence, and it fits exactly to my way of seeing Slow Cinema: it’s Poetic Cinema.

Besides, whenever documentaries are ‘slow’, we call them ‘poetic’, and not slow. So why should feature films be treated differently? They share the same aesthetics.