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? 

El Cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia – José Luis Torres Leiva (2008)

I think (although I could be wrong) that this post is a premiere, as it is probably the first post about a slow film from Chile on this blog. It does make me proud a bit, I have to say, because it means that the site keeps branching out. More discoveries from more countries – this is exactly what I’m aiming for. El cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia by José Luis Torres Leiva was a good guess after I had read the synopsis, and it turned out to be a wonderful, beautifully shot film that was a pleasure to watch.

What impressed me most about the film where the photographic frames that, at times, took my breath away. And the utter and complete defiance of a three-part narrative arc, with up and downs which would normally keep the viewer going and engaged. The narrative progression is flat, like a flatline on an ECG. Perhaps this describes Leiva’s film best. This isn’t a bad thing at all. In the end, the narrative, the story of depressed characters at the margin of society, fits this flatline rather well. Their lives are mostly uneventful. There is not much happening, except for the usual routine that weighs them down. Ana, one of the main protagonists (whose name we only learn more than one hour into the film), is a good example for this cinematic flatline. We don’t know much about her. The director doesn’t provide us with a background story, nor anything else that would be useful to follow her as a character. She is in the here and now. Neither her past, nor her future really exists. Her life seems to be an eternal present, a present which is dragging on, and drags her with it.

Leiva’s mise-en-scène adds to the idea of a flatline, of being dragged through an endless now, through everlasting difficulties that never seem to end. The film frames are drained of colours. They’re dull, uninviting, a perfect mirror of people’s lives. Some frames are cramped, others empty. Both represent the characters’ minds, full of concerns and worries, empty of hope and a future. There is an interaction between the two extremes that manifests itself in the film’s visuals and character development. Ana works in a shop, uncomfortable with her role. She makes mistakes that lead to her being sacked, dragging her deeper into an economic crisis that defines her life. But this is not all. She looks after her mother, who seems to be paralysed and in need of round-the-clock care. Ana pays an elderly woman to be with her mother for the time she is at the shop. At other times, she administers injections to her, tries to feed her. One can feel that death is coming, and one cannot be sure whether it would lighten the burden for Ana, or whether it would, instead, increase her suffering even more.

Ana and the other characters are floaters. They are caught up in a torrent of problems that life confronts them with. But while floating, they also get drowned here and there. It feels as though life is dragging them to the bottom of the sea while they try to keep their heads above water; economically and mentally. The quietness of the film, the lack of dialogue, reinforces this weight, invisible at times, and yet present. We see mental images, mind images, translated into pictures on a screen. There is longing, there is a desire to break out of this circle. In one scene, Ana stands in front of a window. She has just changed and cleaned her mother’s bed sheets. The bed sheets are hanging outside, in the pouring rain. Ana is inside looking out. We can see her in a mirror image of the glass with the camera’s focus remaining on the bedsheets outdoors. One can sense that Ana wants to break out, but she seems trapped. What can she do?

Even more trapped is another important character, who, to me, actually takes the main role in the film, because she embodies everything that is burdensome, everything that functions as a trap. The young Marta is mute. The director doesn’t even make clear whether she is deaf-mute, or mute. Or why she is mute in the first place. Is it physical or a psychological reaction to a traumatic event? We can only assume. Like Ana, Marta is a character without a history. She simply is. This is the defining characteristic of the film; we see what is, not what has been. We cannot be clear about Ana’s relationship to Marta, nor about anything else. At one point, Ana finds Marta at the seaside, crying. She takes her to her brother, not knowing what went wrong. At another point, Marta attempts to kill herself. She walks into the sea and hopes that the waves sweep her away. She is saved. Drenched to the bones, Ana and her friend drive her home, silent. What happened, is not spoken about. Silence is deafening, silence is muting.

Marta appears to be the one character who takes action to break out. She does so in a violent way, but she no longer seems to be capable of bearing the weight of life. She takes action, no longer accepts being passive. Towards the end of the film, she disappears. Whether she has finally succeeded in killing herself – the director leaves it open. Ana and her friend search for Marta, but without success. Has Marta succeeded in breaking out? Is she now at a better place? Ana’s mother is. While Ana stays at Toro’s, where she has been working as a housemaid since she got fired at the shop, her mother, alone at night, dies. The director doesn’t comment on this death. Like Marta, Ana’s mother simply disappears. Is her death Ana’s fault? Is her absence the cause of her mother’s death? What did the mother go through while alone? No answer is given. The director records. He doesn’t answer. He triggers questions, but doesn’t help us finding an answer.

It is only then that Ana, whose facial expressions hardly change throughout the film, breaks down. The weight is too much. She can no longer bear it and seemingly falls apart in Toro’s arms. The camera, in smooth movements, then follows her walking along a wooden path. But rather than following her right up to the end, the camera abandons her, like everything else around her in life. The camera pans further and further, getting embalmed by trees, repeating in some ways the second scene at the beginning of the film. There is a degree of smoothness, a certain degree of peace in this long-take which wants to bring closure to what we have seen. But it cannot hide the fact that there is no closure. This would mean that the film’s characters have access to a past, to a future, but they don’t. They continue to hoover in the present, in the now, drowning in their unsolved daily problems all the while trying to keep their heads above water. Life continues for them, in a flat line.

Cochihza – Khristine Gillard (2013)

It doesn’t happen very often that I have to rewatch a film because I forgot about its contents. In fact, it never happened to the degree I experienced it with Khristine Gillard’s Cochihza (2013). I loved the film the first time I saw it, and this was only a week ago. But a couple of days later, I couldn’t remember a single scene. I could have said that the film was special, and maybe my not recording this beauty is an indicator of that. Or maybe it isn’t, and I merely try to justify an odd thing that happened to me after having seen a good film.

Cochihza is my first slow film from Nicaragua, or my first ever film set in Nicaragua. It reminded me of aspects I had seen in Filipino films, particularly those of Lav Diaz, and films from Mexico. And yet, Cochihza was different. It is more rooted in the symbiosis of Man and Nature than any other film I have seen so far, I believe. It is so peaceful, so smooth, so embracing.

There is also something mysterious without really putting it on its sleeves. I only need to return to the beginning. Two men are playing a board game, and I have no idea what they are actually playing. It’s curious, and the director returns several times to it. Without us seeing the game at first, Gillard shows us a long shot of the Concepción volcano on Ometepe Island, off the coast of Nicaragua. And then we hear two male voices speaking about betting. “It’s time to bet”, one of them says. “Bet the Purgatory, I’ll bet Hell.” A little later, one of the says “We’re not gambling the sky…because we have already won it.”

This scene, right at the beginning of the film after a black screen with drum music that reminded me of the procession we see in Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), to me, set in motion my curiosity, but not this impatient type of curiosity. It was a soothing curiosity that , something that made me feel I was in good hands. And I know that this might sound odd given that we’re speaking about a film here, but this is exactly how I felt.

Maybe one of the things you will feel when you see the film is that there is time. There is time for everything, and you don’t even have to hurry to enjoy this time, or to use it. No, you do not have more time when you hurry. It’s make-believe, and people still follow this evil of modern times, although they know that time is still progressing with the same speed. All you do is exhaust yourself and miss out on being in the present. The people in Gillard’s film are aware of this and simply live according to natural time (as opposed to mechanical time). They rest, they play games, they enjoy just being. They do work, but they do it at their own pace.

Presence, being in the present, being in the here and now, and cherish it – this is Cochihza. Gillard is careful with her camera, keeping it at a distance, trying not to interfere. She observes, observes freely, and always shows us the Concepción volcano that has a magnificent beauty and power to it. In one shot, in the middle of the film, there is a superb long shot that shows the volcano and the clouds moving across it – a breathtaking spectacle, and something that asks me to return to Lav Diaz one more time, this time to his nine-hour film Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). The film is set in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Mayon and a typhoon that had followed in autumn 2006. Diaz includes several shots of this perfect cone, while at the same time, in voice overs, letting us know that the volcano, or volcanos in general, have a special force.

They give and they take; they give us fertile soil and they take our lives in natural disasters. Nature destroys. Nature gives birth. The people in Gillard’s film live according to this principle. There is also an appreciation for ancient traditions, cultures, beliefs, thoughts, which we have almost forgotten.

I probably haven’t said much substantial things about the film, but somehow I really can’t. If I was to summarise the film, I’d say nothing more than “It’s a meditation on being in the present”. This is what I feel deep down in my heart and my gut.

P.S.: I don’t know whether the DVD of the film is still available. Amazon doesn’t give any results, but it might be possible to order a copy from the distributor alter ego films based in Belgium. The DVD would come with French and English subtitles. You can contact the distributor here.