A Yangtze Landscape – Xu Xin (2017)

There are films, which I’m grateful for. Grateful for being able to watch them, grateful for being able to write about them. Grateful for being able to experience them. There are those films that go deep without trying too much. Films that show the ordinary in their ordinariness, in their simplicity, and which tell a million stories about who we are and why, about what is happening around us and why, what consequences there will in future, and sadly, about how little we can do about it.

Xu Xin’s A Yangtze Landscape (2017) is one of those marvellous films, which made me want to stop it several times in order to process the images in front of my eyes as well as the images in my mind. A Yangtze Landscape is not only a beautifully shot film, it also conjures a number of images, thoughts, and emotions that I struggled to digest all at once. Something that Xi Xin clearly demonstrates is that there is a strong documentary movement present in China, which goes against the official party narrative, a movement that looks beyond propaganda, beyond imagined greatness and heroic plans. It looks at the reality without commenting on it. The camera records the invisible, the silenced and the silent. What directors like Wang Bing and Xu Xin show, won’t end up in history books, or in any books for that matter. If it wasn’t for them, the people they meet would fall into oblivion; forgotten, silenced, expropriated.

A Yangtze Landscape is a journey in many ways. We move along the river Yangtze, the longest river in Asia with its over 6,000km in length. It’s an astounding river that is not only an ecosystem in itself. It is also a symbol of the exploitation of resources, of the creation of man-made projects, state projects in the name of the party, which displace hundreds of thousands of people. Fast progress by all means possible. On his way along the river, on boats, ships, filming the vastness that alludes to an open sea, Xu Xin stops here and there. He literally holds the forward, horizontal progression and dives into vertical storytelling. It is this vertical exploration that questions Chinese progress, that not simply films it, but that investigates its effects.

It is also this vertical exploration that made me think just how important filmmakers like Xu Xin and Wang Bing are, both directors looking at those people who are being left behind by a grand project that, officially, has no victims. Xu Xin shows us people whose stories are never told. They often reminded me of Wang Bing’s Man With No Name or Till Madness Do Us Part. The people we see are disabled, mentally above all, but also physically, the latter, for one man, being a result of having protested against the damaging of his fisher net by big ships. His hands were mangled, he can no longer earn a living. This elderly man, sitting outside overlooking the river with his mutilated hands…what a powerful message in a film that quietly inserts written words to inform us about accidents, suicides and state intervention.

The gloomy greyscale landscapes, almost all of them man-made, speak of lifelessness, and are juxtaposed with the movements of Xu Xin’s camera on board a ship (or does he travel on several ships?). Here again, as in many other slow films, we witness a push-and-pull between life (animation, movement) and death (stillness). The massive projects along the Yangtze river have their advantages for some people, but mean the loss of an entire identity for others, sometimes of lives. This clash, highlighted throughout the film’s over two-hour running time, is aesthetically intensified through Xu Xin’s use of sound.

It’s the sound, or rather the deafening noise of a firework display from Chinese New Year, which connects several scenes in the film. The sounds clearly oppose the images. There doesn’t seem to be a link at all. What the sounds do, on the other hand, is they introduce a degree of disorientation. They may not support the images as such, but they support the mental state of the people we see, the disorientation felt by those who were displaced, the staggering changes, even invasions, of man-made structures. And with that, Yangtze is not only a Chinese film. It not only speaks about the country’s modern development.

Instead, it is also a film about Man’s anthropocene era. It is Man’s era, an era in which we have reached total dominance over nature, an era in which we irreversibly steer towards our downfall, our extinction. Yangtze reminded me of Norbert Elias’ speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. His argument has, of course, nothing to do with film, but with the way we treat our surrounding, and, with that, ourselves.

How come that we force scientific progress in order to dominate nature? How come that we try to explain everything in order to make life less dangerous? How come that, at the same time, we seed hostility, resentment, inequality between people which will inevitably lead to conflict and war? Xu Xin’s film is a very good example of this specifically human problem. Yangtze is a film about creating a (state) hegemony, a superiority that aims to remove its opponents, but which, in the long run, will not stifle conflict. What Yangtze shows in its often sublime shots is power, the thirst for power that has no limits.

But Xu Xin hides this point well. It’s not overt and needs to be looked out for. Yangtze is not so much a film about landscapes and about the longest river of Asia. It is much more complex than it looks at first. It is a statement about us. Xu Xin uses frames that are relatively open, giving us the space to think through different possible meanings of what he shows. In that, he differs from Wang Bing, who tends to use tight frames. Tight frames are always a means to evoke suffocation, making it clear to the viewer that there is pressure from the outside. Xu Xin, on the other hand, leaves things open.

In the end, what remains from A Yangtze Landscape is a bitter aftertaste. The film is a mixture of stunning beauty, and utter poverty and oppression, which some people escape from by killing themselves. There is a contemplative journey juxtaposed with violent imagery. The back and forth creates a truly powerful film about 21st century China and about our human condition.

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? 

Linefork – Vic Rawlings, Jeff Silva (2016)

Banjo.

It’s banjo. There have been several slow films, whose subjects have become iconic over time. I believe that if you mention “the horse” to someone who knows Slow Cinema, s/he will most certainly think of Béla Tarr. The same goes for “the whale”. I have an immediate association with Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud if someone mentions “the melon”. Describing a film with the help of a single word does not necessarily reduce them to something limited. On the contrary. This one word starts a train of thoughts and memories regarding a specific film that, in fact, shows its richness. Alas, this doesn’t work with all films, but it sure does for Linefork by Vic Rawlings and Jeff Silva.

The film starts with a high angle shot of a freight train. The train takes a slight corner before it drives towards us, honking, thereby disrupting the silence, the quietude, that the shot initially suggested. A peaceful shot follows, a strong opposite to the previous shot: the blue skies reflect in water. The scene reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami’s Five, which I have reviewed on this blog not so very long ago. The sequence of shots, including one of a run-down mining structure, evokes not only something peaceful. There is a sense of death inherent in those scenes. Despite the presence of chirping birds in the far background, I associated the images I saw with absence. Perhaps it was the lack of characters. Perhaps it was the lack of freight in the train. Perhaps it was the lack of ducks on the lake. Even when the film proper started, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of absence that was dominating the film almost persistently with only a few exceptions.

Linefork tells the story of Lee Sexton, who lives with his wife Opal in Linefork, Kentucky. A retired miner, Lee now tills the land around his house, watches chat shows on television and, most importantly, teaches young people how to play banjo. There is a real discrepancy between his life at home and the directors’ shots of Lee playing banjo. The quietude at home, Lee’s slow movements and his perceived idleness, is suddenly interrupted by the entertaining, moving and rhythmic music of his playing the banjo. Lee encourages a young man of around 18 years, who learns the art from him. Then he begins to sing. Linefork is about two people: Lee as musician, and Lee as a houseman. The two personalities, it becomes clear in the film, are not necessarily incompatible. Instead, it allows the directors to create a calm film, which, at the same time, offers small explosions. Perhaps this isn’t the right word, and suggests too much.

Nevertheless, I do believe that in offering those juxtapositions, Rawlings and Silva bring something crucial to the fore, namely the idea that there is not one time, but several times. As the Chinese say, time is like a river. Water is not always running at the space speed. It is not always running into the same linear direction. There is much more to it. The term “fluidity” expresses exactly what the Chinese think of time. I believe that Linefork is a river that moves at different speeds and into different directions. It takes small turns, speeds up, then slows down again at another corner. Overall, it is right to say that there is always progression, both in this film and in time in general. But this progression is by far not as linear as we think or as we perceive it to be. Not all films show this progression of time as clearly as Linefork.

At one point, we are in Lee and Opal’s garden. We see them harvesting beans. The scenery is quiet. The two say a few words, but nature sounds largely prevail. It’s almost a still image. At another point, he watches telly, sitting in his comfortable chair without really reacting to what he sees. Yet the advertisements on telly as well as the chat show he watches stand in contrast to the time that is present in Lee’s living room: it is so much faster. If you cannot believe that there are different times, then those scenes (there are two or three of them) give you the clearest indication that what you think might not be entirely true. The difference of perceived time in this scene is utterly striking. It is like a hiccup in the otherwise so quiet film.

What highlights this feeling even more are the directors’ nature shots, which bracket the story of Lee and Opal from time to time. They function like bookmarks, a way to reintroduce calm after the storm. The nature shots sometimes have a painterly aesthetic to it, and highlight the observational style of the directors. But Rawlings and Silva are far from being mere observers. About halfway into the film, the supposedly neutral observation by a static camera introduces a twist. When looking through contracts, Lee shows one of the letters he has received to the person behind the camera, asking him/her to read it. An arm appears from behind the camera, introducing the presence of the filmmaker(s). Not much later, Lee tells one of his stories, this time about his dog having been run over once and he relocated his dislocated hip. He speaks directly to the filmmaker(s), making no secret out of their presence. There is thus this tension between perceived absence but actual presence of the filmmakers that hovers over the film, which needs to be negotiated.

Overall, Linefork is a quiet film. It’s a great example of slow film that, I believe, would work as a good introduction to the type of cinema if you’re not yet aware of it.