The spirit of absence

I have long been fascinated by the power of absence. I hadn’t known that this was one element that drew me towards Slow Cinema until I saw my first of a number of Lav Diaz’ films, which so clearly play on the nature of the unseen, the present absence. More and more I also realise that my attraction towards this ghostly aesthetic probably stems from several holes in my family history, which I’m now seeking to clear up. There is always a reason for one’s attraction to a piece of art, or a film, and often one isn’t aware of the underlying reason for being emotionally moved by something.

The fascinating aspect of absence, which, to me, is related to the element of space, is that it distorts our perception of time. In many ways, time appears to pass slower, in extreme situations perhaps even in slow motion. There are various reasons for “holes” in our life narrative. Absence is always connected to a loss of something, and this can take different forms. Death is probably the one we can all identify with, and the days and weeks after having lost a loved one always feel different. Time has a different meaning than before. There is a before and an after.

I have long been an admirer of the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman, whose work seems to overlap with my own more often than not, and the further I move through his work, the more I see just how much value his books and essays have for Slow Cinema. Didi-Huberman is not an expert in cinema, which would perhaps rule him out for a lot of people because he just doesn’t know the field. Interestingly enough, it is probably precisely because he is writing from several vantage points – philosophy, art, history, and yes, cinema – that allows him to see things clearly, to take a step back, and to introduce new ideas. Or to simply open our eyes to what’s really in front of us.

One would not necessarily pick up a study on the Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani for an informed reading on Slow Cinema. But Didi-Huberman’s in-depth focus on “air, dust, traces, and haunting”, as indicated in the book’s subtitle (Génie du non-lieu – Air, poussière, empreinte, hantise), is exactly what one should pick up for a better, or even new understanding of the uses of absence in slow films. I have long used art books for my work on Slow Cinema, and there is a lot of remarkable material that many people, especially academics who think only in their own field, have overlooked. Claudio Parmiggiani is an exceptional artist, whose work focuses on absence, silence and fragmentation. Ignoring everything I have read, looking at Parmiggiani’s pieces online conjures feelings of loss, of pain, of longing, but also of searching and hoping.

The power of time in form of patience, desire and waiting, Didi-Huberman writes, can never exist without an event, an action, that tears it up. There is nothing like a homogenous forward movement of time. There is a persistent alternation between calm and shock. This shock, as I have argued above, usually comes about through the loss of something or someone. A loss is always traumatic, like when you thought, in your childhood, that your dad really stole your nose when he made this weird finger movement in front of your face. You’re shocked, you cry. The calm disappears. The alternation between the power of time in form of slowness and its shock moments can be found in several slow films, but is most visible in the films of Lav Diaz, whose narratives live of this back-and-forth, especially his six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012).

There is this famous opposition in the works of Roland Barthes: what is and what has been. Parmiggiani, on the other hand, works on what remains. Barthes’ has been is absent, but continues to haunt the present. Parmiggiani shows the residues. He creates a picture of this haunting absence in the form of dust, or imprints. He makes it palpable, brings it out into the open. Didi-Huberman argues that dust (poussière in French) has its own time, it doesn’t follow the rhythms we establish throughout our lives. What’s more, dust survives us. It always will. Even though, as Didi-Huberman points out, dust is in permanent movement, it is perhaps the only permanent remnant of everything we do, of everything that our life is and has been. It’s what remains after our death. Dust is temporary and yet permanent. It is in movement, shifting from place to place, and yet remains where it is.

The survival of traces, of dust, of imprints threatens our own survival, Didi-Huberman writes. Is this the reason why we feel uncomfortable about it? Is this why feel haunted, why we try to run away, in whatever way? The nature of slow films reminds us of those traces, and they usually do so by using the off-screen very effectively (and affectively). Parmiggiani’s work is all about the literal meaning of imprints and dust, at least in his magnificent series Delocazione. In effect, I find that he gives an image to what those two elements can also mean, namely memory. Persistent memories, haunting memories, memories that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Memories survive us, and this very survival, this longevity, threatens us and our calm existence. They bring upheaval, pain, change.

This “dust” forms the core of most slow films that I have seen. I have argued previously on this blog that slow films centre around Barthes’ what has been. In fact, after having seen Parmiggiani’s art, I more and more believe that we’re actually speaking about what remains in those films. We’re speaking about remains, residues, dust. We speak about what survives us, what remains after we’re gone. We feel our own impotence of something much larger than us. Do we not?

Day 15 – Eternity (Kongsakul)

I was a very lucky person with this film (here’s a big thank you to Immanuel!). I’m not familiar with Thai cinema, apart from Apichatpong’s films, which, I more and more believe, are not really belonging to the realm of Slow Cinema that I have began to put my focus on. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a wonderful and peaceful film, aptly called Eternity (2010)Aptly, because most of the long-takes feel like an eternity. Not in a bad way, though.

The combination of long-takes, untouched nature and means of traveling reminded me of Lisandro Alonso. When I saw Los Muertos for the first time, I had difficulties to stay awake. This wasn’t the case because the film was boring. It was just so soothing… It was similar with Apichatpong’s Mekong HotelWhile the aesthetics differed greatly from Alonso’s film, the ongoing guitar music made the film feel like a lullaby. In a way, Eternity is similar. It’s one of the most peaceful films I have seen in a while. It is one of those lovely slow films that allow you to sit back, rest, and let everything unravel in front of your eyes. No effort necessary, a bit like in meditation.

Eternity (2010), Sivaroj Kongsakul

I don’t want to go too much into the actual content of the film. I have learned with Apichatpong’s films that attempting to explain to someone what the film is about is often a failure. They’re so deeply rooted in local traditions, myths, and beliefs that it is a difficult task for a Westerner to describe his films adequately. All I can say is that the film is loosely divided into three parts. The film opens with empty extreme long shots. First, there is the shot of a dusty road, and – as is so often seen in what I call “Slow Landscape Films” – a character appears in the background. He’s Wit, the main character, and he’s traveling on a motorcycle. Then we cut to extreme long shots of the landscape in which he only plays a minor role. He’s tiny compared to the overwhelming vastness of his surroundings; a distinct feature of the films I’m studying.

Wit arrives at a house, which turns out to be his childhood home. Whether he is human or a ghost is not exactly clear, though the latter would make sense giving the cyclic direction of the narrative. He enters the house, and what struck me instantly, was the large amount of photographs on the wall. Black-and-white photographs of people, most likely family members. This then lead me to think of Sontag and Barthes, and the themes of memory in Thai film.

Eternity (2010), Sivaroj Kongsakul

Apichatpong’s films are by default about past, about memory. There is always something haunting in them. I feel the same about Eternity. The photographs are an explicit reference to this. What is one of the many uses of photography? We want to keep the past alive. We want to capture people or events in their time, so that we can go back to them, and help us remember how things or people had been at the time. I also think that the second part of the film, in which we see Wit as a young man, an insurance seller, and his relationship to a young woman, is not really set in the present.

It is a romance we’re witnessing. Yet, when are we actually witnessing it, or rather when exactly does what we see happen? Film techniques help to orientate the viewer through past, present, future. This is what flashbacks, flash forwards, or changes of colour are for. Eternity doesn’t make use of this at all, which isn’t surprising. I didn’t expect Kongsakul to use those techniques. So even though it looks as if what we’re witnessing is happening right now, in the present, I would be inclined to say that it is a memory. They’re events that have already happened. This is what makes these (Thai) films difficult because there is little temporal orientation for the viewer. But at the same time, it makes them incredibly mysterious and interesting. It is an entirely different experience. Uncertain at times, but a wonderful journey nevertheless.