A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on cinema

It’s been almost a year that I have seen Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a film I remember was very good, but I was reminded of it only when Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it not so very long ago. But what is there to write about this film, a film that is only a part of a trilogy which, taken all three films together, is so much stronger than a single film? I therefore watched the other two films of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”, albeit I would probably refrain from using this description and use “The Human Condition trilogy” instead. Together, Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You the Living (2007) and A Pigeon make for an entertaining view on us as humans, on us as a society, of life as sometimes being completely absurd and we still follow it endlessly like that famous hamster in his wheel.

After having seen the first two films in that trilogy, I was annoyed that I saw A Pigeon before, so that the chronological development didn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, I could see connections, contradictions, additions – all of that made the trilogy throughly interesting, especially if you have a dark humour and are willing to laughing about yourself. It’s difficult to write about three films in a single blog post, but I try to keep it as contained as possible.

I should start, perhaps, with the most obvious characteristic of the Living Trilogy: all films look the same. I’m not sure whether I have seen a trilogy of films before where everything seems to be the same. Even the characters look the same. Andersson does use different actors from time to time, but they’re always white. I mean, make-up white. They’re pale, exhausted, looking almost sick, half dead. The interior of their flats and houses makes you see (and feel) that time literally stands still. Andersson took a long time to complete this trilogy. Between the release of the first part and the release of the third part (all three films played at Cannes), there was a gap of 14 years. So maybe make it 18 years or so, between the conception of the first film and the release of the final part of the trilogy. This is slow, but it resulted in quality work. And while the years passed, life seems to stand still in Andersson’s work. This is ironic, of course, giving the title of the trilogy (Living), whereas it should perhaps be called otherwise. Or maybe this is the whole point? Maybe it is to show us that we’re running in circles and that we don’t really go anywhere?

The interior design of buildings in all three films is the same. Sometimes I would even go as far as suggesting that he uses the same flats for some scenes, shot from a different angle. This is what Béla Tarr used to do. If you watch his arthouse films from after Sátántangó (2000), you see a link between them all, which is not necessarily connected to the films’ narratives, but to where the films are shot. Everything repeats, nothing moves forwards. Andersson uses a very sterile environment, 70s or 80s style, cold. Almost exactly how his characters look like. The bars change, but the people who drink their beer there are more or less the same. And why do they drink? Usually to drown their sorrows, the ridiculous existence of humans in a world that is so absurd that it makes you laugh.

Andersson shows us this absurdity in slow, long-takes. Those who like Slow Cinema and have followed my slow journey on this blog know that cinematic slowness serves different purposes in different films. In Andersson’s, I find, cinematic slowness serves the heightening of absurdity. It really brings home how ridiculous life can be sometimes, or how ridiculous we can be in certain situations; such as when a man’s hand is stuck in a train door and everyone stands around and, rather than being concerned, they wonder how it happened, they remember their own accidents, they watch. They watch more than anything else. An accident becomes a sort of animal in a zoo that you simply watch. You gather around and you do nothing. This stoppage of time, this absurd watching, is reinforced by the use of a static camera. Andersson usually doesn’t move his camera. There are very, very few pans or traveling shots in this trilogy.

And in fact, Andersson reduces the aesthetics to a bare minimum over a period of over a decade. It feels very much like the development of Béla Tarr, who became more and more minimalistic in his approach to filmmaking. From Sátántangó to Werckmeister Harmonies to The Turin Horse, Tarr reduced the aesthetics more and more; less characters, more barren mise-en-scène, less camera movements, less dialogue. His films were steering towards an end. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang, whose last feature film Stray Dogs was, perhaps, his most minimalist film. Andersson, I feel, works very much in the same manner. Songs and You the Living were stronger in their narrative progression. If something wasn’t clear in one scene, he would usually show us what really happened or what the previous scene meant in the next scene. In A pigeon, Andersson fragments the narrative almost to an extreme. It feels more episodic than the previous two films, albeit everything does come together in the end. But there is a sense of fragmentation, of a fracture that disrupts the narrative flow. Is this a sign of trauma? Perhaps, given that the trilogy contains elements to the brutal reign of the Nazis.

Andersson’s trilogy is tragic and humorous. Albert Serra was the first slow-film director I got to know who used comedy elements in his films. Slow Cinema as comedy, as entertaining…Andersson goes there, too, but makes more persistent use of it. He does so in order to open our eyes, to hold a mirror in front of us and show us to ourselves. Perhaps it is not spoken about often in the context of Andersson’s films that the director uses a direct confrontation with history and the way we deal with it. The first two films show this explicitly; one character, a sort of hardcore rocker, wears a T-Shirt with the Nazi SS symbol on the front. You only notice it once he gets up from the bench, once his partner pushes him away because she no longer wants to see him. (Or does she?) It would go unnoticed if you were focusing on the frame’s foreground only. There is another scene in which a man, in an attempt to do the famous magic stunt, tries to remove the tablecloth at a big family gathering all the while keeping the (expensive!!) china service on the table. Once the table cloth has been removed, the table shows two swastikas. It’s still there, we haven’t finished with it. The Nazi past, the Nazi support, is still there; almost dormant and yet very present, if only one takes the time to look. Andersson encourages us to do so. I laughed about those scenes, and also about the 100 year old admiral who had been placed in a nursing home and receives high-profile guests for his birthday only to make a Hitler salute. In any other film this wouldn’t be funny, but Andersson has created a bizarre and absurd trilogy that you have no choice but to laugh. And this, I have to say, absurd reaction to things that should shock me made me reflect about where we are. I became the pigeon sitting on a branch reflecting on existence.

With Andersson’s work more so than with other directors I need to say that a lot of action is happening in the background. If you watch the films as usual, expecting things to happen right in front of your eyes (just as we expect it in life – we don’t want to look deeper than that), then you will miss a lot in the trilogy. It is worth taking your eyes of the obvious and look beyond the surface, both in terms of the framing and in terms of the narrative. It is in the background, underneath the surface, where life really happens. There is this wonderful trilogy The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s trilogy speaks of what it means to be a human being. He focuses on our hearts, on everything that goes on inside of us. Andersson’s trilogy is a different take of the same thing, 40 years later. It is also about the haunting of the past. Whereas in Kobayashi’s trilogy, events were happening, Andersson returns to the effects of the past on our present society, our current politics, our current life. It is impossible to say that these two trilogies are the same. But there are similarities, extensions, additions. They are are different ways of making us see and feel of what and who we are. And yet, both trilogies are about the human condition.

The Living trilogy – do Andersson’s characters live, or are they dragged along? Do we ever move on, which is what living is actually about? The pigeon who sits on a branch reflecting on existence is the perfect metaphor for what the viewer is encouraged to do while watching Andersson’s trilogy. What does “existence” even mean? We exist, but do we live? Where does life start and mere existence stop? Are we merely passively watching life going by, suffering from the weight of our existence and everything it entails? Strangely enough, even though none of the three films is very cheerful, Andersson’s trilogy triggered optimism in my heart and in my mind. What exactly causes that, I don’t know. But I do know that the Swedish director has created a very effective trilogy about us, the living, hearing songs from the second floor all the while we sit on a bench reflecting on existence.

Malaventura – Michel Lipkes (2011)

The last day in the life of an elderly man – this is the entire premise of Michel Lipkes’ wonderful debut feature. Once more, I have to bow to the sheer quality of Mexican slow films. There seems to be a real hub for it over there and I begin to wonder whether it would be good to study them separately, not so much as part of Slow Cinema, but as a specific form in Mexican cinema. Leaving the cinematic slowness behind for a second, and just see those films as an output of Mexican independent cinema.

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Malaventura is a very meditative film. Lipkes has an eye for cinematic beauty in his shots, and the film is thus interspersed with wonderfully photographic frames, which are simply lovely to look at. They help to generate a contemplative atmosphere, to slow down the pace of the film, and thereby give the film a real feeling of its showing the last day of a man’s life. Several frames have a dark, and perhaps sinister nature to them. Some scenes certainly reminded me of Béla Tarr. In an extended scene shot in a local bar, several people are seen drinking and playing cards. A woman takes care of her finger nails. The very characteristic of this scene creates a mysterious feeling. Is what we see actually real, or is the old man merely imagining it?

Voice and sounds don’t fit the images we see. The shots have a certain grey tone to them. Smoke is hanging in the bar. The camera moves between faces of gambling men. The entire set-up is similar to those famous Béla Tarr pub scenes, especially those in Sátántangó (1994), or even in The Man from London (2007). Indeed, the pub/bar scene in the latter is rather different, but you can definitely see a degree of influence of Tarr on Lipkes’ filmmaking. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Then again, Tarr seems to be everywhere. I think he’s been a huge influence on several directors I’m speaking about on this website.

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In many scenes, the man, who appears small compared to the city’s vastness, is seen walking from one point to another. It is not clear at the beginning where he is going or whether he has a destination at all. I thought at the beginning that he was just walking. But he does actually walk to a very specific place, which becomes important at the end of the film. It is unclear what the man is really up to. It’s a clever way of constructing the film because the viewer is left wondering what it is that s/he is actually observing. First of all, the man seems to walk to an unknown destination, if he has one at all.

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Then he is also seen in a park, selling balloons; a sad image, the small man in a long shot, the colours of the natural surrounding degraded in the editing processes, but the colours of the balloons in their full beauty. The contrast between the suffering, stooped, even almost lifeless man on a bench and the colourful balloons flying almost free above the man’s head, in the sky, a sky that promises freedom, is startling. Precisely because this is such a startling contrast, this was also my favourite shot. Lipkes certainly created a simple image with a lot of possible readings. There is nothing much you need to think about. It isn’t a complex image. It doesn’t appeal to the intellectual mind. It just wants you to see what’s there.

Lipkes’ film is rather short. With only 67 minutes it is one of the shorter slow films I have mentioned so far. But this is, I have to say, it’s strength. Lipkes has used those 67 minutes to create a very strong portrait of a dying man, going about his seemingly daily life. It is an even more astonishing work because it is a debut feature. I’m sure that Lipkes has a promising future ahead of him. I’m looking forward to his next film!

 

D’Est – Chantal Akerman (1993)

Chantal Akerman’s D’est is a great example of Slow Cinema, and for those who do not feel prepared to start with eight hours Lav Diaz, then this may be a film for you. The film is engrossing, but minimalist. It is slow, yet full of movement. It is, in some ways, a contradictory piece, as you can imagine. This is precisely what made me think of Béla Tarr when I watched it, but more of that in a little while.

D’est is set somewhere in the former Eastern bloc. Unless you read about the film, you cannot determine where exactly the film is set. At the beginning, I felt transported to my childhood. Born in 1988 in the former GDR, then growing up in the east of the unified Germanys, I can say that the initial images of Akerman’s film represent my memories of how people and towns looked like when I was little. I went to school in 1994 and even then things still looked like they used to under Soviet occupation. It took quite a while before life gradually changed. Akerman’s film is universal for a lot of people in that respect. It is not important where exactly the film is set. The political context is much more interesting and perhaps triggers memories in some viewers, just as it did with me.

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Akerman’s observation of people in the Eastern bloc is often considered as one of her documentaries. I wonder whether this is correct. What are documentaries? What are their aims and how are these aims approached? D’Est perhaps contains elements of this, but I would much rather describe the film as pure observation. Documentaries often come with the aim of teaching attached to it. But is this really the case with Akerman’s film? Does she really want to teach, or does she merely want to observe, to record, to leave it up to the viewer what s/he makes out of it?

I would even go as far as describing it a poetic observational film instead of merely “documentary”. The term doesn’t convey what Akerman is doing and how she is doing it. The poetics, for me, come from her slow, long and moving takes. They are like part of a symphony and reminded me of Béla Tarr’s films, of almost all of them. Most strongly, though, Tarr’s Prologue (2004) comes to mind and I still wonder whether Tarr rendered hommage to Akerman in his short film. His one-take film is no more than the camera moving to the left, slowly, lingering, past a line of people. It’s fascinating and suspenseful. You wait for something to happen, and if it’s only at the end. Now, in Akerman’s film, I didn’t feel the same suspense. Maybe it is the dark atmosphere in Tarr’s films that conjured the suspense. In any case, there is an almost identical shot in her film. And that wasn’t the only one. I have written down Sátántangó during the screening and then wondered who influenced who. Maybe there was no influence at all, and both had similar ideas at the same time. I do believe in those circumstances. But the similarities between Akerman and Tarr are intriguing, made me think a lot. And smile a lot whenever I saw something familiar.

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D’Est has a kind of hypnotic feeling to it. Perhaps it is the long-takes of people at a train (?) station, looking at the camera, looking at us. Why do we look at them? What is it we are after? In Akerman’s film we have to ask ourselves those questions. I don’t think we can simply be observers. We need to engage, we need to pose questions, and respond to questions that the images pose. It is, in effect, a great slow film: it isn’t innocent. We cannot just sit back and look at the images. We have to engage with it.

Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scène, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.

Death Time

Oh yes, a cheery title for this blog post. I apologise. But this only comes because of an email I received from one of my website’s avid readers. I was asked – and this isn’t rare – what I think the difference between slow film and Slow Cinema is. Two and a half years into my research, I still have no idea, and perhaps I will never be able to answer this questions. Slowness is relative. Whatever is fast for me, may be slow for you. It is true that slow films use very similar, if not the same kind of aesthetics. So where do we draw the line?

I was thinking about one of my arguments, which you can revisit in the paper I uploaded a little while ago. In the paper I linked the use of time in concentration camps and the way Lav Diaz uses time in his films about terror and trauma. I saw similarities and talked about “death time”. Slow Cinema is characterised by temps mort, or dead time. I switched this around and began to look into death time, which is such a characteristic feature of Diaz. Time is used as a form of power, of punishment. Endless duration drives the characters insane (and maybe the viewer, too). There is a curious mixture in his films of shock and duration, of the instant and endless waiting. I call this complexity death time.

Now, in what ways can we see Slow Cinema as a whole in this? I briefly thought about the other films I know. They are aesthetically close to Diaz’s films, and yet totally different. They also use time different. This is primarily the case because Diaz makes incredibly long films, while most slow-film directors stick to a more usual running time of about two hours. Diaz can therefore play a lot more with duration. His films are also different in that they deal specifically with the trauma of his people, which makes his films stand out in the classical Slow Cinema canon.

But if I were to expand a bit on the notion of “death time”, going a beyond my previous argument that it’s an expression of a complex interaction of the instant and duration in order to inflict miseries on film characters, then I could actually make it fit to Slow Cinema. This is way too new for me now, so it may be the case with slow films in general, so the whole idea of finding a structure which sets Slow Cinema apart from “normal” slow films becomes rather redundant. Personally I think that Slow Cinema is an experiential thing, but no one likes experience because you can’t prove anything. So I’m still trying to find something less abstract.

Anyway, let me expand on the notion of death time and say that death plays a major role in Slow Cinema. Slowness has often been equated with death. The Futurists were keen on speeding up life because it meant exactly that: life, living. Speed means progression, therefore a forward movement. Slowness also means movement, but it is more often associated with stagnation (which makes it particularly interesting for my study of terror and trauma). Death is not necessarily the kind of death we imagine. It is not necessarily associated with humans. Not a lot of people die in Diaz’s films, for example, but we know that they eventually will. They’re on the verge of death all the time. They’re walking dead.

Fogo by Yulene Olaizola is also about death, only in a different way. It is about the death of an island. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are all about ghosts, which imply death by default. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is another example. Or even his Sátántangó. And what about Carlos Reygadas? Japon and Battle In Heaven use death as an underlying narrative feature, too. I also remember Nicolas Pereda’s Summer of Goliath (and I hope I remember this correctly); the death of a child, the departure of a husband and father and therefore the death of the family structure. Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert depicts the death of the traditional postman.

So are these films slow because they deal with death in one way or another? Can you deal with death appropriately in fast films? I think there is something in there, and it’ll be worth researching further (on my list!). And for some reason this all links vaguely to my very early arguments about static art; stasis always implies death in some form or another. So my original thought of death time looks a lot more complex now and I’m looking forward to looking into this in the near future.

Book Review: Das Innen im Außen – Bernhard Hetzenauer (2013)

Bernhard Hentzenauer’s book on Béla Tarr, Das Innen im Aussen: Béla Tarr, Jacques Lacan und der Blick, makes me glad that I’m a German native, and can therefore read and fully understand his arguments. I’m not sure whether an English translation is in the making, so you may want to teach yourself a bit of German if you want to read a really interesting take on Béla Tarr’s films 🙂

Hetzenauer’s work is based on a Master’s thesis, which makes the book with only 100 pages neat, brief and to-the-point. It is a philosophical take on Tarr and brings some intriguing aspects to previous writing on the filmmaker that are worth looking at in more detail. What Hetzenauer looks at is ‘the gaze’ in Tarr’s films. Based on Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, he explores the meaning of the gaze but also the aesthetics of it.

I’ve seen every single of Tarr’s films apart from one of his earlier social-realist films. I’ve always been fascinated by them, but I never noticed just how prevalent the gaze is in his films. It’s true, though, and it becomes a kind of eureka effect once you read Hetzenauer’s book. And in fact, Tarr’s films often start with a gaze. Take Damnation, for instance, the almost endless scene of cable cars that makes us feel as if we’re positioned somewhere outside. A zoom out and subtle camera movement, however, shows Karrer sitting at the window observing those cable cars. Is the beginning a POV shot, or is it not? If not, what exactly is it then? I’m not entirely sure whether or not Film Studies could solve this riddle.

The theme of characters sitting behind a window is recurring. There is the doctor in Sátántangó, who is the narrator of the story, and who observes everything that happens in front of his window. Then there is the daughter in The Turin Horse, a film in which Tarr uses the exact same aesthetic as he had done in Damnation. First we see only the outside, until a zoom moves us into the interior, revealing the back of a longing (or hopeless?) character. Hetzenauer points out that if you only studied this very gaze alone you’d see the slow but sure end of Tarr’s filmmaking career. It is well known that Tarr has stripped his last film of pretty much everything and turned it into a very austere work. A pure form of cinema, as Tarr called it at the EIFF 2011, if I remember right.

Interestingly, he has also gradually minimised the amount of objects his characters are looking at through the window. There are the cable cars in Damnation.It’s not much, but it’s something, and as they’re moving, they must be moving somewhere. There is a definite spatial end to this route. There is a another location, perhaps a less desperate space nearby. Fast-forward to The Turin Horse, and all the girl is left with to look at is a tree in the far background. Other than that, there’s complete nothingness. No path, nothing that indicates a potential hope for the characters. Not that The Turin Horse is hopeful anyway. It’s as depressing and hopeless as Tsai Ming-liang’s last film Stray Dogs, and both endings are fitting to the directors’ films and their filmmaking career. But it’s those small visual pointers that are often overlooked, and which Hetzenauer stresses.

I particularly like the fact that Hetzenauer mentions Tarr’s famous long-takes without putting them at the centre of his work, which is usually the case with writers nowadays. In putting the long-take aside – without rejecting it completely – Hetzenauer’s book has space to explore more intriguing things. The gaze is a perfect example of this, and Hetzenauer analysed it with brilliance in my opinion. There is one aspect I miss in the book, though. He merges Tarr with Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, thus aiming for a philosophical approach. He also returns to the gaze, as personified by the camera, several times throughout the book.

Now, I wonder why he didn’t make use of Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy. I got obsessed with that book a few years ago, and could see every bit of Frampton in Tarr’s films, or the other way around, depending on how you want to see it. Reading Hetzenauer’s book was like reading Filmosophy again, and I’m surprised that he doesn’t mention it, not even in the slightest. Hetzenauer has a particular way of describing the gaze in Tarr’s films, which makes me think of the film / the camera having its own mind, making decisions, simply acting as an individual being or character in the film. Nowhere is this more visible than in Tarr’s films, so I believe that if you do study the specific aesthetics of the moving camera, Frampton should at least be mentioned.

In any case, the book is worthwhile reading and it’s a fast-read, too, if you’re worried about your time. Hetzenauer’s work, in its quality, isn’t surprising. I have long realised – through talking with people, and my own reading – that the most groundbreaking work in Slow Cinema is done by MA and PhD students, not so much (yet) by established academics. This is perhaps the case because students still see things afresh and out-of-the-box, which makes it likely that they do not trod the same path.

It reminds me of my experience with scholarship on trauma cinema. The progress is minimal in that field. Scholars write the same thing over and over again, quote the same people, the same text passages and there’s nothing new coming to the field. Now, I did have problems with Dirk de Bruyn’s book on trauma in avant-garde films because of terrible editing and errors from page one to the very last page. But I can nevertheless say that he did have original thoughts. And he’s an academic as well as a practitioner, which explains his out-of-the-box thinking. This is what any field needs. Bernhard Hetzenhauer shows this with his book on the gaze in Béla Tarr’s films.

Review: The Cinema of Béla Tarr – András Bálint Kovács

Kovács’ book is not the first book on Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Jacques Rancière has equally published a book, though rather slim, about Tarr, titled Le temps d’après (2011). It’s been available in English since last summer, I believe. Rancière’s book felt a bit like a quick shot attempt at writing about Tarr after he had announced his retirement from filmmaking. The good thing about this book was that it came close to catching the atmosphere of his films. At least it felt this way in the French language version. I haven’t had the chance to flick through the English version.

András Bálint Kovács has published on Tarr before, mainly journal articles, which I was actually fond of, when I started my slow obsession. Kovács is a good friend of Tarr’s, and has, according to himself, shared the manuscript with the filmmaker before publication. When I read this, I thought that it must be a good piece of work, given that Tarr himself had a look over it. I was proven wrong.

Kovács’s book encompasses Tarr’s entire oeuvre, from his early social realist films such as Family Nest (1977) and The Prefab People (1982) to his last two films The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011). The book starts off well. It begins with a chapter on Tarr himself, which I found to be very interesting in parts. I’ve read extensively on him in the last couple of years, but there were still a few bits and pieces here and there that slipped through or that never came up in the stuff that I had read. Kovács then kind of chronologically moves from Style in the Early Years to style in his later works with a seemingly comprehensive study of characters, camera movement and everything you can think of.

And this is the problem – everything you can think of. Kovács has tried to put literally everything into a 175 page book on the director. His analysis becomes more and more crammed toward the end, which made it extremely difficult to finish the book. He’s analysing eleven (slow!) films in roughly 150 pages, in all their details, of course. It feels as if Kovács didn’t want leave anything left for other people to write about. It feels as if he wrote this book in panic, which completely ruined the impression of Tarr’s films, which are the complete opposite of what I think Kovács has created in his book.

I was always wary of writing about Tarr (and now, Lav Diaz), because I was worried that writing about him would take away the essence of his works. I wasn’t entirely wrong. Kovács’ book is a good example of how not to tackle Tarr’s oeuvre. If you read the book before having seen any of this films, it would probably put you off. This is mainly because of the extensive quantitative analysis Kovács has undertaken. In detail, he describes how often the girl in The Turin Horse takes up sewing, and how often her father takes a drink before seeing the dying horse. In detail, he describes how the shot length has steadily increased within Sátántángo (1994), making it a tedious read full of numbers and information that make Tarr’s films sound more boring than anything else.

The problem is that Kovács has quantified Tarr’s style. He hasn’t managed to bring his films as such on paper. Kovács has put crude numbers and readings on paper that lack insight, which is astonishing giving their friendship. The reader is confronted with diagrams illustrating the “Rate of Moving Camera” or the ASL. Somewhere in this mix of numbers and diagrams, Kovács forgot to make the films look human in a way. There’s very little on the atmosphere in the films and the actual contents. Or even just the photographic beauty of the cinematography. I would have loved to see more insights, less detachment, less scientific analysis. Film is art, and while scientific analysis can be helpful, it is not the best way to conquer an entire oeuvre by one of the most prolific directors in arthouse cinema.

If you tell someone that Lav Diaz’s films are six hours long or more, they laugh at you. Only if you tell them what the films are about, they become curious. If you read Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr, they would be just as uninterested. If I hadn’t been familiar with Tarr’s work, this book would have put me off on page 50 already.

[The Cinema of Béla Tarr – The Circle Closes, by András Bálint Kovács, Columbia University Press, available on Amazon]

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.

Day 7 – Los Muertos (Alonso)

Et voila, I am back on the South American continent, in Argentina to be exact. Lisandro Alonso is for me a special slow-film director. Not only because he is the only director who could really make me sleep within the course of a film (and his films aren’t very long). Although, watching his films and feeling tired is not necessarily a bad thing. It is merely a comment on the combination of camera movement, use of nature sounds, and the slowness of life in the middle of nowhere.

Los Muertos (2004) was Alonso’s second feature film after La Libertad (2001). In the film, we follow Vargas, an ex-prisoner, on a journey to find his daughter. The journey takes him through beautiful landscapes, and reminded me of the cinema of Bela Tarr. The two directors are utterly different from one another, true. But it is also true that both put emphasis on the aspect of walking. In general, walking or travelling are major themes in Slow Cinema.

Los Muertos (2004), Lisandro Alonso

In Los Muertos, Vargas is walking, but also going by boat for quite a substantial amount of time in the film. He’s floating on a river, and we get a sense of freedom somehow. It is a different way of walking / travelling from the ones we see in Tarr’s films. I get the feeling that the characters in Tarr are always walking against some obstacle. It reminds me of the characters in Satantango (1994), who walk in brisk wind. Or the characters in The Turin Horse (2011). Again, they walk against brisk winds. However, Alonso puts his characters into a more peaceful environment, which allows the viewer to be at peace as well. To just float one a boat with Vargas.

Los Muertos also reminds me of the beautiful Bal by Semih Kaplanoglu. Los Muertos is by all means a sound film. There is little said, or even done for that matter. But the sound of nature, of the water, the trees in the jungle, Vargas’ walk on a dusty road – they all make the film into what it is. It is also the sounds that lull you into a deep sleep if you don’t watch yourself.

Los Muertos (2004), Lisandro Alsonso

The combination of natural sounds and peaceful walking through the jungle, equally says something else about the type of slow film Los Muertos is. For me, it is clearly a landscape film. Vargas is by far not the only character, but the surroundings, the environment he lives in and travels through, are equally important to the “feel” of the film. As is so often the case in Slow Cinema.