News from Home – Chantal Akerman (1977)

I’m slowly but surely diving more into Chantal Akerman’s filmography. I believe that her work contains a lot that I have been interested in throughout the past years, and it might be worth looking at it in more detail over the coming months and years. News from home, released in 1977, is a sort of follow-up to Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) in that it continues to follow Akerman’s contemplative aesthetics. In some ways, it is a soothing film. The images of New York in the late 1970s are accompanied by a voice over of Akerman herself, reading letters she had received from her mother. The concept is very simple, but effective (affective?).

While we see images, often via a static camera, of cars driving up and down the streets of New York, or people walking the streets, or even people in diners as seen through windows, we hear the written words of Akerman’s mother, always worried, always concerned, always tired. She speaks about her health, needing medication again and again, and the difficulties they have with their shop in Belgium. It appears to be quiet, and Akerman’s mother often evokes that she’s either bored at work because nothing happens, or anxious precisely because of this. It means tighter finances. And yet, she makes a great effort at supporting Chantal in her adventure in becoming a filmmaker in the US. She sends money and clothes, always anxious whether her letters or packages are received.

The voice over is often drowned out by noise in the streets or in the metro. You try to listen, but there is little point. You can catch mere glimpses of what is said, if at all. It is realism that Akerman attempts to pursue here. Cities are noisy, cities are loud, deafening the people who live in it. We become accustomed to it and no longer notice it…until we spend a few hours in the countryside. The approach of letting the spoken word disappear in the noise of city life is very poignant, especially given that the film was made in the late 1970s and it’s so much worse today.

I became very quickly an admirer of Akerman’s shots in the metro stations; beautiful and enigmatic, just like life. What these shots meant to me was much more complex than what the actual images show. These images are images of time, and not just of slowness, but of time the way Chinese, for example, see it. Time not as consisting of only a single pace. Time is complex. Time consists of slowness and speed, of emptiness and fullness, of idling and of doing. At those metro stations people come and go. They wait for the next metro that takes them to another place, that takes them through space. We see them wait, we wait with them, and at some point the metro comes rattling into the station. It’s speed that we perceive. People leave the metro cars, people enter the metro cars. It’s bustling for a few second, and then everything quietens down again. Slowness and speed…the complexity of time portrayed in a single shot.

There is another aspect that I became aware of, and I’m unsure whether this has been written about before. If someone were to ask you what the film was about, what would you respond? We can all describe the film, describe what we see. But what is the film about? Perhaps this isn’t important. At the same time, the indistinct feeling , this not so very clear orientation of where we should go, again speaks for complexity in simplicity.

Did Akerman make a film about New York at the end of the 1970s? One gets a glimpse of life in the city throughout the film’s running time.

Did Akerman make a film about her mother? Maybe. Her written words are the images’ second layer. They give a characterisation of Akerman’s mother, but perhaps also of any mother, worried about a child abroad, in a big city, far away.

Did Akerman make a film about herself? That is possible, too, especially if one considers that she herself is involved (via voice over), reading personal letters she has received and filming the city she now lives in.

Did Akerman make a film about us? Maybe. Everything is possible in this film. Akerman keeps it simple but open. It’s a film that wasn’t finished by herself or the editor. It is finished when it meets its viewer, and when the viewer decides what s/he sees, what s/he wants to read into the images before his/her eyes. Only then News from Home is complete. Only then do we see just how complex simplicity can be.

Life after Life – Zhang Hanyi (2016)

Zhang Hanyi’s Life after Life reminded me of a lot of things at once. I had a real flood of thoughts in my mind while watching the film, which I actually didn’t expect to be slow. I liked the premise of the film and I found it interesting that it was produced by Jia Zhang-ke, whose films The World (2004), Still Life (2006) and I wish I knew (2010) I thoroughly enjoyed. It could well be that this post will appear structureless, and abrupt. Maybe this is a good thing because, to me at least, it shows that the film has triggered a great deal of thoughts, which are only at the beginning of getting somewhere but which I’m still developing as the film grows in my head. I enjoy those films 🙂

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Let’s start with Zhang and Jia’s connection. You can see Jia’s influence in many scenes of the film. I would even go as far as saying that parts of Zhang’s film are very Jia Zhang-ke-esque (here’s a new term for you). First of all, there is the theme of people being displaced because of, for example, mining projects. Entire villages have to be moved. This change in environment, a change brought about by massive projects which force people to move away from their move, is also the main theme of Jia’s Still Life. But it’s not just the theme. It is also the way this subject is portrayed. I remember the dull colours in Jia’s film, and, of course, the slow pace and rhythm of the film. Zhang goes even further. I’ve been trying to think of a film which uses an even duller colour palette, but I cannot think of any.

The lack of colour is a strong indicator of what the film is about: death (I think we agree that the film’s title sounds less frightening). You can see it in every frame, and even though there is a scene in which people celebrate a the birth of a baby, it cannot stop the slow death of a village, of people, of orchards, of the past. From the first scene onwards, the film sets out to depict this slow death. This fits so well into the general opus of Slow Cinema. I have already written about the theme of death – overt or subtle – in a great deal of slow films. Life after Life is another great example, which reinforces my desire to really sit down and finally write something more substantial about the link between Slow Cinema and death. But I have two other articles to look after at the moment, so this will need to wait (good things come to those who wait, as always).

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Life reminded me strongly of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, especially his last feature film Cemetery of Splendour with its curious focus on the other world, the world beyond ours. Zhang’s film is carving right into this niche. A boy runs after a hare. When he returns, his mother’s soul has taken over his body. She has borrowed his body, has returned in order to move a tree. Her (absent) presence establishes a link between the here and now, and the after. Even though the film is described as a ghost story, it’s not so much about ghosts than about reincarnation with the subtle hint that life after life is a better one (at least in this instance).

As far as I know, Life is Zhang’s debut feature, and from what I could see, he is a director to watch in future. He could become a major force in arthouse cinema. He shows a great deal of patience and of intuition, of complexity in simplicity all the while speaking out against the destructing policies of the Chinese government. He allows the film to develop in its own terms. He doesn’t force the narrative, he lets it breathe. There is certainly a lot of talent visible, and it’s worth following his trajectory in world cinema in the next few years. I’ve got a feeling that he has plenty stories to tell, possibly in a slow way.

 

Monochrome Painting and Slow Cinema

At the very beginning of my doctoral research, I linked Slow Cinema to static art, especially Chinese painting. Traditional Chinese painting, I found, had characteristics that could also be found in the films of Lav Diaz. This was very specific though, and never allowed me to apply it to the whole of Slow Cinema. I’m nevertheless still keen on finding out more about the link between art and Slow Cinema. I do believe that there is more to find in art literature than in film studies literature, which can help us understand the aesthetics of Slow Cinema a bit more.

What set this off was a French language book titled La peinture monochrome: Histoire et archéologie d’un genre by Denys Riout. I bought it out of curiosity because I find monochrome art immensely interesting. I find it engaging, more so than pieces of art with several different colours. I was reminded of my preference of black-and-white over colour when it comes to films and thought I should give this book a try. More than half way through it now, I can thoroughly recommend it.

First of all I should say that I see the term “monochrome” in a much broader sense than it is used at the moment. The term is used only for colour, and yes, that makes perfect sense. But what does an artist do when s/he uses just one colour? Or even a no-colour like black or white? The artwork is reduced to a bare minimum. But, as Denys Riout points out in his book, this bare minimum does not necessarily mean simplicity. In fact he uses the term “image parfaite”, or perfect image; a representation through the absence of representation. We could certainly argue that this absence is asking for no-boredom, an active rejection of engaging with the artwork in front of oneself. But this absence is perfect precisely because it doesn’t manipulate you into thinking of what an artwork is about. Absence sets you free. It is up to you what you would like do with it.

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Riout gives more suggestions, which are as simple as they are mind-blowing. I believe the art of monochrome painting challenges our intellectual approach to literally everything we do. I cannot remember where I read this, but the phrase that intellect kills experience becomes clear once you’re faced with a Rauschenberg painting. Or a slow film in which little is happening. Most telling in this context is Riout’s description in the following paragraph:

Là où le lecteur attend une explication, il ne rencontre que l’occultation et se trouve ainsi brutalement renvoyé à la condition plus inconfortable de regardeur. À lui de ‘faire’ les tableaux; c’est-à-dire de leur donner sens. (Riout, 2006: 34)

Riout mentions here the viewer’s uncertainty with an artwork in which no explanation is given. The viewer is left to his/her own devices. Our dislike of uncertainty is deeply rooted in our evolution and its connection to survival. It may seem odd to connect our rejection of uncertainty in art in general, and film in particular, to our survival mode as humans (or animals, actually). But this is what it is. We often forget where our behaviour comes from. Certainty means safety and security. They’re essential for survival. But I don’t want to go on too much about it. It’s just a thought that is worth mentioning, I think.

Another quote I’d like to highlight:

Alors qu’il n’y a rien à voir, our presque … le regard s’attarde sans pouvoir jamais se fixer. … ‘Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs’. (Riout; 2006: 45)

Emptiness allows the viewer to move his/her gaze along the entirety of a painting. If there are several different elements with several different colours there is a likelihood that your gaze remains fixed on one element without you ever seeing the painting as a whole. The phrase “Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs” comes from Albert Camus,and says nothing more than emptiness giving you plenty powers as viewer. Monochrome art, or indeed emptiness, paves the way for the viewer’s emancipation…if s/he would like to take up this challenge. Because film is time-based, this emancipation is not only achieved through visual simplicity but also through time. The duration of the long-takes allows us to take our time to move our gaze along a frame without necessarily getting focused on just one element.

What I found most intriguing is the thought that monochrome paintings should perhaps not even be called “visual art”. The idea behind it is that whatever you see in, say, Rauschenberg’s black paintings it not actually in the painting. It’s in your head. It’s a spiritual type of engagement with a work of art. So we may ask where the visual ends and the spiritual begins, a very striking thought, if you ask me.

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Now, I do not say that everything I have so far mentioned (and I could say plenty more!) is applicable to Slow Cinema. But there are definite parallels between monochrome painting and Slow Cinema. First and foremost, I believe, we should mention the fact that both are, or tend to be, reduced – aesthetically – to a bare minimum. Complexity comes with simplicity. As odd as it sounds, this is true. The less you’re bombarded with information, the more you can experience what is happening in front of you. You’re given time to feel a situation and you can ponder about what it all means. As Camus says, power comes through emptiness, and I believe that slow films play on exactly that. I would suggest that Lav Diaz is one of the most striking and the most obvious example. But Slow Cinema in general lives off its reduction to simplicity in order to emancipate the viewers. Meanings aren’t given. They’re not imposed. The viewer has to make sense of them (that requires yes-boredom tho).

I also believe that what you actually see in slow films is not necessarily what’s on the screen. Many things happen in your mind, precisely because you have to create a story and make sense of the images and the story the directors give you. You could easily stare at the screen and be passive. Then indeed slow films would be entirely visual. But I suggest that, like monochrome painting, they’re more spiritual than visual. I guess the most recent example for me is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens (2016). This spirituality is perhaps more prominent in some films than in others. Perhaps it is even more prominent in experimental slow films than in narrative films. Nevertheless, it is a characteristic of slow, contemplative films.

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One last point before I stop for now. Painter Robert Mangold said that after everything had been tried in painting, “la seule façon de peindre un tableau consistait à repartir à zero, puis d’ajouter une chose après l’autre” (Riout, 2006: 208). Meaning, painters had to return to zero and start to reinvent painting. Start from scratch. Start with the bare minimum and then add one element after another without overloading the artwork. I cannot help thinking that this is the case with slow films. I have long argued that the actual roots can be found in the early days of cinema. Film has gradually become more complex in terms of aesthetics. Just think of the latest blockbusters and the special effects used for them. Just looking at the film posters shows that the films are basically the same (and do we not know this anyway?). In order to make cinema again, filmmakers have to return to zero, to the bare minimum. Start from scratch. I thoroughly believe that Slow Cinema is a means to return to the very basics of film, of how cinema used to be, and how, perhaps, it had been imagined in the early days.

I should stop at this point and leave you with this food for thought. I still have half of Riout’s book to go, so there might be a second part to this post in the near future!

 

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting V

The second last feature I would like to mention is the use of monochrome aesthetics. It is something that cannot be applied to Slow Cinema as a whole. In fact, the majority of slow films I know were made in colour. However, I initially set out to read Lav Diaz’s films in the light of Chinese painting, and for his work, the reasons behind the use of monochrome aesthetics work perfectly.

The Song period (c 960-1237) was described as the golden age of Chinese painting. Painting was finally accepted as one of the fine arts. It was also the period whose painters focused predominantly on monochrome aesthetics in their depiction of landscapes. There were two schools at the time, the Northern and the Southern School. The latter, in particular, is now known for its use of black-and-white. It was the famous Wang Wei who is quoted as saying: “monochrome is by far superior”. It is a superior, and a different way of seeing. Exactly what Diaz said in an interview with JP Carpio; black-and-white is “a different way of seeing life”.

What can be taken from literature on Chinese painting is, for instance, that black-and-white stood for simplicity. The Song period represented a move towards an even greater simplicity as a whole. Subjects were elemental, i.e. simple and mundane in nature. This is one of the main characteristics of Slow Cinema in general, but Diaz’s films in particular: simplicity. It is not only the cinematic techniques that are kept simple. It is the entire mise-en-scène, the actions by characters, their conversations, even their housings.

Another important factor is the aspect of poverty. Now, poverty goes hand in hand with simplicity in some ways. I have already mentioned the housings of the characters. During my research for one of my chapters, I learned that overall 40% of the population live off less than $2 a day. Diaz explained in an interview (again with JP Carpio), that he could relate to those struggles more as it’s his own background: “I can relate to it in a more truthful way because it’s my culture”. He comes from a poor family of farmers and fishermen. The first diversion of this came with his last film Norte. A film made in colour, which – interestingly – portrays the struggle of the poor against the rich. The use of colour highlights the wealth of the upper class. Black-and-white wouldn’t create a credible picture. You have a similar approach in Béla Tarr’s films, by the way. Think about the particular class of people he portrays in his films…

Lastly, black-and-white supports a focus on the narrative. A focus on the essentials. This ties in once more with the aspect of simplicity. Chinese painters argued that colour would divert the viewer’s attention. Indeed, I personally find black-and-white films more powerful. I don’t get distracted by different colours. I can focus on the very essentials of the film, and I can thus receive all the information as well without its being hampered by changes of colours or colour schemes. Besides, black-and-white supports the idea of universality. It was Béla Tarr who said that his the event in his films could happen anywhere and anytime. It is not a particular thing tied to his native Hungary. Colour would make it easier to identify time and place, whereas monochrome aesthetics (can) leave it open.

Again, this specific feature cannot be applied to all slow films, but mainly to Diaz and Tarr. However, the ideas behind it – simplicity, poverty, focus on narrative – are rather universal for Slow Cinema as a whole.