Bestiaire (Denis Coté)

Thanks to a reader of my blog, who made me aware of another slow film, I had the chance to dive into a hugely photographic piece of cinema. A while ago, I wrote a short post on Bovines by Emmanuel Gras. It is a film without dialogue. Just pure beauty. And cows. It traces the often overlooked lives of cows throughout the four seasons. It still is the most peaceful slow film I know.

Bestiaire by Canadian filmmaker Denis Coté is not much different at first sight. It is about (wild) animals in Parc Safari in Quebec (“Africa in the Heart of Canada”). Again, the changing seasons play an interesting role. Bestiary, or The Book of Beasts, was a medieval collection of physical descriptions of animals, often written in such a way as to highlight an animal’s special meaning or position in the world.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

This seemingly little detail is in fact very significant. The animals we see in the film – horses, giraffes, bears, zebras – have been deprived of their special meaning in the world. They are all the same. They are an object of attraction for both the employees, and the tourists, who flock to the park in spring and summer.

They have been deprived of their special meaning because they have been put into captivity, where they cannot be the animals they really are. They cannot be wild. In winter, especially, when the animals are put into indoor shelters, we see, for example, zebras wanting to break out of their cage. Thus, the first half of the film is a bit depressing if you have a heart for animals.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

The very fact that tigers, zebras and ostriches have lost their special meaning by having been put into captivity, can perhaps be seen as a concept for “subjects” (i.e. humans) in Slow Cinema as a whole. Are the characters still “special” and “distinct”? Are they not all in the same cage, the cage of poverty, oppression? The cage of loneliness and emptiness? Does it then really matter where the characters come from (geographically)? Just a thought…

Aesthetically, Bestiaire is stunning, though. It feels like a photo album from time to time. Coté is certainly one of those filmmakers with an incredible eye for frame composition. The camera is always static, as is often the case in Slow Cinema. I suppose that many shots happened by pure chance because it looked as if Coté had put the camera somewhere and had hoped that an animal or two would cross the frame. So while Coté certainly tried to set up the camera in such a way that he could get interesting shots, it is not all due to his work as director / cinematographer. He was very much dependent on the movements of the animals. I therefore see Bestiaire is a collaboration of man and beast, rather than “a film by Denis Coté” alone.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

Watching Bestiaire might make you think that Coté is a slow-film director. In fact, he is, but his films are less Slow Cinema. I watched his film Curling yesterday, and though it did start off like a Slow Cinema film with regards to its aesthetics (long-take, static camera, medium or long shots etc), Coté moved away from those aesthetics halfway through the film, which confused me a bit. I don’t think there was anything in the narrative that could have asked for it, but then, don’t question a director’s aesthetic choices. You’re wrong about it more often than not.

Literally Distant

Sometimes you only have to be patient. Patience is a virtue, and without patience you can’t endure a slow film. Or waiting for a slow film, for that matter. I was therefore chuffed when I got the chance to see Zhengfan Yang’s Distant a lot sooner than I had expected.

The film consists of 13 takes, spread over 88 minutes. It consist of 13 different scenes in 13 different settings. In a way, I find, they tell 13 different (small) stories, but they are stories that are nevertheless somehow connected. You can feel it, though you cannot be entirely sure because you cannot see everything.

Distant, Zhengfan Yang

Distant takes the characteristics of Slow Cinema very literal and makes them explicit, but actually so explicit that I only realised how all the features came together at the end of the film. A clever tactic, and an entirely new challenge for me as a viewer. I’m very used to see the same characteristics over and over again. It’s lovely to see something in a different context.

Anyway, the title of the film is key to the entire film, and builds up on what I mentioned previously: the absence of intimacy between film and viewer, between character and viewer, and also between the director and the characters.

In some ways, Distant can be frustrating to watch if you are a viewer who wants to see everything. All scenes are shot in extreme long shots. The surroundings (of man) are more prominent, i.e. take a greater part of the frame, than the actual characters. Whether we are at a beach, where we can see a man playing with his dog, or whether we are at a bus station, where people wait for the next bus – we have no access to them.

The little gestures they make have to be guessed if one really wants to know what they’re up to. Facial expressions are even less visible than in other slow films I know (the complete opposite to Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage). The film teaches you to give up on the usual longing for seeing everything, more so than other slow films. The surroundings, and therefore the relationship between the characters and their habitat, are the feature to look out for and to study in more detail. In classical (narrative) cinema, films are human-centred. Distant is a great example that Slow Cinema, while following human subjects, moves beyond this, and puts human subjects into their social, political, and geographical context – literally. It puts into perspective that humans shape their surroundings, and vice versa. Especially the latter plays an important role in Slow Cinema.

Distant, Zhengfan Yang

Distant has an additional layer to all this. It is not only about the viewer and the director being distant from the characters, achieved by long shots. The characters are also distant to one another, which again, symbolises what I have established earlier: loneliness amongst characters is one of the many key features of Slow Cinema, and Yang’s film makes it very explicit.

All characters are alone. They do not seem to be with anybody. In one scene, there is a newly-wed couple, but the bride seems to be unhappy. She walks into nothingness, then she returns, walks closer to the camera. She then drops her flowers onto the ground, and walks off towards the horizon. She distances herself from the guests, from the photographer, and most importantly, from her husband, who all continue to celebrate.

An old man (who strongly reminded me of Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker in some ways, especially when he began to walk in a subway tunnel, whose framing brings Tsai’s compositions to mind) collapses on the pavement. No one helps him. People walk past. Cars drive past. There is no sign of compassion, or a willingness to help. As with all other characters, he is on his own. And he possibly dies on his own.

What I couldn’t quite make out was the reason for using predominantly male characters. This reminded me somewhat of Japan, where women and men grow apart from each other more and more. Loneliness seems to prevail over intimacy. I know that Japan isn’t China, but I couldn’t help the association. There’s too much loneliness in the world! (Perhaps SC is an advocate for turning this around…or maybe I’m wrong, and read too much into it, which is the more obvious possibility.)

A long Lav Diaz Taster

I have mentioned the films by Filipino director Lav Diaz several times in the past, and I also said that his films, amongst many other slow films, are difficult to get your hands on. However, there is now a perfectly legal way to watch his six-hour film Century of Birthing from 2011, the year before he released Florentina Hubaldo CTE.

Century of Birthing, Lav Diaz (2011)

Mubi offers the film free to watch (conveniently in parts of one hour each) until November, 14th as part of the Dialogue of Cultures International Film Festival. If you haven’t got an account with Mubi yet, you should get yourself one. It’s an amazing film platform!

This is your chance if you haven’t seen any of his films, or if you haven’t seen this specific one. I do have to warn you, though. There is a sect in this film. All singing and dancing. Very brainwashing indeed! I can guarantee you you’re going to hum this song under the shower.

Third (Slow) Cinema

In my last post, I hinted at the peculiar phenomenon that quite a substantial amount of slow films are made in third world countries, or that they deal with themes that cover this area of the world. It didn’t let me go and I began to read a bit about Third Cinema, or Third World Cinema. Somehow these two are used interchangeably. I am aware that categorising films like this is problematic, but I’m still having problems with the term Slow Cinema, because my intuition tells me that it’s frankly wrong, and until I have solved this issue it’s going to turn my head round every time I have to use this term in my thesis. There is something that doesn’t quite work for me.

Let us recall: Slow Cinema is often characterised as dominated by long-takes, the use of long shots instead of close-ups, and the scarce dialogue, if there is one. Slow films put people from the margins of society into the spotlight. The everyday is highlighted. Story has prevalence over action. Observation is key.

I am aware that not all films that are regarded as Slow Cinema have been made in third world countries, but I nevertheless wish to put a few things into perspective here. Not least because Lav Diaz, the director I’m working on, comes from the Philippines, a third world country with a long history of colonisation.

Third Cinema originated in Latin America, but the term was then also applied to African filmmaking. At least filmmaking beyond Nollywood. I flicked through a few books about the issue and realised that there is so little written on the subject with regards to Asian films. You can find separate works on Southeast Asian Cinema, for instance, which sometimes highlight the exact same things, i.e. aesthetics, without mentioning the term (which is probably wise, but never mind). Consistency is apparently not a strength in this scholarly field.

Anyway, I came across the works of Teshome Gabriel, who wrote two illustrative essays on third world cinema. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but safe to say that his observations of third cinema are the exact same we can find today in what is termed Slow Cinema.

A few points:

  • Film aesthetics are indigenised. They represent the country/area of the filmmaker and the themes he aims to put on the screen.
  • Long and wide shots are used preferably, so as to highlight the vastness of nature and man’s surroundings.
  • The focus is on space rather than time.
  • Story is more important than action.
  • Long takes are used in order to realistically represent the (third world) viewer’s sense of time.
  • Close-ups are rarely used as they would not depict man adequately in his surroundings.
  • Silence is dominant.
  • Location shooting.
  • Characters in the films are played by non-actors.
  • Formal aesthetics and oral traditions co-exist.

Is there are box we can not tick here? This all looks very much like Slow Cinema. In the case of Lav Diaz, we can add the box of return to pre-colonial culture, and the depiction of the effects of colonialism and dictatorship on society. With regards to the oral traditions, it is worth stressing that Lav’s films (their narrative) make use of Filipino epic tales.

Generally, if you try to find writings on Third Cinema, it very much looks as if it’s a dead subject. Most writings are from the 80s and 90s. A few books have been published at the very beginning of the 2000s. Since then it’s been quiet.

I wonder whether Slow Cinema is for today’s scholar merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because Third Cinema is quite an old and used term, and perhaps debatable.

Did we just give it a new name?

Poetic Cinema

I have recently watched Jia Zhang-ke’s wonderful and impressive piece I Wish I Knew (2010), and a thought popped into my head. First of all, I highly recommend Jia’s work. The World is an equally impressive work, so is Still Life. As he told JP Carpio in an interview, Lav Diaz admires Jia for his dedication to making films his way without letting his work be influenced by the state.

Anyway, there was this fantastic slow shot fairly at the beginning of the film, which struck me.

I Wish I Knew (2010)

It triggered my interest in photography, and my curiosity as to how various art forms are connected to form a unique experience for the viewer. This is especially true but not exclusive to Slow Cinema.

During my research, I have come across Maya Deren and her contribution to the Film and Poetry symposium in 1953 at which she caused controversy with her remark about film having a horizontal and a vertical axis. The vertical axis is the poetic axis. It’s the axis of mood, of feeling. It is the axis that allows the viewer a more in-depth perspective on the artwork.

If I follow the strand from the film and poetry symposium, I cannnot help thinking that Slow Cinema should, in effect, be called Poetic Cinema.

Poetry is a very personal work. It comes from the soul of the artist, and is often an expression of an artist’s deep feelings for something; his or her love for someone, or for a country, for a specific region, for the moonlight. There is an endless list.

We all had to recite poetry at school I suppose. If you think back to that time, what exactly comes to your mind about the way you recited poetry?

It was surely a slow recital. And it was a slow recital because only slowness would have transmitted a sense of the artist’s soul, of his feelings, even of his thinking. If you rushed through a poem without taking your time to read through the lines and without trying to grasp the artist’s soul in it, then you missed the entire piece. You may have read or recited a poem, but you haven’t actually lived it. This reminds me of a lengthy scene in Diaz’s Encantos when Teodoro recites a poem written by Hamin, the main protagonist in the film. It’s a long sequence, and it fits exactly to my way of seeing Slow Cinema: it’s Poetic Cinema.

Besides, whenever documentaries are ‘slow’, we call them ‘poetic’, and not slow. So why should feature films be treated differently? They share the same aesthetics.

Lav Diaz Official Website

This is a short blog post to promote the new, official website of slow-film director Lav Diaz from the Philippines. If you’re interested in his work, there’s quite a bit on the website already, but there will be more in future.

Via the website, it is now possible to buy copies of his films. You can also financially support his work.

Another important news in the same context is the set-up of a Twitter account, which collects everything that is written or reported on Lav Diaz and his films. It is extremely difficult to keep an overview, and I was thinking a while ago of splitting my Twitter account into one for general Slow (Cinema) stuff and one for Lav Diaz because there’s a lot out there somehow.

In agreement with Hazel Orencio, this Twitter account (@lavdiazofficial), which I will maintain, runs in connection with his website. It makes things a lot easier, and should be more up-to-date for the website user as it is difficult to maintain the website itself in between film production, post-production, festivals, etc etc This Twitter account is meant to help.

Please check out Lav’s website, and follow lavdiazofficial on Twitter if you want to be up-to-date about what’s going on.

Southcliffe is Slow

Is it really?

The new four-part drama on Channel 4 received substantial attention before the first episode went on air. This was not only due to the rather sensitive issues of trauma, loss and grief. It initially caught my attention because it had been described as “slow”. This was the case at least for the first episode, and I thought that the whole series was supposed to use a pace different to the one we’re used to see on television.

True, Southcliffe starts off slow. The takes are fairly long, the pans are slow. So are the zooms. It is set in a small village far off civilisation as it seemed to me. There were also quite a few scenes that began and ended with temps mort. Some of the shots reminded me strongly of slow films. Those shots taken from inside a car driving through the countryside, for example, can only evoke memories of Ben Rivers’ Two Years At Sea.

The first episode builds up towards the fatal shooting rampage in Southcliffe. The slow pace is therefore suitable because it supports the tension slowly creeping up on you. It creates an eerie feeling. It is idyllic and quiet. At the same time, however, it is creepy because you know that this idyllic landscape will be home to a shooting rampage. So, yes. The first episode got me. The takes could have been a tick longer, though, but this is personal preference, I suppose.

The big BUT happens in episode two. The series doesn’t stick to its pace, even though I think that if you really wanted to explore this topic properly, you needed slowness. The takes are shorter, and there is less in-depth exploration of the actual situation the characters are in. The jump between episode two and three was too big (too fast?), and I read that episode four will be set a year after the shooting. Now, if this is not a fast treatment of trauma…

What I’m trying to say is that it looked slow at the beginning, but the overall pace across the four episodes doesn’t match the pace required to create a powerful insight into what I think they wanted to explore: the harrowing aftermath of a shooting rampage.

For this to be a success you would need to spend more time with the characters. True, I did argue in my other blog that it may appear like standing on a motorway during rush hour after you’ve been hit by a traumatising event. However, this is not about showing the motorway. It is about a character study, which can only be done slowly.

TV producers can learn a lot from Slow Cinema in this respect. The time spent on character studies is exactly what always makes it seem so “boring”. But once you have spent six hours with a character in a slow film and feel as if you yourself have been through six hours of tormenting thoughts and violence, then you will spot the remarkable difference it makes if mental issues are not explored slowly and when you’re suddenly asked to jump one year ahead in the narrative from one episode to the next.

This is not to say that Southcliffe isn’t a good series. It’s one of the few TV dramas I would perhaps recommend. And I hate TV, so that’s something. I only wished they would have done it a bit slower.

Slow Cinema vs Slow Film

The MeCCSA conference was great in many ways. One of them was that I did not feel alone in questioning the term ‘Slow Cinema’. There is a reason why Harry Tuttle refers to it as ‘Contemplative Cinema’. It is a much more open term, which does not reduce the films to the apparent slowness. However, in the majority of writings, Slow Cinema is nevertheless very much in use. This makes it sometimes difficult for me to write my thesis, because I have to position my work somewhere (and it has to be SC as Lav Diaz is generally included in this category) while at the same time trying my best not to use the term all too much. Simply because it is inadequate, and I do not really want to become a Slow Cinema expert. I merely try to write a thesis on the aesthetics of Diaz’s films.

Anyway, I received very good feedback on my paper, which I’m glad about. And I’m even happier about one question I was asked after my presentation: “Can you explain the difference between Slow Cinema and slow film?”

If someone who has written on SC before reads this, I would like to direct this question to him or her. It’s one of the things that keep bugging me about the term. The question derived from my statement that there are a lot more ‘slow’ films out there, but there’s only a handful of films and filmmakers included in the category of Slow Cinema. This is not exactly an assumption. It is a fact. So why do Romney et al focus on these specific films and filmmakers?

The question is a good one, and I do not have an answer to this. It merely highlights the limits of the term. A friend of mine is writing a thesis on the effects of slowness in Romanian cinema. I’m familiar with a few films, and I can say for sure that they appear slow. The woman who asked me the question referred to a Spanish film from the 1990s, which she was sure about was slow, but was never ‘Slow Cinema’. You could argue that the film was made too early. The term was only coined in the early 2000s. However, there are nevertheless contemporary slow films out there which are never discussed in critical writings of Slow Cinema. Beyond the Hills is one of them.

I have two vague suggestions here. First, slow films which are not included in the Slow Cinema category were or are made in countries, which we see as ‘slower’ as our extremely capitalist countries, which are focused on profit and time-saving. We only need to shift our attention to Eastern Europe. It is not very fair, but we humans have the habit of comparing A and B in order to make sense of things. With respect to those countries, we predominantly see them as “backwards”, a horrible term, but I can’t come up with a more adequate one that conveys the same message. I guess what happens is that critics see this kind of film output as ‘normal’ for this region and don’t bother taking it further. They focus on those slow films that are produced predominantly in high-speed countries.

Second, critics may have attempted to narrow down the field of ‘slow film’ by focusing on specific aesthetics. I, for my part, would say that those films that are Slow Cinema are perhaps more arty. They’re highly photographic, even painterly. But then again, this does not apply to all Slow Cinema films. I wouldn’t include Lisandro Alonso in the arty Slow Cinema category. However, he is, apparently, a Slow Cinema filmmaker.

I guess that critics wanted to make it easier by grouping filmmakers into one category. Instead, they have made it more complicated and confusing. I do not have a straightforward answer to the question above, but I will keep thinking about it.

Sweeping Generalisations

I’m getting the last things ready for the 10th MeCCSA PGN conference at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. I will present a paper on my approach to Slow Cinema, and hope to gather feedback which would help me to further my research. If all goes well, I can publish an extended edition of the paper later in the MeCCSA PGN journal. I will also join the editorial board of Stirling University’s PG journal Stryvling, which should be a good experience. I’m hoping for a special Slow Cinema edition for 2014, but nothing is decided or clear yet. This is merely a proposal I made a few weeks ago. We shall see what comes out of it.

As summer looms over us, things become quiet in the news. As is the case with Slow Cinema. One of the few things that have appeared recently, is the editorial by Nick James in the latest edition of Sight & Sound. He writes

People do make sweeping generalisations after Cannes. I myself have remarked online that the absence of any film I saw there that fits the ‘slow cinema’ category – except Lav Diaz’s excellent Norte, The End of History – might signal the passing of that post-Tarkovskian approach to cinema. To which anyone might reply that one goose flying south does not make a winter.

No, one goose doesn’t make a winter. I find this indeed to be a sweeping generalisation. Cannes never has been a major platform for Slow Cinema. Béla Tarr’s The Man from London premiered in Cannes in 2007. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee won the Golden Palm in 2010. More than ten years earlier, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole played in Cannes. If you look through the screening lists of Cannes, it is evident that slow films are screened here and there. Yet, we can’t speak of a major focus on Slow Cinema.

This was little different from this year’s festival, at which Lav Diaz’s new film was the only slow film shown. That this was the case does not at all indicate that Slow Cinema is in retreat. It is simply business as usual. Besides, the film critics don’t exactly help to keep SC in the public either. Two critics gave their Top Ten of the festival. Both of them ranked Norte at the top. But only one critic actually wrote something on the film. However, a mere eight sentence lot on the top film of the festival is for me poor critical and journalistic work.

That said, Norte is screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic at the moment. Literally. They are one hour in 🙂

The Power of Time

People who prefer slowness in their lives argue that we’re all slaves of the clock. Those who can’t live without the constant rush of adrenaline argue that this is grossly exaggerated. However, the concept of being a slave of the clock has a history most of us may not at all be aware of. There are three aspects to it (I will do this only briefly here, more details in my actual thesis):

1) Christianity was the first religion that was focused heavily on doing religious services at the ‘correct time’. This was initially indicated by sun clocks, or water clocks, until the mechanical clock was invented. The pursuit of religious services became more rigorous and were a must for devoted and time-obedient Christians. In a way, then, it was from the beginning the clock that ruled when to pray (Aventi 1995; Landes 1983).

2) The mechanical clock was an ideal instrument to exercise power. Take Charles V of France, for instance. At the end of the 14th century, he had a clock installed in his palace, and requested that all other clocks be adjusted to his time. With that being the case, he also ruled when his inferiors were allowed to do certain things. They were thus enslaved by the clock (and by Charles V) (Scattergood 2003).

3) Finally, the power of time on a larger scale; colonialism. European powers introduced mechanical clocks to those countries they conquered. The technically advanced clocks were seen to be an ideal example to show the superiority of European cultures. I mentioned elsewhere that Lav Diaz explained that the Filipino’s perception of time had changed when the Spanish colonisers conquered the islands and introduced the mechanical clock. In a way you can apply my second point from above here; the ruling power introduces her ‘time’ and the colonised have to obey (Geißler 2012).

In general, the mechanical clock allowed it Man to detach time from Nature. This meant that he was in control, and what would prevent him from using this tool to exercise power on his fellows to secure his dominant position?