Their Remaining Journey – John Clang (2018)

Their remaining journey… My journey. Your journey. Our journey. John Clang’s debut feature is one of those films that won’t let me go for a while. It might have taught be something. Perhaps. What is certain, though, is that the film has touched me deeply because it came at a time when I myself struggle with this journey Clang represents in Their Remaining Journey.

A week before Christmas, my father-in-law died after a long, painful battle with ALS, an incurable disease that puts a strain on everyone. His death came as a shock, but also as a relief. After three-and-a-half years of suffering, he could finally rest in peace. Life became a chore, death meant peace. He was only 59. That said, since he passed away, I’ve seen him several times. He appears in some situations, but not in others. I have never experienced this before, and this isn’t the first death in the family. But in this case, death must have struck a particular cord and it’s not easy to shake it off.

With that in mind, Clang’s magnificent debut was not always an easy watch. It’s not a film that you watch and forget. It’s not a film that contains flat images and a few spoken words. It’s a film that really speaks to you, a film that makes grief, in particular, palpable. It is a film about fear, frustration, despair, love, life. It blurs the lines between what is and what isn’t, between reality and imagination. Clang follows three main characters/families, who – each in their own way – deal with the loss (or the feared loss) of a loved one. There is a sense of pain apparent throughout the film.

Clang, a visual artist who made this powerful film his debut feature, is careful in his observation of grief and the interconnectedness of life and death. He takes his time, without over-stretching it. And yet, the film feels almost like slow-motion, despite the frequent use of quick cuts or even timelapse at various points. It’s the idea of life after death being slower. Grief and its seven associated stages deplete your energy. They exhaust you, tire you out. Sleep is essential, depression is not unusual. What happens is a change in our perception of time, very similar to what happens after a traumatic event. That said, death is traumatic for those who remain behind…

Their Remaining Journey often reminded me of the works of Lav Diaz. Clang allows his characters to develop. Nothing much happens in the film, nothing on the outside. The flat images on the screen, characterised as they are by a theme-enhancing monochrome grey, don’t say much. The first reading of the film is limited, simple. It was, I believe, Luis Rocha Antunes in his book The Multisensory Film Experience, who opposed the famous adage “the medium is the message” and instead suggested that it is the experience that is the message. That in turn brings me, once more, to Luke Hockley’s Somatic Cinema and the argument that there are (or can be) three layers of meaning in films. To me, not all films are as complex. However, Clang’s investigation of death – its aftermath or its potentiality – fits very much into a list of films that invite a experiential approach to understanding the director’s work.

It is not the chain of images that is important, albeit Clang demonstrates a very good eye for getting to the bottom of the subject he attempts to explore. What the director makes possible is an experience. It is a film that is felt rather than simply seen. It is felt even more so when you have recently lost a loved one and you’re in the midsts of grieving. What makes the film more experiential than others is, first of all, the time spent on the subject. With a running time of one hour forty, the film is not particularly long. But Clang doesn’t do much to drive the narrative forward. Their Remaining Journey is a vertical film. It doesn’t develop much horizontally (on the axis of narrative progression), because it puts almost everything into the exploration of psychology, which is the vertical axis (as I have demonstrated in previous blog posts and my PhD thesis).

The viewer’s journey is a vertical one. And so it might be for the dead. Is a horizontal progression possible after death, or is vertical the only direction left? I believe that Clang answers this question beautifully. The director goes deep, explores our minds, our expectations, our naked fears. He does so by confronting us with ourselves, by holding up a mirror and by asking us to take a journey…a journey with our loved ones, a journey with ourselves, to the depth of our feelings.

Art and Therapy (Alain de Botton, John Armstrong, 2014)

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong had been on my list from the moment I saw it online. With my research background – film and trauma, and the interest in how filmmakers deal with their own suffering – I expected quite a bit of material from this book. What I didn’t expect was the many references to slowness, contemplation and observation, which are so fundamental to the way I read slow films. One could say that at least the first part of the book is entirely dedicated to slowness without mentioning it directly. In fact, it could be a companion piece to Slow Art Day (which, by the way, takes place on 8 April this year!).

Almost from the beginning of my research into Slow Cinema, I made reference to static art. I considered slow films as pieces for galleries and museums rather than as films made for the big cinema screen. I do agree that this isn’t the case with all slow films. A great deal of them, however, share characteristics with static art such as painting and photography. So why I was surprised to see the many similarities between de Botton and Armstrong’s writing and Slow Cinema is, to be honest, beyond me.

Richard Serra – Fernando Pessoa (2007-2008)

The first chapter of Art as Therapy is dedicated to what art can do for us, both in very simple terms and in specific psychological circumstances. It made me reflect about my experience with cinematic slowness and its healing potential in the context of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. I cannot stress enough how much Slow Cinema helped me to calm down, to fight anxiety, and to take part in life again. One of the arguments that seems to run through the book is that art, which we find attractive, often offers something we usually don’t have but which we desire.

…le goût dépendent de ce qui, dans la constitution émotionnelle, dort et a besoin d’être stimulé et accentué. … les préférences pour l’une ou l’autre reflètent différentes lacunes psychologiques.

When it comes to your choice of a favourite piece of art, or a favourite genre, it is, according to de Botton and Armstrong, very likely that you chose this particular piece or this particular genre because of what is going on in your head. It has psychological roots and is not a simple I just love it. For many people it is difficult to describe why they like certain things. Many resort to simple answers, not knowing that the reason for their preference is, perhaps, more complex than they had imagined. When I began to get into Slow Cinema, it was very difficult to explain why I liked it. I, too, resorted to a simple answer. I liked the slowness. I really did. But why? Only years later did the reason unravel. It took work to figure it out. What this reminds me of is the third meaning, which Luke Hockley suggested in Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen, which I mentioned on this blog before. The third meaning of a film derives from our unconscious. Sometimes a film moves us and we do not understand why this is the case. It’s our unconscious that is responsible for this, and in most cases, we will never know why a specific scene had such a strong impact on us.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler – Nocturne: le fleuve à Battersea (1878)

What Slow Cinema meant to me personally is that it allowed me to slow down, to take my time, to record what was happening on screen, which I couldn’t do with action blockbusters anymore.

On recherche les oeuvres capable de compenser ses fragilités intérieurs, d’aider à trouver un juste milieu. … L’art peut aider à gagner du temps, et même sauver la vie.

De Botton and Armstrong note a trait of art (and, I believe, film), which became essential in the early phase of my struggling with PTSD. Art(film) can save one’s life. This is very much connected to the unconscious I mentioned above and the attraction to specific art works and art genres during different phases of our lives. But it’s not all about individual deficiencies. Art also has a meaning to the collective, to society, to us as humanity. And one thing that stood out for me in the book is the very simple (but maybe too simple for us to consider it) argument that we tend to get used to things too quickly, especially in our developed, capitalist, consumer societies.

Un de nos grands défauts, et un des grans obstacles à notre bonheur, est la difficulté à prendre note de ce qui nous entoure.

We no longer notice what is around us. We simply don’t have the time (we think!). When have you last looked at a tree for longer than a couple seconds? When have you touched its bark in order to feel what a tree feels like? As the books’ authors argue, these things are not “spectacular”. But they’re necessary in our becoming one with our environment, and in our search for contentment and an emotional equilibrium. They argue that art can help with this by depicting the ordinary, the kind of things we overlook nowadays because we think they don’t play a major role in our lives. At the same time, and I argued this before here on this blog, this is exactly what our lives are about: it’s the ordinary. Our lives aren’t spectacular, for the most part.

Slow films, just like static art, can help us notice this, notice the ordinary, identify with it, realise that this is what our life is like…and, perhaps most important, that we’re not alone with this. Our life nowadays consist of a constant desire of something better, something spectacular, something that takes us out of the routine. What we forget in this constant desire is our own life, and ourselves. To me, Slow Cinema can play an important role in returning us to our roots. It can remind us who we really are and what we should focus on first of all in order to reach an equilibrium inside ourselves.

Frederic Edwin Church – L’Iceberg (1891)

I would like to mention one last essential argument, which brings me back to Slow Cinema and boredom. It is now THE argument against cinematic slowness: it’s boring. Slow films are not the only films that are considered boring. And film, as a form of art, is not the only art form which struggles with this. To me, it has always been like this, in part, because of the way we are taught film or art respectively. I was happy to see the same argument in de Botton and Armstrong’s book.

Les idées au sujet de la valeur artistique ne se forment pas spontanément. Elles résultent de systèmes complexes de mécénat, d’idéologie et d’éducation, soutenus pas l’enseignement universitaire et les musées, qui à eux tous forment notre conception de la valeur artistique.

It is, in short, our surrounding that defines artistic value. Political ideology, education, museums – they all have a stake in the way we look at art and what we consider to be “good art” or “high art”, and what is to be discarded as junk. In parts, I believe that Slow Cinema is rejected by so many because no one teaches them their potential value. There is nothing outstanding about them, no. As I said above, they show the average life, and I believe this is exactly why some people deny those films the value they deserve for making us aware of what we have stopped seeing, stopped valuing. If slow films are to be more acknowledged, educational institutions need to take part in this. At the same time, it is possible to break out of this circle and free oneself from the traditional teachings of what is good and what is useless. It is very much a mind thing. It’s about freeing your mind, about liberating your thinking, and then you can enjoy what you really like, and not what society tells us is worth liking.

(Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong was first published in English. If you’re not a French-language speaker, you will have no problem getting an English version of the book.)

The Multisensory Film Experience

If there is one thing that is visible in my research of the last three to four years, then it is my interest in why certain films attract me more than others. I’m fascinated by film experience, a fascination which started with Slow Cinema and then shifted to slow trauma cinema (specifically the cinema of Lav Diaz). Why did I get so hooked on Slow Cinema? In a previous post, I wrote about my experience with post-trauma and how Slow Cinema helped me to deal with anxiety and sensory overstimulation. For me, slow films were therapeutic. At the same time, I was reading an eye-opening book called Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen – a Jungian perspective by Luke Hockley. I discovered “the three meanings” of a film, the third (speaking to something in the unconscious, unknown to us) being the reason why I have one film in particular which I cannot watch to the end. I don’t know why, but there seems to be a relation between the film and my unconscious.

Now, this reading and this experience showed to me that film is not just an audio-visual product. I could already feel this when I investigated the ways in which Lav Diaz used specific aesthetics in order to transmit a sensation of post-trauma to the viewer. Post-trauma is more than just audio-visual. It goes deep under your skin, so if a film wants to evoke this, it has to go deep under your skin too. In effect, film being a multisensory experience is a no-brainer. I believe people are aware that it’s not just about images and sound. However, this is what scholars focus on, even more so on image than on sound. Film critics follow a similar line. There is little talk about the experience of a film, regardless of where you look. Especially in scholarship, experience is a sort of plague which you should try to avoid. It is subjective and mostly individual, therefore you cannot prove anything or write an objective scientific paper backed up with facts. But film viewing isn’t fact, it’s experience. It always was and it will always be, whether we’re speaking of popular mainstream or niche arthouse cinema.

I was therefore happy to read Luis Rocha Antunes’ book Multisensory Film Experience: A Cognitive Model of Experiental Film Aesthetics (2016), which contains a lot of material that is applicable to Slow Cinema, or that comes specifically from slow films. Antunes even mentions Slow Cinema, which doesn’t surprise me at all. He argues that the multisensory in film can be felt primarily in films with little dialogue, films which allow time for viewer experience, films which are often austere in their aesthetics. That is not to say that other films don’t offer this experience. It is just more difficult to perceive an action blockbuster as multisensory rather than as an image-sound-product. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Specifically, Antunes writes: “By using non-verbal communication and the senses, these films capture the interest of various audiences. The experiential appeal of these films is universal” (2016: 7).

The fact that the experiential aspect is universal explains (to me) why there is a rather large group of people attracted to slow films, and if you ask them why they’re attracted to it, it seems as though they all feel the same. Certainly to different degrees, but it is always about the specific experiential aspect of the films, not about how amazing the actress looks, or how mind-blowing the cuts were. There is something that sits deeper in those viewers who admire slow films, and I believe that Antunes’ book is a very good start to explore this “something”.

After years heavy with sensorial experience, be it through post-trauma or through cinema, I can heartily support Antunes’ proposition that “the experience is the message”: “it is the experience – not the medium alone – that defines the perceptual nature of the message” (2016: 13). In some ways, this is one of the cornerstones of meditation and Buddhist/Taoist beliefs. It is about experience. For that to happen, for the experience to materialise, you need to be in the moment, in the present, and this can be facilitated through certain aesthetic choices by filmmakers, as is the case in Slow Cinema, the way I see it. In fact, Antunes mentions slow-film directors as varied as van Sant, Tsai Ming-liang and Albert Serra.

The issue is that we have lost the ability to be in the moment, which makes it difficult for us to feel a film as a multisensory experience. This explains why so much emphasis is placed on images first of all, then maybe on sound. If they follow classic patterns like changes of colour for mood changes or change of shot lengths if a character reveals something important to the narrative, images are easy to read. Add a chunk of quick cuts, and the viewer has little chance to be with a film. I think Antunes’ book is worth reading if you’d like to understand the psychological and biological processes behind the multisensory film experience. Antunes cognitive model can be overwhelming, but it is an eye-opener, or perhaps rather a reminder of what cinema is about, namely experience.