Man With No Name – Wang Bing (2010)

Anonymity and intimacy – these two characteristics work hand in hand in Wang Bing’s Man With No Name (2010), which is a mere glimpse of the life of a hermit, given the director’s otherwise very extensive and lengthy observations of people in their given environment. With a running time of around 90 minutes, one could almost describe it as a “normal” film. At the same time, Wang Bing’s normality differs from that of the standard viewer, showing this again and again, most recently with his eight-hour long documentary Dead Souls, which runs at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. Man with no name feels like an insert, perhaps a bookmark or even a pause. A pause in which the director follows an anonymous subject and creates an intimate portrait of a man, of whom we know nothing but with whom we spend enough time to feel as though we’ve known him all our life.

Wang Bing’s sixth film has no beginning and no end. This negation that finds its expression already in the film title is one of the main forces throughout this observational documentary that jumps right in there, right into the heart of the story, if there was any. Wang Bing doesn’t introduce the man we’ll follow for the following ninety minutes. Stylistically, this is great, and yet it wasn’t so much by choice the director has done this. It was a necessity. The hermit he became fascinated with while shooting for another film simply did not speak. Even when Wang Bing asked him if it was okay to film him, he didn’t respond. If I remember correctly from a text I read not so long ago, the man merely responded by looking into the director’s eyes. And that was it.

All there was for Wang Bing was what he could observe. The man, perhaps in his fifties or sixties, has no name, no history, no personal stories. He is what he is: a man without a name. In a style that reminds one of West of the Tracks (2003), Wang Bing often follows the man wherever he goes. Staying behind, literally just following him, the director establishes a distance between himself and the man, but also between us and the man. He positions him in his natural environment with long and mobile shots. Over time, it becomes a film as much about the natural surrounding as it is about a man living in it and making use of it. The man uses what he can find to survive, to feed himself, to protect himself from the weather. His cave is his home, his kitchen, his bed. The cave is a microcosm in which everything and nothing happens. We have three meals with the man. Wang Bing takes us into the cave, shows us how the man cuts vegetables he’s harvested with a pair of scissors, shows us how he cooks with broken pans and little else.

Nothing seems in a good shape. Everything is used, damaged, dirty. Wang Bing doesn’t paint a utopian picture, but shows life in this man’s microcosm as it is. And in doing so, he creates a remarkable admiration of some kind. An admiration of a man who has (possibly) left everything behind, who lives in solitude, removed from civilisation, in the middle of nowhere but who sustains himself without seeming to bother. Instead, it looks as though the man enjoys his freedom. Yes, if there is perhaps a third characteristic of the film – on top of anonymity and intimacy – then it must be the idea of freedom. The hermit doesn’t speak. Nor does he communicate through other ways. But the longer we stay with him, the more we get the feeling that the man is not outwardly unhappy. It feels more like a film that places a genuine emphasis on breathing space. One cannot neglect the important aspect of time and duration in Man with no name. Nevertheless, I believe that the film is more about space (in its many forms) than it is about time. It is, in some ways, an ode to space, to emptiness, to absence…and it all begins with the title.

The fact that there is no dialogue makes the film appear much slower than Wang Bing’s other films. Usually, the absence of dialogue gives way to ambient noise. Man with no name gives way to very little. We don’t hear birds, or anything else that would make us think of life. Sometimes we hear a few steps on the ground, and we also hear the heavy rain plunging from the sky towards the end of the film. But besides this, there is little else. The soundscape seems as empty as the surrounding environment. Sound tends to make us perceive the narrative progression as being faster. Dialogues, monologues, music – everything that attracts the ear is perceived faster than a collection of still images. However, it is the latter which Wang Bing focuses on. Time is seemingly stretched. It seems slower. It feels as though it is running at a different pace. And indeed, I had to think of an interview I had heard on the radio with a scientist whose name I sadly cannot remember. He said that it had been proven that time was running slower in the mountains (where our hermit is living) than in the plain. It is a very small, barely perceptible difference, which only shows on our mechanical clocks after at least 10 years. Nevertheless, it is a fact that time is different in different places. While watching the film, I could feel this difference for the first time.

I have to say that I was not a fan of what I saw at the beginning, but I became more and more enveloped by Wang Bing’s footage. I began to marvel about the idea of freedom, of the return to a life where man and nature live in harmony. For me, it was this aspect that stood out in the end, a feeling of longing in some ways, something that is easier to achieve if you’re surrounded by nothingness, regardless in what form. I believe that Man with no name is, in its very simplicity, one of the best Wang Bing films (albeit they’re all good!) and I might actually see it again!

Autoportrait en cinéaste / Ma mère rit (Chantal Akerman)

In the last fortnight or so, I have read two books by Chantal Akerman. One of them, Autoportrait en cinéaste, is, in fact, a sort of exhibition catalogue, published at the occasion of a retrospective dedicated to her work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. This isn’t the usual catalogue, however. Akerman has written most of the book herself. It is personal, and only in parts about her films or her filmmaking. More evident, to me, is the insight into the director’s troubled mental health and her continuous suffering. This becomes the driving force in her 2013 book Ma mère rit, which makes you feel that in those ten years, between one book and another, a lot seems to have changed.

In a way, both books are speaking about the ordinary. There is as little happening as in slow films. Neither has a narrative with an intro, a middle and an end. Ma mère rit even less so than Autoportrait, the former, if I read this correctly, seemingly jumping between different phases of her life without indicating which year it was, without clarifying who said certain things (she uses dialogues, in a way, but without indicating that something is a dialogue and without indicating who the protagonists are, though it’s most often her and another person).

Chantal Akerman

I began to think whether the style in Ma mère rit was representative of her state of mind, sort of jumping from one place to another, speedily, while at the same time being exhausted. So often does she mention her “maladie”, her (mental) illness, that I sometimes cringed. It is, of course, now with hindsight that I was reading this book, knowing that she killed herself in autumn 2015. The book is more personal than Autoportrait. It is very much about her family, specifically about her relationship to her mother, very much in the context of her mother’s accident and her subsequent stay at hospital and her suffering at old age. Trauma is present on almost every page, though you have to read between the lines. And sadly, she does announce her suicide in that book, a death that shocked the world of cinema in 2015.

J’ai survécu à tout jusqu’à présent et j’ai souvent eu envie de me suicider. Mais je me disais je ne peux pas faire ça à ma mère. Après, quand elle ne sera plus là.

But I would like to go into more detail here about Autoportrait which is, while personal, an important read because it contains material on how Akerman thought about film. I think what struck me was the following:

Le livre avait et a sans doute toujours plus d’importance pour moi que le cinéma.

If you read her own writing, you do not get the feeling that she is a passionate filmmaker. In fact, if this was indeed the case, Akerman showed throughout her oeuvre that you don’t have to be passionate in order to make good films. You need ideas, first of all, and she had plenty of those. But yes, it feels odd (primarily because we don’t expect it) if a filmmaker says that the book, that literature, always had and still has more value than film. I don’t think she explains why this is the case, but it is interesting for us to think about. It is true, for me, that literature can give you something film cannot. Most evident to me is that you have to imagine the story you read, the characters, the natural environment, everything. In film, these things are given. Unless you have a striking experimental film, there is, usually, not much left for imagination. Another point about literature is that you have time… Just as Lav Diaz said once, novels can be 900 pages without anyone complaining, but long films are not acceptable. Because books can have any length, you, as the author, can go into as much detail as you want. You have time and space, and so does the reader. Slow films are a beginning, they’re an attempt to rectify this, and I believe Akerman’s https://partenaires.amazon.fr/home/productlinks/customize?asin=B000NDDTCA&request_source=quicklinks&subflow=sp_ shows this best.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

The issue of time in film does pop up, in fact, a few pages after Akerman’s argument about literature.

Une rue longtemps. Ou un arbre. Mais pourquoi longtemps et par rapport à quoi et puis c’est quoi longtemps? C’est plus que pas longtemps de tout façon. En tout cas, c’est plus longtemps que pour informer. En une seconde ou deux, on reconnaît une rue, un arbre. Donc, longtemps, cela peut être plus que le temps de le reconnaissance. Cela peut être le temps de la connaissance, enfin d’un peu de connaissance comme d’un peu de vérité.

In her usually, dry funny style, Akerman says that “long” is certainly longer than not long. So, if someone ever asks you, there you have it! But she elaborates on this, to be fair. She argues that “long” means that a filmmaker spends more time on something that would be dedicated to that something if the filmmaker merely wanted to inform his/her audience. What length suggests is that a filmmaker wants the viewer not just to recognise, to notice something, but to get to know it.

D’Est (From the East)

She also suggests that waiting for the next (long) take means to live, to feel that one exists. Time, for Akerman, is not only part of a film. It is also part of the viewer. To me, this was clearest in her film From the East. Even though Akerman is using a moving camera, she gave us time to see, another important aspect of her filmmaking.

Regarder est-ce la même que voir, non. Il faut regarder pendant combien de temps pour avoir vu et vu quoi.

To look is not the same as to see. One must look for a long time in order to see. Slow films follow this mantra, especially those films with very few characters and almost empty frames. Static cameras also support the idea of looking in order to see. I think that this single, and, in fact, simple Akerman quote sums up the nature of slow films.

Her death is a big loss for all of us, for film, for filmmaking. However, behind the genius of this “sad clown”, as she had been described by some, there was so much trouble, so much suffering, so many problems, fears, anxieties that no one saw, as the books, especially Ma mère rit, show. But her legacy will remain for as long as we want it to remain.

Towards a poor cinema

The title of today’s post is not at all meant to be derogative. I like Slow Cinema too much for a defamation of it. I also strongly believe that poverty does not necessarily harm creativity. On the contrary. I’ve been there during my childhood and my youth. You learn to make do with what you have, and this always requires creativity. A lot of filmmakers demonstrate the same thing. Without funding, or only minimal funding which doesn’t cover the production costs at all, some create remarkable films. Slow Cinema directors are known for this. Not all of them make something out of nothing. Some are a bit luckier with receiving financial support than others. Yet, the general situation is pretty bleak for slow-film directors when it comes to financial support.

Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning know that I’m always interested in looking into any possible roots of Slow Cinema. I do not agree with the current classification of being a descendant of Italian Neo-Realism. Nor with European modernist cinema in general. This approach is entirely focused on film, and shows the ongoing problem in academia: many researchers only think in their own fields instead of looking beyond their own horizons. Doing exactly this, though, shows just how rich Slow Cinema is, despite people’s persistent argument that there’s nothing to see, nothing to get out of. The films have a strong heritage in other art forms. I already spoke a bit about painting, and I still stand by what I said. Lav Diaz is not the only one who used to paint before he turned to filmmaking. I think Apichatpong Weerasethakul used to paint as well (I think I read this in a recent interview). They may be an exception from the rule, but they make for an intriguing study of the ways in which Slow Cinema and other art forms converge.

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By way of diversion, I have reached the field of theatre. It started with a book on Polish post-trauma theatre, which was superb and similar to what I’ve been writing about Lav Diaz’s films in my thesis. In fact, there were so many similarities that I was glad I hadn’t read the book before submitting my thesis. It could have led to the Homer Simpson “NO!” effect. I was particularly taken by the two theatre directors Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. The latter’s “Theatre of Death” shows similarities to the three Lav Diaz films I have studied, but unfortunately cannot be applied to any other director I have studied so far in the context of Slow Cinema. But Grotowski is an interesting reference point. It was he who wrote the short but groundbreaking essay “Towards a poor theatre” in the mid-1960s.

I want to highlight no more than two aspects of Grotowski’s theatre and his vision of what theatre should be like. I possibly do not have to go into detail about the overall aesthetic of a “poor” theatre. Everything is reduced to a minimum. Perhaps Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) may be a good example. Yet it’s by no means the prime example. In slow films, in general, the mise-en-scène is minimalistic. The frames have been emptied of distracting elements. Very often you only see the very basics. And that is, in fact, all you need.

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This is also what Grotowski thought. Reducing the mise-en-scene to a mere minimum, you’re left with two elements which need to be strong: space and acting. As far as space is concerned, I’m not just speaking about what is visible. In a film (or a theatre play for that matter) what is not visible, but present nevertheless, is immensely important, and is, in some cases, even what a film is about. I’d say that Apichatpong’s Cemetery of Splendour is a good example.

If you reduce the mise-en-scene to a minimum, then you have, I believe, a lot more options you can play with, precisely because nothing is certain for the audience. Absent presence is a wonderful means to speak about loss, loneliness, death, longing, haunting – all those elements play a major role in Slow Cinema.

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A second element whose importance is heightened in a “poor” theatre is acting. Grotowski placed particular emphasis on acting. The actors/actresses were so important because they had to fill the gaps the mise-en-scene left them with. They had to embody a lot more than just a role. Now, in many slow films, the term “acting” is perhaps not ideal. Very often, non-professional “actors” are used. In several cases, they do not even act, but play themselves. They are themselves. In other cases, actors and actresses live their roles. They embody the person they are meant to be on-screen. Lav Diaz’s films are a superb example for this, especially Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). Diaz’s films would fall apart if it wasn’t for the strong acting, for the at times breathtaking behaviour of actors and actresses who merge with their own selves.

Grotowski advocated something for theatre which can today be detected in slow films, which, in fact, are main characteristics of Slow cinema. Once more, I do not believe that it is the long-take which is the main characteristic. This point is once more an example of the narrow thinking of certain scholars. There are similarities between the aesthetics of Slow Cinema and other art forms. These may not be the most known advocacies but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take them into account when looking into the aesthetics of films. I’d be interested in knowing how many filmmakers consciously know about Grotowski and his poor theatre. It would be an interesting influence on films.

Day 24 – Surprise (me)

I finish this year’s advent calendar with a self-experiment in slow-filmmaking. It’s one thing to watch slow films all the time. But as I was to find out, it’s an entirely different matter to sit behind the camera and keep quiet for only five minutes just so that you don’t ruin the sound. It was fun to do, though, and I enjoyed it. You can find the video at the bottom of today’s entry.

The last 23 days have taken me to many countries. I was in Argentina with Lisandro Alonso, and in Mexico with Nicolas Pereda. I was in imaginative, historical spaces with Albert Serra, and in dark and evils spaces with Béla Tarr. I found myself in cramped apartments in China, in vast spaces of Turkish forests. I was in Japan, Iran and Sweden. Oh, and not to forget, I joined a couple of monks in France. The films I watched were a glimpse of suffering in the Philippines, of longing in Taiwan, of past memories in Thailand.

Over 37 hours of slow film. I cannot deny that it became difficult towards the end to find words for the films. Watching a slow film is, I find, an entirely different experience. Slow films really take you on a journey. You spend so much time with the characters that you feel as though you have been through what they have been through in two hours.

It was a great idea, though. It is one thing to watch a slow film here and there. It is a wholly different matter if you watch 23 films in a row. It gave me a real grasp of what Slow Cinema is about, how many nuances there are, what themes they actually tackle, and how similar and yet different the filmmakers are in their approaches.

I hope you enjoyed the excursion into slowness. This blog will now return to the usual weekly or fortnightly posts, and film comments whenever I’m lucky enough to find a diamond somewhere.

Merry Christmas!

Part of the landscape

The invention and widespread use of the mechanical clock in the middle of the last millennium has not only changed our understanding of time. It also altered our perception of time and space as entities. In the 15th century the minute hand was added to the clock face, in the 1690s the second hand helped to measure time in even smaller intervals. The clock became a symbol of Western efficiency, of the hunt for profit and productivity. Nature, which had long been a satisfying time teller, was gradually replaced by technology. Karlheinz Geißler, having researched the history of time measurement and its effects on society, argues that while time had long belonged to God, Man seized this power with the invention of the mechanical clock.

With an artificially created time, the ‘mean time’ which consists of 24 equal hours as opposed to ‘temporal time’ which is based on nature and its seasons, we have also altered our perception of space. I think we can agree on the fact that the clock was a decisive factor in the Industrial Revolution, in the speeding up of Man’s activities. It is telling that David Landes stresses the term ‘watch’ for portable clock, emphasising that time is something we need to pay attention to at any moment.

In any case, let’s consider for a moment an argument by German writer Heinrich Heine, who, in 1843, was saddened by the locomotive “killing” space and leaving us with nothing but time. Geißler explains this in more detail. If we sit in a train, we travel through space, but we don’t stop at a place to rest. We merely rush forward in order to travel through even more space. We, the passengers, are therefore not part of the landscape anymore. We merely travel through it. We’re independent of space in a way. All that is left is time, and our view on the landscape, but we’re not part of it anymore.

This separation of time and space is more evident than ever before these days. In manipulating natural time, we have disconnected it from space. This is obvious in films, which use flashbacks and flash-forwards. Time is something we have control over, it’s something we can manipulate to our liking. With that, space changes, too. In Fergus Daly’s wonderful documentary “The Art of Time“, Russian director Alexandr Sokurov explains that he attempts to re-connect time and space. Sokurov is one of the many ‘slow-film’ directors. His film Russian Ark is perhaps a great illustration of this, a film made up of a single long-take, therefore ‘recording’ time as well as space in their natural appearance.

The very characteristic of slow films in general is a way to return to the pre-mechanical clock, pre-Industrial age era in that it is concerned with the natural way of time and space. It is about returning the control over time, and therefore over space, to nature. Just as in the era prior to the mechanical clock, we simply watch what is happening. We’re no longer sitting in a train speeding past the landscape. We’re part of it again.