Waiting Time

The end of the year 2018 was, in France at least, a period in which the media focused on the subject of time. The quantity of things published was impressive and made me think about the possible reasons behind this seemingly mutual choice of journalists and podcasters alike. What happened in 2018 that became the trigger for a return to the subject of time and a reminder that time, as we know it, is an artificial construct?

It was, perhaps, Donald Trump and his presidency. In part, at least. An American president, impulsive, tweeting, can quickly take over the news. What I noticed last year is that it felt as though news faster than ever before. One tweet by a politician was enough to create a newsworthy item. Breaking news was the order of the day. Trump, Brexit – you name it. 2018 was characterised by immediacy, heightened by social media and people’s use of it for “news”. I don’t want to write a political post, albeit I could because there is so much to say about last year. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of time today. In an earlier post, I already wrote down my ideas on the theme of waiting, triggered by a blog post on the subject.

Today, I want to go into a bit more detail because I think that if we speak about Slow Cinema, we still don’t speak enough about the subject of time itself. Academics love to explain slow films with Bazin and Deleuze, but this approach has always felt incomplete, or even inadequate to me. It is Sylvain Piron, who, in his magnificent book L’occupation du monde, writes about, what he calls, an artificialisation of every part of society. This, I believe, can also be found in the debate on Slow Cinema. There is no natural conversation about it, but slow films are being explained by artificially constructed frameworks that we have created merely because we humans have to categorise everything in order to keep track of what is happening around us.

Prologue – Béla Tarr

The simple aspect we forget while creating artificial frameworks is that time is an illusion, a question of perspectives rather than a universal truth, as physicist Carlo Rovelli describes it in his new book on time. There is, he suggests, neither space nor time, but instead a continuous progression of processes. Not so long ago, I spoke of Sylviane Agacinski’s thought-provoking book Le passeur du temps, in which she argues that everything is always passing, is in constant transformation. Nothing remains the way you see it right in this very moment. In a second, it’s already different, which, as we may remember from previous readings and discussions, makes it difficult to define what the present moment is, because the present is fragile. If you speak about “the present”, it sounds like a stable temporal entity, but it’s the opposite. What’s present now, is already past in a nano second. So what does this say about time? Rovelli puts forward a pretty good argument. Reality, our reality, is merely a fragment. No one’s reality is the ultimate reality. We create those fragments in order to handle the world. He describes this process, in fact, as a way of blurring of what is around us. In order to contemplate the world as it is, we need to fragment it. We do this, for example, via time, and time is nothing but a marker of our unawareness, of our ignorance.

For Rovelli, time is primarily an emotional and psychological experience, which resonates so strongly with everything I have thought to express on this blog in relation to slow films. From the beginning, I have considered slow films as an experience, rather than as a sort of movement that is defined by frameworks, which tick certain boxes. I have reviewed over 250 films and have seen more without having (yet) written about them. If there is one thing that I have learned, then it is about the necessity of experiencing the films before one poses questions as to what they mean, why they are so slow or so long, and why the director didn’t cut at a specific point. Slow Cinema is, if I take the argument of Rovelli to heart (which I do), the perfect illustration of what time is: an experience, a passing experience, a continuous movement towards something – the end in most cases.

It is, I believe, this experience that we struggle with. In a fast-paced, knee-jerk epoch, are we still capable of truly experiencing something? In order to experience something, this something needs to last, and what actually still lasts? The 21st century, in particular, has cut short everything. Except, that is, for slow films. They last. Their duration allows us to experience, which can be a scary experience. Maybe this is why people say that they are bored. Perhaps they are just scared of letting something happen to them und use boredom as an easy way out. This something – it matters little what it essentially is as it is different for everyone – appears by itself, but one needs to wait for it. We spend so much of our lives waiting, we don’t even realise it anymore. It is so normal to wait for the bus that we no longer notice it as something out of the ordinary. Besides, as Reiner Niehoff and Sven Rücker explain in a three-part podcast series on waiting, everything is being done to make this period of waiting look and feel as though we are not waiting at all. Newspapers and journals in the GP practice, games on mobile phones while waiting for the bus or the metro. We keep ourselves busy all the time, even during periods of waiting.

Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd

Waiting, Niehoff and Rücker say, doesn’t have a quality in and of itself. Its goal is to end the period of waiting. What I found truly thought-provoking, even though it is so simple and easy to recognise that, precisely, I had never thought of it before, is that no one chooses to wait. Waiting is always imposed upon us. We have to endure it and we are at its mercy. This alone tells us why we struggle with waiting. Of course, we like to be in control, and if we are not, it makes us anxious, angry or simply uncomfortable. Whoever it is who makes us wait has power over us, because s/he plunges us into a hole of non-productivity. Remember that time is nothing but a psychological experience? In waiting, we can feel this most strongly.

Do you wait for the director to cut the scene? Do you wait for something to happen? Do you wait for the film to end? The key here is that we perceive a slow film as a form of waiting, and then we say “I don’t have time for this”. Some people might even say that the director shouldn’t steal or waste our time. At the same time, I consider waiting for something to happen in a slow film as the one way of waiting that is not imposed from the outside, but from the inside. Waiting is imposed on ourselves by ourselves, and we project this fear of waiting and our disappointment onto the director, who merely shows a passing experience without any obligations. Because we are, as Rovelli suggested, busy with “blurring” our surrounding, it becomes difficult to accept those films as they are. Instead, we consider them as time experiments, as a “tour de force”. People’s rejection of those films comes from their misconception of what time is, and I think that seeing the subject from a different angle might help them to find their way into the films one day.

The art of emptiness – Itzhak Goldberg (ed, 2017)

After a rather long break from writing due to health reasons, I’m trying to embark on finally writing something about that book I bought last year, which intrigued me with its title. My avid readers might remember just how keen I am to link painting (or static art in general) to Slow Cinema. Not because I think that they’re the same. They cannot be. They each have their individual characteristics that sets them apart from the other. But there is this use of empty frames, of static frames, of little to no dialogue in slow films that has always reminded me of standing in a gallery in front of a painting, contemplating the scenery I see in my own time.

Like almost all French books I have so far bought for reviewing on this blog, L’art du vide (2017) is the result of a colloqium on the subject which united scholars and artists alike. The book contains chapters on paintings, drawings, even animation films and one chapter that I really enjoyed titled “The dimension of absence in contemporary art”, written by Nadia Barrientos. Some of you might know the works by Jean-Luc Nancy, French philosopher, who also wrote a preface to the book, in which he states that we cannot penetrate emptiness. It is emptiness that penetrates us, pierces through us, and it’s not so much that it leaves emptiness behind. Emptiness means, in fact, fullness. It’s this Chinese adage, which I had read about during my PhD research: emptiness and fullness complement one another. One cannot exist without the other.

This is, as Nancy demonstrates with several examples, clearer in the French language than in English. I was quite baffled when I read that section, and was then glad that I could speak French. Indeed, nothingness in French doesn’t come without fullness. Nancy points out that the French word rien (nothing) comes from Latin res, whose accusative rem became rien in French. In fact, res means thing. It doesn’t mean nothing. It means thing. In French, rien therefore only becomes nothingness if you negate it: “Il n’y a rien à dire” (there is nothing to say). If you don’t negate rien, it remains a positive word.

In his introduction to the book, editor Itzhak Goldberg points out that (as I have previously argued in the context of Slow Cinema) the larger visibility of emptiness as a subject is, as such, not a recent phenomenon. Rather, emptiness has always been there, but external circumstances, such as the increased speed of our lives, make us more aware of the opposite: of slowness, of nothingness, emptiness. It’s like you searching for something to do when you’re bored. Nothingness gives way to fullness, and the other way around. In his online article about emptiness in art, André Rouillé argues – to me quite convincingly – that art has the opportunity to set itself apart from all other mediated images in a world full of images by putting emptiness (or nothingness) at their centre. According to Rouillé, the media are condemned to be fast all the time. It is about grabbing the spectator, about reporting first about an important event. It is, as he says, all about the spectacle, which makes me think of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and his own comments on it. In any case, Rouillé suggests that art can function as the antidote of this ever-increasing speed, which is being normalised by the (spectacle of the) media.

I think what resonates strongly with Slow Cinema and my work on it, is a quote by Norman McLaren Goldberg uses in order to strengthen his own arguments of emptiness being a central part of art. McLaren famously said that it’s not the image that is important, but what can be found between the images. It’s not so much about showing, but about suggesting, and in order to suggest something on a screen, you have to use nothingness. you have to use the off, something that isn’t there, something that isn’t easy to grasp at first. A great deal of slow film directors use this strategy in order to engage the viewer in their films’ stories. If I speak about the use of absence, as I have called it throughout my work, I inevitably think of Lav Diaz and his magnificent use of the off in order to suggest trauma and create an almost slo-mo progression of narrative. But, Goldberg argues correctly, the use of nothingness (or absence) confronts the viewer with problems. Goldberg does not go into detail here. Yet, I have argued elsewhere that the problem really comes from the fact that the viewer is conditioned. S/he is used to getting everything served on a silver platter, so that s/he can enjoy a film rather than have to work in order to “get it”. This conditioning is also the reason of slow films or “empty” artworks being rejected because they do not conform to what one is used to. In the end, Goldberg argues, this is a very Western attitude: seeing is believing. Something invisible doesn’t count, isn’t worth mentioning.

I could go on about the introduction of the book, which is genuinely interesting and contains a lot of good points. But I would like to draw your attention to one chapter at least, which I found particularly fascinating. I have mentioned on this blog before that slowness/emptiness can be an antidote to anxiety induced by external factors. The hectic 24/7 we-are-always-live news is one example, but by far not the only one. What struck me in L’art du vide was the chapter on the American artist Jacques Brown, who was absolutely afraid of emptiness. He suffered from severe anxiety when he just saw an empty canvas. At one point, he wrote in his personal notes: “I died 36 times in this canvas.” He coudn’t deal with or handle a white page, an empty canvas, anything that was empty. It prevented him from creating something. If it created something, then it was utter fear and debilitating anxiety. So what did Brown do? He used old account books of his wife to draw on. Those pages were not white, not empty. He could draw freely on it without being inhibited by “the fear of emptiness”.

In her superb chapter on the aesthetics of absence in contemporary art, Nadia Barrientos writes that absence forces us to shift our attention to something that had previously escaped us. Absence functions as a reminder of something previously forgotten, and to show us this something in a new light. Absence works like silence, which is often used to enhance what has been or what should be said. I have been fascinated by something I’d perhaps call “temporary art”; a work of art that disappears after a while. In some ways, those are wonderful examples of the interaction between fullness and emptiness, combining both to generate a powerful message. Barrientos mentions 2017 by Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong, for instance, which is a sort of mural painting written with a special ink that slowly but surely disappears the longer it is exposed to daylight. This is not only about fullness and emptiness. It is, to me, a statement about forgetting, something that happens very slowly, almost invisible until one day a certain memory is gone. As Barrientos correctly points out, Phinthong’s artwork goes against the famous adage “the medium is the message”. Here, it is the process – of change, of forgetting – that is the message, and that stands above all and invites the viewers to reflect upon this.

Nothingness, or emptiness, has, as this book shows, wide-ranging meaning. What stands out in all chapter is the idea that nothing doesn’t mean nothing. On the contrary, nothing always stands for something, and helps highlighting this particular something. The use of emptiness/absence is a way to engage a viewer, to reflect about major themes as large (but important) as humanity. Nothingness can be anxiety-inducing or soothing. It can be the centre of an artwork, or it can be one of many characteristics. Nothingness can be there from the start, or an artwork can disappear in front of a viewer’s eyes. This “nothing” is multi-facetted and more than just “nothing”. I think this is the easiest, and quickest (oh, the irony) way to describe this collection of essays!

Austerlitz’s time

What is Austerlitz’s time, and where do I get this from? Well, I didn’t expect my wanting to write a blog post about Jacques Austerlitz when I picked up W.G. Sebald’s magnificent book Austerlitz. It’s Sebald’s last novel, published in 2001, and focuses on a man who is simply called Austerlitz most of the time in the book. Austerlitz is haunted by a past he doesn’t know. For most of his life he had ignored where he was from. Or rather, he frankly didn’t know. His memory blocked a very essential part of his life, his childhood, but this blockage was the cause of his being haunted by a past he could never clearly see. For him, as he says, “the world stopped for me at the end of the 19th century.”

At some point in the book, when Austerlitz meets the author again and continues telling his story or his accounts of fascinating historical facts or architectural designs, Austerlitz makes a couple of remarkable statements about the subject of time. Overall, there is so much you can take from this book that it has become, for me at least, one of the best books I have read in my life.

Austerlitz proposes the thought-provoking argument that “time is of all our inventions the most artificial one”. This might sound strange at first, but it sort of accompanies what I had been writing about on this blog in the early days regarding time, as we know it, as an artificial construct that has nothing to do with nature. What Austerlitz describes here, without directly mentioning it in the paragraph that follows, is man’s invention of the mechanical clock that divided a day into 24 equal hours, each hour into 60 equal minutes, and every minute into 60 equal seconds. Before the invention of the mechanical clock, people lived according to the natural cycle of the sun. That was especially true for farmers who got up when the sun rose and stopped their work when the sun set. I strongly believe that was also true for cave men who ventured out in daylight to hunt (another vital factor here is the aspect of darkness as posing a threat to man, which changed when street lamps were introduced much later).

I also remember Lav Diaz saying that life in the Philippines changed drastically when the Spanish colonisers introduced the mechanical clock. All of a sudden, time was linear and not, as the Chinese, for instance, believed, a river with many different arms and therefore directions, waves, and ripples. Time became a constantly progressing entity that, as you might also remember from my writing, becomes completely obsolete when someone suffers from PTSD. It is PTSD that disrupts the linear time we have created with the invention and introduction of the mechanical clock, but I wonder whether it’s not this concept of linear time that reinforces this traumatic stress because it is expected of us (and time) to persistently move forward. So if a person is stuck in the past, or if the past repeatedly resurfaces (because this is how life is anyway – a mixture of past and present that leads to the future), then this is not an acceptable development. (NB: My PhD thesis explores the themes of duration and time in the context of post-trauma in more detail.)

The mechanical clock turned time into something that can be measured, that can be divided, and that only ever follows a linear progression. Austerlitz continues, “if Newton really thought that time progresses like the current in the river Thames, then where is its origin and which sea does it flow into?” But Austerlitz isn’t done. He asks, “everyone knows that a river has two shores. But what are, then, the two borders of time? What are its specific characteristics that correspond approximatively to that of water, which is liquid, pretty heavy and transparent?”

I don’t have an answer to this question, but I marvel about it and have been thinking about it since the first time I read it. It all makes me think of Chinese philosophy again, and its perception of and approach to time that differs so greatly from our Western standards. In particular, the idea of time having different speeds, different directions – simply put, varying and various characteristics – is something that pops up in my head over and over again when I read about prisons and the concentrationary system in which the concept of time is used as punishment and torture. What happens in those circumstances, especially in solitary confinement, is that people are taken “out of time”. In some cases, imprisonment becomes a place where the linear progression of time no longer applies, but where time instead becomes an utterly confusing, anxiety-inducing construct used for the sake of extracting information from prisoners. This “being out of time” is also mentioned in Austerlitz’s monologue, but in a different context.

He argues that despite our lives being seemingly governed by the mechanical clock, it is and remains the cosmos that really structures our lives, an “unquantifiable vastness” that does not comply with linear progression but that progresses more in the form of swirls, precisely what the Chinese proposed centuries and centuries ago. Time is not linear but circular. This, Austerlitz says, is what governs life in “lesser developed countries” but also exists in large metropolitan cities, such as London. “Aren’t the dead out of time? Or the dying? Or those who are sick and confined to their bed in hospital?” Time stops for them, or progresses differently than the way prescribed by our mechanical clock.

The question I pose (more or less to myself) is to what extent film can help us understand this, can help us see that time is not a linear progression or that there are several people who live “out of time”? Can film, as a time-based medium, do this at all, or will it always fail because film, just like time, is an artificial construct?

Waiting

What does it mean to wait? What does “waiting” mean nowadays when everyone seems to be always, eternally busy? Are we still waiting, or have we essentially replaced waiting by simply doing stuff? I use this blog post in order to respond to a post on Geyst blog that ended with the question “what does it mean to wait?” I felt that there is plenty to say, also in regards to slow film. If waiting has perhaps indeed been almost replaced by us doing stuff in order to keep ourselves busy – while waiting for the train, the bus, a friend to arrive – then it is slow films that return us to the idea of waiting, the feeling of time standing still.

Chantal Akerman didn’t want people not to notice time passing. The point of her work was to make the viewer aware that time was passing. We notice the power of time, I would say, most often when presumably nothing is happening, exactly in moments of waiting. Time feels heavy, feels burdensome. “With my films, you’re aware of every second passing through your body”, she famously said. What is important (and characteristic of slow films) is the act of waiting, in several different ways. For one, it’s the characters who wait. Think of Lav Diaz. In Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I think it is, that characters are walking from one village to another, but because of the heat they take several extensive breaks. They sit in the shadow, simply waiting for the sun to subside. Diaz said once that this was characteristic of the Filipinos. The heat, the humidity – it’s too much, so people sit down and wait for the heat to subside. They wait, doing nothing.

Béla Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without Béla Tarr? The endless, now almost characteristic scenes of people in front of windows, looking outside, looking for nothing in particular. They just sit and watch. We don’t know whether they wait for something to happen, or whether they just stop and allow time do its work. Whether it’s DamnationThe Man from London or The Turin Horse, these scenes are iconic, and they force us, the viewer, to wait, too. Because as Akerman suggested, the viewer is always waiting. We are waiting for the next take to commence, for the current one to stop. Slow films pause, and they develop in their own time. Events are not cut short, which would suit our impatience. Something is always happening in action films, something that relieves us from the claustrophobic feeling of time, the heaviness of time. Time is flying, it’s passing as fast as could be (albeit this is artificial and misleading).

When people who dislike slow films try to reason their feelings towards this type of film, they tend to say that nothing happens on screen, i.e. that it is boring. This “nothing happens” is, in fact, another word for “you actually have to wait for something to happen and we don’t have time for this”. People are impatient. Waiting seems to mean being passive, perhaps being impotent, immobile, all the while being told everywhere that time is running so fast that you’re losing it when you wait a minute or two for the bus. You cannot wait. You need to haste, or else you will lose those precious two minutes. One could perhaps say that people who reject slow films for the simple reason that nothing happens never learned to wait, or forgot the joy of waiting. Because what does waiting mean? What does it do to your body, your mind?

I mentioned several times on this blog that slow films helped me to slow down and deal with PTSD. PTSD introduces an incredible speed into your life, which causes severe anxiety. It’s not just that you’re scared of death. It’s the fact that you can no longer keep up with the speed around you, which makes you unstable and insecure. So what happened was that slow films helped me to pause, and, yes, to wait. Waiting does not mean doing nothing, although it appears as such to a great deal of people. It does not mean being passive, although some people would tell you otherwise. Waiting means being in the moment, being in the present, being present, something that has become increasingly difficult. There is “no time” to be in the present, but this is only the case because we don’t take time for it. To wait means to be mindful. It is a chance to take a look at what surrounds you, at what is going on in your body and mind.

This state is embodied by characters in slow films, when they sit and look out of the window; when they sit in the shadow of trees doing nothing; when they sit in the fields and watch the sky. They’re in the present moment, and the directors ask us to do the same. Be with the characters, be in the moment with them, and become mindful of our surrounding. Become mindful of time, as Akerman suggests, yet without feeling anxious about wasting it. Slow films are a way to see the chances of doing nothing, the liberties of waiting, even the joy in waiting. If only more people took their time to wait and considered the pleasures of nothingness and emptiness… Just how enjoyable is the end of Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea? A man sits at a fireplace outdoors, the soundscape gives us a feeling of being there with him. He’s doing nothing. He simply watches how the fire consumes the wood. A beautiful scene, seemingly endless, that allows the viewer to be.

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.

Review: On Slowness – Lutz Koepnick (2014)

The contemporary hype around slowness in all its forms has filled shelves in bookstores for several years now. Most of these books are a kind of self-help strategy for stressed-out people, who wish to slow down their lives. I tend to flick through them only to return them to the shelf again. I don’t really believe in these books, because I think that a book alone cannot slow down your life. The only slow books I have read where written by the wonderful Carl Honoré, whose books are superb and not self-help manuals as such. On the contrary, they make you smile.

With recent (academic) books on Slow Movies and monologues on specific filmmakers, such as Béla Tarr, I thought Lutz Koepnick’s endeavour to write a book on slowness in contemporary art was daring. If you remember, I had a rather unpleasant experience with Ira Jaffe’s book, so I hoped that someone would finally do some valuable and serious work on slowness. For some reason it feels as if everyone wants and does write on slowness (in whatever field) without really bringing something new to the debate. Writing on slowness runs in circles, which is not helpful to its reputation as being ‘boring’.

Koepnick’s book is the refreshing work that the field needed. It’s a pleasure to read and this is mainly the case because it is unique in its approach. Current literature considers slowness isolated from speed. While writers all agree that slowness stands in opposition to speed, it is almost impossible to find a piece of work that argues along the line of slowness being a part of speed. Without speed there wouldn’t be slowness and vice versa. It feels as though Koepnick has put this at the heart of his work, and it is this that makes reading On Slowness so very refreshing.

Think of Futurism, for instance. Futurism was perhaps the beginning of our contemporary obsession with speed. Now we have Slow Art, Slow Cinema, Slow Education. Futurism introduced the complete opposite of everything. Futurist thinkers loved speed. It was an exciting thing to experience. This is how the story goes anyway. What I found remarkable, and this stands at the beginning of Koepnick’s book, is that the author approached Futurism from a slow angle, seeking instances of slowness in an age of high speed. Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus found its way into the book, the angel with the open wings standing amidst a speedy flow of progress and history. The angel is not slow, but the angel stands for stillness. In fact, throughout the book, Koepnick does not so much argue for the use of the word slow. More important to him is the fact that ‘slowness’ opens a complex relation of opposing temporalities, the result of which we can find in the artworks he focuses on in his book.

The idea is to see ‘slowness’ in speed. As already pointed out, we tend to forget that these aren’t entirely separate from each other. An example for this is Koepnick’s in-depth study of open shutter photography, which I personally found the best chapter of the entire book. In open photography, both speed and slowness come together. Koepnick approaches this form of photography from the angle of slowness. He refers to the work of Michael Weseley, for instance, who is known for his spooky photographs of train stations. Say, there is a train from Cologne to Berlin. He would set up the camera on the platform at Cologne train station and open the shutter when the train leaves. He would only close the shutter when the train had arrived in Berlin. The result is spooky, but stunning. Another example is the work of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. His photographs of cinema auditoriums are the result of a very similar approach. He opened the shutter when a film started to play on the screen, then closed the shutter at the end of the film.

Photography is known for its instantaneous nature. Then there is time-lapse photography, which brings home the idea of photography as being a ‘fast’ form of art. Where do we position open shutter photography? When I read through Koepnick’s arguments I was amazed by this. It made perfect sense to see this as slow photography. But then, is it really? You still capture speed, you capture movement over a long period of time, so in some ways Weseley and Sugimoto use slowness/time to capture speed/movement. Thus, Koepnick’s suggestion that different temporalities are connected in slow works becomes most explicit and obvious in his chapter on photography. He does not go into detail about the actual speed that is captured on the ‘slow’ photographs. Yet as a reader, you can go through the process in your head and you can see that open shutter photography, while being slow at first sight, is actually just one form of time. It is a complex construct of different temporalities. Using one word – slow or fast, regardless – is not entirely correct.

In another stunning analysis Koepnick combines speed with slowness. Tom Tykwer is known for his fast films, especially Run Lola Run (1998). How would you describe the film? I would describe it as a ‘film on speed’, in many ways. And yet, Koepnick makes it his task to see the corresponding slowness in the film, analysing the slow-motion scenes as well as the fact that Tykwer’s characters never have the latest technologies, which we would now regard as contributing to today’s speed. It is those small things that I never thought of. For me the film is fast and a perfect illustration (as far back as 1998) of the growing speed in and of society. But this isn’t what it is exclusively.

Koepnick sees the unseen/invisible in his book. He shows that there is no such thing as ‘just slow’. Slowness is rather one form of temporality which contributes to the complex, multiple layers of time we are confronted with every day. The funny thing is, I have argued a similar thing in my thesis in regards to Lav Diaz’s concentrationary universe, in which he shifts freely between ‘slowness’ and brief interludes of shocks that seem to speed up time. So we’re both on the same page. It’s just not as clear in my words as yet.

Not all chapters have the same quality, but Koepnick’s book is a real must-read if you want to learn more about slowness in contemporary art, or about temporality in art in general. It is an insightful study of how time is dealt with in several art forms – photography, cinema, video – so there’s something for everyone.

On Slowness, by Lutz Koepnick (2014) – now available on Amazon.

The weight of time

If you study Slow Cinema, or time in film in more general terms, you cannot avoid reading Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time (2004). It is a kind of bible for those who are interested in how cinema came about, although I do find it, in fact, too little concerned with cinema itself, and more with everything that came before. I haven’t managed to read the whole book yet, though, but I’m definitely missing something there.

In any case, Doane made reference to something that I had come about when I started reading about Futurism and Futurist art. She writes,

“One could argue more generally that at the turn of the century time became palpable in a different way – one specific to modernity and intimately allied with its new technologies of representation (photographs, film, phonography). Time was indeed felt – as a weight, as a source of anxiety, and as an acutely pressing problem of representation” (2004: 4, original emphasis).

Writing this, Doane had an increased speed in the arts in mind. Again, Futurist art is for me the point when speed became so evident that you could not avoid it anymore. It was everywhere. Speed, or rather the passing of time and therefore the seemingly increased pace of walking towards one’s own death caused anxiety, and made people move even faster, because they thought that they could accomplish more if they just did things faster. Indeed, many people – me included – have problems to be in bustling shopping centres or high streets, where everyone is walking swiftly from one shop to another, always on the phone.

What I find interesting is that Doane links this anxiety to speed. I do not argue against her statement. It is more than appropriate. But how about anxiety felt in Slow Cinema? Slow time as triggering anxiety? When I read this passage in Doane’s book, I returned to my paper on the concentrationary universe in the films of Lav Diaz, in which I argued that Diaz created ‘time terror’ for both the characters and the viewer. In his focus on trauma and history, Diaz is surely an extreme example of using slowness as a means to create anxiety. But there are more directors, who use slow time to show the actual ‘weight of time’ as Doane put it.

How much time do we spend waiting when we watch a slow film? How much time do we spend wondering what is going to happen? And with that, how much time do we spend seeing characters suffering?

This anxiety is also visible in Pedro Costa’s films, a fact that makes for an interesting point. The weight of time, infused by slowness, is the weight of the past. It’s the opposite of what we saw with Futurist art, where time was more infused by the weight of the future. Slow films (not all of them) look back to the colonial history of the countries they are made in, and it is not only a traumatic history, which still wears heavy on local populations. It is also a degree of standstill. Can these people – the former colonised subjects, the people depicted in those films – move forward? Can they move at all, or does the weight of time, of the past, prevents them from doing so?

There is certainly an interesting point to study in a bit more detail here, but for some reason it would take me a bit too far astray at the moment, so this will have to wait a little while before I return to it. But I wanted to mention it at least 🙂

Interview with Michela Occhipinti

In 2010, filmmaker Michela Occhipinti made the brilliant and yet subtle slow film Letters from the Desert – Eulogy to Slowness. I have reviewed the film in an earlier post. I have contacted her to conduct a mini interview with her about her film and her filmmaking. A big thanks goes out to Michela for this, and good luck with your new film!

1) Where did the idea for Letters from the Desert come from?

“The idea of the film came while I was trying to understand how to tell a paradox of our society that deeply touched me. The intent though was to tell it through an equal but opposite symmetry, with a different culture. After having read a short article on a postman in the Thar Desert and on his long peregrinations it was clear to me that that was my story, I just had to bring it into focus.”

2) You are a filmmaker from Italy and gave your film the interesting tagline “Eulogy to Slowness”. Have you been inspired by the Italian Slow Movement, or is this a mere coincidence?

“It has nothing to do with it. I just wanted to celebrate slowness vs velocity. Because in fact in our society the latter is considered the positive between the 2, while for me it is exactly the opposite. We tend to easily classify dichotomies like light/dark, light/heavy, fast/slow, tending to confer the positive pole to the former and the negative one to the latter. There are so many nuances in between though…”

3) Is your film a personal comment on the speed in current society?

“Absolutely. It tells in an antithesis what I perceive as being a far too fast society.
It is a reflection on progress. It is my personal view on the concept of time and space. Of time in space and space in time.

Of the fragility of beauty. A small melancholy. A sort of freeze-frame of a world that is dying out. The photography of a moment of transition. The frame of the precise moment in which a foreign body arrives bringing transformation.”

4) The film is relatively slow. It contains a lot of long takes, and wide shots are a dominant element. Was the use of long takes a deliberate choice from the beginning, or has it come naturally to you once you were in India and became more involved with the subjects of your film?

“It was a deliberate choice from the beginning because I thought it was the only way to capture slowness, to convey it into images. And also to make the audience be in that time and space, dragging them into it.”

5) What significance do you as a filmmaker attach to the landscape in your films? Letters from the Desert is not only about a postman, who loses his job because of the foray of modernity. You have put emphasis on his natural surrounding. Why have you done so?

“The desert itself is not a casual landscape in the film. The most basic depiction of time is the hourglass that contains sand that pours into it marking time, and also here, the wind moves the sand changing the shape and structure of the dunes and the landscape, and thus, metaphorically, also of time. The desert also as a metaphysical place where we go to find ourselves and make silence.”

6) Retrospectively thinking, your film reminds me of Nicolás Pereda’s work. I feel as if you blur the line between documentary and fiction. What is your film, actually? How much fiction is in your documentary?

“I started off wanting to make a pure documentary. I wanted to choose a protagonist and follow him with the cameras.

Once I left for scouting though, I met so many postmen and each one of them had so many interesting stories that I conveyed some of them in the one of my chosen protagonist Hari. So I wrote a script based on these experiences but with open dialogues that I then composed together with my characters.

Also leaving some space to the unexpected.

Therefore the work on the film is not merely of a documentary approach. Letters from the Desert lays in a territory between reality and imagination. India in my film works as an “elsewhere” as opposed to the world from which I, director, come from and where I live in. It is the starting point to develop something that moves on a different territory, the one of fiction, of the cinematographic mise-en-scène and that exactly thanks to this leap transforms into something universal, but also absolutely personal because the subjective filter is me, my work as a director.”

7) Are there any directors that have influenced you in your work as filmmaker?

“I love cinema and watch a lot of films weekly and there are so many directors and films I am really passionate about that to name a few would not do justice. I also do not think I was influenced by some particular filmmaker. Of course, once I started thinking about how to make my film I did watch a lot of documentaries and films most of which were suggested to me by the brilliant D.o.P. who worked on Letters from the Desert, the Spanish Pau Mirabet. Those were suggestions he gave me once I explained what was my vision of my film.

So I saw a lot of Herzog, Humbert & Penzel and many other films of the seventies, especially East European. Thing is that, when I was young, I wanted to be a writer, only to discover very soon that I was no good. So I started to work in advertising, documentaries and cinema sort of by chance and after many years, when I finally found the courage, I went off to South America on a very long trip to direct my first documentary. In the end, I am still telling stories but just through a different media: a visual one rather than a written one. That is why, I think, even though I love cinema, in a way my visual references, as strange as it may sound, also come from literature.

And, although I even talk alone, I think in images. So I would not even define myself a director or filmmaker, but just someone who has something to say on a particular subject and decides to express it by filming because those images of the film are already in her mind. So when I will feel I have nothing to say on a particular subject, I will just stop filming, just as I started.”

8) Are you working on a new film at the moment? Or, will your next film be another slow film?

“I am working on a new film right now. Started with the idea and writing nearly 3 years ago…talking about eulogy to slowness!!

It is a totally different subject, dealing with women body, body transformation, social conditioning that should be shot in Mauritania as soon as we find the financing and international co-producers, but at least I do have a good Italian production. It will not be as slow as Letters from the Desert and also the photography will be different because the subject in my opinion requires a different visual approach and pace. But defintely no thriller!”

The Side-Effects of Slow Cinema Studies

Out of the blue, my partner wondered this morning whether he was becoming slower in his brains. In the same context, he mentioned his viewing of slow films with me. I had some questions about my development, too, and I may have found the answers right there.

Now, before I go into a bit more detail, I have to be fair and say that I have had a few problems processing particularly fast things in the last couple of years. For those who have briefly checked the other blog I had up for a few weeks, PTSD doesn’t allow me to process information fast. The faster they come, the more angry and the more confused I get. Slow Cinema is bliss in this context.

Putting this aside, though, I have wondered lately whether I wasn’t becoming even slower. When I zap into a comedy show on TV, I have some severe problems sometimes to catch the dialogue. This is perhaps not only due to the speed, with which they speak. It is perhaps also in part due to the reluctance of my ears, which have become lazy. My eyes do all the job. Slow Films have little dialogue, the power often lies in the images themselves. Moreover, I have become so used to reading subtitles that my ears don’t really need to do much anymore.

Snail Brain

It could be that comedy shows are meant to be slightly faster, in speech at least. For entertainment purposes, and jokes don’t work if they come out slow. But I have started to encounter the same problems in what you would call “normal” films as well as in everyday conversations, though the latter really depends. I can have a normal conversation about the weather, but if you try to steer me to something more complex I need a while to think, and to process what’s actually wanted from me. This hasn’t been the case five years ago. I tend to catch snippets nowadays, and then I try to make sense of the few snippets I have heard.

Again, I do not think that my Slow Cinema studies are solely responsible for this, but it surely must have an influence on my thought process. Slowness is meant to slow you down anyway, hence the name. So I’m not complaining at all (remember the hare and the turtle!). What I think becomes the more obvious the longer I study Slow Cinema (and my brains’ reaction to it) is how fast the world around me really is. We go with the flow, we have grown into it from day one we joined the others on this planet. Yet you only ever realise that you’re on the high-speed lane when you attempt to slow down and nothing or no one is following you anymore.
If there were scientists who are interested in the effects of slowness on our sensory perceptions (maybe even looking into the changes in our brains), I’d be happy to volunteer as a guinea pig. It makes me really curious. Well, the curiosity is increasing slowly, obviously.

Some (Futurist) Thoughts

Those who read this blog regularly, or those who know me personally, are aware of my hostility towards the opposition of Slow Cinema to Hollywood, or any form of popular cinema. There is just something that makes it too simple, too obvious. Here’s a better suggestion: Futurism.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was it who published the Futurist Manifesto in 1909, when cinema was still in its teens. In a nutshell, Futurist art involved speed, noise, the cityscape – everything that is not Slow Cinema. Marinetti writes that there’s a “dread of slowness, pettiness, analysis, and detailed explanations.” (Apollonio 1973: 97-98) Instead, the focus lied on quick pace. In the founding manifesto, Marinetti proposes that “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed … Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” (Apollonio 1973: 21)

Futurism was about movement, about dynamism. Artists wanted to do away with contemplation, described the existence of museums as “vicious”, and banned everything that was “considered as objects of feeling” (Apollonio 1973: 125), i.e. landscapes, still-lifes, even the human body. Moreover, they wanted to do away with silence. In their view, the invention of machines has created noise, and this is what Futurist music, for instance, was expected to mirror. Exemplary is this argument by Luigi Russolo:

“For many years Beethoven and Wagner shook our nerves and hearts. Now we are satiated and  WE FIND FAR MORE ENJOYMENT IN THE COMBINATION OF THE NOISES OF TRAMS, BACKFIRING MOTORS, CARRIAGES AND BAWLING CROWDS THAN IN REHEARING, for example, THE ‘EROICA’ OR THE ‘PASTORAL’.” (emphasis original, there you can see just HOW important it was for them!) (Apollonio 1973: 27)

Futurism was to be found in all forms of art, from painting to music to dance. There was even a manifesto for Futurist Men’s Clothing! What about the cinema? Cinema was included in the Futurist movement fairly late, in 1916. From the original period, however, there aren’t any surviving films left. Film was the ideal medium for delivering speed and noise. It was seen as “killing” the book, and replacing drama. Just as was proposed in the manifesto for synthetic theatre, everything was supposed to be shown in brevity.

I’m not going to oppose Slow Cinema to Futurism in my work. Not as such. However, Futurism appears to be a good starting point for our discussion on tempo in the arts, or rather, the obsession with it. There is no slowness without speed. But saying popular cinema is fast and therefore represents the true opponent of slow film, implies a short cut, and, for me, an avoidance of some real work.