The Sacrifice – Andrei Tarkovsky (1986)

“Humanity is on the wrong road.”

Andrei Tarkovsky’s ultimate film, The Sacrifice, released in the year of the director’s death, is perhaps one of his bleakest films. Once more, I see a steady development towards an end; the end of a filmmaking career, a sophisticated development of ideas about the world and Man, a progress towards putting finishing touches on one’s oeuvre. I have seen this before with the final films of Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011) and Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs, 2013). Sacrifice fits very much into this line as a sort of film that makes a final statement, a film that is, in parts, a recollection, a reminder, but also an outlook to the extent that there will be other filmmakers who will pick up on this and continue the story.

It was the second time I have attempted to watch Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. I didn’t finish it the first time. It’s funny to say this now, but the film felt incredibly slow. More difficult to watch than longer slow films. I tried it again yesterday, years later, now with a good number of slow films of all sorts under my belt, and it still remains one of the slowest films I have seen! And indeed, my husband agrees that The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s slowest film. The running time of just over two hours is nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, and, above all, nothing that I haven’t sat through before. Yet, this feeling of slowness was heavier than in other films I have seen. There is a real weight to The Sacrifice, which slows down the film, a weight that goes beyond the running time, beyond the usual aesthetics for slow films. It is a weight, which (slowly) creeps up on the viewer through the various, countless, daring monologues and dialogues.

This is one aspect, which made The Sacrifice a challenging film; the often highly sophisticated monologues that ask you to ponder, to reflect, perhaps even to respond, cannot be taken lightly. You cannot not react to them. You cannot not think about them. Tarkosvky forces you to be engaged in discussing humanity’s failure, Man’s shortcomings, our desire for destruction. “Savages are more spiritual than us. As soon as we have a scientific breakthrough, we put it into the service of evil”, says Alexander, the main protagonist, who has, according to himself, a non-existing relationship to God, but who pleads with God to save his family from the coming nuclear war. In return, he offers to destroy his house, to give up on his family, on Little Man (his son), and he promises to never say a word again: “if only God takes away this animal fear.”

Silence – another important factor in The Sacrifice. Despite the number of thought-provoking monologues throughout the film, Tarkovsky has created a very quiet film. We can hear suspected war planes flying above the beautiful house, built right at the coast. At some point we can hear a television set. And yet, The Sacrifice is, very much like The Mirror and Nostalghia, a quiet film, almost silent, which, I know, sounds contradictory, but I believe this is precisely what the director was going for: to create a discrepancy, a contradiction that confuses the viewer, confused like the characters are once the imminent nuclear war is announced on television. The end is near… Otto, the postman, a good friend of Alexander, says early on in the film: “One shouldn’t be waiting for something.” Waiting – this is perhaps the essence of The Sacrifice.

Waiting for something that you know is going to come without knowing when it’s going to hit you. This is very much the point Lav Diaz makes in several of his films, perhaps most evidently in Melancholia (2008). Three rebel fighters are stuck in the jungle. They’re the remaining fighters of a larger group, the rest of which has been killed already. The island they’re on has been surrounded. They know what’s coming for them, but they don’t know when. It’s psychological warfare, a very effective type that, as Diaz shows, can drive people to insanity. What is the origin of this insanity? Fear. But fear of what? Alexander says, “There is no death. There is fear of death, and it’s a terrible feeling. If only we could stop fearing death.” The Sacrifice is a film about fear. It is a film about the unseen, about the feared; about a nothing that is full of something, namely danger; about the question of what it means to fear death, to mourn your life in advance.

Waiting, silence, heaviness – these are the three main elements that contribute to the exceptional experienced slowness. But there is something else that struck me when I saw the film, already when I saw it for the first time. The Sacrifice could also well be filmed theatre. Fittingly, it is pointed out pretty early on that Alexander used to be a theatre actor. He received a birthday card from former colleagues. All interior scenes, set in Alexander’s family home, feel like a filmed stage, a theatre stage. The set-up as well as the movement and the behaviour of the actors and actresses contributes to the feeling of seeing a stage play in front of you. Often, the speaking person walks towards the camera as do theatre actors/actresses often do, too. There is a theatricality to the film that, to me, supports the idea of a major psychological breakdown going on in the film.

Yet, after all, after the passing of the imminent danger, after the breakdown of Alexander’s wife out of sheer fear, after the ominous remark of postman Otto that only Maria (the servant) could help prevent the apocalypse, after all of this, there is one thing that remains: the circularity of life. Nothing ever stops. Everything continues, in one way or another. Alexander pleads with God and promises never to speak again. His son, Little Man, as he lovingly calls him, is mute throughout the film. It isn’t revealed why. There is vague talk of an operation, but Tarkovsky never fully clarifies this. What matters is that when Alexander falls silent, Little Man begins to speak. “At the beginning was the word. Why is that, papa?”

Continuity, circularity – everything continues, everything circulates, nothing ever stops, despite sacrifices by one man. Life goes on. If you leave something, someone else will pick it up and continue the work. It is as though Tarkovsky, dying of cancer at the time, sent us a message with this film: when he is gone, someone else will continue the work he has been doing. Perhaps not in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, his work will continue, and so it did with the likes of Béla Tarr, in particular. But also Lav Diaz continues the work Tarkovsky had started in the 1960s. And it will be continued by many more filmmakers from around the world.

Slow Cinema in the News – January 2014

Here’s a brief rundown of news from this month. I tend to tweet these things, but I think it’s a good idea to summarise it all once a month. Better for you, and for me.

The first stills from Tsai Ming-liang’s new film, Journey to the West, have appeared onlineThey are few, but they look SO good. Very photographic. And much similar to Walker, as expected. You can find the stills here.

Journey to the West – New Film by Tsai Ming-liang

That said, The Cinema Guild has acquired the right to Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Fantastic news. This means that we will have the pleasure of having yet another Tsai DVD at home.

Carlos Reygadas has received two nominations for this year’s Cinema Tropical AwardsPost Tenebras Lux is nominated in the category Best Film, while Reygadas himself is nominated for Best Director. Good luck!

Irish filmmaker Pat Collins, who made the beautiful slow film Silence, shows his new film, Living in a Coded Land, at the Dublin Film Festival. I hope it will make its way to the UK. It was a pain to get a copy of Silence – only sold in and distributed within Ireland. Here’s what Collins said about his film:

“For this film, I’m most interested in topics like the legacy and impact of colonialism, privilege, the residue of paganism, our disconnection from and our connection to the land. But the task is to create unexpected links between the past and the present, to look at the past to illuminate the present.”

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and other independent Thai filmmakers have launched their own sales company, Mosquito Films Distributions. Aim is it to increase the visibility of Thai film in the film circuit. Good news: the omnibus feature Tsai contributed to, Letters from the South, is in their hands.

Denis Côté, whom I have mentioned in this blog in relation to his film Bestiaire, also has a new film, which is to premier at the Berlinale. Title: Joy of Man’s Desiring. Stills and a trailer have emerged, and it looks intriguing. Very similar to Bestiaire in a way. I really like this type of filmmaking.

The Joy of Man’s Desiring – New Film by Denis Côté

Apart from this, Slow Cinema is having a good start of the year with films at Göteburg, Rotterdam, Glasgow, Tromsö, Portland and Berlin. As far as I can see, there are a lot of newcomers on the slow horizon, especially in Rotterdam.

Happy Slow Year 2014

Here it is, the New Year. I hope you all had a lovely Hogmanay and New Year’s day in your respective countries around the world. I also hope that you have some significant New Year’s resolutions, such as “I won’t live in the fast lane anymore”. Being a snail is so much better, and strangely enough, so much more efficient, says the one who used to do everything fast in order to manage more work. It’s an illusion. Slow is the new fast (and the new efficiency).

Last year was a good year for slow film. I’m sure that 2014 will bring more gems to the surface. I’m hoping to see Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, Albert Serra’s Story of my Death and then there is still Lav Diaz’s Norte which I’m hoping to see on a big screen. There is also the Untitled Lisandro Alonso Project which was originally scheduled for this year.

Those are the big players in Slow Cinema, though. I discovered several new slow-film directors last year, and I’m keen on and confident about finding more this year. Some of you recommended films to me already. I appreciate it. Feel free to recommend more. I’m always happy to expand my slow horizon. I’m looking forward to all the festival announcement and dig into the trailers of the selected films. And then the hunt for films will start all over again.

As for New Year resolutions: I want to get my hands on filmmaking again, though not on anything major. My last post ended with a five-minute video of a candle. It was inspired by the YouTube channel Ten Minutes of Your Life, and my research into Slow Cinema. My aim is it to get a feel for what the filmmakers are doing, enduring, and perhaps even seeing what we might not see. I want to get a practical eye for Slow Cinema, which will inevitably influence my overall research. Not necessarily my thesis work, but my general research output (one day…).

There will be more videos of this kind on this blog. Or rather on a new blog. The videos will not all be photographic, beautiful or have an interesting subject. I merely want to experiment with different things to get a feeling for slow-film making. I know that there is a difference between making a slow feature film, and making a slow five-minutes video. But you need to start somewhere.

Even though I will primarily post the videos on Five Slow Minutes, I will nevertheless reblog some of them on this blog. I just don’t want to run the risk of mixing theory with practice. It’s best if I have two platforms for it.

That said: a Happy New Year to you all. Wishing you all the best in 2014. And always remember: take it slow!

There is more to life than increasing its speed. (Ghandi)

Slow Retirements

It came as a shock to cinephiles in 2011 when Hungarian director Béla Tarr announced that The Turin Horse would be his last film. I was fortunate to be at the Q&A session the Edinburgh Film Festival conducted with him. He said, he wouldn’t want to repeat himself. He said everything there was to say. It was important to him not to copy himself. Tarr, as we know, has not been a filmmaker who made films just for the sake of the audience. His statements, then, made perfect sense to me at the time. Having seen all of his films, I could tell that there was nothing left saying after The Turin Horse. I remember him saying that he wasn’t a filmmaker anymore. A career that span pretty much three decades came to an end.

When I left the cinema that day, after the screening of his last film, I found this to be a brave choice. I haven’t heard of filmmakers actually “retiring”. They either say they would but never do, because they can’t live without it. Or they make movies until they die on the set. I have always found filmmaking to be a grey area of retirement.

Until I read with sadness a few weeks ago that another slow-film director, Tsai Ming-liang, is retiring from filmmaking. To be fair, he said that he hoped Stray Dogs was his last. Tsai gave some interesting insights into filmmaking outside Hollywood. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that viewers of those filmmakers who only ever show up here and there at festivals are aware of their struggles. Tsai said that he was “tired”. Moreover, he said that “his films require more manual labor to make than the usual Hollywood production.”

This is obviously not a phenomenon exclusive to slow films. But I find it telling that, if you look up those two filmmakers and their retirement, you find parallels. It is, for example, interesting to read the comments about Tsai’s new film. The general opinion is that there was nothing left to say really. He put it all in; a bit like Tarr. I hope I can see this film sooner rather than later to see whether this is really true.

It is understandable that those directors get tired, despite their ambitions. First of all, it is difficult to receive funding for their projects. They are not deemed to be commercially viable and profitable. Tarr was lucky in a way because he became a famous strong auteur in Europe. He did have struggles. That is beyond doubt. But I guess it was easier for a Béla Tarr to attract funding than, say, for a Lav Diaz (and this is not only because of the length of their films; Diaz makes “shorts” as well). In an interview with JP Carpio in 2010, Diaz said that he lived of very small grants from museums and other small institutions he receives here and there. It’s only enough to live (which he doesn’t mind, really, but it’s telling).

Another important factor is the way those filmmakers work. With that, I do not only mean the small size of film crews. A question of money or of personal preferences, many of them work in very small groups, with little division of labour. That puts a lot of weight on your shoulders as a director. Besides, these directors never make sequels. As Tarr said, he didn’t want to copy himself. Sequels based on earlier success is a bit like a copy&paste job. Not that I want to say that there is no work at all in it. But there is less thinking involved in that you basically follow the rules from your last film and tick all the boxes. This in itself is a pursuit of profit, rather than, what Diaz would call, “aesthetic truth”. In order to find the truth, you need to dig. Dig deep. Do a lot of work. It is (allow me the pun) a slow job, with requires a lot of mental and physical effort. I’m not surprised that Tsai Ming-liang intends to retire. There will be more (slow?) filmmakers to follow, and I guess they will all have pretty much the same reason.

A curious development, I find.

More slow films for the world

Finally, some slow news appear in the thick of the world wide web.

First of all, Lav Diaz’s Norte was screened in Poland as part of the New Horizon’s International Film Festival. Tsai Ming-liang, whose new film wasn’t ready for a Cannes submission, can be happy about a nomination of Stray Dogs in the official competition of this year’s Venice Film Festival. I can’t wait for this one. It’s been four years since he made his last film, Visage (2009). Fellow slow-film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul gave this interesting comment on it:

I remember that the film had a different title, Diary of a Young Boy. We shall see what we learn about the film once it has been shown at Venice. I’m also anticipating a new Lisandro Alonso film, which so far doesn’t have a title. IMDB gives us this synopsis: “A father and daughter journey from Denmark to an unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization.”

This does sound like another very slow-moving travel film. I’m surprised that Alonso uses Danish actors and actresses for his film this time. I wonder where he got the idea from. Anyway, the film is currently in post-production and expected to be released in 2014. Keep an eye out for festival line-ups next year. There’s more slowness-on-screen to come. So much for Nick James’ argument that Slow Cinema has come to an end

I will soon write about a few more things that directly concern my thesis. I’m in the process of sharpening it, and of preparing the next chapter. I also have a submission deadline (1 October) for the MeCCSA Networking Knowledge Journal. I hope I can secure publication for this. If yes, I can finally use the joker I still have to be quiet about 🙂

I have created a new blog yesterday, which appears to have little to do with my research topic. But these two will eventually meet and merge. This is my plan anyway. It’s not an amusing piece of work, but it’s not going to be very depressive either. I try to make it more uplifting than it sounds.