Malaventura – Michel Lipkes (2011)

The last day in the life of an elderly man – this is the entire premise of Michel Lipkes’ wonderful debut feature. Once more, I have to bow to the sheer quality of Mexican slow films. There seems to be a real hub for it over there and I begin to wonder whether it would be good to study them separately, not so much as part of Slow Cinema, but as a specific form in Mexican cinema. Leaving the cinematic slowness behind for a second, and just see those films as an output of Mexican independent cinema.

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Malaventura is a very meditative film. Lipkes has an eye for cinematic beauty in his shots, and the film is thus interspersed with wonderfully photographic frames, which are simply lovely to look at. They help to generate a contemplative atmosphere, to slow down the pace of the film, and thereby give the film a real feeling of its showing the last day of a man’s life. Several frames have a dark, and perhaps sinister nature to them. Some scenes certainly reminded me of Béla Tarr. In an extended scene shot in a local bar, several people are seen drinking and playing cards. A woman takes care of her finger nails. The very characteristic of this scene creates a mysterious feeling. Is what we see actually real, or is the old man merely imagining it?

Voice and sounds don’t fit the images we see. The shots have a certain grey tone to them. Smoke is hanging in the bar. The camera moves between faces of gambling men. The entire set-up is similar to those famous Béla Tarr pub scenes, especially those in Sátántangó (1994), or even in The Man from London (2007). Indeed, the pub/bar scene in the latter is rather different, but you can definitely see a degree of influence of Tarr on Lipkes’ filmmaking. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Then again, Tarr seems to be everywhere. I think he’s been a huge influence on several directors I’m speaking about on this website.

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In many scenes, the man, who appears small compared to the city’s vastness, is seen walking from one point to another. It is not clear at the beginning where he is going or whether he has a destination at all. I thought at the beginning that he was just walking. But he does actually walk to a very specific place, which becomes important at the end of the film. It is unclear what the man is really up to. It’s a clever way of constructing the film because the viewer is left wondering what it is that s/he is actually observing. First of all, the man seems to walk to an unknown destination, if he has one at all.

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Then he is also seen in a park, selling balloons; a sad image, the small man in a long shot, the colours of the natural surrounding degraded in the editing processes, but the colours of the balloons in their full beauty. The contrast between the suffering, stooped, even almost lifeless man on a bench and the colourful balloons flying almost free above the man’s head, in the sky, a sky that promises freedom, is startling. Precisely because this is such a startling contrast, this was also my favourite shot. Lipkes certainly created a simple image with a lot of possible readings. There is nothing much you need to think about. It isn’t a complex image. It doesn’t appeal to the intellectual mind. It just wants you to see what’s there.

Lipkes’ film is rather short. With only 67 minutes it is one of the shorter slow films I have mentioned so far. But this is, I have to say, it’s strength. Lipkes has used those 67 minutes to create a very strong portrait of a dying man, going about his seemingly daily life. It is an even more astonishing work because it is a debut feature. I’m sure that Lipkes has a promising future ahead of him. I’m looking forward to his next film!

 

The Royal Road – Jenni Olson (2014)

How I had missed this fight inside my head of what is slow and what isn’t. Jenni Olson’s deeply personal, moving and engaging film The Royal Road (2014) started those evil voices in my head again. I think I’ve been saying for a few years now that Slow Cinema is not a fixed but rather a fluid category of films. And yet, I start to find myself figuring out what I consider Slow Cinema and slow film. The former to me is most definitely narrative, while the latter can be anything but is mostly experimental. It doesn’t necessarily need a narrative. This is as vague as I can describe the voices in my head. I thought I would get away with this “definition” but Jenni Olson did a good job in questioning even this attempt of where to position certain films. Is The Royal Road Slow Cinema or a slow film? Is it both (gosh this becomes complicated now)? I don’t want to make a case for either, though. It’s a great thing when I come across films that make me rethink my own writing. In the end, this is what it’s all about and I do not want to be definite on anything. There are millions of films out there. Any fixed definition would fall apart sooner or later.

Slow Cinema or slow film, Olson’s The Royal Road is something entirely new for me. It goes very much into the direction of James Benning, whose films – shame on me – I still haven’t had time to see. Her film consists of several static shots with at times only little movement in the frame. This does sound like the now famous Slow Cinema, and yet it isn’t. The shots in themselves are of several different locations throughout America along The Royal Road. There are no protagonists as such in the frames. The visual protagonist is this famous road of which we learn quite a bit through Olson’s personal interest in history. She takes us on a journey through history, which I, personally, found fascinating. Not only because it was history I didn’t know about, and I reckon most Americans don’t know about either. Even the Royal Road is now broken up into several different highways and city streets. I guess so is the knowledge of the road’s history.

What makes Olson’s journey along this road really fascinating is her combination of historical blurb with the most personal details of her journey to her loved one – along this very road. It is a journey which expands by the minute. It is also a journey which becomes more personal by the minute. The Royal Road‘s auditory protagonist, to me, is herself and her wife, whose first encounters she describes in a sort of dreamy, blissful tone. It sort of reminded me on my own very long, eight hour train journey across an entire country to see my partner. All those anticipations, those expectations, and anxieties – they’re all there in Olson’s film.

Returning more to the visuals, the long shots Olson uses reminded me of a photo album. A sort of photo album that is passed along generations. It doesn’t contain the most beautiful shots but they tell a story and this story comes through the voiceover. It is like sitting down with Olson who shows you one photo after another and who talks a bit about the history or the context of what we see. Or, perhaps, even of what we don’t see. This form of story-telling made me feel part of the film, made me feel part of the journey. It all fits in with the very personal tone of Olson’s film.

I felt immensely privileged having seen the film. I felt privileged to go on a journey with Olson to see her partner. The theme of LGBT is not as overt in slow films as it is perhaps in others (maybe I speak rubbish here but my excuse is that I’m not at all familiar with this field). You do have Tsai Ming-liang’s films, of course, and The Royal Road could not be more different from Tsai’s films. Olson does not create a secretive, fictional narrative about her love to Julie Dorf, her wife. On the contrary, she puts it straight out there which makes me film even more personal. It’s a fascinating piece and I would like to see more of Olson’s work in future. I love her interest and fascination with history, and her style – this slow, meditative photo album style – is intriguing and gives me something new to think about in future for whatever entails Slow Cinema. Or slow film. Or whatever you may call it.