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.

The nocturnal and the slow

Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) impressed me with its images that had been shot at night. The almost complete blackness of the night, seen through the eyes of a watchman in his tower at a harbour, was stunning. Most of the film is set in one way or another in the darkness of the night. It has something uncomfortable around it, something mysterious. The night is a time of disguise. It’s not just people who want to disguise who they really are. It’s also trees, bushes, buildings – everything around us looks different than during the day.

The Man from London (Béla Tarr, 2007)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2010, also has extensive night scenes. These are the scenes when mysterious figures appear, ghosts, people who return from the afterlife in order to connect with loved ones they had left behind when they died. The night is a time when the living and the dead come together. Ghosts can only be seen at night.

Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Horse Money, the latest film by Pedro Costa, is an investigation of memory and trauma. A lot of the film is set in the dark, which stands for the uncertainty about memories. The darkness doesn’t allow to see clearly; memories are everything but clear. It takes a journey through this darkness in order to see clearly, if one can manage at all.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

Quite a number of slow films make use of the night. I only realised this when I read a new book, which has just been released earlier this year, and which I picked up in our local book shop in preparation for an installation event I’m working on. It is difficult to think about the night nowadays. There are lights everywhere. Unless you live in the countryside, far away from civilisation, there is a chance that you have difficulties seeing the night as what it is, namely as dark time which embalms you. What I never realised until I had picked up La nuit : Vivre sans témoin by Michael Foessel is that the night / the darkness has a significant influence on how we perceive time, and this might be quite a fascinating aspect to follow when it comes to Slow Cinema. In many action films, the night is used for chases, for police operations, for illegal deeds.

In slow films, the meaning of the night is, in most cases, quite different, as the above examples show, albeit Tarr’s film is based on a crime the watchman watches at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, the night then becomes something else.

Penser la nuit, c’est penser la manière dont l’obscurité change notre perception, transforme notre rapport aux autres ou modifie notre expérience du temps.

Foessel makes very clear throughout his book that the night changes our perception. The darkness we’re surrounded by makes it at times difficult to see. Let’s take a journey through the woods, for instance. No street lamps, no torch. Just you and the woods. This might be an extreme example. However, it best illustrates Foessel’s point: our perception changes and because of that, our sense of time changes, too. Why is that the case? There is no clarity in our vision. We cannot see details. If at all, we can see no more than silhouettes. This ultimately means that we have to walk slower in order to make our way through the woods. It’s not just our walk that slows down, though. For many people, being alone in the woods at night is a scary thing. You need to be on alert at all times in order not to become the victim of wild animals. Time stretches. The night feels so much longer than it usually does when you go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 7am.

La nuit impose cette suspension au moins le temps nécessaire pour reconnaître une forme ou distinguer un visage.

The lack of clarity, of visibility, means that we need more time in order to identify what is in front of us. We’re not entirely blind, yet our vision is restricted. While we have no problem at all to see during day time, the night challenges our eyes, and slows us down. We depend more on our hearing than on our vision, because we have no other choice.

I don’t want to suggest at all that slow-film directors use the night in their films for exactly those reasons. I’m sure they don’t think about stuff like that at all. But there is quite an interesting link between the meaning of the night in their films, and the cinematic slowness that is employed. In the end, it is not only the character that faces the darkness. If the screen goes dark, the viewer faces the same darkness as does the character. That means that our reading of whatever is on screen (or of what isn’t) becomes a slow adventure and adds to the feeling of slowness of the entire film. I will certainly keep thinking this through and maybe follow this blog post up with another one, one that is more detailed!

Los Ausentes – Nicolas Pereda (2014)

Knowing Nicolas Pereda’s early work, I’d be inclined to say that his medium long film Los Ausentes marks a new era in his filmmaking. The trailer already looked haunting and different from Pereda’s usual filmmaking. The colour palette is the same, the actors have the same aura around them. And yet, and yet…

Los Ausentes is, first of all, about an old, fragile man who loses his house near the beach. I assume he has lived there all his life, so loss (absence) is at the heart of Pereda’s film. It’s the very core of it, and Pereda perfects his usual aesthetics in order to transmit this feeling of loss to the viewer. Los Ausentes stands out in Pereda’s work because of its camera work. The director has always favoured long-takes, temps mort, and a very minimalist storytelling. But this film goes a bit further. In fact, it reminded me strongly on the films of Béla Tarr and the fascinating work by cinematographer Fred Kelemen (who himself made films, amongst them Krisana).

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Pereda uses a kind of independent camera, which I have marvelled upon when I saw Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). This is also when I first understood Daniel Frampton’s filmind, film as thinking independently. If you put Los Ausentes and Werckmeister Harmonies next to each other, you can see that they both make use of an independent camera. The camera is not really following the protagonist, unless the character is walking down a road. The camera has its own mind and moves to whatever place or whatever action it would like to record.

I haven’t seen it to such an extent in Pereda’s previous films. I even wonder whether it is an homage to Tarr. The beginning must be at least a very obvious wink, starting with a medium shot of a cow facing us. And then, slowly, very slowly, the camera zooms out and reveals first some kind of structure, which then turns out to be a window frame. The camera zooms further out, very smoothly, totally beautifully, and reveals the old man sitting at a table eating. If faithful Tarr-viewers are not reminded of the famous opening scene in Damnation or the beginning of The Man from London, I don’t know what those people have done with their lives 🙂

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In any case, this independent camera transmits the film’s idea of loss, of the absent, fabulously. It feels as though there was a ghost walking around, looking at things or moving places. At times, we see the protagonists. At others, we don’t. But nevertheless, we can feel an eerie presence. There is someone there with us, but who is it? Los Ausentes is a perfect example of how aesthetics can convey absence. I had come across this very subject in my research on the films of Lav Diaz, but Diaz is doing this in a very different way. This independent camera movement also feeds well into the idea of the fragile, old man losing his sanity. Again, this is a theme that pops up comparatively often in slow films, and it is interesting to see how directors deal with this differently.

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When I saw the old man standing somewhere in the woods, with his skinny back towards me, I wasn’t quite sure whether what I saw was supposed to be real, or whether Pereda wanted me to believe it was a dream. There’s only ambient sound, and because I was in a state of dreaming already because of the superb camera work, I wasn’t so sure anymore what I was seeing or what I was asked to believe. This became even more difficult when the old man’s younger self appeared and it wasn’t clear anymore what happened when and where.

I began to wonder whether the title Los Ausentes applied to more than just the film, because in the end, you do lose yourself in the film. You might be physically present when you watch the film, but where are you mentally? Are you home? In the cinema? In an imagined Mexico? In a dream? In real life? I would say that Los Ausentes is Pereda’s strongest film. As I said before, it looks like his previous films but it feels very different. The combination of narrative and aesthetics is just right, perfect even, and I think that the length of the film – medium length – helps to keep the film focused. It feels like Pereda’s most polished film and I wonder where he will go from here. I hope that we will see more of this!

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!

 

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: The Cinema of Béla Tarr – András Bálint Kovács

Kovács’ book is not the first book on Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Jacques Rancière has equally published a book, though rather slim, about Tarr, titled Le temps d’après (2011). It’s been available in English since last summer, I believe. Rancière’s book felt a bit like a quick shot attempt at writing about Tarr after he had announced his retirement from filmmaking. The good thing about this book was that it came close to catching the atmosphere of his films. At least it felt this way in the French language version. I haven’t had the chance to flick through the English version.

András Bálint Kovács has published on Tarr before, mainly journal articles, which I was actually fond of, when I started my slow obsession. Kovács is a good friend of Tarr’s, and has, according to himself, shared the manuscript with the filmmaker before publication. When I read this, I thought that it must be a good piece of work, given that Tarr himself had a look over it. I was proven wrong.

Kovács’s book encompasses Tarr’s entire oeuvre, from his early social realist films such as Family Nest (1977) and The Prefab People (1982) to his last two films The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011). The book starts off well. It begins with a chapter on Tarr himself, which I found to be very interesting in parts. I’ve read extensively on him in the last couple of years, but there were still a few bits and pieces here and there that slipped through or that never came up in the stuff that I had read. Kovács then kind of chronologically moves from Style in the Early Years to style in his later works with a seemingly comprehensive study of characters, camera movement and everything you can think of.

And this is the problem – everything you can think of. Kovács has tried to put literally everything into a 175 page book on the director. His analysis becomes more and more crammed toward the end, which made it extremely difficult to finish the book. He’s analysing eleven (slow!) films in roughly 150 pages, in all their details, of course. It feels as if Kovács didn’t want leave anything left for other people to write about. It feels as if he wrote this book in panic, which completely ruined the impression of Tarr’s films, which are the complete opposite of what I think Kovács has created in his book.

I was always wary of writing about Tarr (and now, Lav Diaz), because I was worried that writing about him would take away the essence of his works. I wasn’t entirely wrong. Kovács’ book is a good example of how not to tackle Tarr’s oeuvre. If you read the book before having seen any of this films, it would probably put you off. This is mainly because of the extensive quantitative analysis Kovács has undertaken. In detail, he describes how often the girl in The Turin Horse takes up sewing, and how often her father takes a drink before seeing the dying horse. In detail, he describes how the shot length has steadily increased within Sátántángo (1994), making it a tedious read full of numbers and information that make Tarr’s films sound more boring than anything else.

The problem is that Kovács has quantified Tarr’s style. He hasn’t managed to bring his films as such on paper. Kovács has put crude numbers and readings on paper that lack insight, which is astonishing giving their friendship. The reader is confronted with diagrams illustrating the “Rate of Moving Camera” or the ASL. Somewhere in this mix of numbers and diagrams, Kovács forgot to make the films look human in a way. There’s very little on the atmosphere in the films and the actual contents. Or even just the photographic beauty of the cinematography. I would have loved to see more insights, less detachment, less scientific analysis. Film is art, and while scientific analysis can be helpful, it is not the best way to conquer an entire oeuvre by one of the most prolific directors in arthouse cinema.

If you tell someone that Lav Diaz’s films are six hours long or more, they laugh at you. Only if you tell them what the films are about, they become curious. If you read Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr, they would be just as uninterested. If I hadn’t been familiar with Tarr’s work, this book would have put me off on page 50 already.

[The Cinema of Béla Tarr – The Circle Closes, by András Bálint Kovács, Columbia University Press, available on Amazon]

The (in)significance of dialogue

While adding a few paragraphs to my chapter on Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), it occurred to me that for some slow films the characteristic of “little dialogue and predominant silence” is not exactly applicable. Lav’s films are all in the Slow Cinema canon, but Encantos does not exactly fit to the category of little dialogue. I noticed that while thinking about the films of Béla Tarr.

In Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Diaz uses the juxtaposition of sound and silence as an indicator of trauma. Florentina is repeatedly sold to and raped by men. Her mental capacities are declining. Slowly. Over the course of six hours. Silence plays an important role in the film. Not just absolute silence, as is the case in several scenes. I’m also speaking about the absence of dialogue. Florentina reveals her plight in monologues, but it is – seen over the film’s running time – rare. Besides, it is fragmented due to her suffering from CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain.

In Encantos, trauma is revealed by speech rather than through specific auditory or visual aesthetics. Diaz does use canted angles in many extreme long-shots of the post-apocalyptic scenery in Padang etc, but they’re overall not the main aesthetic he uses to transmit aspects of trauma. Trauma is revealed entirely through dialogue between characters. Just as in Florentina, there is little to no on-screen violence, so it has to come from somewhere else.

Tarr famously said that his films could be understand without dialogue. I still have this line in my head. It’s taken from an interview, which is on the DVD of The Man from London (2007), if I remember right. And it’s true. His films contain dialogue, sometimes very little, but the dialogues do not reveal something that is absolutely essential to comprehending the film. It works with quite a few other films. And then there are slow film directors, who cut the dialogue completely, as is the case with Michelangelo Frammartino’s La Quattro Volte.

The emphasis of slow films is traditionally on contemplation. If you have too much dialogue, which, given the geographical origins of the directors, most likely means a lot of subtitles, it disrupts the slow viewing process. Encantos is one of those films. If you don’t follow all the dialogues in detail, you will miss important parts of the film as everything is revealed by speech. I vaguely remember that there’s a lot in Century of Birthing, too, which is revealed only by dialogue and not through visuals.

Diaz  puts emphasis on the viewer’s listening capacity. And his/her willingness to listen. His films are not contemplative in the usual sense. Stretched over eight hours, dialogue appears to be scarce, true. And yet if we don’t listen to Diaz’s films, we miss most of what he wants us to see. A lovely juxtaposition.

Day 17 – The Man from London (Tarr)

This film has to be in this year’s advent calendar. Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) was the very first slow film I watched. It was the beginning of a deep love, and a slowly growing obsession. Re-watching the film brought up nice memories. The first scene, in particular, is something I will never forget. Not only because the lighting was so impressive, and the use of black-and-white was spot on. I sat on my sofa and waited for the first cut. I kept looking at my watch. I wasn’t impatient. If anything I was surprised that it was possible not to cut. You don’t exactly learn this with mainstream film. Cuts must be made, and must be made swiftly in order to keep the narrative going (and the audience awake).

The intro lasts eleven minutes, and is exemplary of Tarr’s complaint that there is a kind of censorship going on if you use film rather than digital. Film would only ever get you to eleven minutes, then you have to cut. A curious, but at the same time valid statement, as I was to find out later when I came across Lav Diaz, a filmmaker using digital. With digital, he’s able to extend his shots, sometimes to twenty minutes and more.

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

The Man from London is an adaptation of a Belgian novel of the same name by George Simenon. This makes Tarr stand out from other slow-film directors. Other works, such as his seven-hour epic Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) were adaptations of works of his long-time Hungarian collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Tarr manages to extend the viewing time so that it’s not all too far away from the (book) reading time. Just as a writer gives time to his or her characters, he gives us time to study the screen characters and their development. There is thus a very intriguing link here to the time one spends (is allowed to spend) with a specific medium, and I suppose also how this shapes one’s impression of it.

Black-and-white is used to perfection in the film, especially because many scenes are set at night, so that the whole darkness and all its connotations (evilness, danger, uncertainty) come through. It also helps to anonymise the surroundings. If you really wanted to, you could look up the shooting locations. But as Tarr pointed out in interviews, his films showed events that could happen anywhere anytime. Colours (by day) would make it easier to identify the location, and therefore link it inevitably to that certain location, which influences our reading of the film. The black-and-white allows for a more neutral reading of all of his films in general, and this film in particular.

I could write a celebration of the many achievements of this film, which let my heart jump the first time and still does today. Kelemen as cinematographer gave the film a haunting feeling. The smoothness of the camera makes it feel as if there is a secret additional character, who is observing the events. It’s simply beautiful. And, even more so than The Turin Horse (2011), a wonderful photo album. And because of this, I will say no more, and let you take a look at some screenshots as well as an extract, which clearly demonstrates Kelemen’s superb cinematography.

One last thing, though: Tarr explained that everyone on the set spoke a different language, and they didn’t need an interpreter. There you go – filmmaking, a universal language!

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

Day 10 – Krisana (Kelemen)

In some ways, I stick to Bela Tarr. Fred Kelemen, German filmmaker and cinematographer, had been a regular at Tarr’s set. He was cinematographer for his latest and last film, The Turin Horse (2011), for instance, as well as for his 2007 Cannes entry The Man from London. This collaboration between Tarr and Kelemen made perfect sense to me from the minute I watched one of the latter’s film at the Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle last year.

Frost (1994) was a film in a trilogy that showed the characters at the very bottom of dignity. No, actually, they didn’t have dignity anymore. They merely tried to survive somehow, in between alcohol abuse, domestic violence, rape, and other things that can turn life into hell. Which is one thing, Frost demonstrated.

Krisana (Fallen) is, I believe, Kelemen’s first solo project since his 1990s trilogy Frost, Nightfall and Fate. Released in 2005, the film follows a man’s attempt at trying to learn more about a woman, whose suicide he perhaps could have prevented if he hadn’t kept walking on the bridge she planned to jump of. The man looks at her, then turns around and keeps walking, until he hears a splash and a cry for help. But he is unable to find her.

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

The beginning of the film sets the tone, and is very similar to all of Kelemen’s films, and, in fact, not all too different from Tarr’s films. The man calls the police, and when he gets questioned in the backseat of a car, the police man begins a monologue-like rant on suicide and the downfall of society. He argues:

“Man has lost his way. He’s lost himself. Something in him is torn apart. There is an open wound in this society. It’s bleeding. And I’m surprised at those who haven’t done it yet. Not to mention those who are vegetating on the edge, who are living like animals, who are murdering, robbing, and running amok for one more day of life, their bloody life.”

Appropriately, the film is shot in stark black-and-white. I tend to prefer monochrome aesthetics in film, but in this case especially, I don’t think it could have been different. The film treats dark (and often very much neglected) subject in society. A film about despair, vegetating, the downfall of society etc wouldn’t be nearly as effective if shot in colour.

There is also an interesting presence of the night. I have come to find the theme of the night quite interesting. There is something about black-and-white films making use of the night. Perhaps, this is a way to reinforce the darkness. On the one hand, it could denote danger and uncertainty. On the other, it is a definite veil for anonymity and solitude. If there is something terrible we imagine, then we usually link it to the night. There is the suicide in Krisana, a possible murder in The Man from London, a rape in Frost. This all complies with our perception of the night. However, in choosing black-and-white for the entire film, the directors, in this case Kelemen, make a statement.

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

There is darkness in every hour of the day. Just as the policeman said, there are so many people who suffer, but we don’t notice them, until they commit suicide. Only then we start to really care about them. The black-and-white aesthetics – in Kelemen’s but also in Tarr’s films – bring exactly this to the front, in combination with their themes. The same is true for Lav Diaz’s films.

I would say that there is a group of filmmakers who use specific colour aesthetics to comment on going-ons in society. I find this to be a neglected field in the context of Slow Cinema. There is always talk about the long-takes, and the mundane activities they are representing. But there is a huge lack of detailed analysis of aesthetics (that’s what I’m here for!).

Krisana (2005), Fred Kelemen

One last thing: Krisana appears to be a blueprint for the cinematography for The Man from London. One scene in particular reminds me of it; the circling of the camera around two characters sitting in a pub and talking to each other. Kelemen has perfected it a little two years later, but you can pretty much see why The Man from London turned out the way it did. Besides, it always reminds me of how important cinematographers are. We tend to celebrate directors for their work. At the same time, we forget that some other people, like the cinematographer, have a huge stake in the production of films, too.