Landscape / Character

The end of the year proves to be busy, and it’s not easy at the moment to sit down and watch a film. I hope that I soon get to see Wang Bing’s Dead Souls. This is the one film I still want to see this year, if I don’t manage to see more than one. Although I should. There are still two Nikolaus Geyrhalter films waiting for me. So much slowness, so little time. This irony… 🙂 In any case, I need to prepare an article on the uses of sound and silence in the films of Lav Diaz because I have been invited to Lyon for a study day on the director. I might publish this one either here on the blog or in the next issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine. 

In any case, there is an outstanding project from, believe it or not, seven years ago. In October 2011, I wanted to submit a paper abstract to a conference on landscape and film in Ireland, but had never found the time in the end. At the same, my interest in Slow Cinema was still in its early stages. Nevertheless, I knew that there was a special relationship between the landscapes, the streets, the empty and degrading houses of BĂ©la Tarr and his films’ characters. In many ways, what I have noticed in the films of Tarr only returned once I began to discover the work of Lav Diaz. These two directors are special in their assigning a sort of character status to their landscapes, turning them into ghostly characters that mirror the characters’ inner psychological landscapes; their pain, their angst, their suffering, their devastation. 

Anything that surrounds a character becomes a character itself. This isn’t the case with all slow films, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is a particular characteristic of Slow Cinema. BĂ©la Tarr, however, used to be one of those few directors who persistently followed this alley and who also assigned a special role to his camera. Everything became a character, everything played a decisive role, and everything added to the heaviness and power of his films. For that conference in Ireland seven years ago, I had planned to look at how the landscape/the surrounding becomes a mirror of the characters’ psyche. In particular, I had wanted to look at Karrer, who is, of course, the main character in Tarr’s Damnation, and at the woman he seems to be infatuated with. I believe that Damnation is really the first vertical, in-depth film, which looked specifically inside the characters. Characters began to have extraordinary depth and were more than just elements used to push a narrative forward. 

We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information. … If you have a chance to make some really deep things, I think everyone can understand everything. The question is always the deepness: how you can touch the people. (BĂ©la Tarr)

At the same time, Damnation is perhaps the most obvious example of how directors can use landscape in order to underline the characters, if I could say it in this way. According to interviews, Tarr spends a lot of time looking for the right background to his story. And it pays off. He selects his landscapes carefully, making sure that they’re in perfect alignment with his characters and his stories. The beginning of Damnation is already a good pointer towards this. It is perhaps the most iconic opening of all of Tarr’s films, perhaps even of all slow films (I’m sure you think the same!). We watch cable cars passing by, a remnant of the city’s coal mining past. The sound is perhaps even more incisive. I can still hear it when I think back to the film… The camera slowly, very slowly zooms out and we realise that we don’t actually watch the cable cars, but a man (Karrer) watching the cable cars. We watch someone watching something. This is repeated several times in Tarr’s oeuvre. Just think of his 1994 seven-hour masterpiece Satantango, in which we watch an old doctor watching his neighbours. Bernhard Hetzenhauer wrote a fantastic book about this, Das Innen im Aussen, which, if you can read German, is a must-read. 

The cable cars, buckets that used to carry coal from one place to another, are a pointer to the past, the death of the mining industry having plunged the village into its own death spiral. The houses we see are in a sad state. The persistent, continuous rain adds to the atmosphere of something passing by, of something that is clinging on but knowing that it won’t have strength for much longer. The decay of the houses foreshadows the decay of the characters. If anything, it is perhaps the rain that acts as the most faithful interpretation, or rather mirror image, of Karrer who is in love with the wife of another man. He doesn’t accept being rejected and, in the end, loses everything. 

Take it or leave it, this is what you’re stuck with. What can you do? You lose your words, yet you cannot go. It’s been over for a long time. It’s good that utopia exists. Good to know I won’t be here for long. Take it or leave it. (song in Damnation)

The identities of landscape and character overlap in Damnation. They merge to become one. When Karrer offers the woman’s husband to do a smuggling job for him in order to get him out of the way, he becomes morally corrupt. He would do anything to be able to continue his love affair. Karrer’s offer shows his own downward spiral, the moral corruption becoming a picture of his internal degradation. Tarr intercuts this degradation with scenes of the village. Damnation is interesting because throughout the film, the focus remains on the actual characters alone. The director presents a village that is pretty much emptied of people. The only constant companion is the rain. This makes is easy to establish a link between the few characters we follow (Karrer, the woman and her husband) and the empty landscapes we see in scenes before or after them. Who is of more importance in the film?

Interestingly enough, there are scenes that question the importance of the characters and which focus more intensively on the landscapes, or the surroundings in general. This is helped with Tarr’s independent camera, independent in the way that it moves wherever it wants without necessarily following a character. There is one scene that makes this absolutely clear. After initially having rejected Karrer’s offer to go out for dinner, the woman allows him into her flat and they have sex. This sequence says more than a thousand words. The camera doesn’t bother much with the couple. It looks around the room, panning slowly and carefully to allow us an in-depth study of the austere flat and the rundown streets outside. The non-passionate and loveless act between the two characters is seemingly unimportant. What matters is the expression of the characters’ inner lovelessness through the expression of an austere mise-en-scène and natural elements like rain that carve deeper and deeper holes into a slowly dying internal and external environment. 

Writing on the film Barren Lives by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Jean -Claude Bernadet suggests that the structure of the film

“is not conditioned by the action of the characters, but rather by nature: it is the rain and the drought that decide the beginning, the middle, and the end of the film.” (in Representing the Rural, p156)

One cannot deny that Tarr follows the same principle in Damnation, perhaps more so than in his other films with the exception of his last film, The Turin Horse. What characters may not be able to express is expressed through their surroundings as metaphors. Tarr’s characters are not easy to read. There is little emotion involved. Everything happens inside them. When Karrer leaves the woman’s flat after they had sex, he doesn’t give any hint as to how he feels. But for once, the rain has stopped. Things brighten up. It is nature that tells us about Karrer’s feelings, not Karrer himself. Tarr makes himself deliberately dependent on nature, on psychologically charged landscapes in order to give his seemingly flat characters an extraordinary depth. 

The end of the film is most emblematic of the director’s pursuit of blending characters with their surroundings so that they become one. Over the course of two hours, Karrer slowly disintegrates, as does the village. With nothing left, Karrer becomes no more than a dog, on all fours imitating the stray dog who barks at him, drenched in rain and mud. Damnation is a story about the life of a dog in human disguise, whose mask drops ever so slowly, but continuously, just like the persistent rain slowly but surely swallows the village. It won’t leave any traces, and Karrer, too, will disappear.

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 BĂ©la 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 BĂ©la 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.

A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on cinema

It’s been almost a year that I have seen Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a film I remember was very good, but I was reminded of it only when Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it not so very long ago. But what is there to write about this film, a film that is only a part of a trilogy which, taken all three films together, is so much stronger than a single film? I therefore watched the other two films of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”, albeit I would probably refrain from using this description and use “The Human Condition trilogy” instead. Together, Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You the Living (2007) and A Pigeon make for an entertaining view on us as humans, on us as a society, of life as sometimes being completely absurd and we still follow it endlessly like that famous hamster in his wheel.

After having seen the first two films in that trilogy, I was annoyed that I saw A Pigeon before, so that the chronological development didn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, I could see connections, contradictions, additions – all of that made the trilogy throughly interesting, especially if you have a dark humour and are willing to laughing about yourself. It’s difficult to write about three films in a single blog post, but I try to keep it as contained as possible.

I should start, perhaps, with the most obvious characteristic of the Living Trilogy: all films look the same. I’m not sure whether I have seen a trilogy of films before where everything seems to be the same. Even the characters look the same. Andersson does use different actors from time to time, but they’re always white. I mean, make-up white. They’re pale, exhausted, looking almost sick, half dead. The interior of their flats and houses makes you see (and feel) that time literally stands still. Andersson took a long time to complete this trilogy. Between the release of the first part and the release of the third part (all three films played at Cannes), there was a gap of 14 years. So maybe make it 18 years or so, between the conception of the first film and the release of the final part of the trilogy. This is slow, but it resulted in quality work. And while the years passed, life seems to stand still in Andersson’s work. This is ironic, of course, giving the title of the trilogy (Living), whereas it should perhaps be called otherwise. Or maybe this is the whole point? Maybe it is to show us that we’re running in circles and that we don’t really go anywhere?

The interior design of buildings in all three films is the same. Sometimes I would even go as far as suggesting that he uses the same flats for some scenes, shot from a different angle. This is what BĂ©la Tarr used to do. If you watch his arthouse films from after SátántangĂł (2000), you see a link between them all, which is not necessarily connected to the films’ narratives, but to where the films are shot. Everything repeats, nothing moves forwards. Andersson uses a very sterile environment, 70s or 80s style, cold. Almost exactly how his characters look like. The bars change, but the people who drink their beer there are more or less the same. And why do they drink? Usually to drown their sorrows, the ridiculous existence of humans in a world that is so absurd that it makes you laugh.

Andersson shows us this absurdity in slow, long-takes. Those who like Slow Cinema and have followed my slow journey on this blog know that cinematic slowness serves different purposes in different films. In Andersson’s, I find, cinematic slowness serves the heightening of absurdity. It really brings home how ridiculous life can be sometimes, or how ridiculous we can be in certain situations; such as when a man’s hand is stuck in a train door and everyone stands around and, rather than being concerned, they wonder how it happened, they remember their own accidents, they watch. They watch more than anything else. An accident becomes a sort of animal in a zoo that you simply watch. You gather around and you do nothing. This stoppage of time, this absurd watching, is reinforced by the use of a static camera. Andersson usually doesn’t move his camera. There are very, very few pans or traveling shots in this trilogy.

And in fact, Andersson reduces the aesthetics to a bare minimum over a period of over a decade. It feels very much like the development of BĂ©la Tarr, who became more and more minimalistic in his approach to filmmaking. From SátántangĂł to Werckmeister Harmonies to The Turin Horse, Tarr reduced the aesthetics more and more; less characters, more barren mise-en-scène, less camera movements, less dialogue. His films were steering towards an end. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang, whose last feature film Stray Dogs was, perhaps, his most minimalist film. Andersson, I feel, works very much in the same manner. Songs and You the Living were stronger in their narrative progression. If something wasn’t clear in one scene, he would usually show us what really happened or what the previous scene meant in the next scene. In A pigeon, Andersson fragments the narrative almost to an extreme. It feels more episodic than the previous two films, albeit everything does come together in the end. But there is a sense of fragmentation, of a fracture that disrupts the narrative flow. Is this a sign of trauma? Perhaps, given that the trilogy contains elements to the brutal reign of the Nazis.

Andersson’s trilogy is tragic and humorous. Albert Serra was the first slow-film director I got to know who used comedy elements in his films. Slow Cinema as comedy, as entertaining…Andersson goes there, too, but makes more persistent use of it. He does so in order to open our eyes, to hold a mirror in front of us and show us to ourselves. Perhaps it is not spoken about often in the context of Andersson’s films that the director uses a direct confrontation with history and the way we deal with it. The first two films show this explicitly; one character, a sort of hardcore rocker, wears a T-Shirt with the Nazi SS symbol on the front. You only notice it once he gets up from the bench, once his partner pushes him away because she no longer wants to see him. (Or does she?) It would go unnoticed if you were focusing on the frame’s foreground only. There is another scene in which a man, in an attempt to do the famous magic stunt, tries to remove the tablecloth at a big family gathering all the while keeping the (expensive!!) china service on the table. Once the table cloth has been removed, the table shows two swastikas. It’s still there, we haven’t finished with it. The Nazi past, the Nazi support, is still there; almost dormant and yet very present, if only one takes the time to look. Andersson encourages us to do so. I laughed about those scenes, and also about the 100 year old admiral who had been placed in a nursing home and receives high-profile guests for his birthday only to make a Hitler salute. In any other film this wouldn’t be funny, but Andersson has created a bizarre and absurd trilogy that you have no choice but to laugh. And this, I have to say, absurd reaction to things that should shock me made me reflect about where we are. I became the pigeon sitting on a branch reflecting on existence.

With Andersson’s work more so than with other directors I need to say that a lot of action is happening in the background. If you watch the films as usual, expecting things to happen right in front of your eyes (just as we expect it in life – we don’t want to look deeper than that), then you will miss a lot in the trilogy. It is worth taking your eyes of the obvious and look beyond the surface, both in terms of the framing and in terms of the narrative. It is in the background, underneath the surface, where life really happens. There is this wonderful trilogy The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s trilogy speaks of what it means to be a human being. He focuses on our hearts, on everything that goes on inside of us. Andersson’s trilogy is a different take of the same thing, 40 years later. It is also about the haunting of the past. Whereas in Kobayashi’s trilogy, events were happening, Andersson returns to the effects of the past on our present society, our current politics, our current life. It is impossible to say that these two trilogies are the same. But there are similarities, extensions, additions. They are are different ways of making us see and feel of what and who we are. And yet, both trilogies are about the human condition.

The Living trilogy – do Andersson’s characters live, or are they dragged along? Do we ever move on, which is what living is actually about? The pigeon who sits on a branch reflecting on existence is the perfect metaphor for what the viewer is encouraged to do while watching Andersson’s trilogy. What does “existence” even mean? We exist, but do we live? Where does life start and mere existence stop? Are we merely passively watching life going by, suffering from the weight of our existence and everything it entails? Strangely enough, even though none of the three films is very cheerful, Andersson’s trilogy triggered optimism in my heart and in my mind. What exactly causes that, I don’t know. But I do know that the Swedish director has created a very effective trilogy about us, the living, hearing songs from the second floor all the while we sit on a bench reflecting on existence.

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.

BĂ©la Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without BĂ©la 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 Damnation, The 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.

Towards a poor cinema

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

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

temat-tygodnia-grotowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death Time

Oh yes, a cheery title for this blog post. I apologise. But this only comes because of an email I received from one of my website’s avid readers. I was asked – and this isn’t rare – what I think the difference between slow film and Slow Cinema is. Two and a half years into my research, I still have no idea, and perhaps I will never be able to answer this questions. Slowness is relative. Whatever is fast for me, may be slow for you. It is true that slow films use very similar, if not the same kind of aesthetics. So where do we draw the line?

I was thinking about one of my arguments, which you can revisit in the paper I uploaded a little while ago. In the paper I linked the use of time in concentration camps and the way Lav Diaz uses time in his films about terror and trauma. I saw similarities and talked about “death time”. Slow Cinema is characterised by temps mort, or dead time. I switched this around and began to look into death time, which is such a characteristic feature of Diaz. Time is used as a form of power, of punishment. Endless duration drives the characters insane (and maybe the viewer, too). There is a curious mixture in his films of shock and duration, of the instant and endless waiting. I call this complexity death time.

Now, in what ways can we see Slow Cinema as a whole in this? I briefly thought about the other films I know. They are aesthetically close to Diaz’s films, and yet totally different. They also use time different. This is primarily the case because Diaz makes incredibly long films, while most slow-film directors stick to a more usual running time of about two hours. Diaz can therefore play a lot more with duration. His films are also different in that they deal specifically with the trauma of his people, which makes his films stand out in the classical Slow Cinema canon.

But if I were to expand a bit on the notion of “death time”, going a beyond my previous argument that it’s an expression of a complex interaction of the instant and duration in order to inflict miseries on film characters, then I could actually make it fit to Slow Cinema. This is way too new for me now, so it may be the case with slow films in general, so the whole idea of finding a structure which sets Slow Cinema apart from “normal” slow films becomes rather redundant. Personally I think that Slow Cinema is an experiential thing, but no one likes experience because you can’t prove anything. So I’m still trying to find something less abstract.

Anyway, let me expand on the notion of death time and say that death plays a major role in Slow Cinema. Slowness has often been equated with death. The Futurists were keen on speeding up life because it meant exactly that: life, living. Speed means progression, therefore a forward movement. Slowness also means movement, but it is more often associated with stagnation (which makes it particularly interesting for my study of terror and trauma). Death is not necessarily the kind of death we imagine. It is not necessarily associated with humans. Not a lot of people die in Diaz’s films, for example, but we know that they eventually will. They’re on the verge of death all the time. They’re walking dead.

Fogo by Yulene Olaizola is also about death, only in a different way. It is about the death of an island. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are all about ghosts, which imply death by default. BĂ©la Tarr’s The Turin Horse is another example. Or even his SátántangĂł. And what about Carlos Reygadas? Japon and Battle In Heaven use death as an underlying narrative feature, too. I also remember Nicolas Pereda’s Summer of Goliath (and I hope I remember this correctly); the death of a child, the departure of a husband and father and therefore the death of the family structure. Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert depicts the death of the traditional postman.

So are these films slow because they deal with death in one way or another? Can you deal with death appropriately in fast films? I think there is something in there, and it’ll be worth researching further (on my list!). And for some reason this all links vaguely to my very early arguments about static art; stasis always implies death in some form or another. So my original thought of death time looks a lot more complex now and I’m looking forward to looking into this in the near future.

Book Review: Das Innen im AuĂźen – Bernhard Hetzenauer (2013)

Bernhard Hentzenauer’s book on BĂ©la Tarr, Das Innen im Aussen: BĂ©la Tarr, Jacques Lacan und der Blick, makes me glad that I’m a German native, and can therefore read and fully understand his arguments. I’m not sure whether an English translation is in the making, so you may want to teach yourself a bit of German if you want to read a really interesting take on BĂ©la Tarr’s films 🙂

Hetzenauer’s work is based on a Master’s thesis, which makes the book with only 100 pages neat, brief and to-the-point. It is a philosophical take on Tarr and brings some intriguing aspects to previous writing on the filmmaker that are worth looking at in more detail. What Hetzenauer looks at is ‘the gaze’ in Tarr’s films. Based on Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, he explores the meaning of the gaze but also the aesthetics of it.

I’ve seen every single of Tarr’s films apart from one of his earlier social-realist films. I’ve always been fascinated by them, but I never noticed just how prevalent the gaze is in his films. It’s true, though, and it becomes a kind of eureka effect once you read Hetzenauer’s book. And in fact, Tarr’s films often start with a gaze. Take Damnation, for instance, the almost endless scene of cable cars that makes us feel as if we’re positioned somewhere outside. A zoom out and subtle camera movement, however, shows Karrer sitting at the window observing those cable cars. Is the beginning a POV shot, or is it not? If not, what exactly is it then? I’m not entirely sure whether or not Film Studies could solve this riddle.

The theme of characters sitting behind a window is recurring. There is the doctor in SátántangĂł, who is the narrator of the story, and who observes everything that happens in front of his window. Then there is the daughter in The Turin Horse, a film in which Tarr uses the exact same aesthetic as he had done in Damnation. First we see only the outside, until a zoom moves us into the interior, revealing the back of a longing (or hopeless?) character. Hetzenauer points out that if you only studied this very gaze alone you’d see the slow but sure end of Tarr’s filmmaking career. It is well known that Tarr has stripped his last film of pretty much everything and turned it into a very austere work. A pure form of cinema, as Tarr called it at the EIFF 2011, if I remember right.

Interestingly, he has also gradually minimised the amount of objects his characters are looking at through the window. There are the cable cars in Damnation.It’s not much, but it’s something, and as they’re moving, they must be moving somewhere. There is a definite spatial end to this route. There is a another location, perhaps a less desperate space nearby. Fast-forward to The Turin Horse, and all the girl is left with to look at is a tree in the far background. Other than that, there’s complete nothingness. No path, nothing that indicates a potential hope for the characters. Not that The Turin Horse is hopeful anyway. It’s as depressing and hopeless as Tsai Ming-liang’s last film Stray Dogs, and both endings are fitting to the directors’ films and their filmmaking career. But it’s those small visual pointers that are often overlooked, and which Hetzenauer stresses.

I particularly like the fact that Hetzenauer mentions Tarr’s famous long-takes without putting them at the centre of his work, which is usually the case with writers nowadays. In putting the long-take aside – without rejecting it completely – Hetzenauer’s book has space to explore more intriguing things. The gaze is a perfect example of this, and Hetzenauer analysed it with brilliance in my opinion. There is one aspect I miss in the book, though. He merges Tarr with Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, thus aiming for a philosophical approach. He also returns to the gaze, as personified by the camera, several times throughout the book.

Now, I wonder why he didn’t make use of Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy. I got obsessed with that book a few years ago, and could see every bit of Frampton in Tarr’s films, or the other way around, depending on how you want to see it. Reading Hetzenauer’s book was like reading Filmosophy again, and I’m surprised that he doesn’t mention it, not even in the slightest. Hetzenauer has a particular way of describing the gaze in Tarr’s films, which makes me think of the film / the camera having its own mind, making decisions, simply acting as an individual being or character in the film. Nowhere is this more visible than in Tarr’s films, so I believe that if you do study the specific aesthetics of the moving camera, Frampton should at least be mentioned.

In any case, the book is worthwhile reading and it’s a fast-read, too, if you’re worried about your time. Hetzenauer’s work, in its quality, isn’t surprising. I have long realised – through talking with people, and my own reading – that the most groundbreaking work in Slow Cinema is done by MA and PhD students, not so much (yet) by established academics. This is perhaps the case because students still see things afresh and out-of-the-box, which makes it likely that they do not trod the same path.

It reminds me of my experience with scholarship on trauma cinema. The progress is minimal in that field. Scholars write the same thing over and over again, quote the same people, the same text passages and there’s nothing new coming to the field. Now, I did have problems with Dirk de Bruyn’s book on trauma in avant-garde films because of terrible editing and errors from page one to the very last page. But I can nevertheless say that he did have original thoughts. And he’s an academic as well as a practitioner, which explains his out-of-the-box thinking. This is what any field needs. Bernhard Hetzenhauer shows this with his book on the gaze in BĂ©la Tarr’s films.

Stray Dogs – Tsai Ming-liang (2013)

I have seen all of Tsai’s films, apart from Rebels of the Neon God, which still sits comfortably on my watch list. The sad thing about this is the fact that I haven’t seen a single one of them on a big screen. I always wished to see one of his films in cinema. His cinematography is superb and particularly attractive for someone who loves the art of photography. I came close last year, but the organisers of the Glasgow Film Festival had to pull Tsai’s Walker because the print didn’t arrive in time. Slow film, slow print delivery.

Patience is a virtue, so I was able to see a Tsai film on a big screen after all. It was a fabulous experience on the one hand, but mixed into this positive feeling was a pinch of sadness. First of all, Stray Dogs is in some ways different from his other films. There are, for instance, scenes set in nature – in a forest, with peaceful ambient background sounds. This isn’t Tsai and has never been Tsai. He has always been the only slow-film director who used the urban rather than the rural as a backdrop for his films. It therefore felt strange at times, but this was only the case because I was used to cramped spaces, deafening noises of the city, etc In fact, the nature shots – there is one in which the two children walk through a forest – worked well as a juxtaposition of city and nature. The sudden noises of the city following ambient nature sounds have a similar effect to Lav Diaz’s play with sound and silence in Florentina Hubaldo. It not only wakes up the viewer (in case s/he fell asleep). It is a comment on the suffocation in the city, a kind of suffocation Tsai’s characters have endured for over twenty years.

Their endurance, as we can see throughout the film, has taken its toll. A lot of writing on Slow Cinema concerns the absence or lack of pretty much everything. The catch word is “nothing” in the debate of slow films. I don’t like the context in which the word “nothing” is used, because I think that there is a lot happening in slow films. We merely make the mistake of comparing them to action-driven Hollywood blockbusters, forgetting at the same time that slow films show the everyday, and that our lives are not action-driven Hollywood blockbusters.

Nevertheless, I had the word “nothing” in my head throughout the film. It is perhaps better to use the term “emptiness” here. What struck me was the foregrounding of emptiness in Stray Dogs. Tsai’s characters have always been empty, searching for something. Emotions often ran high, but the problem was the set-up of human relationships. Somehow, all characters started off as being lonely, and ended up being lonely again. Stray Dogs stresses this very point. Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s long-time collaborator, has nothing left to show, or to do. There’s nothing left inside him. I found him to be an empty shell. A shadow of himself perhaps, understandable given his twenty-year ordeal as a character who just can’t find what he is looking for. Lee’s in a desperate, desolate shape, which makes you want to hug him after you spend so much time with him.

If you have seen Tsai’s other films, you will miss the rather uplifting scenes of, at times, ridiculous musical numbers, such as in The Wayward Cloud. You will also miss the very subtle sense of humour built into films that leave not only the characters depressed at the end. This time, Tsai did not conceal anything. He tackles issues of poverty, loss, despair and hopelessness head on. This makes it a particularly painful watch if you’re used to his usual approach. I thought that BĂ©la Tarr’s farewell film The Turin Horse was bleak. But Tsai topped the Hungarian master, and possibly himself.

It is true, this film can only stand at the end of a career in feature-filmmaking. Tsai continues to work on his short films (the Walker series), but he has expressed his desire to retire from making feature films. At the Q&A with Tarr after the screening of The Turin Horse at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I remember that Tarr said there was nothing left to say. I agree with it wholeheartedly. I have the exact same feeling about Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Another film just wouldn’t make sense. The lead character of all of his films has reached the bottom of existence. Dragging him down more would be impossible. Tsai could choose a different lead actor and continue to make feature films, but he wouldn’t be Tsai if he did this.

Stray Dogs contains several references to Tsai’s previous films. It felt like a compilation, a kind of “let’s bring the best of the best together for a final piece”. A Best-Of film, if you want, at least visually. I remember one high-angle shot over a park or something (my memory is fading), which looked exactly like the high-angle shot in Paris that appears in What Time Is It There? It was a visual journey through Tsai’s filmmaking. And indeed, visual it was. I found that Tsai topped himself in his cinematography this time. He was always one of my favourites with regards to cinematography. But Stray Dogs – oh my. I would have loved to take photographs, to be honest, but I would have probably been arrested. In fact, seeing this film gave me an idea for a journal article. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time for it right now. Here we are again: patience is a virtue.

Stray Dogs is a powerful farewell from cinema. Tsai has certainly put the idea of slowness to the extreme in this film, especially at the end. It was a rather slow and therefore brutal parallel to Lee’s endurance in twenty-years as an empty character. The film leaves you empty, and in a way, it’s an emptiness that cannot and will never be filled with Tsai retiring from filmmaking. How is that for a zig-zag reference to The Hole?

Review: The Cinema of BĂ©la Tarr – András Bálint Kovács

Kovács’ book is not the first book on Hungarian filmmaker BĂ©la 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 BĂ©la 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 BĂ©la Tarr – The Circle Closes, by András Bálint Kovács, Columbia University Press, available on Amazon]

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