The weeping meadow – Theo Angelopoulos (2004)

It took me much longer than usual to write my new blog post, which is primarily down to health reasons. An inflamed elbow could, in theory, be a blessing if you want to see films. What do you need your arm for? The problem was that Ì couldn’t take notes over the course of three hours, as it would have been the case with my very first Angelopoulos film. I had to give my arm a rest, all the while trying hard to progress with The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine, which is almost, almost, very nearly done! 

There isn’t always a particular reason for why certain directors are not yet in my A to Z list. Theo Angelopoulos, from Greece, is one of those filmmakers that have been named in the context of Slow Cinema pretty much from the beginning. Yet so far, I have never written about him. I have been asked about the reasons for this several times before. There has never been anything in particular which made me avoid Angelopoulos until now. Once my PhD took a turn towards the films of Lav Diaz, I felt that I had to focus on those first of all, or on others that seemed slightly similar.

Now, there is something about The Weeping Meadows that I find difficult to put into words, and I’m not even sure what it really is. Let me say it with a screen grab…

This is not only a beautiful shot, albeit it needs to be seen in movement in order to be appreciated properly. The Weeping Meadow is a film, which continues where Andrei Tarkovsky left off with The Sacrifice. In this very film, Angelopoulos is the most Tarkovskian of Slow Cinema directors. All slow films are, in one way or another, put into the context of Tarkovsky’s “sculpting in time” concept. Especially at the beginning of writing about Slow Cinema, the Tarkovskian philosophy was everywhere. This has receded quite a bit in the last two years or so. Perhaps, critics have realised that Tarkovsky itself isn’t as present in most slow films as they had wished for. Of course, Slow Cinema as a genre, or whatever you might call it, is indebted to the work of Tarkovsky, but the Russian director wasn’t the only inspiration. He was a late inspiration that, I believe, helped Slow Cinema reach its fulfilment. 

But let’s return to Angelopoulos whose The Weeping Meadow is the first part of the director’s trilogy about modern Greece, a trilogy he could sadly not finish. I’m almost sure that I might create a neologism here if I said that Meadow was a “wide” film. Every scene feels like a deep inhale, visuals that fill and feed your lungs. Do we ever exhale? To be honest, I’m not sure. Meadow felt like a series of inhales, or even one very long, three-hour long inhale. Scenes are wide-angled, and even if the frames are tight from time to time, a delicate zoom out allows us take a breath. Angelopoulos’s visual mark is width more than anything. It is about taking a step back, about taking a look at the wider picture. There is something about the smooth and delicate camera movement and its angles that makes it feel perfectly organic. It certainly is, after Tarkovsky’s Mirror, the most explicit example of Daniel Frampton’s ‘filmind’, which I have mentioned several times on this blog already.

The particular camera movements, which Tarkovsky had used in Mirror, for example when he explored Andrei’s seemingly empty flat, find their perfect copy in Angelopoulos work. Delicate zoom outs or zoom ins, a searching camera that very much embodies a searching person – one cannot deny that Angelopoulos created a major homage to the Russian director. And then there is The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last piece which I considered to be a cinematic theatre play. The entire nature of the setting, of character behaviour, of dialogue – nothing really felt as though the aim of the film was to create a film. Rather, the aim seemed to have been to merge different art forms and their different natures, create a crossover and thereby create something new, or, if not that, showing how similar all art forms really are. 

Meadow has very little of a film. The screen grab above, of Spyros, an elderly man – lonely, depressed – who has been betrayed by his son, who fled with his own wife-to-be, is the most explicit statement of it, and the scene didn’t come as a surprise in terms of its aesthetics. It was the fitting culmination of the feeling I had had about the film until then. I’m allergic to films in which actors and actresses stage something from their life, instead of live the role they’re meant to embody. Yet, Meadow falls into another category. The perfect orchestration between wide, observational camera movements and the specific theatre-like play of the characters creates a special cinematic experience, an experience that questions the strict categorisation of art forms and, therefore, also of audiences. 

Angelopoulos’ story isn’t extraordinary as such. We follow Eleni, adopted as a young girl by Spyros and his wife, who, at the beginning of the film, flee the Russian Revolution and who return home to Greece. Much later, Eleni becomes Spyros chosen one, but his son, Alexis, runs away with Eleni. The two, always on the run, become a prism through which the viewer travels through Greek history up until the Greek civil war. It is a story that has been told dozens of times, by people from other countries, from other regions, other backgrounds. The theme of seeking refugee during political upheaval is very much the core of the film, interspersed with love scenes that are almost too much. It is a traditional film, with a traditional structure, and yet Meadow is standing out from those classical treatments of love, change and refuge at times of war. 

Of course, there are the specific contemplative aesthetics, which help the film to stand out. Without them, the film would have been forgotten by people long ago. Essentially, Meadow‘s downside is its horizontal development. It is a look at the outside of things, at the outside of characters and their lives. Angelopoulos didn’t create a psychological film. He didn’t allow the film to develop vertically, i.e. we never really get into the characters. It is a “surface film”, a piece that stays on the surface, but Angelopoulos covers this weakness so cleverly, so breathtakingly, so rigorously that there is never really a doubt about its power and its strength. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the second part of the trilogy.

Adam’s Passion, or What is cinema?

I can’t remember anymore in which context I saw the trailer for Adam’s Passion, a performance with music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and stage design by American Robert Wilson. The performance was advertised in German papers as a slow-motion performance, and after I saw the beautiful (!!!) trailer, I gave it a try. First of all, I must recommend it. It’s wonderful to look at. It’s also powerful, meaningful, and even though it’s slow, it’s very engaging.

Now, while watching Adam’s Passion, in particular the beginning when Adam (presumably) moves ever so slowly towards a tree branch (it takes him half an hour to do so!), I began to wonder what difference there was between was I was seeing right there and what I am currently watching for tao films, for instance. In effect, Adam’s Passion has, movement-wise, a lot in common with Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series. In the context of acting in Lav Diaz’s films, for instance, one often mentions the term “performance”, perhaps because of the films’ lengths.

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I have absolutely no idea where I’m going with this, and I could easily write utter nonsense. Yet considering the nature of Adam’s Passion I need to ask the famous Bazanian question: What is cinema? Very often, it is described in terms of motion. This is perhaps the only thing that sets cinema off still photography. Cinema is moving, it’s moving images. But what is theatre? What is a stage play? I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’m convinced that theatre is motion, too. Scenes are changing; actors and actresses may change their costumes; there is dialogue. Bodies move, the audience moves. Especially nowadays, the border between cinema and theatre is fluid when cinema houses broadcast theatre plays, which means there is at least one camera present during the play.

Except for the few shots where I could see the stage and the audience, there was absolutely no difference between a slow film and Adam’s Passion. Besides, it also had this certain something which only slow films create inside me (and which I still can’t describe). Combined with the stunning music of Arvo Pärt of whom I’m a great fan (although I try not to listen to him too often anymore because it depresses me – in a good way tho!), the performance appeared like an experimental film. This, I’m sure, was facilitated by the work of Robert Wilson, whose stage design was magnificent, and, indeed, cinematic.

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It reminded me on the famous description of cinema as “painting with light”. Can’t remember from the top of my head who referred to cinema in this way. In a way, Wilson did this with Adam’s Passion but on a stage. Isn’t a film set a stage?

I have long compared slow films to painting, pointing out that in classic Slow Cinema the camera is static and there is little to no movement in any given scene. Apart from those slight movements, there is no difference between painting, photography and slow film. Which is why I believe that many slow films should be shown in museums and galleries instead of in cinemas. The screening location sets expectations, and the cinema house raises the wrong expectations so that viewers get frustrated. The same viewers would have less problems sitting through a slow film while in a gallery, simply because the setting raises different expectations. Stasis and slowness are perfectly acceptable in galleries, and, I believe, also in theatres.

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In some ways, painting, photography and cinema are not the only three art forms where boundaries are blurred. Adam’s Passion made me see that theatre plays a big role in this, too. Or can do. It very much depends on how it is done, I suppose. And is Adam’s Passion even a theatre play? This performance posed so many questions I don’t have answers for. But the biggest question of all was “What is cinema?” I challenge the notion that cinema is movement, recorded by a video camera. Cinema is not a recorded scene with actors and actresses, and scene changes. It is not “painting with light”. All of this is Adam’s Passion, but no one would describe it as a film. I wonder whether it might not be time to rethink our definitions of the art forms we think we are critics of. Or, perhaps, all of these art forms are just one. It is art, so does the distinction between them, if there is any, even matter?

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.

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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.

Day 12 – The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky)

It’s halftime, so perhaps it’s a good idea to focus on a classic today. It feels odd writing about Tarkovsky, because he has never been named as a slow-film director, until the term Slow Cinema came up. I was really happy when I could finally get the Tarkovsky box set. The reason I’ve chosen The Sacrifice for today is that I remember the film for its slowness. No other Tarkovsky film felt this slow, and, I have to admit (shame on me!) that I didn’t finish the film the first time round. I almost fell asleep. This must have been two or three years now, so it was time for a retry.

The Sacrifice was Tarkovsky’s last film. If you haven’t watched any of his films, it might appear less obvious. But The Sacrifice is his bleakest and darkest film. His films were never cheerful. Yet, this one is the culmination of bleakness. There is repeated talk of hopelessness, the downfall of humanity, loss of perspective, death. And then there is this imminent nuclear disaster. Béla Tarr has ended his filmmaking career in a similar way. The Turin Horse was the culmination of his bleak view on the world. You could see that there was nothing else to say. I had the same feeling about The Sacrifice.

The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky

I found two features striking. Neither of them has a lot to do with slowness, though. The first one is the general set-up indoors. Alexander, the main protagonist, who vows to sacrifice all that is dear to him so as to prevent the nuclear catastrophe that had been announced on TV, is a retired theatre actor. I’m not sure whether Tarkovsky intended to transmit this via his filmmaking, but the shot length, the camera angle, and the movement of characters certainly imply that there could equally be a theatre play going on rather than the production of a film.

The camera is a good distance away from the actors. They tend to speak towards the camera as if to a (theatre) audience. The whole – fairly scarce – mise-en-scène (the interior of the house especially) brings up images of a theatre stage with a painted background and a few props positioned on stage. I haven’t had a similar feeling in his other films. The Sacrifice, however, never had much of a film-feeling to me. I guess the long-take help with this. And somehow, I can’t help it, the colours help, too.

The second thing is perhaps a bit obscure. Although I used to love the concept, and actually still do, especially when I’m watching a film by Tarkovsky, I have put it aside, because I brought up two people against me, and I wasn’t fond of that. The Sacrifice is, in parts, a great demonstration of what Daniel Frampton called “the filmind”. The basic idea is that film has a mind on its own. Film is thinking. As radical as it sounds, when I read his book, his proposal blew me away. I cannot detect a “thinking” film all the time. But Tarkovsky’s films are exemplary to Frampton’s approach.

The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky

The beginning of The Sacrifice can be taken as a very simply illustration. When Alexander sits with his back against a tree and continues with his monologue, the camera moves away from him. It feels as if the camera, or the film, decides to look for something visually more interesting or important. It is really only the camera moving, but I always got the sense of the film doing something, and not only the director. There is an eerie presence of a third agent in (all of) his films. I’ve only ever had this eerie feeling with Tarkovsky’s films.

The feature of the thinking filmind is spread throughout the film, as it is in Mirror, where, I believe, it is most evident (I have actually written quite a bit on this a while ago). The independence of the camera (or the film) can also be found in Tarr’s films. The film makes decisions independent from what the characters say or do. Perhaps it sounds like an abstract concept, but you should give the book Filmosophy a try.