Art and Therapy (Alain de Botton, John Armstrong, 2014)

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong had been on my list from the moment I saw it online. With my research background – film and trauma, and the interest in how filmmakers deal with their own suffering – I expected quite a bit of material from this book. What I didn’t expect was the many references to slowness, contemplation and observation, which are so fundamental to the way I read slow films. One could say that at least the first part of the book is entirely dedicated to slowness without mentioning it directly. In fact, it could be a companion piece to Slow Art Day (which, by the way, takes place on 8 April this year!).

Almost from the beginning of my research into Slow Cinema, I made reference to static art. I considered slow films as pieces for galleries and museums rather than as films made for the big cinema screen. I do agree that this isn’t the case with all slow films. A great deal of them, however, share characteristics with static art such as painting and photography. So why I was surprised to see the many similarities between de Botton and Armstrong’s writing and Slow Cinema is, to be honest, beyond me.

Richard Serra – Fernando Pessoa (2007-2008)

The first chapter of Art as Therapy is dedicated to what art can do for us, both in very simple terms and in specific psychological circumstances. It made me reflect about my experience with cinematic slowness and its healing potential in the context of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. I cannot stress enough how much Slow Cinema helped me to calm down, to fight anxiety, and to take part in life again. One of the arguments that seems to run through the book is that art, which we find attractive, often offers something we usually don’t have but which we desire.

…le goût dépendent de ce qui, dans la constitution émotionnelle, dort et a besoin d’être stimulé et accentué. … les préférences pour l’une ou l’autre reflètent différentes lacunes psychologiques.

When it comes to your choice of a favourite piece of art, or a favourite genre, it is, according to de Botton and Armstrong, very likely that you chose this particular piece or this particular genre because of what is going on in your head. It has psychological roots and is not a simple I just love it. For many people it is difficult to describe why they like certain things. Many resort to simple answers, not knowing that the reason for their preference is, perhaps, more complex than they had imagined. When I began to get into Slow Cinema, it was very difficult to explain why I liked it. I, too, resorted to a simple answer. I liked the slowness. I really did. But why? Only years later did the reason unravel. It took work to figure it out. What this reminds me of is the third meaning, which Luke Hockley suggested in Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen, which I mentioned on this blog before. The third meaning of a film derives from our unconscious. Sometimes a film moves us and we do not understand why this is the case. It’s our unconscious that is responsible for this, and in most cases, we will never know why a specific scene had such a strong impact on us.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler – Nocturne: le fleuve à Battersea (1878)

What Slow Cinema meant to me personally is that it allowed me to slow down, to take my time, to record what was happening on screen, which I couldn’t do with action blockbusters anymore.

On recherche les oeuvres capable de compenser ses fragilités intérieurs, d’aider à trouver un juste milieu. … L’art peut aider à gagner du temps, et même sauver la vie.

De Botton and Armstrong note a trait of art (and, I believe, film), which became essential in the early phase of my struggling with PTSD. Art(film) can save one’s life. This is very much connected to the unconscious I mentioned above and the attraction to specific art works and art genres during different phases of our lives. But it’s not all about individual deficiencies. Art also has a meaning to the collective, to society, to us as humanity. And one thing that stood out for me in the book is the very simple (but maybe too simple for us to consider it) argument that we tend to get used to things too quickly, especially in our developed, capitalist, consumer societies.

Un de nos grands défauts, et un des grans obstacles à notre bonheur, est la difficulté à prendre note de ce qui nous entoure.

We no longer notice what is around us. We simply don’t have the time (we think!). When have you last looked at a tree for longer than a couple seconds? When have you touched its bark in order to feel what a tree feels like? As the books’ authors argue, these things are not “spectacular”. But they’re necessary in our becoming one with our environment, and in our search for contentment and an emotional equilibrium. They argue that art can help with this by depicting the ordinary, the kind of things we overlook nowadays because we think they don’t play a major role in our lives. At the same time, and I argued this before here on this blog, this is exactly what our lives are about: it’s the ordinary. Our lives aren’t spectacular, for the most part.

Slow films, just like static art, can help us notice this, notice the ordinary, identify with it, realise that this is what our life is like…and, perhaps most important, that we’re not alone with this. Our life nowadays consist of a constant desire of something better, something spectacular, something that takes us out of the routine. What we forget in this constant desire is our own life, and ourselves. To me, Slow Cinema can play an important role in returning us to our roots. It can remind us who we really are and what we should focus on first of all in order to reach an equilibrium inside ourselves.

Frederic Edwin Church – L’Iceberg (1891)

I would like to mention one last essential argument, which brings me back to Slow Cinema and boredom. It is now THE argument against cinematic slowness: it’s boring. Slow films are not the only films that are considered boring. And film, as a form of art, is not the only art form which struggles with this. To me, it has always been like this, in part, because of the way we are taught film or art respectively. I was happy to see the same argument in de Botton and Armstrong’s book.

Les idées au sujet de la valeur artistique ne se forment pas spontanément. Elles résultent de systèmes complexes de mécénat, d’idéologie et d’éducation, soutenus pas l’enseignement universitaire et les musées, qui à eux tous forment notre conception de la valeur artistique.

It is, in short, our surrounding that defines artistic value. Political ideology, education, museums – they all have a stake in the way we look at art and what we consider to be “good art” or “high art”, and what is to be discarded as junk. In parts, I believe that Slow Cinema is rejected by so many because no one teaches them their potential value. There is nothing outstanding about them, no. As I said above, they show the average life, and I believe this is exactly why some people deny those films the value they deserve for making us aware of what we have stopped seeing, stopped valuing. If slow films are to be more acknowledged, educational institutions need to take part in this. At the same time, it is possible to break out of this circle and free oneself from the traditional teachings of what is good and what is useless. It is very much a mind thing. It’s about freeing your mind, about liberating your thinking, and then you can enjoy what you really like, and not what society tells us is worth liking.

(Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong was first published in English. If you’re not a French-language speaker, you will have no problem getting an English version of the book.)

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.

Melancholia – Lav Diaz (2008)

I have seen Lav Diaz’s Melancholia three times so far. As it’s time for a new chapter now, it’s also time for a brief post on the film. I saw Melancholia in Newcastle in March 2012 for the first time. It was running at the Slow Cinema weekend, which itself was part of the bi-annual AV Festival. It was my first Lav Diaz film, and I still remember that it knocked me out. To be fair and honest, I booked tickets for his eight-hour film only because it sounded mad. I never expected to survive the screening. Nor did I expect that it would be a good film. It was more like “What?? Eight hours!?” Well, prejudgement is never a good idea.

Melancholia is, contrary to his other films, more or less neatly divided into three parts. The first part follows three characters who engage in a rather strange coping exercise after the loss of their loved ones. This is all the viewer knows at the time. Only slowly do we learn that the three characters know each other, and that they struggle to come to terms with the disappearance – and supposed death – of their partners, who were involved in a clash with the military. Their bodies have never been found. While the first part of the film focuses on this “trauma therapy”, the second part follows two of those characters – Alberta and Julian – in their day to day life. She’s working at a school, he is a book editor. There is also Hannah, a teenage girl, who Alberta adopted after her parents (good friends of Alberta’s) disappeared. And then there is the third part, which follows armed men in a jungle, losing their sanity, fearing their death – they’re the disappeared, the people who have died in the standoff with the military.

I remember the last section to be the single most tense section of a film I have ever seen. And why? Paradoxically, because this section is entirely based on absence, on imagined off-screen space, on paranoia. There’s nothing much to see in those endless minutes of armed men walking through the jungle. A local acts as a spy for them and from him they know that the island has been surrounded by the military and that there’s little hope of survival. We don’t see the military, though. What we do see is one man losing his sanity. The waiting game drives him mad. At some point he shouts “Here I am!”, kind of “Please shoot me and end this.” What happens is only revealed in the letters Renato, Alberta’s husband, writes, letters which will never find their addressee. It’s psychological warfare, transmitted perfectly onto the screen.

Encantos was about extrajudicial killings and artists’ activism. Florentina Hubaldo CTE was an exploration of the effects of colonialism. Melancholia is quite explicit about the disappeared. The torture of not knowing drives Julian, Alberta and Rina into a coping exercise, in which they immerse into different personae. Aim is the resurrection of feelings. Rina described them as the living dead, as wrecked. She’s the most skeptical about this exercise and loses her faith in it, saying that “There is no cure for this!” Even though Hannah is not exactly a lead role in the film, her character is a great study of the effects of (forced?) disappearances in the Philippines. She’s struggling to cling onto a “normal” life. She steals and prostitutes herself. She’s in and out of psychological treatment. The psychological warfare that drove the men in the jungle mad draws much larger circles and effects those left behind.

I studied the use of sound in Florentina, and the framing of the landscape in Encantos. Melancholia is a reminder of just how individual films and filmmakers are in their approaches. There are specific “rules” in film studies; x means y. This doesn’t work in Melancholia. The x you find has no y attached to it. You have to do more than flicking through the film studies bible. I remember the film for its rawness, and now, re-watching it, I’m reminded of just how raw the film is. And it is this rawness that makes interpretations of the film with the help of cinematic techniques difficult. While high pitched sound in Florentina was unmistakably linked to her mental state, the acoustic stress in Melancholia evokes nothing of that sort. It is simply not recorded properly. There’s no indication that the severe noise of cars, wind and rain has a meaning. It’s just a matter of sound equipment. The same is true for the framing. I have very little success in seeing, say, tilted frames as an indication for the disruption of the equilibrium. This film is entirely open and cannot be approached in the usual way.

I don’t complain. I love it. It actually makes you think. This is what I like about Diaz’s films. They’re unconventional in many respects. If you merely play your film studies cards, you will lose the game.