I don’t want to sleep alone – Tsai Ming-liang (2006)

I discovered Tsai Ming-liang’s films early on in my research into Slow Cinema, or even well before I started my PhD. The director from Taiwan could, in fact, be the second slow-film director I have come across, and I don’t want to sleep alone (2006) was my very first Tsai film. It was great to return to the film last night. I was not only reminded of the qualities of Tsai as a filmmaker and observer of society. I felt as tough I was going back in time, doing the first baby steps in discovering aspects of Slow Cinema that would become so vital for my later work. In everything I have said and written so far, I have always considered Tsai to be an exceptional director. I’m not using the word “exceptional” only in terms of quality, albeit it certainly applies to him. There is no doubt about it. But what I actually think of is Tsai’s particular aesthetic, primarily his use of architecture in conveying a sense of alienation, isolation, solitude, the sense of being outside, excluded, different.

I don’t want to sleep alone is very strong on this specific element. The story is, as in most slow films, comparatively easy to summarise. The film tells two parallel stories. One of them concerns a young man paralysed from the neck down. He’s tied to bed and is looked after by a young woman, who lives in a claustrophobic, cramped mezzanine above a woman’s flat. The woman’s relationship to the paralysed man is never clearly established. I’m not entirely sure who she is. She could be his mother, perhaps? It matters little. Towards the end of the film, an estate agent leads people through the flat where the young man lays in his bed. It is a bizarre situation. The cruelty is rubbed into our face. I felt helpless as a viewer.  It’s an uncomfortable situation. The young man is exposed to the views of total strangers. The aim is to sell the house, and in the off we hear an argument about this: “You only think of selling the house. Where will your brother live then? Will your wife look after him?” The scene ends with the maid being slapped in the face by the woman under whose roof she lives. What has just happened?

The question isn’t that unusual for a Tsai film. The reason for this is that he makes extensive use of off-screen sound and dialogue, as well as a particular “architectural” aesthetic. I believe that Tsai’s films are often more about what isn’t there than about what we see clearly. But compared to other directors, Tsai doesn’t simply put focus on the off. He uses walls, doors, and hallways instead in order to represent a border, a sort of frontier between the present and the absent, the places of here and there, the places of where I am and where I want to be. Tsai’s frame architecture is a maze which we have to navigate. Architecture, in whatever way it is used, is an expression of the characters’ minds. Béla Tarr as well as Lav Diaz use landscapes in order to represent their characters’ psychology. For Tsai, it is primarily the particular characteristic of architecture that becomes the main character in all of his later films. Walls, streets, staircases – they all speak volumes.

What struck me most was the way in which Tsai filmed walls. Almost all of them run diagonally through the frame. No one stands straight in front of a wall. There is no frontal shot of any wall at all. Walls run through most of the film’s frames, but they only do so diagonally. This suggests the opposite of “a light at the end of the tunnel”. The walls close off the frames. It suggests increased imprisonment, or perhaps rather a continuation of imprisonment, the continuation of isolation. In almost all scenes in which Tsai lets walls run diagonally, there is no sense of escape for the characters. It feels as though the walls close in more and more, the further they walk towards the horizon. This is a strong statement, especially in a film such as I don’t want to sleep alone, in which many of the characters are migrant workers, some of them from Bangladesh, who try to make a living, but who, we know, will never escape their precarious situation. They are as confined to their situation, as is the paralysed man in his bed, exposed to others, to external circumstances (such as the sale of a house).

But it wouldn’t be a Tsai Ming-liang film without intimate human connections that appear so bizarre that it is almost funny. This is something Tsai shares with Albert Serra; an underlying sense of humour, a dark humour, a dry humour that might not be for everyone, but that can almost be considered the core of their work. Neither director is making straightforward comedies. And yet, both include in their films scenes that lighten the mood a bit, that allows the viewer a bit of relief from the depressive world the directors show, albeit this is more true of Tsai than of Serra. In any case, what matters here is Tsai’s focus on human connections, on the intimacy (or not) between them and what our world, our society does to us. It seems as though human connections will always be there, regardless of external circumstances. And Tsai not only shows those connections on screen, such as when the character of Lee Kang-sheng masturbates a woman in a dark backstreet, just behind a small restaurant at the corner where she is working.

Connection, human or not, is, just like architecture, a core element in I don’t want to sleep alone. The title itself suggests as much. Loneliness in a busy city which never sleeps. Alienation juxtaposed with an eternal longing for a feeling of intimacy, for warmth. That is the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang. But compared with his later films, which tend to get bleaker and bleaker, and which he empties more and more of human intimacy, there is something of us as loving human beings left. This, of course, is established on a visual level. The use of sound is equally important, however. It starts right at the beginning. While we see the opening credits, we hear German classical music. It appears to be non-diegtic music, music that does not stem from the actual film world but which has been added in post-production. But a cut makes clear that the music is, in fact, diegetic. It comes from a radio that stands on the nightstand next to the bed of the paralysed man. Tsai uses this strategy several times in the film. Music bridges two scenes. It connects them, brings them together, something that the film characters long for, but which only really seems to happen on an auditory level.

Rupture is more present in Sleep than smooth connections. I remember an almost literal jump cut at the beginning of the film from the paralysed man’s room to a scene set in busy streets, showing two characters waiting for take-away food. The rupture, the sudden change in sound, shifting from quietude to sensory overstimulation, made me jump. It’s an extreme change on a visual and on an aural level, which was disorienting. I can imagine that this is what it was like for the migrant workers, depicted in Tsai’s film, when they arrived in the big, unknown city. Although set and filmed in Malaysia, Sleep tells a universal story, which, in fact, a lot of slow films do. But Tsai stands out with his particular aesthetics that make his films as recognisable as any Tarr or Diaz film. Having rewatched the film after seven years, I can say that it wasn’t surprising that I got hooked on the director’s work. He’s just damn good. His films are touching, very expressive, deep and heartfelt. Sleep is also a good entry to Tsai’s work in general, if you’d like to discover it. The advantage is that most of his films are available on DVD. Time for you to check Google!

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 Béla 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 Béla 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.

The Multisensory Film Experience

If there is one thing that is visible in my research of the last three to four years, then it is my interest in why certain films attract me more than others. I’m fascinated by film experience, a fascination which started with Slow Cinema and then shifted to slow trauma cinema (specifically the cinema of Lav Diaz). Why did I get so hooked on Slow Cinema? In a previous post, I wrote about my experience with post-trauma and how Slow Cinema helped me to deal with anxiety and sensory overstimulation. For me, slow films were therapeutic. At the same time, I was reading an eye-opening book called Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen – a Jungian perspective by Luke Hockley. I discovered “the three meanings” of a film, the third (speaking to something in the unconscious, unknown to us) being the reason why I have one film in particular which I cannot watch to the end. I don’t know why, but there seems to be a relation between the film and my unconscious.

Now, this reading and this experience showed to me that film is not just an audio-visual product. I could already feel this when I investigated the ways in which Lav Diaz used specific aesthetics in order to transmit a sensation of post-trauma to the viewer. Post-trauma is more than just audio-visual. It goes deep under your skin, so if a film wants to evoke this, it has to go deep under your skin too. In effect, film being a multisensory experience is a no-brainer. I believe people are aware that it’s not just about images and sound. However, this is what scholars focus on, even more so on image than on sound. Film critics follow a similar line. There is little talk about the experience of a film, regardless of where you look. Especially in scholarship, experience is a sort of plague which you should try to avoid. It is subjective and mostly individual, therefore you cannot prove anything or write an objective scientific paper backed up with facts. But film viewing isn’t fact, it’s experience. It always was and it will always be, whether we’re speaking of popular mainstream or niche arthouse cinema.

I was therefore happy to read Luis Rocha Antunes’ book Multisensory Film Experience: A Cognitive Model of Experiental Film Aesthetics (2016), which contains a lot of material that is applicable to Slow Cinema, or that comes specifically from slow films. Antunes even mentions Slow Cinema, which doesn’t surprise me at all. He argues that the multisensory in film can be felt primarily in films with little dialogue, films which allow time for viewer experience, films which are often austere in their aesthetics. That is not to say that other films don’t offer this experience. It is just more difficult to perceive an action blockbuster as multisensory rather than as an image-sound-product. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Specifically, Antunes writes: “By using non-verbal communication and the senses, these films capture the interest of various audiences. The experiential appeal of these films is universal” (2016: 7).

The fact that the experiential aspect is universal explains (to me) why there is a rather large group of people attracted to slow films, and if you ask them why they’re attracted to it, it seems as though they all feel the same. Certainly to different degrees, but it is always about the specific experiential aspect of the films, not about how amazing the actress looks, or how mind-blowing the cuts were. There is something that sits deeper in those viewers who admire slow films, and I believe that Antunes’ book is a very good start to explore this “something”.

After years heavy with sensorial experience, be it through post-trauma or through cinema, I can heartily support Antunes’ proposition that “the experience is the message”: “it is the experience – not the medium alone – that defines the perceptual nature of the message” (2016: 13). In some ways, this is one of the cornerstones of meditation and Buddhist/Taoist beliefs. It is about experience. For that to happen, for the experience to materialise, you need to be in the moment, in the present, and this can be facilitated through certain aesthetic choices by filmmakers, as is the case in Slow Cinema, the way I see it. In fact, Antunes mentions slow-film directors as varied as van Sant, Tsai Ming-liang and Albert Serra.

The issue is that we have lost the ability to be in the moment, which makes it difficult for us to feel a film as a multisensory experience. This explains why so much emphasis is placed on images first of all, then maybe on sound. If they follow classic patterns like changes of colour for mood changes or change of shot lengths if a character reveals something important to the narrative, images are easy to read. Add a chunk of quick cuts, and the viewer has little chance to be with a film. I think Antunes’ book is worth reading if you’d like to understand the psychological and biological processes behind the multisensory film experience. Antunes cognitive model can be overwhelming, but it is an eye-opener, or perhaps rather a reminder of what cinema is about, namely experience.

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.

vlcsnap-2016-09-19-12h01m26s106

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.

vlcsnap-2016-09-19-11h57m12s909

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.

vlcsnap-2016-09-19-12h51m51s292

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?

Slow Cinema, ed by Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge (2015)

I’m not sure where to start with this one. Not considering the content for a minute, the new and very first edited collection on Slow Cinema, aptly titled Slow Cinema appears like a bit of a fraud. A subject that has been carried by film viewers, lay film critics, and PhD students, is now appropriated by professors of high reputation who have little to do with the subject, meaning I don’t think they have expertise in the subject. A friend of mine also went through the list of contributors and said that the choice of authors made little sense. Unless, of course, you want to attract buyers who see that this book was written by professors of high standing. This method usually works. I reckon that this is also the reason to include the great Jacques Rancière, who didn’t have to be in the edited collection. His book on Béla Tarr is by far better than his chapter in the Slow Cinema book.

It is ironic, and to me it says a lot about academia and academic publishing, that a book about a subject carried by lay people has the highest amount of professors in the list of contributors I have ever had in my hands. And I really mean professors. I don’t mean lecturers. Given the work that has been done outside academia, this collection is a slap in the face to everyone who worked very hard on bringing the subject forward. Where are those PhD students who studied the subject for years and brought real innovation to it? I miss a student from my university who submitted an abstract for a chapter which would have dealt with cinematic slowness in North African cinema – a real novelty in the current geographical foci in Slow Cinema research. Where are those writer-filmmakers (like Erik Bordeleau)? If you are familiar with the subject and look through the list of contributors and contributions, you will notice that the official “Call For Papers” which was published a couple years ago was no more than a nice gesture but there was little intention in bringing together experts on the subject or in creating something new. The aim was to be first and not necessarily good. At the same time, it looks as though most of the contributors have been determined in advance, but only for their names, not for their long and close research interests in Slow Cinema…which, as I said, made the CfP pretty much redundant.

If you have read Jacques Rancière’s work on Béla Tarr, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have read Song Hwee Lim’s book on Tsai Ming-liang, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have already read Karl Schoonover’s work on Slow Cinema and the labouring body, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have read Cecilia Mello’s work on Jia Zhang-ke, you don’t need to buy this book. Nor do I believe that the almost static films of Andy Warhol (Sleep) should be subject in a book on Slow Cinema. Justin Remes has done well reading those films in his book Motionless Pictures, but Warhol should not be in a Slow Cinema collection. I could go on. After three years of research into the area, I have found myself whispering “I read this somewhere before” (and not necessarily by that specific author) a couple of times, and if you have followed this blog and read through some of my bibliography, which I update regularly, this book is nothing new to you. The monographs which are out there – as mentioned about Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, or even Tiago de Luca’s Realism of the Senses (2014) – are a great deal better.

Thankfully, the price of the book has dropped by now and it has become affordable. Nevertheless, if you’re a Slow Cinema afiniciado you should check out the monographs which exist out there already and keep reading material by lay film critics. With the hundreds and hundreds of reviews, blog posts and other material this edited collection failed to make a real contribution. One exception is once more Philippa Lovatt’s work, who is probably the only person out there who’s actively working on sound, which is always a refreshment because Slow Cinema is primarily discussed in terms of time and its visual aspects. Sound tends to be neglected. Besides, she writes about a director who has not yet been written about in all details: Liu Jiayin (Oxhide I).

The book’s most remarkable achievement is its complete neglect of this website. Harry Tuttle’s is in there. David Bordwell’s is in there. But no mention of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema (to be fair, the website is in a reference but only because I have uploaded a paper of mine, so my paper is quoted, not my website). This isn’t a personal thing. It is simply strange that there’s a website – I’d say perhaps the website on Slow Cinema these days – which the editors are aware of (I submitted an abstract and mentioned the website in my biography, besides if you look for Slow Cinema on Google my website comes 2nd after Wikipedia), and it doesn’t even get a mention. Given the contributors I can only imagine the reason. It’s not that it’s a blog. It’s a blog by someone who didn’t have a PhD at the time. In itself, this is disappointing because this website has done a lot to bring research forward and to open up the Slow Cinema canon.

What bugs me is that quite a few of my ideas from this blog appear in the book’s introduction with no reference at all. Now, you could say that I shouldn’t have made my thoughts public. But that isn’t the point I’m arguing about here. I do not own my ideas because there certainly are other people who have the same ideas on the same subject. To me it’s frankly a matter of decency and part of research ethics to cross-reference each other. I did so in my PhD thesis. I thought I had a fantastic idea but a few weeks after I had written down my ideas I found a text which, scarily enough, was even written in almost the exact same matter. These things do happen. But I referenced the student’s work because of decency and ethics. As I know that the editors are aware of this blog and that, if you research Slow Cinema, you land on this website almost by default now (which I’m proud of), this looks to me like a deliberate exclusion for whatever reason. This isn’t ethical research and summarises my experience in academia for the last three years.

The ideas someone celebrates himself for has perhaps its origins here, so please keep this in mind when, or if, you read this book. Having read this book made the entire business of film distribution and a VoD service much stronger and, personally, necessary because after those now six years following Slow Cinema and seeing the academic development, all I can say is that it’s time to get out of there and do something that is useful for the filmmakers and the films and not for my reputation as an academic, scrambling for a piece of the slow cake.

That said, if you’re a total beginner in slow films, this collection may be worth buying. If you have followed the subject for years, then it is not worth at all unless you want to read something you have already read several times before. It’s a real shame that this collection turned out like this. But once I heard which abstracts had been rejected (all of which promising and really unique), I could guess what the agenda of the book was. The final product shows exactly that.

8 Questions for Sebastian Cordes

His poetic observation A place called Lloyd (2015) made Danish director Sebastian Cordes a slow-film director to look out for in future. I had a brief chat with him about his film. My thanks goes to Sebastian, who made this possible!

I always start my interviews with questions about how filmmakers have come across their subject. I find this particularly intriguing in your case. It is not the kind of everyday situation or place we usually find in slow films. So, how did you find this “place called Lloyd”?

As much as I would like to say that I was travelling around South America, and found this magical place on a journey to discover new stories, it was as simple as an article I read in the Danish newspaper Politiken. A classic stumple-upon-story. But I was struck by it, and thought ‘we have to go immediately!’ So we actually managed to get some funding real quick and really nice equipment by the Filmworkshop (under the Danish Film Institute) in Copenhagen, but didn’t want to go into long term negotiations with pitches and budgets with bigger production companies, the story could be gone by then. This is why the budget of the film was something like 10.000 dollars.

I noticed that the film is centred on the people of the former airline Lloyd Aero Boliviano. Was that your choice from the beginning or did that particular approach crystallise during the pre-production/shoot? I’m asking because many of your shots are stunning. Your film could have easily been an entirely visual piece on the subject.

First of all, to call it a ‘former airline’ is not entirely correct, especially if you look at it from their point of view. They still work, trying to get a license to fly again etc. But yes, admittedly, the pictures that accompanied the article attracted me, because of the abandoned nature in it. The dusty hangars, the worn out planes (what a metaphor for loss, to have your wings clipped!). It is not on purpose if it seems centered around something, rather it is centered around the nothingness at the place, and how this apparent nothingness is filled with meaning, pride, history and absurdity. How the buildings have this immanent aura to them.
It quickly became evident that this was a place like no other place I had ever been to. And the film needed to express this, not explain it. This is why there’s almost no talking, and when there is, it’s not interviews, but merely monologues told to the camera. We did not seek out stories that fitted into any predetermined idea of the place, but people came up to us out of the blue, and told us stories, that we then would ask them if they wanted to tell again on camera. So we tried to film, or express, our experience of the place, and stay away from any common logic of storytelling. I’m not really interested in that essentialist way of trying to narrow it to down to what the place is, as if that’s possible. Instead of looking at what it is, I’d rather look at how it is, or just that it is. To quote the first sentence of the Eminem/Rihanna song Love The Way You Lie “I can’t tell you what it really is. I can only tell you what it feels like.”

There are several beautiful shots which stand out. They have something photographic about them. How much time do you actually spend on composing those images? How important are the visuals to you?

This is where other filmmakers usually have eyes wide open and shake their head, especially documentary filmmakers. We would often use 10-15 minutes to set up a shot, and this is after we have gone scouting for that shot, perhaps the day before, taking notes, and if there’s supposed to be a person in the shot, test it out with one of us in front of the camera, notice when the light is how we want it – what time of the day is best etc. And then, we had sort of a silent agreement, me and the camera man, Jakob, that even if we went through all this and one of us had any doubt that we probably wouldn’t want it in the final film, we didn’t shoot it. As if we were filming on celluloid made of gold. This is why we only came back with less than four hours of material, for an 80 min film. Something that people also have a hard time believing.

Don’t get me started on the importance of the visuals. It is a puzzle why form and content is separated in the way it is in cinema still. I simply don’t get it. It seems Aristotle won that battle. The visuals are extremely important to me – it is the same as asking how important is the content. Well, they don’t go without each other. It been a forty years since McLuhan pointed out that the medium is the message, but perhaps it didn’t ring a bell for the people in cinema. And I often feel like an outcast pointing this out, as if it’s even close to being avant-garde to say that. It isn’t in any other art form.

You spend a lot of time capturing the daily affairs of the people. This is primarily achieved through long-takes. Why did you choose an aesthetic of slowness for the depiction of your subject?

Because I’m a lazy filmmaker, basically. But I have good arguments to back it up, if people don’t accept this. No, I honestly believe that A Place Called Lloyd could not have been made in any other way, if we were to be true to our experience of the place. It might be slow, it might be boring, it might be beautiful, it might be experimental, but is more true to that place, as it is now, than a journalistic or historic account. It is almost a naive, childish pointing that structures the film, not a generalising adult or a scientist way of organizing the world. Like the camera says ‘Look at this over here, it’s an empty office. Now look at this, it’s a hangar!’, as if everything has equal value. This is what Hölderlin referred to when he rightfully said, that what a poet can do is to make something interesting, just by pointing at it.

I’m interested in ways of inhabiting the world, ways being in the world so to speak. And the slowness, the static shots, is something that allows for this to unfold. I’m not that interested in events and climaxes. The slowness allows for thought, basically. Your mind starts to wander, and I think of this as a positive thing. Milan Kundera said that speed has to do with forgetting, and slowness is connected to remembering, to memory. I really like this thought. I also remember reading somewhere that in Tsai Ming-Liangs films, the main character is always time itself. I could really identify with this.

The daily affairs is a subject a care a lot for. I’m in favour of looking at the Other as a screen of informations, where you can’t enter the mind or the intentions of him/her, but only have access to the appearance. Then habits become something loaded with enormous potential meaning, the daily actions as something revealing. Especially with the state of the company as backdrop. And if the daily live is repetitive, the film should be too. This is where film has an advantage as an artform, as visible surfaces extended in time.

I remember during a conversation at the Danish Film School between Joshua Oppenheimer and Werner Herzog that I was watching, they came up with the phrase “out of the soil, not out of the head” to describe their approach to style. I like this, even though I have to add that inevitably there’s as head on that soil, that wants to capture something.

There are two very moving interviews, or rather monologues, in your film. Interestingly – considering the subject of Lloyd, namely the death of an airline – both stories describe events that are connected to actual death in one way or another.

Monologue is a good word, because we didn’t use interviews, we would ask them if they would retell stories they told us. I normally use the word stories, but monologue is better actually. Yes, you also mentioned in your review the focus of death in slow cinema in general, and I hadn’t actually thought of it before. This must one of those unintentional but revealing things that a director can’t explain himself.

The place did seem to have an aura of a last breath before death, but this breath has been held for 7-8 years, and who says you can’t turn back to life just before you exhale that last breath.

In my review, I mentioned Denis Côté and Carlos Casas. Your film, I find, is very close to Côté’s style in Bestiaire, but as far as I know you don’t know either of the two directors. So what or who are your influences?

Only by name, I haven’t seen any of their films before, that’s true. I have a lot of influences, I’m basically a big fanboy of a lot of things. And then I copy all of them, and put them in a big bowl and mix it, so hopefully no one notices. With this film, just to mention a few: In terms of editing – minimalist music (especially Steve Reich). In terms of sound and the approach of inviting people into your mediated experience of a place – Harvard Sensory Lab, (and the book Doing Sensory Ethnography by Sarah Pink). In terms of visuals, Andy Wahol and the godfather of Danish documentary film Jørgen Leth. In terms of slowness and the effect on the audience that that a lingering camera can have – Jim Jarmusch, but also Beckett and Camus – the absurdity of continuing without any promise of good in the future.

I tend to read a lot of philosophical and academic stuff (I studied philosophy for four years). Hegel, Zizek, John Cage, Heidegger and Deleuze makes me want to make film a thousand times more than watching films in general. I try to watch more, but I have to force myself to it.

Have the people already seen your film? Have you actually returned to Bolivia since you’ve finished Lloyd?

We were there in February, but haven’t been back yet unfortunately. This is mostly due to funding and festival planning, because we all want to go back. This was one of my greatest experiences ever, the people, the food, the place in itself. This is one of the reasons a make documentary films, however experimental they are. There is a world, that you let yourself plunge into, experience and organise with your camera. That, and my general lack of imagination.

Are you working on a new project already?

I’m working on a hopeless project doomed to go wrong, or at least turn out extremely incomplete. I want to do a film on slowness, or lingering, in itself. Instead of dancing around, using the method of slowness, boredom etc. I want to remove any story that could uphold the film and keep the attention of the audience and try to film the concept of slowness. Can you even film a concept?

I’m thinking of blending the form of Jim Jarmusch’ Coffee & and Cigarettes-like conversations, orbiting around Slow Food, Heideggers notion of boredom and areas like that, with examples of slowness; calligraphy, wandering, wild life sound recorders, sex. And then readings to the camera, like the monologues in A Place Called Lloyd.

After the premiere at CPH:DOX, a couple of people came up to me and said they were really annoyed with the pace of the film for the first ten minutes, but then they gave up being critical. And they told me they had a whole new cinematic experience. This reminded me of Hannah Arendt, my girlfriend has just written an academic paper on her. She said that thinking is fundamentally a destructive force. Dwelling makes you think, makes you reconsider, makes you meet your own conscience. It doesn’t build, it reconsiders. This is a very political intention, of course not in the classical sense.

But I think that by getting rid of a story, I can dig deeper into that notion of opening up to a space where this is possible. Where the audience can be attuned to thought. But the most important here is again, that we don’t explain anything, but invite to the sensory experience of slowness.

 

Cemetery of Splendour – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015)

I need to make a general observation about Apichatpong Weerasethakul first before I go into detail about his new (and wonderful) film Cemetery of Splendour (2015), his Cannes entry five years after he won the Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past livesApichatpong is very often regarded as one main player in the field of Slow Cinema. It is true that especially his early films are very slow and use the long-take long shot combination with little dialogue attached to it. Since Uncle Boonmee, however, Apichatpong is moving away from those strict Slow Cinema aesthetics. This doesn’t mean that his films are not slow. They are, but his films are less strictly Slow Cinema. His films have shifted seamlessly into the broad category of arthouse cinema, which is always slower than the average film. I noticed this shift when I watched Mekong Hotel in 2012, and Cemetery of Splendour is another example. So I’m not even sure whether this post should be on this site or not. I also feel as if I need to point (once more!) to the critics who all said that Cemetery of Splendour was Apichatpong’s best film – and at the same time his most accessible. Again, accessibility guarantees success with critics, as we have seen with Lav Diaz before. Just don’t give critics a film they need to puzzle together.

I used this phrase in my previous post already: “regardless of its pace” – Cemetery of Splendour is a wonderful film. It has a dreamy, meditative atmosphere around it. Jen, Apichatpong’s all-time muse, tends to a soldier suffering from an unexplainable sleep sickness. As usual in the director’s films, it is at some point difficult to distinguish between reality and dream. The line between the two couldn’t be thinner. I don’t agree to the comment that Cemetery of Splendour is Apichatpong’s most accessible film. Story-wise it is, perhaps, because what is happening to the soldiers is explained to the viewer. I found it a bit disappointing. I would have rather kept wondering what went on. On the other hand, it worked nicely and it made the story even more intriguing (and no, I’m not saying what it is!). But this didn’t make clear what was real and what was just a dream or a hallucination, which, I find, also contributes to the respective accessibility of a film. If you think you have understood the story but actually cannot tell right from wrong, accessibility is a relative term.

I saw a brief interview with Apichatpong on French-German channel ARTE in which he explained a few things about the now well-known lamps he used in his films. I loved every single scene which contained those lamps. I found them fascinating, and they had something mysterious and supernatural to them. Something that helped blur the line between reality and dream, between life and death. Apichatpong said that he had read something about the link between light, memory and sleep – a fascinating point I would love to investigate further.

I’m not entirely sure whether it has been written about already somewhere. I noticed explicit references to Tsai Ming-liang and his films. During the screening I wondered whether this was intended (which I believe it was), or whether it was completely incidental. There are three references; Jen washing the body of a sleeping soldier called Itt (Tsai’s I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone), Jen and Itt in the cinema, filmed from behind so that we can see the cinema screen as well as the back of their heads (Tsai’s Goodby Dragon Inn) and a specific shot of escalators in the cinema, which had, to me, strong reminiscences of Tsai’s shots of interior architecture in pretty much all of his films. An homage to the Taiwanese director? Perhaps.

In any case, Cemetery of Splendour contains quite a bit of food for thought again. There was this scene in which Jen says that she doesn’t like Americans because they are poor. She prefers Europeans because it is the Europeans who live the American dream. Interesting proposition, which led me to all kinds of thoughts. There is also a nice point about the preference of stone sculptures showing skeletons over a golden palace with a bathroom made of marble. Perhaps stone, even though it is always regarded as cold, is closer to real life?

I couldn’t help but think that Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps Apichatpong’s most personal film. Perhaps not for himself, but for Jen, the main character and actress. It was a film very much tailored to her and her life story; a great thing to do in a way after many many years of collaboration. The viewer certainly gets to know Jen better than in Apichatpong’s previous films, and it feels as though we’re taking a unique trip with her through dreams and hallucinations. Or maybe we don’t. Who knows that with Apichatpong’s films!?

Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps not the director’s best film. I still favour Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Nevertheless, the film is another great demonstration of the skills of the Thai filmmaker. The visuals are at times superb. The story is fascinating and possibly more engaging than that of his previous films. Maybe that’s why critics liked the film more. The story is progressing easier. There’s less stagnation than in say, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This may all be well for some people, but there is also a scene, for instance, towards the very end which screams of commercial horror. It neither fit nor was it in any way useful to the story. It was a scene that could have been seen in a commercial film, i.e. it could have easily been cut in Apichatpong’s film. Why did he leave it in? I hope there wasn’t a pressure point for him, because despite so many producers from around the world involved in his filmmaking now, he has so far remained independent in his style. I hope it remains this way.

The Royal Road – Jenni Olson (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

(E)Motion in slow films

A couple of days I ago, I came across a new article by Ira Jaffe, who wrote the, to me, unconvincing book Slow Movies (2014). In Slow Cinema: Resistance to Motion and Emotion, Jaffe argues that form and content work together in expressing a resistance to motion and emotion. For Jaffe, a lack or a suppression of emotion is a key characteristic of slow films. His examples are as varied as Lisandro Alonso’s, Béla Tarr’s and Gus van Sant’s films. He rules out non-narrative “slow” films such as Derek Jarman’s Blue because the film contains too much emotion, mainly delivered through voice over. If I follow Jaffe’s approach here, we can rule out Lav Diaz as a slow-film director. Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, for instance, would not be a slow film.

I find this apparently clear line between slow movies (no (e)motion) and “the rest of cinema” (motion + emotion) problematic. I don’t think that the characters actually resist emotion, even though some directors, such as Lisandro Alonso – as Jaffe demonstrates, even though he doesn’t give a source for it – ask their characters not to show too much emotion. The question first of all is, how do we define emotion? It looks as though the basis of Jaffe’s article is the heightened, artificially exaggerated display of emotion on popular cinema. If one compares slow films to those artificial portraits of emotion, then yes – Slow Cinema is dead. There’s no life in the films. But – and here is the crux – I think Jaffe forgot the idea of slow-film directors turning to a somewhat more realistic approach to film. I think very few people have emotions the way they do in Hollywood. To me, the display of these extreme switches bares similarities to bi-polar disorder. But this isn’t the norm. In general, we humans are simply flat. We do not walk around shouting, crying, laughing, and all this in the course of an hour. What slow films display is a more realist take on what we humans are like. If you filmed me for a day or two, you wouldn’t see much emotion either. I’m in the same kind of mood pretty much all day.

A second question that needs to be asked is, does the suppression of emotion only apply to the character? What about the emotion of the viewer? I find that most slow films move me, especially the films of Lav Diaz, Tsai Ming-liang and Béla Tarr. These films may be characterised as lacking emotion, but they sure stir emotion in me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Basically, it’s the same effect popular films are aiming for: making the audience feel. The aesthetics of Slow Cinema and popular cinema couldn’t be more different from one another. But the effect is the same. I don’t think that someone who makes films about trauma, or the slow death of cities and life in them, or the suffocating alienation in urban spaces aims for boring the audience. There’s no point telling these stories if they are merely used to bore the viewer. These stories are told in order to evoke something in the viewer; i.e. emotion. It is interesting here that Patrick Holzapfel, in his article The Sehnsucht nach Bewegungslosigkeit im Kinoargues that even if you look at a static photograph, one moves emotionally.

Photographs are similar to slow films. I have written about this characteristic before. Just like in photographs, you may not see everything in one frame. You may not see, say, a disturbing event which, for instance, led to the death of a mother’s child. You may simply see the mother in a picture. She may not even cry. The story around it, however, is full of emotion and this is transmitted to the viewer. To me, many slow films are similar to that. And because we move emotionally, as Holzapfel has argued, there is always movement in connection to Slow Cinema. It may not be the camera. But nevertheless, the films are more alive than is commonly presented. We just look at the wrong side of things.

No No Sleep – Tsai Ming-liang (2015)

Semi-retired filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang continues to impress with his Walker series, of which the seventh instalment has popped up on YouTube. It is astonishing that even though these short films are, I assume, all supposed to be about the red-robed Lee Kang-sheng, there are nevertheless unique elements in each of the shorts. The Walker series is not only about a monk, at times invisible in masses of people, who walks from A to B. In fact, I believe that Tsai is changing his approach ever so slightly in order to avoid boredom on the part of the viewer. Then again, if you click on the YouTube video you can find all the comments underneath. There’s so far only one in English, and this one says “WTF”. I don’t think I need to say more 🙂

What makes No No Sleep different from the previous Walker instalments? First of all, Tsai changes the locations. The first instalment, the original Walker, was set in busy Hong Kong. He then switched to Marseille, and now we’re in Tokyo. Tokyo, for me the embodiment of speed, and therefore an apparent must for a Walker film. But this would be too straightforward. Tsai’s new short is set late in the evening. Tokyo is everything but busy. It is a comparatively quiet place, which goes well with the monk’s speed, or slowness, however you want to define it (“pace” is perhaps the best word!). Whereas in Journey to the Westit was a game for the viewer to find the red-robed slow-walking monk in superbly constructed frames, No No Sleep consists of frames without the monk. This is, for someone who is used to the previous instalments, confusing. I spent quite some time looking for the monk because I expected him to be there; somewhere, wherever, hidden in good old Tsai Ming-liang style.

But no, not all frames show the monk. Tsai plays with our expectations. He makes his Walker series interesting by using small elements as game changers, as is the case with the Find-The-Monk game. Another interesting aspect at the beginning of No No Sleep is the fact that a narrative, or at least a progression of whatever you may call it, is constructed through editing. This is quite remarkable in that this is hardly ever the case in Tsai’s films, or in Slow Cinema in general. One take shows one event. No No Sleep moves away from this. The monk’s endless walk (across a bridge?) is shown in a strikingly traditional manner: extreme long shot, medium shot, reverse shot. A progression is intimated through the use of different shot distances over the course of perhaps seven minutes. This felt a bit like a shock at first. A sudden cut to a medium shot in order to show the same thing, only from a different distance, was not what I was used to. But again, these are the elements which keep the Walker series interesting.

There is one scene, which I absolutely loved. It blew my mind even though it was dead simple. There was no monk to be seen, although he could have been in the train which comes to a stop in front of us. It feels as if we’re on a platform at a train station. A train is moving into the station. But for some reason we suddenly start to move. This mind-boggling experience, especially visually, prevents you for a few seconds to realise that the camera is set on a tripod in another train, which sets off and takes you through Tokyo at night. This extensive scene is beautiful, mind boggling and simply superb. It completely disrupts the idea of slowness, but this doesn’t make it less interesting for me, the viewer. It was one of the most wonderful scenes I have seen in a film for a long time, and I thought that this scene alone would be perfect for a gallery. I could have been on this train for an hour or two.

Another surprise is that Tsai starts to infuse his Buddhist monk walks with the sexual undertones we know from his feature films. I always thought that Tsai would shy away from this, but he proved me wrong. Again, this is lovely because No No Sleep upset my expectations and I was reminded that I should simply not expect anything when I watch a Tsai film, or any slow film for that matter. Just let the film happen to me.