The nocturnal and the slow

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

The Man from London (Béla Tarr, 2007)

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

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

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

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.