Their Remaining Journey – John Clang (2018)

Their remaining journey… My journey. Your journey. Our journey. John Clang’s debut feature is one of those films that won’t let me go for a while. It might have taught be something. Perhaps. What is certain, though, is that the film has touched me deeply because it came at a time when I myself struggle with this journey Clang represents in Their Remaining Journey.

A week before Christmas, my father-in-law died after a long, painful battle with ALS, an incurable disease that puts a strain on everyone. His death came as a shock, but also as a relief. After three-and-a-half years of suffering, he could finally rest in peace. Life became a chore, death meant peace. He was only 59. That said, since he passed away, I’ve seen him several times. He appears in some situations, but not in others. I have never experienced this before, and this isn’t the first death in the family. But in this case, death must have struck a particular cord and it’s not easy to shake it off.

With that in mind, Clang’s magnificent debut was not always an easy watch. It’s not a film that you watch and forget. It’s not a film that contains flat images and a few spoken words. It’s a film that really speaks to you, a film that makes grief, in particular, palpable. It is a film about fear, frustration, despair, love, life. It blurs the lines between what is and what isn’t, between reality and imagination. Clang follows three main characters/families, who – each in their own way – deal with the loss (or the feared loss) of a loved one. There is a sense of pain apparent throughout the film.

Clang, a visual artist who made this powerful film his debut feature, is careful in his observation of grief and the interconnectedness of life and death. He takes his time, without over-stretching it. And yet, the film feels almost like slow-motion, despite the frequent use of quick cuts or even timelapse at various points. It’s the idea of life after death being slower. Grief and its seven associated stages deplete your energy. They exhaust you, tire you out. Sleep is essential, depression is not unusual. What happens is a change in our perception of time, very similar to what happens after a traumatic event. That said, death is traumatic for those who remain behind…

Their Remaining Journey often reminded me of the works of Lav Diaz. Clang allows his characters to develop. Nothing much happens in the film, nothing on the outside. The flat images on the screen, characterised as they are by a theme-enhancing monochrome grey, don’t say much. The first reading of the film is limited, simple. It was, I believe, Luis Rocha Antunes in his book The Multisensory Film Experience, who opposed the famous adage “the medium is the message” and instead suggested that it is the experience that is the message. That in turn brings me, once more, to Luke Hockley’s Somatic Cinema and the argument that there are (or can be) three layers of meaning in films. To me, not all films are as complex. However, Clang’s investigation of death – its aftermath or its potentiality – fits very much into a list of films that invite a experiential approach to understanding the director’s work.

It is not the chain of images that is important, albeit Clang demonstrates a very good eye for getting to the bottom of the subject he attempts to explore. What the director makes possible is an experience. It is a film that is felt rather than simply seen. It is felt even more so when you have recently lost a loved one and you’re in the midsts of grieving. What makes the film more experiential than others is, first of all, the time spent on the subject. With a running time of one hour forty, the film is not particularly long. But Clang doesn’t do much to drive the narrative forward. Their Remaining Journey is a vertical film. It doesn’t develop much horizontally (on the axis of narrative progression), because it puts almost everything into the exploration of psychology, which is the vertical axis (as I have demonstrated in previous blog posts and my PhD thesis).

The viewer’s journey is a vertical one. And so it might be for the dead. Is a horizontal progression possible after death, or is vertical the only direction left? I believe that Clang answers this question beautifully. The director goes deep, explores our minds, our expectations, our naked fears. He does so by confronting us with ourselves, by holding up a mirror and by asking us to take a journey…a journey with our loved ones, a journey with ourselves, to the depth of our feelings.

Nothing

Certainly, I could leave this blog post blank and let you do the thinking. This is what “nothing” is there for; it allows you to fill in the gaps that others have left, deliberately or by accident. “Nothing” can be liberating.

What brought me to this post is a film I saw last night. In Praise of Nothing by Boris Mitic is is a satirical documentary about Nothing. Narrated by Iggy Popp, it’s a humorous take on our lives, on how we deal with others, with difficulties, or even with nothing. But the film also invites profound thinking if you do more than just let the film wash over you. It contains beautiful long shots, minimalist shots in most cases, a kind that one finds regularly in other slow films, although I’m not yet entirely sure whether or not I would classify this film as Slow Cinema. In the end, it matters little because In Praise of Nothing contains a lot that made me think about the more general nature of slow films and also returned me to a book I had read as part of my doctoral research, but which I have, if I remember correctly, never reviewed as such on this blog. I’m speaking of François Cheng’s Empty and Full (or Vide et plein – Le langage pictural chinois in the original French).

François Cheng’s work teaches us a lot about how to look (at something), and how to appreciate nothingness, absence and emptiness which is so common in slow films. As Iggy Popp tells us quite rightly in In Praise…, “I (nothingness) am in every shot.” And it’s true. There is always en empty section in a film frame, or even in a painting. Even seemingly “full” paintings have their areas of what I would call rest. We struggle seeing this nothingness because we have gotten used to the capitalist idea that nothing(ness) means non-profitability. Non-profitability in turn is not desired, and so everyone needs to create something in order to fit into this system, in order to take part. Nothingness often only plays a role when we are exhausted from the capitalist hamster wheel and need to slow down. Then people flock to meditation where they often learn that nothingness is profitable after all, just perhaps not in monetary value.

What I feel more and more, especially now with film submissions I receive for tao films, is that slow film directors, just like Chinese painters during the Song dynasty period, for instance, use nothingness (either through a rigorous absence or positioning a certain something in the off) in order to express the state of their soul, or that of society, or even that of the world. The films are an expression of the soul; they’re not necessarily factual or try to teach us. Cheng puts emphasis on the importance of the soul throughout his work because it is key to reading (traditional) Chinese painting (but also slow films, I find). I have never felt so many souls, have seen so many takes on the human condition than in the films I have seen for tao. They go further than the classic Slow Cinema canon we know. They genuinely align themselves (unconsciously, I’m sure!) with what Chinese painters have described all along as how they approach their work and what they intend to show. And this has nothing to do of being aware of the painters’ desires at the time, or not. It’s about putting oneself into a mindset that favours nothingness.

According to Cheng, nothingness is a crucial means to create a relationship that blends us with nature, as well as the artwork and the viewer. It is not so much that we become one, but that we become aware of the other while acknowledging that whatever it is, it is our creation. That means that, again, whatever it is it is part of us, we’re part of it. When we speak about cinema, this element of nothingness might come through strongest in experimental films which present you with little else than slowly moving blurred images. It is the idea of an experience in which we create the meaning because the director has given us nothing; how to read his/her images, how to respond to them, how to make sense of them. These films leave you with nothing, and we blend into it because only when we see such a film is the film really complete. We play an essential role.

I have mentioned several times before the concept of a “vertical axis”, which Maya Deren so wonderfully described in the context of poetic film. In Chinese cosmology it is exactly there (as opposed to the horizontal axis which is all about fullness) that nothingness and fullness interact. Fullness always comes out of nothingness, while nothingness lives on in fullness. Again, we have this blending, this dependency. And again, this is, in a good film absolutely the case as I have seen so many times in the last five years of writing for this blog and in the last two years of my watching film submissions for tao films. There is a real understanding of this interaction between nothingness and fullness that allows one to contemplate, to think, sometimes to marvel at images. it is those times “where nothing is happening” that the real fullness of a scenes comes to the fore because suddenly we notice crucial aspects of the scene we’re seeing at the moment, or others that have already passed and return to our mind. But this can only happen in nothingness and not while being bombarded with fast-cut scenes in an action movie.

There is more in Cheng’s book, but I will return to this another day as I know that not everyone likes long-reads 🙂 For now this shall suffice to give you food for thought, and do try see In Praise Of Nothing. It’s a lovely film!

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

My, my, my…another strong arthouse film this year. And another one which is too good to be written about, if I’m honest. There are films which cannot be described in words. Sebastian Mez’s Postcards from the Verge (2017) is one of those films, a film that, like postcards, takes you on a journey into a different land. That land or these lands, to be correct, are Israel and Palestine.

The film starts with a black screen and no sound. After a while, the image of a fire burning in the far background of the black frame shapes up. The camera remains with the fire, lingering on it, focuses on it. This very first shot gives us an idea, a feeling, of what the next seventy odd minutes will be like: they will invite us to observe, to be in the very moments the director proposes to be in.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Mez’s film consists of chapters. Each chapter has a very specific aesthetic, especially visually. The first chapter stunned me because it felt as though I was looking at something through a third eye. The frame was structured in such a way that it gave the impression of an eye through which you observed, in wide angle shots, the landscape of Israel and Palestine. The director uses a stark black-and-white contrast for most of his frames, a contrast that is, for someone who loves black-and-white photography as much as I do, a real pleasure to look at. It’s the sort of visual aesthetic that makes my heart jump.

For a very long time in the film, there is nothing but images. Mez shows us the landscape of conflict, a conflict that has been ongoing for several decades, and which seems to find no end. There is one frame that struck me. It was a landscape shot, a slow pan, if I remember correctly, but perhaps my memory tricks me. What is important is that there is a tank in that landscape and because of the director’s use of high contrast black-and-white, you don’t see it at first. To me, this is a very good depiction of this conflict. Violence, and everything that embodies it, has become part of the fabric of those countries. Wherever you go, there is military; in the streets, at checkpoints, etc It has become normal, and no one sees it anymore. Just like you might not see the tank in that very frame because it is no longer standing out in a region that is in constant upheaval.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

At some point a voice over comes in. The voice over disrupts the contemplative nature of the images and comments on the conflict. But it’s not going into details. It’s a simple observation: “I think peace will be difficult to find because we want the same thing. The Jews want Al Aqsa to destroy it and build their own temple on it, and the Arabs want Al Aqsa to pray.” The viewer is left with this thought, an idea that seems viable but that goes beyond the complex political circumstances that we have come to know. It is an observation from the inside, with a take on the conflict that goes beyond the violence that saturates our thinking.

Mez lets us alone with this thought, and continues his visual journey through the landscape of conflict – in a letter boxed super-wide angle (does that even exist?), for example. The effect of this is interesting. The wide angle allows us to breathe. We can easily shift around our gaze on a horizontal axis. At the same time, however, the letter box around the image contracts it. It limits our gaze on a vertical axis. And the (metaphorical) vertical axis is the one of feeling and experience (if we think back to Maya Deren’s thoughts on the subject). A contracted vertical axis in a film about a conflict where feelings are numbed…

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Which brings me to the film’s fourth chapter, titled Vivid Memories. Overall, the film is like a photo album, and this becomes most evident in Vivid Memories. The frames are almost still images. Or perhaps they are still images. Or maybe Mez uses super slow-motion. In any case, these images are an embodiment of remembering, of vivid memories, just as the title of the film’s chapter proposes. The frames felt like memories. They reminded me of parts of Chris Marker’s La Jetee. There is something tangible in those images, often dreamlike, blurry at first, then becoming clearer with time.

With Postcard from the Verge, Mez has created lasting images, postcards that stay with you. The final chapter of the film speaks about silence. In fact, it doesn’t. This chapter is quiet, almost completely silent…

Poetic Cinema

I have recently watched Jia Zhang-ke’s wonderful and impressive piece I Wish I Knew (2010), and a thought popped into my head. First of all, I highly recommend Jia’s work. The World is an equally impressive work, so is Still Life. As he told JP Carpio in an interview, Lav Diaz admires Jia for his dedication to making films his way without letting his work be influenced by the state.

Anyway, there was this fantastic slow shot fairly at the beginning of the film, which struck me.

I Wish I Knew (2010)

It triggered my interest in photography, and my curiosity as to how various art forms are connected to form a unique experience for the viewer. This is especially true but not exclusive to Slow Cinema.

During my research, I have come across Maya Deren and her contribution to the Film and Poetry symposium in 1953 at which she caused controversy with her remark about film having a horizontal and a vertical axis. The vertical axis is the poetic axis. It’s the axis of mood, of feeling. It is the axis that allows the viewer a more in-depth perspective on the artwork.

If I follow the strand from the film and poetry symposium, I cannnot help thinking that Slow Cinema should, in effect, be called Poetic Cinema.

Poetry is a very personal work. It comes from the soul of the artist, and is often an expression of an artist’s deep feelings for something; his or her love for someone, or for a country, for a specific region, for the moonlight. There is an endless list.

We all had to recite poetry at school I suppose. If you think back to that time, what exactly comes to your mind about the way you recited poetry?

It was surely a slow recital. And it was a slow recital because only slowness would have transmitted a sense of the artist’s soul, of his feelings, even of his thinking. If you rushed through a poem without taking your time to read through the lines and without trying to grasp the artist’s soul in it, then you missed the entire piece. You may have read or recited a poem, but you haven’t actually lived it. This reminds me of a lengthy scene in Diaz’s Encantos when Teodoro recites a poem written by Hamin, the main protagonist in the film. It’s a long sequence, and it fits exactly to my way of seeing Slow Cinema: it’s Poetic Cinema.

Besides, whenever documentaries are ‘slow’, we call them ‘poetic’, and not slow. So why should feature films be treated differently? They share the same aesthetics.