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…

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting III

Time to go into more detail about Slow Cinema and Chinese painting. You can find Part 1 and 2 here and here.

I start with the perhaps most obscure of the comparisons. It needs a bit of thinking out of the box, or thinking around the corner. Whatever you prefer.

I haven’t really looked into much detail about the formats of Western landscape painting. The Chinese used horizontal scrolls and vertical scrolls. It’s the vertical scrolls that we tend to remember most often when we think of Chinese painting. I guess it’s because it’s out of the ordinary, and it is always the extraordinary that catches our eye (unfortunately).

Verticality had its root in Chinese culture. For instance, time was expressed in vertical terms in order to follow the flow of the water – from up the mountain down to the sea. What we describe as before and after with regard to time, is in Chinese an expression of up and down. Also, the social order was more or less vertical. Binyon argued that the tie of father to son and vice versa was overall stronger than the tie of husband and wife, which was a horizontal tie, if you wish.

Vertical paintings had as their roots the depiction of the interrelation of Heaven and Earth. Long before the arrival of the concept of perspective in the West, Chinese painters expressed perspective via the use of different planes, which we now know as foreground, middle ground and background; the first having been the plane of the Earth mostly containing the soil, man and animals; the second was a plane of emptiness usually expressed by flowing river waters or vast landscapes; the third was the plane of Heaven – the plane of mountains and the sky.

Importantly, man was never the dominant figure. He was a part of the universe, but he was never depicted as the most important part of the universe. The correlation of Heaven and Earth had priority. In this context, it is perhaps interesting to note the terms ‘host’ and ‘guest’, which stem from the same period. Nature is the host, man merely a guest – the roles each of them plays are shown clearly.

Without going all too much into detail, which I could (it’s a really exciting thing!), I want to make a few brief comments on Lav Diaz’s films here.

Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Lav Diaz
Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Lav Diaz

Especially in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), the comment on Heaven, Earth and man respectively is clear. Having the disastrous aftermath of typhoon Reming as its backdrop, Heaven and Earth play a major part in the film. The characters are often only tiny figures in the landscape – guests? – just as it had been the case in Chinese landscape painting. This minimal space for them is not only reminiscent of their comparatively little power over nature. The second narrative strand of persecuted artists is another demonstration of their being guests, or rather unwanted bacteria.

Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Lav Diaz
Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Lav Diaz

The framing is done in similar ways – whether consciously or unconsciously is of little importance. You tend to have frames that are seemingly divided into three planes: the Earth, emptiness and Heaven. In several shots Earth is most prominent, which is reasonable as Reming triggered deadly lahar from Mount Mayon and buried hundreds of people alive. The Earth has taken over, while in brief dialogues here and there the characters and / or interviewees question the existence of God. Giving Heaven a smaller place in the frame is thus sensible. In addition, especially because of the destruction depicted, the middle ground is more often than not veiled in emptiness.

Maybe you want to go back to the presentation scans I have posted two weeks ago. Take a look again and see if what I have just said makes a bit more sense to you. And then also, as I said, study a few screenshots of Lav’s film. It might help. I found verticality a bit abstract, but it actually works once you get your head round it.

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting II

Last week I began to point to some research I have done last year. Today I want to go into a bit more detail about it.

Perhaps, I should make clear that I do not say that slow films are Chinese paintings. Nor do I say that all slow films can be compared to Chinese painting. This isn’t my intention, and I’m aware that it can look like it. This is why I clarify my intention beforehand.

I suppose that it can be difficult to see a connection between Chinese painting and Slow Cinema. However, only the term “Chinese” is really irritating, and it is only irritating because we divide the world into East and West. And why, with our own rich culture here in the West, should I make a journey to the East?

Chinese landscape painting

I spoke earlier about slow films’ link to landscape painting. It is important to see this link in a historical context. I cannot simply take, say, a Spanish landscape painting and make links to slow films just so that it fits to our Eurocentric reading. If I were to use a Spanish painting, I would ignore a vital part of art history, namely that landscape painting originated in the East, in China (London’s V&A museum currently exhibits striking artworks from China). What I see in any landscape painting has its roots – as vague as it may appear – in China. So why should I not start with it!?

The aesthetics of Chinese landscape painting derived from their philosophy (Buddhism, Taoism) and their take on nature. Nature as a governing force, man as the one who is only one part of the universe, but not the most important part of the universe.

While Westerners chased after the mechanical clock and attempted to divide time into ever smaller entities (to save time, and do more, as is the case today), the Chinese continued to live true to nature. In fact, when Western colonisers tried to introduce the mechanical clock in China, they were laughed at. The Chinese used them as toys, not as time pieces. Unfortunately, with the defeat in the Opium War against the British Empire, the Chinese were forced to adopt Western technology etc.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting has four major characteristics; emptiness, verticality, monochrome aesthetics, and, for me, the Three Perfections. Each of them made a specific contribution to the look of Chinese artwork. Not all of them were visible from the beginning of landscape painting, which is supposedly linked to the 4th century. Rather, it was a (slow) development towards perfection.

I will explain each of the characteristics in more detail in the coming weeks, and put them into the context of Slow Cinema. I hope this will give you an eureka effect similar to the one I had.

Stay tuned! Slowly…