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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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.

Son of the lovely capitalism – Suranga Katugampala (2015)

What a lovely surprise I received in my Facebook inbox last week! Suranga Katugampala provided me with a short film of his, which acts as a form of test for his upcoming feature film. Aesthetically, his work looks more than promising and I thoroughly enjoyed the 18 minutes in his world.

Suranga is from Sri Lanka, but lives in Italy and, according to him, he wants to capture the current situation of the young in today’s Europe. There is some stunning cinematography involved. Simple, but very effective. The director makes us watch a young man in each of his long takes. Rarely does he move. The young man (not necessarily always the same one) is static more often than not, or moves only sporadically. Given the subject matter of the film, this non-movement of the character seems plausible; today’s drive for capitalism is a trap for young people. Capitalism leaves little breathing space for people, but especially for young people, who are only just beginning to build their lives, wanting it to be better than their parents’, perhaps.

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The way Suranga frames the characters strongly reminded me of Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series. One scene, in particular, stands out: a young man, bare-chested, curled up on the stairs of a subway station. He’s in the centre of the frame. The camera angle is high. It looks as though the young man is suffering. Is it because of increasing poverty perhaps? Regardless of the possible reason, no one cares. Just as people hurry past Tsai’s monk in Journey to the West, so do people walk past Suranga’s young man without so much as a glance at him. Their behaviour then led me to think about German poem called Städter, which describes the situation in big cities – so many people, so much loneliness. Everyone fights for himself.

After about half of the short film, Suranga begins to insert experimental features, which have a striking effect in that they disrupt the slowness induced by long takes. Superimpositions, a quick succession of cuts, a haunting and threatening hammering in the soundtrack. A long shot shows a painting or a sort of graffiti on a wall. It took me a while to find the young man in the shot, but there he was: positioned under the drawn hoof of a seemingly wild horse. Is the wild horse capitalism? The image is, to me, the strongest in the entire film and gives you a taste of Suranga’s talent and goal. He plays with us, he disorientates us – for instance by putting the camera on its head, which really turned my head round! – and in doing so he turns his film into a complex experience for the viewer.

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There is something eerie about the end, with its archival footage projected onto the young man’s back while he covers in front of a screen. It’s a quiet, powerful ending, which made me want more. If this short film was a test, then I certainly can’t wait for the feature film!

Suranga has uploaded his short film Sun of the lovely capitalism on YouTube and I’m pleased to share it with you. Please click here.

Stray Dogs – Tsai Ming-liang (2013)

I have seen all of Tsai’s films, apart from Rebels of the Neon God, which still sits comfortably on my watch list. The sad thing about this is the fact that I haven’t seen a single one of them on a big screen. I always wished to see one of his films in cinema. His cinematography is superb and particularly attractive for someone who loves the art of photography. I came close last year, but the organisers of the Glasgow Film Festival had to pull Tsai’s Walker because the print didn’t arrive in time. Slow film, slow print delivery.

Patience is a virtue, so I was able to see a Tsai film on a big screen after all. It was a fabulous experience on the one hand, but mixed into this positive feeling was a pinch of sadness. First of all, Stray Dogs is in some ways different from his other films. There are, for instance, scenes set in nature – in a forest, with peaceful ambient background sounds. This isn’t Tsai and has never been Tsai. He has always been the only slow-film director who used the urban rather than the rural as a backdrop for his films. It therefore felt strange at times, but this was only the case because I was used to cramped spaces, deafening noises of the city, etc In fact, the nature shots – there is one in which the two children walk through a forest – worked well as a juxtaposition of city and nature. The sudden noises of the city following ambient nature sounds have a similar effect to Lav Diaz’s play with sound and silence in Florentina Hubaldo. It not only wakes up the viewer (in case s/he fell asleep). It is a comment on the suffocation in the city, a kind of suffocation Tsai’s characters have endured for over twenty years.

Their endurance, as we can see throughout the film, has taken its toll. A lot of writing on Slow Cinema concerns the absence or lack of pretty much everything. The catch word is “nothing” in the debate of slow films. I don’t like the context in which the word “nothing” is used, because I think that there is a lot happening in slow films. We merely make the mistake of comparing them to action-driven Hollywood blockbusters, forgetting at the same time that slow films show the everyday, and that our lives are not action-driven Hollywood blockbusters.

Nevertheless, I had the word “nothing” in my head throughout the film. It is perhaps better to use the term “emptiness” here. What struck me was the foregrounding of emptiness in Stray Dogs. Tsai’s characters have always been empty, searching for something. Emotions often ran high, but the problem was the set-up of human relationships. Somehow, all characters started off as being lonely, and ended up being lonely again. Stray Dogs stresses this very point. Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s long-time collaborator, has nothing left to show, or to do. There’s nothing left inside him. I found him to be an empty shell. A shadow of himself perhaps, understandable given his twenty-year ordeal as a character who just can’t find what he is looking for. Lee’s in a desperate, desolate shape, which makes you want to hug him after you spend so much time with him.

If you have seen Tsai’s other films, you will miss the rather uplifting scenes of, at times, ridiculous musical numbers, such as in The Wayward Cloud. You will also miss the very subtle sense of humour built into films that leave not only the characters depressed at the end. This time, Tsai did not conceal anything. He tackles issues of poverty, loss, despair and hopelessness head on. This makes it a particularly painful watch if you’re used to his usual approach. I thought that Béla Tarr’s farewell film The Turin Horse was bleak. But Tsai topped the Hungarian master, and possibly himself.

It is true, this film can only stand at the end of a career in feature-filmmaking. Tsai continues to work on his short films (the Walker series), but he has expressed his desire to retire from making feature films. At the Q&A with Tarr after the screening of The Turin Horse at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I remember that Tarr said there was nothing left to say. I agree with it wholeheartedly. I have the exact same feeling about Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Another film just wouldn’t make sense. The lead character of all of his films has reached the bottom of existence. Dragging him down more would be impossible. Tsai could choose a different lead actor and continue to make feature films, but he wouldn’t be Tsai if he did this.

Stray Dogs contains several references to Tsai’s previous films. It felt like a compilation, a kind of “let’s bring the best of the best together for a final piece”. A Best-Of film, if you want, at least visually. I remember one high-angle shot over a park or something (my memory is fading), which looked exactly like the high-angle shot in Paris that appears in What Time Is It There? It was a visual journey through Tsai’s filmmaking. And indeed, visual it was. I found that Tsai topped himself in his cinematography this time. He was always one of my favourites with regards to cinematography. But Stray Dogs – oh my. I would have loved to take photographs, to be honest, but I would have probably been arrested. In fact, seeing this film gave me an idea for a journal article. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time for it right now. Here we are again: patience is a virtue.

Stray Dogs is a powerful farewell from cinema. Tsai has certainly put the idea of slowness to the extreme in this film, especially at the end. It was a rather slow and therefore brutal parallel to Lee’s endurance in twenty-years as an empty character. The film leaves you empty, and in a way, it’s an emptiness that cannot and will never be filled with Tsai retiring from filmmaking. How is that for a zig-zag reference to The Hole?

Journey to the West – Tsai Ming-liang (2013)

A lucky accident brought me to an online screener of Tsai Ming-liang’s new and highly acclaimed film Journey to the West. It had its premiere at this year’s Berlinale earlier this year, and even though I tend to avoid reviews in general, especially before I have seen a film, I couldn’t help it with this film. I was too keen on finding out what Tsai did this time.

Journey to the West is (very) loosely based on a Chinese classic of the same name. I’m currently reading it in connection to Tsai’s film. When I read the description on Amazon it sounded like a slow book; a monk travels to the West to fetch scriptures from the Buddha in 200 chapters and 2000 pages. What more do I need to make me happy? It’s a great book, by the way. Entertaining and philosophical at the same time.

Anyway, back to the film, which is, with 53 minutes, longer than Tsai’s first part of his walking series, Walker, which you can also watch online on Vimeo. The first thing I noticed was that Tsai opened up the surroundings, the environment. In Walker, the monk (superbly played by Lee Kang-Sheng) walks slowly (although slow needs a new definition here) through the streets of Hong Kong. In some ways, it’s a simple demonstration of slow and fast, of tradition and modernity, of meditative walking and hasty running.

Journey to the West is set in Marseille, France. It is a kind of “Where’s Wally?” film. In contrast to Walker, the monk in Journey is not always instantly recognisable or visible. There are scenes that require quite a bit of patience and commitment to detect the slow walking monk in his red robe. In short, the monk is not necessarily the main character. The film is a study of an ensemble of people, which wasn’t the case in Walker. In the trailer of the film, you can see the monk walking down stairs, presumably down to a subway station. This take lasts longer than ten minutes. Because of the unique combination of an extended long take and the slow walking of the monk, you get the opportunity to study the people around him; how they react to him, how they haste past him, how they look in amusement, or you can hear what they say about him. One guy, for instance, wondered whether this was a porn film shoot. Speaking of intelligence…

For me, Journey is close to visual perfection. If it hasn’t reached the stage of perfection already. It’s superb and a real joy to watch. It’s Tsai’s most photographic film yet. The beautiful cinematography and the slow walking monk reminded me of Slow Art. The scenes are like photographs, or paintings, which you study closely. You just let them unfold in front of you. It is not about your imposing a meaning. It is about letting the artwork talk to you. This is what Journey was about for me. There is a clear intention of establishing a dialogue between film and viewer in ways that differ so greatly from other films, even from Tsai’s previous films. It is a unique kind of filmmaking, which is difficult to describe to people who haven’t seen it.

Therefore, I shall finish my musings and direct you to the online screener. It is available for only a week, apparently until 27 March, via Arte France. Do watch it if you have the chance. It’s a film experience you won’t forget.

P.S.: I figured last night that the streaming works best with Mozilla Firefox.

Day 8 – Vive l’Amour (Ming-liang)

Time for a bit of love on the second advent. Or maybe not, because Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour (1994) is, as all of his other films, not exactly uplifting. But let’s start from the beginning.

Vive l’Amour stands, with Rebels of the Neon God (1992), at the beginning of Tsai’s career. The film was made almost 20 years ago, and when I saw it it reminded me of something Béla Tarr said (I think it was him, but I can be very wrong here): I always make the same film.

It is not so much that Tsai makes the same film over and over again, but if you are familiar with all of his films, you begin to notice the similarities of all of them. It is not only the actor, Kang-Sheng Lee, who appears in every one of his films (who made an impressive appearance in Walker). It is also the themes that remain the same. I mentioned in previous blog posts that poverty is a major issue in Slow Cinema. This is not the case in Tsai’s films. What is striking in his work is the treatment and depiction of loneliness and longing.

Vive l’Amour (1994), Tsai Ming-liang

To my surprise, I had difficulties labelling Vive l’Amour as a straightforward slow film, even though I know that it is often listed as one. I wondered whether I have perhaps become too used to slowness in film that it has become hard for me to judge if something is exceptionally slow, or just “normal” (as in, normal speed like in real life). The film is not a fast film, but I find it faster than his other films. Considering Tsai’s development as a director, his films have over time become slower and also more photographic. L’Amour is not photographic at all, an element that I found specially interesting in his other films such as I don’t want to sleep alone (2006).

There is also more movement in L’Amour than in his other films. Again, this is not to say that the film is fast. I’m merely trying to point out differences in filmmaking that are evident. Tsai has, however, already included his seeming obsession with tight corridors and double framing. And his love for melons!

Vive l’Amour (1994), Tsai Ming-liang

Already, his characters are suffering from loneliness, and even though there is, as usual, sex involved in his films, there is actually little intimacy between the characters. Whenever I watch Tsai’s films, I cannot help but think of a poem by Alfred Wolfenstein, a German poet, whose vivid Städter from 1913 describes the gradual isolation and loneliness of people living in (big) urban spaces. For me, every film by Tsai is an illustration of this poem, an illustration of how cramped urban spaces encourage anonymity and solitude instead of social living. But even though people choose to live in solitude, they long for love and social interaction. This discrepancy naturally causes problems, and Tsai is a director who has picked up this issue time and again, and made some wonderful films out of it.