A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on cinema

It’s been almost a year that I have seen Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a film I remember was very good, but I was reminded of it only when Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it not so very long ago. But what is there to write about this film, a film that is only a part of a trilogy which, taken all three films together, is so much stronger than a single film? I therefore watched the other two films of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”, albeit I would probably refrain from using this description and use “The Human Condition trilogy” instead. Together, Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You the Living (2007) and A Pigeon make for an entertaining view on us as humans, on us as a society, of life as sometimes being completely absurd and we still follow it endlessly like that famous hamster in his wheel.

After having seen the first two films in that trilogy, I was annoyed that I saw A Pigeon before, so that the chronological development didn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, I could see connections, contradictions, additions – all of that made the trilogy throughly interesting, especially if you have a dark humour and are willing to laughing about yourself. It’s difficult to write about three films in a single blog post, but I try to keep it as contained as possible.

I should start, perhaps, with the most obvious characteristic of the Living Trilogy: all films look the same. I’m not sure whether I have seen a trilogy of films before where everything seems to be the same. Even the characters look the same. Andersson does use different actors from time to time, but they’re always white. I mean, make-up white. They’re pale, exhausted, looking almost sick, half dead. The interior of their flats and houses makes you see (and feel) that time literally stands still. Andersson took a long time to complete this trilogy. Between the release of the first part and the release of the third part (all three films played at Cannes), there was a gap of 14 years. So maybe make it 18 years or so, between the conception of the first film and the release of the final part of the trilogy. This is slow, but it resulted in quality work. And while the years passed, life seems to stand still in Andersson’s work. This is ironic, of course, giving the title of the trilogy (Living), whereas it should perhaps be called otherwise. Or maybe this is the whole point? Maybe it is to show us that we’re running in circles and that we don’t really go anywhere?

The interior design of buildings in all three films is the same. Sometimes I would even go as far as suggesting that he uses the same flats for some scenes, shot from a different angle. This is what Béla Tarr used to do. If you watch his arthouse films from after Sátántangó (2000), you see a link between them all, which is not necessarily connected to the films’ narratives, but to where the films are shot. Everything repeats, nothing moves forwards. Andersson uses a very sterile environment, 70s or 80s style, cold. Almost exactly how his characters look like. The bars change, but the people who drink their beer there are more or less the same. And why do they drink? Usually to drown their sorrows, the ridiculous existence of humans in a world that is so absurd that it makes you laugh.

Andersson shows us this absurdity in slow, long-takes. Those who like Slow Cinema and have followed my slow journey on this blog know that cinematic slowness serves different purposes in different films. In Andersson’s, I find, cinematic slowness serves the heightening of absurdity. It really brings home how ridiculous life can be sometimes, or how ridiculous we can be in certain situations; such as when a man’s hand is stuck in a train door and everyone stands around and, rather than being concerned, they wonder how it happened, they remember their own accidents, they watch. They watch more than anything else. An accident becomes a sort of animal in a zoo that you simply watch. You gather around and you do nothing. This stoppage of time, this absurd watching, is reinforced by the use of a static camera. Andersson usually doesn’t move his camera. There are very, very few pans or traveling shots in this trilogy.

And in fact, Andersson reduces the aesthetics to a bare minimum over a period of over a decade. It feels very much like the development of Béla Tarr, who became more and more minimalistic in his approach to filmmaking. From Sátántangó to Werckmeister Harmonies to The Turin Horse, Tarr reduced the aesthetics more and more; less characters, more barren mise-en-scène, less camera movements, less dialogue. His films were steering towards an end. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang, whose last feature film Stray Dogs was, perhaps, his most minimalist film. Andersson, I feel, works very much in the same manner. Songs and You the Living were stronger in their narrative progression. If something wasn’t clear in one scene, he would usually show us what really happened or what the previous scene meant in the next scene. In A pigeon, Andersson fragments the narrative almost to an extreme. It feels more episodic than the previous two films, albeit everything does come together in the end. But there is a sense of fragmentation, of a fracture that disrupts the narrative flow. Is this a sign of trauma? Perhaps, given that the trilogy contains elements to the brutal reign of the Nazis.

Andersson’s trilogy is tragic and humorous. Albert Serra was the first slow-film director I got to know who used comedy elements in his films. Slow Cinema as comedy, as entertaining…Andersson goes there, too, but makes more persistent use of it. He does so in order to open our eyes, to hold a mirror in front of us and show us to ourselves. Perhaps it is not spoken about often in the context of Andersson’s films that the director uses a direct confrontation with history and the way we deal with it. The first two films show this explicitly; one character, a sort of hardcore rocker, wears a T-Shirt with the Nazi SS symbol on the front. You only notice it once he gets up from the bench, once his partner pushes him away because she no longer wants to see him. (Or does she?) It would go unnoticed if you were focusing on the frame’s foreground only. There is another scene in which a man, in an attempt to do the famous magic stunt, tries to remove the tablecloth at a big family gathering all the while keeping the (expensive!!) china service on the table. Once the table cloth has been removed, the table shows two swastikas. It’s still there, we haven’t finished with it. The Nazi past, the Nazi support, is still there; almost dormant and yet very present, if only one takes the time to look. Andersson encourages us to do so. I laughed about those scenes, and also about the 100 year old admiral who had been placed in a nursing home and receives high-profile guests for his birthday only to make a Hitler salute. In any other film this wouldn’t be funny, but Andersson has created a bizarre and absurd trilogy that you have no choice but to laugh. And this, I have to say, absurd reaction to things that should shock me made me reflect about where we are. I became the pigeon sitting on a branch reflecting on existence.

With Andersson’s work more so than with other directors I need to say that a lot of action is happening in the background. If you watch the films as usual, expecting things to happen right in front of your eyes (just as we expect it in life – we don’t want to look deeper than that), then you will miss a lot in the trilogy. It is worth taking your eyes of the obvious and look beyond the surface, both in terms of the framing and in terms of the narrative. It is in the background, underneath the surface, where life really happens. There is this wonderful trilogy The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s trilogy speaks of what it means to be a human being. He focuses on our hearts, on everything that goes on inside of us. Andersson’s trilogy is a different take of the same thing, 40 years later. It is also about the haunting of the past. Whereas in Kobayashi’s trilogy, events were happening, Andersson returns to the effects of the past on our present society, our current politics, our current life. It is impossible to say that these two trilogies are the same. But there are similarities, extensions, additions. They are are different ways of making us see and feel of what and who we are. And yet, both trilogies are about the human condition.

The Living trilogy – do Andersson’s characters live, or are they dragged along? Do we ever move on, which is what living is actually about? The pigeon who sits on a branch reflecting on existence is the perfect metaphor for what the viewer is encouraged to do while watching Andersson’s trilogy. What does “existence” even mean? We exist, but do we live? Where does life start and mere existence stop? Are we merely passively watching life going by, suffering from the weight of our existence and everything it entails? Strangely enough, even though none of the three films is very cheerful, Andersson’s trilogy triggered optimism in my heart and in my mind. What exactly causes that, I don’t know. But I do know that the Swedish director has created a very effective trilogy about us, the living, hearing songs from the second floor all the while we sit on a bench reflecting on existence.

Los Ausentes – Nicolas Pereda (2014)

Knowing Nicolas Pereda’s early work, I’d be inclined to say that his medium long film Los Ausentes marks a new era in his filmmaking. The trailer already looked haunting and different from Pereda’s usual filmmaking. The colour palette is the same, the actors have the same aura around them. And yet, and yet…

Los Ausentes is, first of all, about an old, fragile man who loses his house near the beach. I assume he has lived there all his life, so loss (absence) is at the heart of Pereda’s film. It’s the very core of it, and Pereda perfects his usual aesthetics in order to transmit this feeling of loss to the viewer. Los Ausentes stands out in Pereda’s work because of its camera work. The director has always favoured long-takes, temps mort, and a very minimalist storytelling. But this film goes a bit further. In fact, it reminded me strongly on the films of Béla Tarr and the fascinating work by cinematographer Fred Kelemen (who himself made films, amongst them Krisana).

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Pereda uses a kind of independent camera, which I have marvelled upon when I saw Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). This is also when I first understood Daniel Frampton’s filmind, film as thinking independently. If you put Los Ausentes and Werckmeister Harmonies next to each other, you can see that they both make use of an independent camera. The camera is not really following the protagonist, unless the character is walking down a road. The camera has its own mind and moves to whatever place or whatever action it would like to record.

I haven’t seen it to such an extent in Pereda’s previous films. I even wonder whether it is an homage to Tarr. The beginning must be at least a very obvious wink, starting with a medium shot of a cow facing us. And then, slowly, very slowly, the camera zooms out and reveals first some kind of structure, which then turns out to be a window frame. The camera zooms further out, very smoothly, totally beautifully, and reveals the old man sitting at a table eating. If faithful Tarr-viewers are not reminded of the famous opening scene in Damnation or the beginning of The Man from London, I don’t know what those people have done with their lives 🙂

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In any case, this independent camera transmits the film’s idea of loss, of the absent, fabulously. It feels as though there was a ghost walking around, looking at things or moving places. At times, we see the protagonists. At others, we don’t. But nevertheless, we can feel an eerie presence. There is someone there with us, but who is it? Los Ausentes is a perfect example of how aesthetics can convey absence. I had come across this very subject in my research on the films of Lav Diaz, but Diaz is doing this in a very different way. This independent camera movement also feeds well into the idea of the fragile, old man losing his sanity. Again, this is a theme that pops up comparatively often in slow films, and it is interesting to see how directors deal with this differently.

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When I saw the old man standing somewhere in the woods, with his skinny back towards me, I wasn’t quite sure whether what I saw was supposed to be real, or whether Pereda wanted me to believe it was a dream. There’s only ambient sound, and because I was in a state of dreaming already because of the superb camera work, I wasn’t so sure anymore what I was seeing or what I was asked to believe. This became even more difficult when the old man’s younger self appeared and it wasn’t clear anymore what happened when and where.

I began to wonder whether the title Los Ausentes applied to more than just the film, because in the end, you do lose yourself in the film. You might be physically present when you watch the film, but where are you mentally? Are you home? In the cinema? In an imagined Mexico? In a dream? In real life? I would say that Los Ausentes is Pereda’s strongest film. As I said before, it looks like his previous films but it feels very different. The combination of narrative and aesthetics is just right, perfect even, and I think that the length of the film – medium length – helps to keep the film focused. It feels like Pereda’s most polished film and I wonder where he will go from here. I hope that we will see more of this!

Transatlantique – Félix Dufour-Laperrière (2014)

I love slow films for the very good reason that they stay with you, whether they’re films about happy chaps (which is hardly ever the case) or whether they’re brutal encounters with disturbing histories. The fact that they are slow gives your brain ample opportunities to record the film in detail. If a film is, on top of that, also beautifully shot, it leaves an even stronger impression. This is the case with Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s beautiful Transatlantique (2014).

What would you expect from a film which is set exclusively on a big ship, without dialogue or music? Possibly not much, but Transatlantique is a compelling piece precisely because it is beautifully shot and because it engages the viewer. Dufour-Laperrière does not show everything that happens on the ship. He uses fascinating shadow plays, originating from the changing light on the ship, in order to give us a sense of what the ship crew is busying themselves with. What are they really doing?

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There is a superb scene which made my heart melt. I would say that my eyes melted, but this sounds wrong, even though it would be more appropriate. A seemingly high angle shot records a shadow play of something. Of people, no doubt. But what are they doing? I saw two dots, this was all. I heard sounds of a football being kicked around. The scene was veiled in complete darkness from time to time whenever the sun disappeared. Then the two dots re-appeared; a mesmerising light-shadow play, which I could have watched for hours. It turned out that the crew played cricket. It was the scene which showed me most just how engaging this film is, even though I thought that I would merely float on the big sea with the crew for about an hour. This isn’t the case at all. Dufour-Laperrière has created a thoroughly engaging piece with Transatlantique.

There is another vital aspect which helps with viewer engagement. This is the issue of sound. Slow films in general put emphasis on sound, mainly ambient sound. The subtraction of dialogue allows natural sounds to come to the fore. That so many slow films are set in nature speaks for itself; it is a reminder of what else is out there apart from the spoken word. If we were to shut our mouths for a while, we would hear the birds…or the famous wind in the trees (apart from seeing it!). Dufour-Laperrière, though, plays with our expectations. As he does so with the visuals, some of which are almost impossible to decipher (and I suggest this is what makes them so beautiful and intriguing), he also frustrates us by not giving us the peaceful and meditative sound of the sea. This is perhaps one of the expectation you have of the film; hearing the sea. Transatlantique may disappoint you in that case.

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The almost complete absence of the sound of the sea was compelling. You see the sea, but you don’t hear it. Dufour-Laperrière deafens us in this regard. But it is also a reminder that nature is not one of the actors in the film, as is the case, for instance, in Lav Diaz’s films. The protagonist is the ship, not even so much the crew. I had the feeling that Transatlantique was a film about a ship. It reminded me of a big whale, almost life- and motionless, and yet so fascinating; just like the whale in Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. Even though there are obvious narrative strands constructed around the characters, for me Werckmeister Harmonies was about the whale first of all, and then about the characters. The former influenced the latter. This is where I would position Transatlantique as well, though, to be fair, it is more difficult to clearly establish here who’s the main protagonist. Transatlantique is not a narrative film as such. It is more an observation, which echoed the approach Lisandro Alonso took in his first films.

Transatlantique is a fascinating visual and auditory piece, which keeps you engaged throughout it’s almost 80 minutes running time. Just the cinematography alone allows me to position the film in the top of the most beautifully shot slow films. It’s one of those films that made me want to pick up a camera again (and I will eventually!).

The invisible princes

When I watched Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos again, I had a nice encounter with a prince, the prince of the black dwarfs to be exact. The main character’s mother, who ends up in a mental institution, had been observed by the dwarfs. This is, at least, how the story goes. The dwarfs snatched her soul and from that moment on she was prisoner of the prince. I saw the film a couple of times, but only now I find the prince very interesting.

Reason for this is the use of another prince, namely in Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. It struck me that both directors use “the prince”, without any explanation, in order to refer to the dark side. It is a confusing game. I’m sure that most of us think of handsome men, when the word “prince” pops up. Both Tarr and Diaz, however, refer to the Prince of Darkness. The Devil. Lucifer. However you want to name him. In Encantos, the prince snatches souls. In Werckmeister, he incites violence. 

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Neither of them is visible. They are imaginary figures. The presence of the prince in Encantos is more or less announced via the use of the Pongapong Flower, which grows in the main character’s back yard. The mother takes it as a sign for the return of the prince. The flower is interestingly called the Corpse Flower; a poignant choice for the indication of a character’s descent into madness and finally into death. The flower is only a mere attempt to render the invisible visible. In fact, the prince remains unseen and is only talked about.

It is similar to the prince in Werckmeister. His (imaginary?) presence in the town square, accompanied by the whale, incites violence and anger amongst the townspeople. He’s spoken of, and advertised as an attraction of the circus. But he, too, remains a ghost. You may want to assign the name “prince” to the figure the people discover in the hospital’s shower room, if you desire to make him visible.

However, the use of the princes in those two films brings up an interesting thought: slow films have a dark side. Think about Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his use of ghosts (Mekong Hotel comes to mind). It is the acknowledgement of higher spirits. But it is also a return to classical stories. The devil used to be present all the time. In popular film, the baddy isn’t the devil. He’s simply a human baddy. Popular films are “earthly” if you want. Slow films, though not all of them, are kind of earthly-heavenly-spiritual. And they bring the devil back into play, suggesting that not everything can be explained rationally.

Day 19 – Liverpool (Alonso)

I reviewed Alonso’s Los Muertos earlier this month. Liverpool is my third Alonso film, and I have the feeling that his filmmaking has slightly changed since he made his first feature film. Liverpool is a slow film, but it has, especially for my interests, some quite interesting differences to, say, La Libertad.

In particular the beginning, which shows Farrel, a merchant sailor, on a cargo ship, going about his day-to-day activities. The film frames are extremely tight. There is not left of the emptiness Alonso highlighted in his “landscape” slow films. The tightness of the frames has an impact on the reading time of the frame. There is so much to see, a lot of small details, that time flies past and it doesn’t feel slow at all. I wondered whether Alonso had changed his style completely, but he hasn’t really.

Liverpool (2008), Lisandro Alonso
Liverpool (2008), Lisandro Alonso

A different set-up, with a tighter framing, makes a huge difference. In general, this isn’t a film which shows the protagonist as being connected to his natural surroundings. Many scenes are set indoors. It’s often dark and cramped. There appears to be little (natural) freedom for Farrel. In fact, Farrel isn’t free at all. For the first time in years, he’s back in his home town. He’s known there for leaving everything and everyone behind, especially his mother and, I believe, his daughter (there’s no explicit confirmation for this in the film). He wanted to see whether his mother was still alive. She is, but Farrel acts as though he feels a burden on his shoulder and leaves quickly.

What I also took as an interesting novelty in this film is the theme of acoustic stress, which is evoked several times. Acoustic stress for the viewer. It reminds me of Tarr’s work, especially Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). In Liverpool the acoustic stress is caused, for instance, by the noise of machines on the cargo ship. These noises might be normal, but in the context of Slow Cinema they function as stress as slow films tend to play on silence, or at least quietness. It is a bit like an indirect message: nature is quiet, technology causes all the noise we have to put up with today.

I don’t think, Liverpool is Alonso’s best film. My feeling tells me that there’s something missing. Maybe it is the peaceful nature shots, the silence, which I have grown so accustomed to in the last couple of months. there you go, I’m spoiled.

Day 17 – The Man from London (Tarr)

This film has to be in this year’s advent calendar. Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) was the very first slow film I watched. It was the beginning of a deep love, and a slowly growing obsession. Re-watching the film brought up nice memories. The first scene, in particular, is something I will never forget. Not only because the lighting was so impressive, and the use of black-and-white was spot on. I sat on my sofa and waited for the first cut. I kept looking at my watch. I wasn’t impatient. If anything I was surprised that it was possible not to cut. You don’t exactly learn this with mainstream film. Cuts must be made, and must be made swiftly in order to keep the narrative going (and the audience awake).

The intro lasts eleven minutes, and is exemplary of Tarr’s complaint that there is a kind of censorship going on if you use film rather than digital. Film would only ever get you to eleven minutes, then you have to cut. A curious, but at the same time valid statement, as I was to find out later when I came across Lav Diaz, a filmmaker using digital. With digital, he’s able to extend his shots, sometimes to twenty minutes and more.

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

The Man from London is an adaptation of a Belgian novel of the same name by George Simenon. This makes Tarr stand out from other slow-film directors. Other works, such as his seven-hour epic Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) were adaptations of works of his long-time Hungarian collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Tarr manages to extend the viewing time so that it’s not all too far away from the (book) reading time. Just as a writer gives time to his or her characters, he gives us time to study the screen characters and their development. There is thus a very intriguing link here to the time one spends (is allowed to spend) with a specific medium, and I suppose also how this shapes one’s impression of it.

Black-and-white is used to perfection in the film, especially because many scenes are set at night, so that the whole darkness and all its connotations (evilness, danger, uncertainty) come through. It also helps to anonymise the surroundings. If you really wanted to, you could look up the shooting locations. But as Tarr pointed out in interviews, his films showed events that could happen anywhere anytime. Colours (by day) would make it easier to identify the location, and therefore link it inevitably to that certain location, which influences our reading of the film. The black-and-white allows for a more neutral reading of all of his films in general, and this film in particular.

I could write a celebration of the many achievements of this film, which let my heart jump the first time and still does today. Kelemen as cinematographer gave the film a haunting feeling. The smoothness of the camera makes it feel as if there is a secret additional character, who is observing the events. It’s simply beautiful. And, even more so than The Turin Horse (2011), a wonderful photo album. And because of this, I will say no more, and let you take a look at some screenshots as well as an extract, which clearly demonstrates Kelemen’s superb cinematography.

One last thing, though: Tarr explained that everyone on the set spoke a different language, and they didn’t need an interpreter. There you go – filmmaking, a universal language!

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

The Man from London (2007), Bela Tarr

 

Day 9 – Journey on the Plain (Tarr)

It was new to me that Béla Tarr directed a short film called Journey on the Plain in 1995, a year after the release of his seven-hour epic (and masterpiece) Sátántángo. I was only familiar with the usual canon of his films, and I’ve never come across this short in any writings I have.

Anyway, Journey – I think the film is for me a pretty good demonstration of how habitual film viewing can become, and how much we identify a director by his or her dominant techniques. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks of stark black-and-white films if hearing the name Béla Tarr. Little dialogue, a lot of walking, deserted landscapes –  all that together used to create an astounding atmosphere of doom in all of his films (with the exception of Almanac of Fall).

Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr
Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr

If you go into Journey like this, you will be utterly disappointed. Initially, I had troubles to identify this as a Tarr film. I would be inclined to say that this was mainly because his short was in colour. This evoked a completely different atmosphere. On the other hand, I have to be fair and say that Hungary is for me black-and-white after having been an avid follower of Béla Tarr (and Miklós Jancsó in parts). I was in Hungary once, so I’m well aware that the country is not monochrome at all. But I associate the depiction of the country in Tarr’s films with monochrome aesthetics. The same goes for Lav Diaz’s films and his use of black-and-white. I find it immensely difficult sometimes to imagine the Philippines in colour.

Journey has, however, more or less the same themes as his other films. First of all (what a surprise!) it’s slow. It’s very close to Sátántángo and indeed, it was shot on pretty much the same locations. At the beginning when the protagonist, who is, by the way, Tarr’s usual composer Mihály Vig, walks away from the camera into the horizon for two minutes or so, you could imagine this scene in black-and-white and were transported to the set of Sátántángo.

Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr
Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr

In addition, Journey is rather a non-narrative film, which is an interesting experiment. In general, I would go as far as saying that the film functioned as an experiment for all of his future films. There is a scene in which the camera circles around, focusing on the sky shot through a roofless building. The camera keeps circling around, slowly tilting down until Mihály appears in the frame. A very similar shot had been used in Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).

Maybe I should mention that throughout the film, Mihály is reciting poems by Hungarian poet Sándor Petöfi. It’s deeply sad and kind of fits to the general Tarr-esque feel to his films. I guess most telling for me is the following line: “I don’t have a sweetheart, I don’t have money. I only have grief.” For me, this goes right to the heart of Damnation. It is a film of only thirty minutes, and yet, there is a lot of Béla Tarr in there. Minus the black-and-white aesthetics. But then, you can easily use your imagination and make it black-and-white.