New books on Pedro Costa & Béla Tarr

The initial wave of I-want-to-be-the-first has subsided, and after quite a few not very good books on Slow Cinema or on slow-film directors, we’re slowly (of course, slowly) getting to a point where it is worth opening books on the subject because they have been researched properly. Or because the authors have taken the time to experience the films without trying to squeeze them into theories and statistics. This has been done already, primarily by András Bálint Kovács. When Béla Tarr had the book in his hand and saw Kovacs’s attempt at turning his films into statistics, into numbers, he said “Fuck off”. Yes, he really said this and spoke about it in one of the worst interviews I have read with any filmmaker, published on MUBI. But that happens if people try to force a meaning onto a film that isn’t there and the filmmaker has been trying for twenty-odd years to avoid this in interviews.

Anyway, this year saw the publication of two very good books. One of them, a German-language book, deals with the work of Pedro Costa. The publisher is quite impressive, to say the least, and I took the chance of suggesting an edited collection on Lav Diaz. They were very open to this and will discuss it in their next meeting (fingers crossed!). Edition text + kritik focuses on one director at a time, and they avoid turning a director’s work into mere theory.

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The book on Pedro Costa – with its simple name Pedro Costa – is somewhere between a thorough introduction to the director’s work, and an elaborate investigation of his films which goes beyond introductory remarks. It is a journey through Costa’s entire oeuvre. What I enjoyed most in this book is the authors’ focus on Costa’s collaboration with his actors. Those who know Costa and his films are aware of the close collaboration, which somewhat started with the famous “Stop the faking!” expressed by Vanda Duarte after the production of Ossos (1997). Costa began to live with his actors. No, he lived with the people, who then became his actors. Non-professionals, who live their roles. It seems as though this is the red line that is woven throughout the book.

The book consists of seven chapters. The eighth is a written contribution by Pedro Costa himself, or rather it is a text written by Costa which, for the first time, was translated into German for this particular book. There is a general attempt at really understanding the artist and his work. The book is not an attempt at creating something that isn’t there, at telling the filmmaker what his films are really about, which scholars love to do. Pedro Costa reads like a genuine exploration of Costa’s approach to filmmaking, to the subject he chooses and to his aesthetics. One chapter in the book deals with (non-) images of violence in Costa’s films, especially in Casa de Lava (1994). It is a fascinating piece which is complemented by another chapter on aspects of ghosts. To me, those two go hand in hand, and they’re not only characteristic of Costa’s work. The themes of violence and ghostly haunting are pretty widespread in slow films, especially those that deal with a people’s colonial past.

If you’re German, or a German-speaking cinephile who’s interested in Costa’s work, this book is definitely for you. I’m surprised that this book is the first coherent piece on the Portuguese director who’s been making films for decades. I wonder why English-speaking scholars have not yet picked that up. More than journal articles doesn’t seem to be in their interest. I wonder why that is.

So while German scholars have produced the first book on Pedro Costa, France slowly but surely turns out to be a hub for really good books on Béla Tarr. The new book Béla Tarr – De la colère au tourment has been published in March this year. Jacques Rancière’s book Le temps d’après was great already, but this new book tops this. First of all, the book is a feast for the eyes, which makes it a more entertaining read than the German book on Pedro Costa. You can see that a lot of work went into the design of the book; the screen grabs, positioned one underneath the other, have something of photo strips.

Even more so than the book on Pedro Costa, this new book on Tarr tries to explore and convey what a Béla Tarr film feels like. There are two chapters, if I remember correctly, which are very theoretical and which make for a difficult read. I do believe that the authors of those chapters kind of missed the point. But overall, the book is about what we see when we watch a Tarr film. It is about how it looks like, how it makes the viewer feel. I could be wrong and just read something into all this, but to me the book seems, perhaps not openly, but nevertheless focused on the viewer and the viewing experience.

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The interesting aspect is that a viewing experience is always individual. What I feel during a film may be very different from what you’re feeling. But somehow I, as the reader, felt pretty much on the same wavelength as the authors. It’s not difficult to guess why this is the case. I believe that the authors let the film happen to them, which is so important to Slow Cinema. I could see the films right in front of me while reading the book. Tarr’s cinema, his fans would probably agree with me, is special. It has a certain something, which is difficult to put into words. This new book manages it somehow, and while discussing the characteristics of Tarr’s oeuvre as a whole it is at the same time exploring vital aesthetics of Slow Cinema in more general terms. There’s talk of the emancipation of the gaze, of hypnotic emptiness, of a “tactile” experience of film.

The book is divided into three parts, and starts with a long interview with Tarr, which is revealing and I’m grateful that the interviewers didn’t ask the same old questions. We actually learn something from it, which is rare these days. Interviews, especially those with slow-film directors, tend to revolve around the themes of “Why are your films so slow?” or “Why are your films so long?” In some ways, this one is a very moving interview. Tarr also speaks about no longer having enough oxygen as a filmmaker to work in his country. He always thought he would make more films. He never saw himself teaching at a film school. He wanted to create a new genre of Hungarian cinema. But it all came different. He had to close his production company, stopped filmmaking, because of the political situation in Hungary. He isn’t the first to say this. The most recent high-profile example is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This new book on Tarr is definitely a must, if you can speak French. It starts to dawn on me, after previous experience, that you might need to look for something in a language other than English, if you want to read something that is not overly academic and tries to complicate everything by pretending to explain films to you which perhaps shouldn’t be explained. So far, the best books I have read about slow-film directors are not in the English language. I’m looking forward to a book on Slow Cinema in French or something. Maybe this will be better than what we have come across so far. Anyway, if you speak either German or French, or maybe both, go get yourself those two treats!

The aesthetics of absence and duration in the post-trauma cinema of Lav Diaz

Now that the PhD has been awarded, I’m happy to make my thesis, the first coherent study of the films of Lav Diaz, available for you to read. I’m currently working on a monograph, which will use this thesis as a basis, but which will be more personal, less academic and which will contain one more chapter. I’ll write a little something on Diaz’s Locarno winner room What Is Before (2014) which I really thought needs mention in the context of post-trauma, but which I couldn’t really fit into my thesis. Please feel free to get in touch about the thesis if you want. Please feel free to comment or even recommend further reading which I would be happy about. Here’s the abstract of the thesis. You can find the download link below.

Aiming to make an intervention in both emerging Slow Cinema and classical Trauma Cinema scholarship, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which the post-trauma cinema of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz merges aesthetics of cinematic slowness with narratives of post-trauma in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). 

Diaz has been repeatedly considered as representative of what Jonathan Romney termed in 2004 “Slow Cinema”. The director uses cinematic slowness for an alternative approach to an on-screen representation of post-trauma. Contrary to popular trauma cinema, Diaz’s portrait of individual and collective trauma focuses not on the instantenaeity but on the duration of trauma. In considering trauma as a condition and not as an event, Diaz challenges the standard aesthetically techniques used in contemporary Trauma Cinema, as highlighted by Janet Walker (2001, 2005), Susannah Radstone (2001), Roger Luckhurst (2008) and others. Diaz’s films focus instead on trauma’s latency period, the depletion of a survivor’s resources, and a character’s slow psychological breakdown. 

Slow Cinema scholarship has so far focused largely on the films’ aesthetics and their alleged opposition to mainstream cinema. Little work has been done in connecting the films’ form to their content. Furthermore, Trauma Cinema scholarship, as trauma films themselves, has been based on the immediate and most radical signs of post-trauma, which are characterised by instantaneity; flashbacks, sudden fears of death and sensorial overstimulation. Following Lutz Koepnick’s argument that slowness offers “intriguing perspectives” (Koepnick, 2014: 191) on how trauma can be represented in art, this thesis seeks to consider the equally important aspects of trauma duration, trauma’s latency period and the slow development of characteristic symptoms. 

With the present work, I expand on current notions of Trauma Cinema, which places emphasis on speed and the unpredictability of intrusive memories. Furthermore, I aim to broaden the area of Slow Cinema studies, which has so far been largely focused on the films’ respective aesthetics, by bridging form and content of the films under investigation. Rather than seeing Diaz’s slow films in isolation as a phenomenon of Slow Cinema, I seek to connect them to the existing scholarship of Trauma Cinema studies, thereby opening up a reading of his films.

You can download the full thesis here.

Slow Cinema, ed by Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge (2015)

I’m not sure where to start with this one. Not considering the content for a minute, the new and very first edited collection on Slow Cinema appears like a bit of a fraud. A subject that has been carried by film viewers, lay film critics, and PhD students, is now appropriated by professors of high reputation who have little to do with the subject, meaning I don’t think they have expertise in the subject. A friend of mine also went through the list of contributors and said that the choice of authors made little sense. Unless, of course, you want to attract buyers who see that this book was written by professors of high standing. This method usually works. I reckon that this is also the reason to include the great Jacques Rancière, who didn’t have to be in the edited collection. His book on Béla Tarr is by far better than his chapter in the Slow Cinema book.

It is ironic, and to me it says a lot about academia and academic publishing, that a book about a subject carried by lay people has the highest amount of professors in the list of contributors I have ever had in my hands. And I really mean professors. I don’t mean lecturers. Given the work that has been done outside academia, this collection is a slap in the face to everyone who worked very hard on bringing the subject forward. Where are those PhD students who studied the subject for years and brought real innovation to it? I miss a student from my university who submitted an abstract for a chapter which would have dealt with cinematic slowness in North African cinema – a real novelty in the current geographical foci in Slow Cinema research. Where are those writer-filmmakers (like Erik Bordeleau)? If you are familiar with the subject and look through the list of contributors and contributions, you will notice that the official “Call For Papers” which was published a couple years ago was no more than a nice gesture but there was little intention in bringing together experts on the subject or in creating something new. The aim was to be first and not necessarily good. At the same time, it looks as though most of the contributors have been determined in advance, but only for their names, not for their long and close research interests in Slow Cinema…which, as I said, made the CfP pretty much redundant.

If you have read Jacques Rancière’s work on Béla Tarr, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have read Song Hwee Lim’s book on Tsai Ming-liang, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have already read Karl Schoonover’s work on Slow Cinema and the labouring body, you don’t need to buy this book. If you have read Cecilia Mello’s work on Jia Zhang-ke, you don’t need to buy this book. Nor do I believe that the almost static films of Andy Warhol (Sleep) should be subject in a book on Slow Cinema. Justin Remes has done well reading those films in his book Motionless Pictures, but Warhol should not be in a Slow Cinema collection. I could go on. After three years of research into the area, I have found myself whispering “I read this somewhere before” (and not necessarily by that specific author) a couple of times, and if you have followed this blog and read through some of my bibliography, which I update regularly, this book is nothing new to you. The monographs which are out there – as mentioned about Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, or even Tiago de Luca’s Realism of the Senses (2014) – are a great deal better.

Thankfully, the price of the book has dropped by now and it has become affordable. Nevertheless, if you’re a Slow Cinema afiniciado you should check out the monographs which exist out there already and keep reading material by lay film critics. With the hundreds and hundreds of reviews, blog posts and other material this edited collection failed to make a real contribution. One exception is once more Philippa Lovatt’s work, who is probably the only person out there who’s actively working on sound, which is always a refreshment because Slow Cinema is primarily discussed in terms of time and its visual aspects. Sound tends to be neglected. Besides, she writes about a director who has not yet been written about in all details: Liu Jiayin (Oxhide I).

The book’s most remarkable achievement is its complete neglect of this website. Harry Tuttle’s is in there. David Bordwell’s is in there. But no mention of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema (to be fair, the website is in a reference but only because I have uploaded a paper of mine, so my paper is quoted, not my website). This isn’t a personal thing. It is simply strange that there’s a website – I’d say perhaps the website on Slow Cinema these days – which the editors are aware of (I submitted an abstract and mentioned the website in my biography, besides if you look for Slow Cinema on Google my website comes 2nd after Wikipedia), and it doesn’t even get a mention. Given the contributors I can only imagine the reason. It’s not that it’s a blog. It’s a blog by someone who didn’t have a PhD at the time. In itself, this is disappointing because this website has done a lot to bring research forward and to open up the Slow Cinema canon.

What bugs me is that quite a few of my ideas from this blog appear in the book’s introduction with no reference at all. Now, you could say that I shouldn’t have made my thoughts public. But that isn’t the point I’m arguing about here. I do not own my ideas because there certainly are other people who have the same ideas on the same subject. To me it’s frankly a matter of decency and part of research ethics to cross-reference each other. I did so in my PhD thesis. I thought I had a fantastic idea but a few weeks after I had written down my ideas I found a text which, scarily enough, was even written in almost the exact same matter. These things do happen. But I referenced the student’s work because of decency and ethics. As I know that the editors are aware of this blog and that, if you research Slow Cinema, you land on this website almost by default now (which I’m proud of), this looks to me like a deliberate exclusion for whatever reason. This isn’t ethical research and summarises my experience in academia for the last three years.

The ideas someone celebrates himself for has perhaps its origins here, so please keep this in mind when, or if, you read this book. Having read this book made the entire business of film distribution and a VoD service much stronger and, personally, necessary because after those now six years following Slow Cinema and seeing the academic development, all I can say is that it’s time to get out of there and do something that is useful for the filmmakers and the films and not for my reputation as an academic, scrambling for a piece of the slow cake.

That said, if you’re a total beginner in slow films, this collection may be worth buying. If you have followed the subject for years, then it is not worth at all unless you want to read something you have already read several times before. It’s a real shame that this collection turned out like this. But once I heard which abstracts had been rejected (all of which promising and really unique), I could guess what the agenda of the book was. The final product shows exactly that.

Slow Cinema, ed by Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge (2015), available on Amazon UK.

(E)Motion in slow films

A couple of days I ago, I came across a new article by Ira Jaffe, who wrote the, to me, unconvincing book Slow Movies (2014). In Slow Cinema: Resistance to Motion and Emotion, Jaffe argues that form and content work together in expressing a resistance to motion and emotion. For Jaffe, a lack or a suppression of emotion is a key characteristic of slow films. His examples are as varied as Lisandro Alonso’s, Béla Tarr’s and Gus van Sant’s films. He rules out non-narrative “slow” films such as Derek Jarman’s Blue because the film contains too much emotion, mainly delivered through voice over. If I follow Jaffe’s approach here, we can rule out Lav Diaz as a slow-film director. Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, for instance, would not be a slow film.

I find this apparently clear line between slow movies (no (e)motion) and “the rest of cinema” (motion + emotion) problematic. I don’t think that the characters actually resist emotion, even though some directors, such as Lisandro Alonso – as Jaffe demonstrates, even though he doesn’t give a source for it – ask their characters not to show too much emotion. The question first of all is, how do we define emotion? It looks as though the basis of Jaffe’s article is the heightened, artificially exaggerated display of emotion on popular cinema. If one compares slow films to those artificial portraits of emotion, then yes – Slow Cinema is dead. There’s no life in the films. But – and here is the crux – I think Jaffe forgot the idea of slow-film directors turning to a somewhat more realistic approach to film. I think very few people have emotions the way they do in Hollywood. To me, the display of these extreme switches bares similarities to bi-polar disorder. But this isn’t the norm. In general, we humans are simply flat. We do not walk around shouting, crying, laughing, and all this in the course of an hour. What slow films display is a more realist take on what we humans are like. If you filmed me for a day or two, you wouldn’t see much emotion either. I’m in the same kind of mood pretty much all day.

A second question that needs to be asked is, does the suppression of emotion only apply to the character? What about the emotion of the viewer? I find that most slow films move me, especially the films of Lav Diaz, Tsai Ming-liang and Béla Tarr. These films may be characterised as lacking emotion, but they sure stir emotion in me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Basically, it’s the same effect popular films are aiming for: making the audience feel. The aesthetics of Slow Cinema and popular cinema couldn’t be more different from one another. But the effect is the same. I don’t think that someone who makes films about trauma, or the slow death of cities and life in them, or the suffocating alienation in urban spaces aims for boring the audience. There’s no point telling these stories if they are merely used to bore the viewer. These stories are told in order to evoke something in the viewer; i.e. emotion. It is interesting here that Patrick Holzapfel, in his article The Sehnsucht nach Bewegungslosigkeit im Kinoargues that even if you look at a static photograph, one moves emotionally.

Photographs are similar to slow films. I have written about this characteristic before. Just like in photographs, you may not see everything in one frame. You may not see, say, a disturbing event which, for instance, led to the death of a mother’s child. You may simply see the mother in a picture. She may not even cry. The story around it, however, is full of emotion and this is transmitted to the viewer. To me, many slow films are similar to that. And because we move emotionally, as Holzapfel has argued, there is always movement in connection to Slow Cinema. It may not be the camera. But nevertheless, the films are more alive than is commonly presented. We just look at the wrong side of things.

Default Setting: Bored

Just last week I read Jakob Boer’s interesting paper “As Slow As Possible: An Enquiry Into the Redeeming Power of Boredom for Slow Film Viewers” (2015). I’m partly immensely grateful for this paper. I’ve lamented for a while that Slow Cinema scholarship is running in circles and there’s very little new material that comes out of it. We’re still discussing mainly the subjective issue of (slow) time and its roots in Neorealism, which isn’t exactly true. Based on Matthew Flanagan’s PhD thesis, Boer, too, refers to these roots.

His paper is an investigation into the aspect of boredom, also often discussed in the context of Slow Cinema. But Boer’s paper is a philosophical take on the issue and therefore makes an interesting point within Slow Cinema studies. It’s clearly audience centred, which I find particularly vital for the study of Slow Cinema. Slow Cinema is a form of cinema driven by experience for the viewer. I personally think that you lose the whole experience of slow films if you try to read them exclusively through the lens of film theories. As scholars, we’re obliged to do it, but it’s not always helpful and maybe (hopefully) Slow Cinema teaches academics to back down a bit, ease up on theoretical framework-thinking.

What is Slow Cinema? A genre, a movement? Neither? Boer takes the stance that Slow Cinema is a genre. The most widespread term is ‘movement’. I haven’t really made up my mind and, in effect, it doesn’t matter that much. It only does in scholarship, so that we can put these films into already existing categories. The viewers possibly don’t waste a minute about those things. If there’s one thing that Slow Cinema really does is visualise the extreme differences between academic and viewer, and the former often forget that they’re also the latter.

What strikes me in Boer’s article, but not only in his, is that it is assumed slow films create boredom by default. Boer does consider the positive effects of boredom, such as creating contemplation. But it seems as if you have to be bored first, and then, if all goes well and the boredom turns out to be positive, you reach a state of contemplation. Contemplation is seen in the context of boredom. Can I not contemplate a film or an image, say a painting, without getting bored? That is the ultimate crux here: Boer’s paper is, among others, based on Heidegger’s thinking on boredom. Because this literature is there, it feels as though we have to make Slow Cinema fit.

But isn’t it a fact that Slow Cinema challenges existing literature? I’m wrapping up a thesis on the way Lav Diaz’s slow films challenge both Slow Cinema and Trauma Cinema. You can make it work, but you need to be a bit creative. I do believe that slow films do not create boredom by default. If it was like this, it would mean that people would only go see those films because they wanted to be lazy. It reminds me of this well-known media model of the passive spectator who merely sits in his/her seat and the messages are injected straight into his veins…or his brain, for that matter.

When I read Boer’s paper I had this very model in mind, wondering whether active spectatorship has ever been considered. I don’t think that someone who’s bored is actively engaged in a film. And yet, for most slow films you need to be actively engaged in order to grasp the meaning, the narrative, the twists and turns. There’s more happening than writers often make readers believe. But rather than many different forms of action happening in time, Slow Cinema depicts often only one action. And yet, lots is happening, but not necessarily on the time-axis. It’s more about depth. I mentioned Maya Deren in one of my early posts. She talked about poetry being vertical (rather than horizontal), because it describes and investigates themes in depth. For me the vertical means depth, the horizontal is the surface. Slow Cinema is vertical, and you have to be actively engaged in order to dig your way into the film. Even contemplation can distract in that matter. I know that myself – give me a beautiful photographic shot and I forget the narrative.

I think a study of boredom would perhaps make more sense for films like Warhol’s Empire or similar video art. I don’t think it’s applicable to slow-film viewers who watch fictional narratives or docs. They do not see Lav Diaz’s films to get bored. They want to go on a journey, and if your journey is boring, then you have clearly done something wrong.

Book Review: Das Innen im Außen – Bernhard Hetzenauer (2013)

Bernhard Hentzenauer’s book on Béla Tarr makes me glad that I’m a German native, and can therefore read and fully understand his arguments. I’m not sure whether an English translation is in the making, so you may want to teach yourself a bit of German if you want to read a really interesting take on Béla Tarr’s films 🙂

Hetzenauer’s work is based on a Master’s thesis, which makes the book with only 100 pages neat, brief and to-the-point. It is a philosophical take on Tarr and brings some intriguing aspects to previous writing on the filmmaker that are worth looking at in more detail. What Hetzenauer looks at is ‘the gaze’ in Tarr’s films. Based on Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, he explores the meaning of the gaze but also the aesthetics of it.

I’ve seen every single of Tarr’s films apart from one of his earlier social-realist films. I’ve always been fascinated by them, but I never noticed just how prevalent the gaze is in his films. It’s true, though, and it becomes a kind of eureka effect once you read Hetzenauer’s book. And in fact, Tarr’s films often start with a gaze. Take Damnation, for instance, the almost endless scene of cable cars that makes us feel as if we’re positioned somewhere outside. A zoom out and subtle camera movement, however, shows Karrer sitting at the window observing those cable cars. Is the beginning a POV shot, or is it not? If not, what exactly is it then? I’m not entirely sure whether or not Film Studies could solve this riddle.

The theme of characters sitting behind a window is recurring. There is the doctor in Sátántangó, who is the narrator of the story, and who observes everything that happens in front of his window. Then there is the daughter in The Turin Horse, a film in which Tarr uses the exact same aesthetic as he had done in Damnation. First we see only the outside, until a zoom moves us into the interior, revealing the back of a longing (or hopeless?) character. Hetzenauer points out that if you only studied this very gaze alone you’d see the slow but sure end of Tarr’s filmmaking career. It is well known that Tarr has stripped his last film of pretty much everything and turned it into a very austere work. A pure form of cinema, as Tarr called it at the EIFF 2011, if I remember right.

Interestingly, he has also gradually minimised the amount of objects his characters are looking at through the window. There are the cable cars in Damnation. It’s not much, but it’s something, and as they’re moving, they must be moving somewhere. There is a definite spatial end to this route. There is a another location, perhaps a less desperate space nearby. Fast-forward to The Turin Horse, and all the girl is left with to look at is a tree in the far background. Other than that, there’s complete nothingness. No path, nothing that indicates a potential hope for the characters. Not that The Turin Horse is hopeful anyway. It’s as depressing and hopeless as Tsai Ming-liang’s last film Stray Dogs, and both endings are fitting to the directors’ films and their filmmaking career. But it’s those small visual pointers that are often overlooked, and which Hetzenauer stresses.

I particularly like the fact that Hetzenauer mentions Tarr’s famous long-takes without putting them at the centre of his work, which is usually the case with writers nowadays. In putting the long-take aside – without rejecting it completely – Hetzenauer’s book has space to explore more intriguing things. The gaze is a perfect example of this, and Hetzenauer analysed it with brilliance in my opinion. There is one aspect I miss in the book, though. He merges Tarr with Jacques Lacan’s philosophy, thus aiming for a philosophical approach. He also returns to the gaze, as personified by the camera, several times throughout the book.

Now, I wonder why he didn’t make use of Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy. I got obsessed with that book a few years ago, and could see every bit of Frampton in Tarr’s films, or the other way around, depending on how you want to see it. Reading Hetzenauer’s book was like reading Filmosophy again, and I’m surprised that he doesn’t mention it, not even in the slightest. Hetzenauer has a particular way of describing the gaze in Tarr’s films, which makes me think of the film / the camera having its own mind, making decisions, simply acting as an individual being or character in the film. Nowhere is this more visible than in Tarr’s films, so I believe that if you do study the specific aesthetics of the moving camera, Frampton should at least be mentioned.

In any case, the book is worthwhile reading and it’s a fast-read, too, if you’re worried about your time. Hetzenauer’s work, in its quality, isn’t surprising. I have long realised – through talking with people, and my own reading – that the most groundbreaking work in Slow Cinema is done by MA and PhD students, not so much (yet) by established academics. This is perhaps the case because students still see things afresh and out-of-the-box, which makes it likely that they do not trod the same path.

It reminds me of my experience with scholarship on trauma cinema. The progress is minimal in that field. Scholars write the same thing over and over again, quote the same people, the same text passages and there’s nothing new coming to the field. Now, I did have problems with Dirk de Bruyn’s book on trauma in avant-garde films because of terrible editing and errors from page one to the very last page. But I can nevertheless say that he did have original thoughts. And he’s an academic as well as a practitioner, which explains his out-of-the-box thinking. This is what any field needs. Bernhard Hetzenhauer shows this with his book on the gaze in Béla Tarr’s films.

Das Innen im Außen – Béla Tarr, Jacques Lacan und der Blick, by Bernhard Hetzenauer (2013), now available on Amazon Deutschland or through the Alexander Verlag Berlin.

Review: On Slowness – Lutz Koepnick (2014)

The contemporary hype around slowness in all its forms has filled shelves in bookstores for several years now. Most of these books are a kind of self-help strategy for stressed-out people, who wish to slow down their lives. I tend to flick through them only to return them to the shelf again. I don’t really believe in these books, because I think that a book alone cannot slow down your life. The only slow books I have read where written by the wonderful Carl Honoré, whose books are superb and not self-help manuals as such. On the contrary, they make you smile.

With recent (academic) books on Slow Movies and monologues on specific filmmakers, such as Béla Tarr, I thought Lutz Koepnick’s endeavour to write a book on slowness in contemporary art was daring. If you remember, I had a rather unpleasant experience with Ira Jaffe’s book, so I hoped that someone would finally do some valuable and serious work on slowness. For some reason it feels as if everyone wants and does write on slowness (in whatever field) without really bringing something new to the debate. Writing on slowness runs in circles, which is not helpful to its reputation as being ‘boring’.

Koepnick’s book is the refreshing work that the field needed. It’s a pleasure to read and this is mainly the case because it is unique in its approach. Current literature considers slowness isolated from speed. While writers all agree that slowness stands in opposition to speed, it is almost impossible to find a piece of work that argues along the line of slowness being a part of speed. Without speed there wouldn’t be slowness and vice versa. It feels as though Koepnick has put this at the heart of his work, and it is this that makes reading On Slowness so very refreshing.

Think of Futurism, for instance. Futurism was perhaps the beginning of our contemporary obsession with speed. Now we have Slow Art, Slow Cinema, Slow Education. Futurism introduced the complete opposite of everything. Futurist thinkers loved speed. It was an exciting thing to experience. This is how the story goes anyway. What I found remarkable, and this stands at the beginning of Koepnick’s book, is that the author approached Futurism from a slow angle, seeking instances of slowness in an age of high speed. Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus found its way into the book, the angel with the open wings standing amidst a speedy flow of progress and history. The angel is not slow, but the angel stands for stillness. In fact, throughout the book, Koepnick does not so much argue for the use of the word slow. More important to him is the fact that ‘slowness’ opens a complex relation of opposing temporalities, the result of which we can find in the artworks he focuses on in his book.

The idea is to see ‘slowness’ in speed. As already pointed out, we tend to forget that these aren’t entirely separate from each other. An example for this is Koepnick’s in-depth study of open shutter photography, which I personally found the best chapter of the entire book. In open photography, both speed and slowness come together. Koepnick approaches this form of photography from the angle of slowness. He refers to the work of Michael Weseley, for instance, who is known for his spooky photographs of train stations. Say, there is a train from Cologne to Berlin. He would set up the camera on the platform at Cologne train station and open the shutter when the train leaves. He would only close the shutter when the train had arrived in Berlin. The result is spooky, but stunning. Another example is the work of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. His photographs of cinema auditoriums are the result of a very similar approach. He opened the shutter when a film started to play on the screen, then closed the shutter at the end of the film.

Photography is known for its instantaneous nature. Then there is time-lapse photography, which brings home the idea of photography as being a ‘fast’ form of art. Where do we position open shutter photography? When I read through Koepnick’s arguments I was amazed by this. It made perfect sense to see this as slow photography. But then, is it really? You still capture speed, you capture movement over a long period of time, so in some ways Weseley and Sugimoto use slowness/time to capture speed/movement. Thus, Koepnick’s suggestion that different temporalities are connected in slow works becomes most explicit and obvious in his chapter on photography. He does not go into detail about the actual speed that is captured on the ‘slow’ photographs. Yet as a reader, you can go through the process in your head and you can see that open shutter photography, while being slow at first sight, is actually just one form of time. It is a complex construct of different temporalities. Using one word – slow or fast, regardless – is not entirely correct.

In another stunning analysis Koepnick combines speed with slowness. Tom Tykwer is known for his fast films, especially Run Lola Run (1998). How would you describe the film? I would describe it as a ‘film on speed’, in many ways. And yet, Koepnick makes it his task to see the corresponding slowness in the film, analysing the slow-motion scenes as well as the fact that Tykwer’s characters never have the latest technologies, which we would now regard as contributing to today’s speed. It is those small things that I never thought of. For me the film is fast and a perfect illustration (as far back as 1998) of the growing speed in and of society. But this isn’t what it is exclusively.

Koepnick sees the unseen/invisible in his book. He shows that there is no such thing as ‘just slow’. Slowness is rather one form of temporality which contributes to the complex, multiple layers of time we are confronted with every day. The funny thing is, I have argued a similar thing in my thesis in regards to Lav Diaz’s concentrationary universe, in which he shifts freely between ‘slowness’ and brief interludes of shocks that seem to speed up time. So we’re both on the same page. It’s just not as clear in my words as yet.

Not all chapters have the same quality, but Koepnick’s book is a real must-read if you want to learn more about slowness in contemporary art, or about temporality in art in general. It is an insightful study of how time is dealt with in several art forms – photography, cinema, video – so there’s something for everyone.

On Slowness, by Lutz Koepnick (2014) – now available on Amazon.

The films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation – Andrew Horton (1997)

When I was still in primary school, at the sweet age of nine, and had no idea that I would become a slow fanatic one day, someone wrote a book on contemplative cinema. That someone was Andrew Horton, and it appears rather strange to put the concept of contemplative cinema into the pre-2000 era. After all, the concept has largely been accredited to Harry Tuttle, and I wonder whether it’s again just one of those knee-jerk things, or whether someone has actually done a bit of work to see that Tuttle was not the person to come up with it. Even though this is by no means a competitive race about who’s first (it’s useless in a slow world anyway), it is important to put things straight before a proper debate on Slow Cinema can take place.

Horton’s book on the films of Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is one of those rare specimens on the market. I’m surprised to see so little work on Angelopoulos, and nothing substantial has come out of (especially!) academic film studies since Horton’s book in 1997. This is on the one hand surprising because Horton’s book is in no way complete. It is, rather, a nice introduction to the films of the Greek director, who, as I have figured while reading the book, shares quite a few similarities with Lav Diaz.

On the other hand, contemplative cinema – in whatever way, from whatever director – is not exactly a subject film scholars are fighting over. There is a comparatively big hype around Slow Cinema at the moment – since 2010, in fact, when Romney used the term ‘Slow Cinema’, which in fact he did as far back as 2004 but this is generally ignored – but I do not see this as a pointer to a persistent academic interest. It’ll be put aside pretty quickly again, and scholars will move on to something else.

As I said before, Horton’s book serves as an interesting medium to discover the films of Angelopoulos. It’s one of my big faults that I have so far only seen one film by him, but this shall change in future. I’m a bit behind with the ‘classics’. The first part of the book is almost excellent, I would say. Horton puts Angelopoulos’s films into the wider context of world cinema, starting with Greek cinema, then expanding to the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, cinema in the Balkans and East Europe, and he even points to similarities Angelopoulos’s aesthetics share with Japanese films of the early days. While this part is an interesting read, the in-depth analysis of similarities the Greek director shares with other filmmakers discredits his own achievements. It reads as though Angelopoulos’s films are an amalgamation of everything that has been before, which, in some ways, they are. But there is little emphasis on the director’s own approach to cinema.

This reminds me of what Lav Diaz told me when I asked him about influences. His work, as so many other slow films, are linked to Italian Neorealism, for instance. Diaz said he watched a lot of those films, but he would not consciously quote them. He’s not consciously influenced by, say, Rossellini. That means, to me, that I should focus on his films as what they are – his films. This is a major issue in the studies of Slow Cinema. One argument you will find pretty much everywhere is the influence of Italian Neorealism. I’m always surprised to read this. The use of long-takes, non-professional actors etc goes back to the very beginning of film history. Therefore, Slow Cinema is not similar to Italian Neorealism. It is simply cinema, a cinema that has always been there, long before neorealism.

What I particularly liked about Horton’s book is the dive into the similarities of Angelopoulos’s aesthetics and Byzantine art. It’s exactly what resonates with my own thoughts and experiences, namely that Slow Cinema is generally indebted to static art, mainly painting. Not so much the aesthetics, but the way the viewer has to approach the films or static art respectively. This becomes clear in Horton’s analysis. In this context, Horton also speaks about a “cinema of meditation”, which is a fitting description not only of Angelopoulos’s films. It could be applied to all slow films.

When I read through the book, I felt as if little new material has been generated in regards to Slow Cinema. The vast majority of arguments have been there before. It’s been 17 years since Horton’s book was published. Slow Cinema is “back in fashion”, but most of the things that are out there are recycled material. It is for this reason that I try to find niches, as I did in my paper on the concentrationary universe, in which I argued that there are similarities between the slowness in Lav Diaz’s films and the slowness as created through terror in concentration camps. Slow Cinema really needs some original research, and I’m hoping to contribute to this in one way or another.

Back to the book, though. The second part of the book is a rather boring piece, and a waste of paper in large parts. Horton discusses five films, but he spends so much time and space on elaborate in-depth synopses that there’s little space left for a decent argument about the actual film form, or whatever it was he wanted to focus on. It is not difficult to write a ten page synopses for a two or three hour film. Everyone can do it, so while I admired Horton’s work in the first half of the book, I felt that he lost the plot in the second half. He lost his decisiveness, his sharp eye. I don’t think that an almost shot by shot description of the film is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the films. A concise synopsis would do, with an in-depth analysis of the most important sequences. Endless synopses make the reading just so boring that the reader will most likely lose interest in the films, which shouldn’t be the result of a book on Slow Cinema. It’s pretty easy to put off your audience as it is, so you have to be clever. Long synopses are not a good strategy.

Overall, though, Horton’s book is decent, and a nice start on Slow Cinema. If you want an easy start into the matter, try this book. It’s cheap, too, compared to the book on Slow Cinema, which will be published next year (and which is, I think, a rip-off, as all academic books these days).

Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation (1997) – Andrew Horton, available on Amazon.

Slow Movies, Countering the Cinema of Action – Ira Jaffe (2014)

I reviewed Song Hwee Lim’s book on Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang earlier, and called Lim’s book the first appropriate book on Slow Cinema. Ira Jaffe’s Slow Movies is supposed to be a book about the phenomenon as such, which looks at several different directors to give a broad overview of what is out there. Sadly, I have to say that the book fails completely.

First of all, the title is misleading. It is true that the title “Slow Movies” may perhaps mean something other than Slow Cinema. But given that it was published at a time when Slow Cinema is receiving increased attention, you would expect that Jaffe has just used a different name. And somehow, I’m still not clear what he is actually talking about. In the introduction, he clearly sets out the characteristics of Slow Cinema. But then he gives examples that contradict his own approach, and uses film examples that are – I believe – in no way Slow Cinema.

Second, Jaffe brings very little to the field. Especially the first two chapters of the book are rather boring, and make slow films terribly unappealing. I’m thinking in particular about his section on Gus van Sant’s Elephant. We’ve seen it, lots has been written about, and everything he has mentioned has been there before. Reading this section is a waste of time, and of paper (and therefore of trees!).

There are also contradictions within his chapters. There are two examples I would like to point to. First is his use of Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch. I haven’t seen the film, but what he describes is not Slow Cinema. And true to the matter, he even says that Dead Man is an exception. He says that it is “not a slow movie in every respect.” Apart from the recurring on-screen (human) violence, which I judge as a no-go for Slow Cinema, he identifies shot/reverse shots, frequent cuts, close-ups and the use of gimmicks like flashbacks as elements that do not comply with the characteristics of what he faithfully calls ‘slow movies’. So what exactly is Dead Man then? Jaffe spends page after page on the film, and it becomes clearer and clearer that Dead Man shouldn’t be in the book at all.

Another irritating section was the one on 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu. On the one hand, he says that the characters “evince” a lot of emotion, but restraint of emotion is a key theme. So what exactly is the key theme? Again, he points out that the presence of emotion is not a key characteristic of slow movies. I have seen 4 Months and I know that it’s not Slow Cinema. It is slow, but it’s not Slow Cinema. This makes the entire book wholly confusing, because Jaffe appears to hop between Slow Movie and Slow Cinema. If all this is about slowness in films only, then this book is a useless piece because it has appeared in books on Antonioni, Gus van Sant, Sokurov etc before. In writing about exactly those directors, it is therefore a mere compilation of what has been there before. There was little point in bringing up the old topic again.

If it was an attempt at writing about Slow Cinema, the book has failed. Some film examples frankly don’t make sense, especially if the author himself says that they do not quite fit the trope. On top of it, I miss original analysis. Most of it is content description, with a few quotations – some of which return over and over again – thrown into it. Reading the book does not give me the feeling that Jaffe is an expert in slow movies. Nor does he seem to be totally immersed in it. Again, like Andras Balint Kovacs’s book on Béla Tarr, this one feels like a quick shot; the result of a race to be the first to publish on a new subject.

The hare and the turtle. I do have to say that for years I had wanted to be the first to publish on Béla Tarr. That one has obviously not materialised, but the first proper book is a failure, because it was a quick shot, exactly what I had in mind for myself. Then I wanted to be the first to publish a book on Slow Cinema. Jaffe’s book is a failure, a quick shot.

I’m really glad that I have become the turtle!

[Slow Movies – Countering the Cinema of Action, by Ira Jaffe, London: Wallflower Press, available on Amazon]

Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness – Song Hwee Lim (2014)

In 2003, Michel Ciment coined the term “a cinema of slowness.” A year later, Jonathan Romney coined the now popular term “Slow Cinema.” It’s quite remarkable that it took over a decade before the first book on the phenomenon was published. I would have expected literature on the subject much earlier than this, but as Song Hwee Lim – I suppose, correctly – points out, Slow Cinema has been somewhat brushed aside by academics. Lim’s book is therefore a premiere. And a good one.

I should make clear that it is, in fact, not really a book about Slow Cinema. Rather, it is an examination of Tsai Ming-liang’s films through which we get to know the aesthetics of slowness. I find the book a success for two reasons. First, Lim has succeeded to put Slow Cinema on paper, which is a real achievement, because it must be extremely difficult to convey the feeling of slowness with words. Yet, his book manages to create a wonderfully authentic image of slow films in general, in of Tsai’s films in particular.

And this is the second reason: the book is an intriguing study of Tsai’s films. Tsai’s oeuvre has attracted writers before, and I do have one book about him in my shelf, a review of which I can put up later. But although these books are interesting, they cannot quite grasp and convey the Tsai-ness of his films. Only Lim’s book does so adequately, and it was a joy to read it. It made me want to re-watch all of Tsai’s films, but unfortunately some other (slow) films have priority at the moment.

There is perhaps another important point I should make. While Cinema of Slowness had been written by an academic, it’s surprisingly open. There is always the risk (and I had many of them in my hands during my research) that films are so utterly theorised that no one apart from academic experts, or even just the author him/herself, understand it. It’s one reason why this blog is the way it is, because Slow Cinema is a phenomenon mainly carried by the audience, often people who have little to do with Film Studies at a university. I personally find that this very fact requires us to make everything that is written accessible to the wider public.

Now, Lim’s book manages the balance between academic analysis and lay film-watching superbly. It’s detailed, but not dry, boring or even off-putting (as is the case with András Balínt Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr). Nor is the book jam-packed. As the first book on Slow Cinema, it could have been a compilation of all thoughts on Slow Cinema out there, basically a roundup of everything that can be said (again, as is the case on Kovacs’s book).

Instead, as strange as it may sound, the book is slow. Lim compiles a lot of material on slow films. Yet, he does not overwhelm the reader with too much information. On the contrary, he manages a smooth integration into an analysis of Tsai’s films, which makes for a smooth and slow reading without being hastened by the author through something that is inherently slow. I also had the rather astonishing experience that I agreed to everything. Before the publication of this book, there were so many things about Slow Cinema that vexed me. This blog was used to argue against those points, and, funnily enough, a lot of the things I have had in mind, appear in Lim’s book. It feels as though I have found a slow (soul) mate.

If you are a keen follower of Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang, this book is perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give you for the time being. It works both as a nice introduction to the phenomenon, as well as a lively but not tiring analysis of one of the most prolific representatives of Slow Cinema.

(Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness, by Song Hwee Lim, University of Hawai’i Press, now available on Amazon)