Monochrome Painting and Slow Cinema

At the very beginning of my doctoral research, I linked Slow Cinema to static art, especially Chinese painting. Traditional Chinese painting, I found, had characteristics that could also be found in the films of Lav Diaz. This was very specific though, and never allowed me to apply it to the whole of Slow Cinema. I’m nevertheless still keen on finding out more about the link between art and Slow Cinema. I do believe that there is more to find in art literature than in film studies literature, which can help us understand the aesthetics of Slow Cinema a bit more.

What set this off was a French language book titled “La peinture monochrome” by Denys Riout. I bought it out of curiosity because I find monochrome art immensely interesting. I find it engaging, more so than pieces of art with several different colours. I was reminded of my preference of black-and-white over colour when it comes to films and thought I should give this book a try. More than half way through it now, I can thoroughly recommend it.

First of all I should say that I see the term “monochrome” in a much broader sense than it is used at the moment. The term is used only for colour, and yes, that makes perfect sense. But what does an artist do when s/he uses just one colour? Or even a no-colour like black or white? The artwork is reduced to a bare minimum. But, as Denys Riout points out in his book, this bare minimum does not necessarily mean simplicity. In fact he uses the term “image parfaite”, or perfect image; a representation through the absence of representation. We could certainly argue that this absence is asking for no-boredom, an active rejection of engaging with the artwork in front of oneself. But this absence is perfect precisely because it doesn’t manipulate you into thinking of what an artwork is about. Absence sets you free. It is up to you what you would like do with it.

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Riout gives more suggestions, which are as simple as they are mind-blowing. I believe the art of monochrome painting challenges our intellectual approach to literally everything we do. I cannot remember where I read this, but the phrase that intellect kills experience becomes clear once you’re faced with a Rauschenberg painting. Or a slow film in which little is happening. Most telling in this context is Riout’s description in the following paragraph:

Là où le lecteur attend une explication, il ne rencontre que l’occultation et se trouve ainsi brutalement renvoyé à la condition plus inconfortable de regardeur. À lui de ‘faire’ les tableaux; c’est-à-dire de leur donner sens. (Riout, 2006: 34)

Riout mentions here the viewer’s uncertainty with an artwork in which no explanation is given. The viewer is left to his/her own devices. Our dislike of uncertainty is deeply rooted in our evolution and its connection to survival. It may seem odd to connect our rejection of uncertainty in art in general, and film in particular, to our survival mode as humans (or animals, actually). But this is what it is. We often forget where our behaviour comes from. Certainty means safety and security. They’re essential for survival. But I don’t want to go on too much about it. It’s just a thought that is worth mentioning, I think.

Another quote I’d like to highlight:

Alors qu’il n’y a rien à voir, our presque … le regard s’attarde sans pouvoir jamais se fixer. … ‘Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs’. (Riout; 2006: 45)

Emptiness allows the viewer to move his/her gaze along the entirety of a painting. If there are several different elements with several different colours there is a likelihood that your gaze remains fixed on one element without you ever seeing the painting as a whole. The phrase “Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs” comes from Albert Camus,and says nothing more than emptiness giving you plenty powers as viewer. Monochrome art, or indeed emptiness, paves the way for the viewer’s emancipation…if s/he would like to take up this challenge. Because film is time-based, this emancipation is not only achieved through visual simplicity but also through time. The duration of the long-takes allows us to take our time to move our gaze along a frame without necessarily getting focused on just one element.

What I found most intriguing is the thought that monochrome paintings should perhaps not even be called “visual art”. The idea behind it is that whatever you see in, say, Rauschenberg’s black paintings it not actually in the painting. It’s in your head. It’s a spiritual type of engagement with a work of art. So we may ask where the visual ends and the spiritual begins, a very striking thought, if you ask me.

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Now, I do not say that everything I have so far mentioned (and I could say plenty more!) is applicable to Slow Cinema. But there are definite parallels between monochrome painting and Slow Cinema. First and foremost, I believe, we should mention the fact that both are, or tend to be, reduced – aesthetically – to a bare minimum. Complexity comes with simplicity. As odd as it sounds, this is true. The less you’re bombarded with information, the more you can experience what is happening in front of you. You’re given time to feel a situation and you can ponder about what it all means. As Camus says, power comes through emptiness, and I believe that slow films play on exactly that. I would suggest that Lav Diaz is one of the most striking and the most obvious example. But Slow Cinema in general lives off its reduction to simplicity in order to emancipate the viewers. Meanings aren’t given. They’re not imposed. The viewer has to make sense of them (that requires yes-boredom tho).

I also believe that what you actually see in slow films is not necessarily what’s on the screen. Many things happen in your mind, precisely because you have to create a story and make sense of the images and the story the directors give you. You could easily stare at the screen and be passive. Then indeed slow films would be entirely visual. But I suggest that, like monochrome painting, they’re more spiritual than visual. I guess the most recent example for me is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens (2016). This spirituality is perhaps more prominent in some films than in others. Perhaps it is even more prominent in experimental slow films than in narrative films. Nevertheless, it is a characteristic of slow, contemplative films.

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One last point before I stop for now. Painter Robert Mangold said that after everything had been tried in painting, “la seule façon de peindre un tableau consistait à repartir à zero, puis d’ajouter une chose après l’autre” (Riout, 2006: 208). Meaning, painters had to return to zero and start to reinvent painting. Start from scratch. Start with the bare minimum and then add one element after another without overloading the artwork. I cannot help thinking that this is the case with slow films. I have long argued that the actual roots can be found in the early days of cinema. Film has gradually become more complex in terms of aesthetics. Just think of the latest blockbusters and the special effects used for them. Just looking at the film posters shows that the films are basically the same (and do we not know this anyway?). In order to make cinema again, filmmakers have to return to zero, to the bare minimum. Start from scratch. I thoroughly believe that Slow Cinema is a means to return to the very basics of film, of how cinema used to be, and how, perhaps, it had been imagined in the early days.

I should stop at this point and leave you with this food for thought. I still have half of Riout’s book to go, so there might be a second part to this post in the near future!

 

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Passions of the will to boredom

I have taken today’s post title from Julian Jason Haladyn’s wonderful book Boredom and Art (2015), which I have read with pleasure. Haladyn is, effectively, speaking about more than just boredom and art. To me, there is a lot about the politics of modernity in it, and several of Haladyn’s ideas and thoughts are an answer to the question of why people walk out of the cinema when they see a slow film.

What I found most striking, though actually most obvious (so obvious that we may never think of it these days) is the way modernity has changed our attitude. Haladyn uses the train journey, now a famous example, to illustrate this. He proposes that modernity, in the form of a train journey, has lead to people placing emphasis on expectations rather than on presence. If you think about it, during a train journey, or any journey for that matter nowadays, whether it’s by train, by car or by plane, you are expecting your arrival at the destination. This is what your mind is focused on (if it can focus at all during a time of transit). Expectation overshadows presence. Because you’re in transit, you can no longer appreciate being in there here and now because time and space is persistently shifting. If there’s one major thing that has changed for us through modernity, then it is the fact that we have lost the ability, perhaps the opportunities even, to be present.

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This is one section of life, where slow, contemplative films are intervening. Even though Haladyn does mention the films of Andy Warhol and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, he makes too little a case for cinema in general. However, there is a major case to be made about the nature of Slow Cinema as a tool for allowing us to return to the pre-modern feeling of being present at and with something. The long-takes, the wide shots of nature, the focus on character development, or even the running time, which is at times excessive (you know whom I’m talking about!) – all of those give us, the viewer, the opportunity to let go and just be. I argued in an earlier post that, to me, slow films are the real escapist cinema because they allow me to get away from the hectic modern life that is too fast, too noisy, too stressful. This is precisely where my two thoughts merge. It is escapist precisely because it allows me to be present, to be in the here and now, to breathe with the film, which nothing in modern life (apart from a Buddhist retreat and meditation, and perhaps yoga) can give me.

For some reason, a parallel between slow films and Duchamp’s readymades shaped up in my head while reading Haladyn’s book. Duchamp’s works were outrageous at the time, and perhaps they still are. Remember his famous toilet? There’s nothing arty about it. In effect, he has taken it and made a piece of art out of it. He showed us the ordinary in life, which we no longer notice. Perhaps this wasn’t his real intention, but I read it this way. The readymades are ordinary elements. They’re already there, nothing needs to be done, apart from putting them into a spotlight. Duchamp’s strategy, I find, is very similar to what slow film directors to, too. I’m aware that films are, more often than not, constructed pieces. There is an involvement of the artist evident, especially in highly experimental films. Yet, what slow films show is the mundane, the everyday, the life we all live without actually noticing it. What these films show are readymades. That also goes for the characters who are often no more than themselves – non-professional “actors” who play themselves, who do what they usually do, only in front of a camera.

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Haladyn cites Frances Colpitt, who made a very good point about Warhol’s films, but it is a point that can be equally applied to slow films. She writes, “Boredom necessarily describes the spectator’s state of mind rather than any characteristic of the object. The root of the problem is in the unpreparedness of the audience, most of whom were not familiar with the theoretical concerns of this highly conceptual art.” Colpitt is correct in arguing that boredom is a state of mind of the viewer and the artwork in itself is not boring. Haladyn proposes two approaches to a “boring” piece of art. He describes them as yes boredom and no boredom. The latter is a refusal of letting yourself float with the artwork, a refusal of trying to find or make meaning. Following Haladyn’s description of no boredom, it is to me a refusal of engaging with a work of art, or a film for that matter. Yes boredom, on the other hand, means that the viewer engages with an object. If there’s no obvious meaning, then the viewer is ready to create something, or at least s/he tries to. This is very much what the annual Slow Art Day is doing, or allowing you to do.

What is happening with slow films, and their rejection of it, is, in effect, no more than an expression of no boredom on the side of the viewer. It is an inability to be, to breathe, to be present. Those who walk out have no intention to do a bit of work. They have no intention to create meaning. They have no intention to engage with what is in front of them. Engagement with a work of art does not necessarily mean that you like it. Of course, you can dislike slow films. Yet, those films need to be engaged with in full first, and the reason for dislike cannot be “it’s boring”, because then you haven’t tried to engage with it. Two UK film critics walked out of the Lav Diaz Berlinale screening after two and three hours respectively (which is fatal, because Diaz’s long films only begin to get really interesting after three hours). Diaz takes it with humour, of course. At the same time, he said that people needed to sit through the full length of his films before they should express their opinion. Only then have they really tried to engage with the film. This is not only true for Diaz’s films, but for any slow film. Yes boredom!

Towards a poor cinema

The title of today’s post is not at all meant to be derogative. I like Slow Cinema too much for a defamation of it. I also strongly believe that poverty does not necessarily harm creativity. On the contrary. I’ve been there during my childhood and my youth. You learn to make do with what you have, and this always requires creativity. A lot of filmmakers demonstrate the same thing. Without funding, or only minimal funding which doesn’t cover the production costs at all, some create remarkable films. Slow Cinema directors are known for this. Not all of them make something out of nothing. Some are a bit luckier with receiving financial support than others. Yet, the general situation is pretty bleak for slow-film directors when it comes to financial support.

Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning know that I’m always interested in looking into any possible roots of Slow Cinema. I do not agree with the current classification of being a descendant of Italian Neo-Realism. Nor with European modernist cinema in general. This approach is entirely focused on film, and shows the ongoing problem in academia: many researchers only think in their own fields instead of looking beyond their own horizons. Doing exactly this, though, shows just how rich Slow Cinema is, despite people’s persistent argument that there’s nothing to see, nothing to get out of. The films have a strong heritage in other art forms. I already spoke a bit about painting, and I still stand by what I said. Lav Diaz is not the only one who used to paint before he turned to filmmaking. I think Apichatpong Weerasethakul used to paint as well (I think I read this in a recent interview). They may be an exception from the rule, but they make for an intriguing study of the ways in which Slow Cinema and other art forms converge.

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By way of diversion, I have reached the field of theatre. It started with a book on Polish post-trauma theatre, which was superb and similar to what I’ve been writing about Lav Diaz’s films in my thesis. In fact, there were so many similarities that I was glad I hadn’t read the book before submitting my thesis. It could have led to the Homer Simpson “NO!” effect. I was particularly taken by the two theatre directors Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. The latter’s “Theatre of Death” shows similarities to the three Lav Diaz films I have studied, but unfortunately cannot be applied to any other director I have studied so far in the context of Slow Cinema. But Grotowski is an interesting reference point. It was he who wrote the short but groundbreaking essay “Towards a poor theatre” in the mid-1960s.

I want to highlight no more than two aspects of Grotowski’s theatre and his vision of what theatre should be like. I possibly do not have to go into detail about the overall aesthetic of a “poor” theatre. Everything is reduced to a minimum. Perhaps Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) may be a good example. Yet it’s by no means the prime example. In slow films, in general, the mise-en-scene is minimalistic. The frames have been emptied of distracting elements. Very often you only see the very basics. And that is, in fact, all you need.

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This is also what Grotowski thought. Reducing the mise-en-scene to a mere minimum, you’re left with two elements which need to be strong: space and acting. As far as space is concerned, I’m not just speaking about what is visible. In a film (or a theatre play for that matter) what is not visible, but present nevertheless, is immensely important, and is, in some cases, even what a film is about. I’d say that Apichatpong’s Cemetery of Splendour is a good example.

If you reduce the mise-en-scene to a minimum, then you have, I believe, a lot more options you can play with, precisely because nothing is certain for the audience. Absent presence is a wonderful means to speak about loss, loneliness, death, longing, haunting – all those elements play a major role in Slow Cinema.

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A second element whose importance is heightened in a “poor” theatre is acting. Grotowski placed particular emphasis on acting. The actors/actresses were so important because they had to fill the gaps the mise-en-scene left them with. They had to embody a lot more than just a role. Now, in many slow films, the term “acting” is perhaps not ideal. Very often, non-professional “actors” are used. In several cases, they do not even act, but play themselves. They are themselves. In other cases, actors and actresses live their roles. They embody the person they are meant to be on-screen. Lav Diaz’s films are a superb example for this, especially Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). Diaz’s films would fall apart if it wasn’t for the strong acting, for the at times breathtaking behaviour of actors and actresses who merge with their own selves.

Grotowski advocated something for theatre which can today be detected in slow films, which, in fact, are main characteristics of Slow cinema. Once more, I do not believe that it is the long-take which is the main characteristic. This point is once more an example of the narrow thinking of certain scholars. There are similarities between the aesthetics of Slow Cinema and other art forms. These may not be the most known advocacies but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take them into account when looking into the aesthetics of films. I’d be interested in knowing how many filmmakers consciously know about Grotowski and his poor theatre. It would be an interesting influence on films.

Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scene, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.

The slow long-take?

If you have been following this blog from the beginning, you may have noticed that I regularly return to the issue of the long-take and its importance for Slow Cinema. I have often argued that the long-take is not in and by itself a guarantee for a slow film. Other factors need to be in place, too. Towards the end of my research, I have come across the latest doctoral thesis on Slow Cinema, in which the long-take was described as the “sine qua non” of Slow Cinema. I have an issue with that. Previous researchers, like Matthew Flanagan, or even Harry Tuttle (Contemplative Cinema) have at least linked the long-take with the content of respective film frames. Even though the long-take is and remains the main focus in Slow Cinema studies, which is not bringing the research forward at all, I would like to point to a film which I have recently seen.

Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (2015) has been shot in a single-take. The film is in fact a very long two-hour and twenty minute take. For those who have not yet seen it (and you should!), the film is everything but slow. It does take its time to build up tension. Yet in the end it’s nevertheless a heist movie. It’s fast. It’s about speed, about anxiety, about adrenaline. Victoria is anything but slow. So if the long-take is the sine qua non of Slow Cinema, where would we position films such as Victoria? If the long-take slows down the narrative, how exactly can we continue to speak of it as THE Slow Cinema characteristic if it can easily be used for a complete opposite effect?

I think, my main issue with this “sine qua non” is that it’s taken out of context. Again, the long-take has rarely been mentioned in the context of a film’s respective content. Analyses are often mere descriptions because researchers have difficulties to approach slow films in the usual scholarly fashion of applying previously successful frameworks to those films. I had a very similar problem and it took me a while (thank God, I had three years for this!) to get a hang of it.

The long-take is not the main characteristic of Slow Cinema. It seems to be at first sight, but I would like to suggest a different approach: the long-take is essential for a cinematic exploration of character psychology. Whether this happens in a slow, or in a fast film is of little interest. It is true that very often it is slow films which deal with character psychology. My own work on Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma is a good example for this, because Diaz uses slow time in order to give the viewer a sense of depletion of resources, trauma’s latency period, and other debilitating factors of post-trauma. In the films of Béla Tarr, too, you can see a depiction of character psychology. It has often been said that characters in slow films show no emotion, that it is difficult to read them. Ira Jaffe has been a supporter of this argument. But as I have argued in an earlier post, we merely expect characters to go through all possible emotions in 90 minutes. If this isn’t the case, the character lacks emotional engagement.

This is simply wrong, and shows that we are still reading slow films through the lens of approved of, age-old frameworks. What becomes important, and I hope that my doctoral thesis makes a first step into this direction, is that Slow Cinema studies has to be connected to other fields of academic research. If one sees Slow Cinema entirely in the context of Film Studies, one is bound to reach the conclusion that the long-take is the sine qua non of it. It looks like it, and I was also one of those supporters. If someone asked me what Slow Cinema was, I always mentioned the long-take first, and I still do, because it’s easy and people know what I’m talking about.

But no, it is not typical of Slow Cinema as such. It is necessary for character psychology. In a way, it’s similar, because, again, Slow Cinema often focuses on character psychology. Yet one needs to be more precise and put the significance and role of the long-take into a correct context. Otherwise, you will always come across films like Victoria which prove you wrong.

(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.

Venues for Lav Diaz film strand wanted

Now that my thesis is almost on the way to the printer, I can start focusing on other things. After three years of research, I have noticed that the work I have done is, in effect, a solid basis for curating a strand of Lav Diaz’s films at whatever event or film festival. This is not so much about a retrospective, which obviously needs a larger scope and which I’m still hoping to organise in Manila (if I can find a venue!). This is about a specific part of Diaz’s work and his country’s history, so it allows an in-depth focus rather than a broad sweep over Diaz’s entire oeuvre.

In brief, I have an in-depth study of Diaz’s representation of post-trauma in the aftermath of colonialism and dictatorship in my rucksack. I link form and content, that means I focus as much on his now well-known and famous aesthetics as well as on the historical and societal background the films refer to. I also have the films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) in my rucksack.

The idea is to travel around with this rucksack and give the audience a chance to get an in-depth view of the prolific filmmaker. I can introduce the film, but also lead panel discussions in regards to this. I’m hoping to set up something in Brussels next year and will also approach the Philippinen Büro in Cologne, which screened Diaz’s Norte last year.

If you know of a venue, or know an event this may fit into, please do get in touch via theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com Also, please do not hesitate to get in touch if you want more detailed information about what I have in mind. Oh, and please feel free to spread the word! 🙂 Thank you!

Death Time

Oh yes, a cheery title for this blog post. I apologise. But this only comes because of an email I received from one of my website’s avid readers. I was asked – and this isn’t rare – what I think the difference between slow film and Slow Cinema is. Two and a half years into my research, I still have no idea, and perhaps I will never be able to answer this questions. Slowness is relative. Whatever is fast for me, may be slow for you. It is true that slow films use very similar, if not the same kind of aesthetics. So where do we draw the line?

I was thinking about one of my arguments, which you can revisit in the paper I uploaded a little while ago. In the paper I linked the use of time in concentration camps and the way Lav Diaz uses time in his films about terror and trauma. I saw similarities and talked about “death time”. Slow Cinema is characterised by temps mort, or dead time. I switched this around and began to look into death time, which is such a characteristic feature of Diaz. Time is used as a form of power, of punishment. Endless duration drives the characters insane (and maybe the viewer, too). There is a curious mixture in his films of shock and duration, of the instant and endless waiting. I call this complexity death time.

Now, in what ways can we see Slow Cinema as a whole in this? I briefly thought about the other films I know. They are aesthetically close to Diaz’s films, and yet totally different. They also use time different. This is primarily the case because Diaz makes incredibly long films, while most slow-film directors stick to a more usual running time of about two hours. Diaz can therefore play a lot more with duration. His films are also different in that they deal specifically with the trauma of his people, which makes his films stand out in the classical Slow Cinema canon.

But if I were to expand a bit on the notion of “death time”, going a beyond my previous argument that it’s an expression of a complex interaction of the instant and duration in order to inflict miseries on film characters, then I could actually make it fit to Slow Cinema. This is way too new for me now, so it may be the case with slow films in general, so the whole idea of finding a structure which sets Slow Cinema apart from “normal” slow films becomes rather redundant. Personally I think that Slow Cinema is an experiential thing, but no one likes experience because you can’t prove anything. So I’m still trying to find something less abstract.

Anyway, let me expand on the notion of death time and say that death plays a major role in Slow Cinema. Slowness has often been equated with death. The Futurists were keen on speeding up life because it meant exactly that: life, living. Speed means progression, therefore a forward movement. Slowness also means movement, but it is more often associated with stagnation (which makes it particularly interesting for my study of terror and trauma). Death is not necessarily the kind of death we imagine. It is not necessarily associated with humans. Not a lot of people die in Diaz’s films, for example, but we know that they eventually will. They’re on the verge of death all the time. They’re walking dead.

Fogo by Yulene Olaizola is also about death, only in a different way. It is about the death of an island. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are all about ghosts, which imply death by default. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is another example. Or even his Sátántangó. And what about Carlos Reygadas? Jápon and Battle in Heaven use death as an underlying narrative feature, too. I also remember Nicolas Pereda’s Summer of Goliath (and I hope I remember this correctly); the death of a child, the departure of a husband and father and therefore the death of the family structure. Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert depicts the death of the traditional postman.

So are these films slow because they deal with death in one way or another? Can you deal with death appropriately in fast films? I think there is something in there, and it’ll be worth researching further (on my list!). And for some reason this all links vaguely to my very early arguments about static art; stasis always implies death in some form or another. So my original thought of death time looks a lot more complex now and I’m looking forward to looking into this in the near future.

André Bazin 2.0

This post may be a bit of a rumble rather than a coherent line of thought. But I want to jot down a couple of thoughts that struck me while reading Bazin’s What Is Cinema? If you look through writing on Slow Cinema, Bazin and Deleuze seem to be the people to quote. Again, I suggest that this has something to do with frameworks and the belief that if you haven’t dug through and used those classic pieces, then you haven’t done your job properly. I’m fully aware of their contribution to film studies, yet I wonder just how applicable they are to today’s cinema and whether we should really still make heavy use of this literature.

It feels as though bits and pieces of Bazin’s work are used without looking at the whole work and how this applies to modern cinema. Just in the first five pages of The Ontology of the Photographic Image I find questionable arguments, and I know that this is one of the founding texts Film Studies uses when teaching students. The idea of ‘true realism’ through photography and cinema, i.e. through a mechanical eye, is at the heart of Bazin’s work and his arguments were possibly true at his time. But they are no longer applicable and should be considered as such when used in academic work.

Take this example: the essential factor of photography “lie[s] in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part.” (p12)

Even at Bazin’s time, man did play a part in photography. He mentions it in passing, in fact. But even though you have a mechanical recording machine, which makes us believe that the subsequent final product is objective, it is subjective and someone had his/her hand in the production of it. Now that we’re talking a lot about manipulation, which is as old as photography (and which I believe Bazin completely overlooked in his idealisation), we should re-evaluate Bazin’s argument here.

A second example: “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind.” (p13)

Again, Bazin glorifies the objectivity of photography without realising that he contradicts himself and notes precisely the point that makes photography subjective. First, he argues that man has no hand in the making of mechanical reproduction. Then, on the next page, he says that a photographer does “enter into the proceedings”. He writes that he does so “only” to select the object. Selection is already an interference and is the first step of subjectivity. What do you take a photo of? What do you not show? What angle do you choose? Bazin mentions a photographers “purpose” he has in mind while selecting the object of his photograph.

This defies objectivity. Every selection is a personal choice, which renders whatever we see in cinema or photography subjective. Bazin considers painting subjective because the painter had his hand in the production of the painting. I agree, painting is subjective. Yet, it is the result of only one hand, one painter. If we take cinema, the cameraman isn’t the only one who chooses what should be shown and how. There’s also the director, the producer, the editor etc etc

I always had problems to read Bazin. It’s my third attempt now and if it wasn’t for final touches on my thesis, I would give up again. It’s contradicting, and certainly not applicable to today’s times. I wonder what he would say about the World Press Photographs, those which have been manipulated. I’m not only speaking of digital manipulation. Photographs and films, just like paintings, are, especially in the arthouse section, often an expression of the artist’s inner feelings. How can this be objective?

As soon as you put a lens between you and the real world, you have a mediation. No mechanical recording mechanism can and will ever record reality. Reality can only be lived and seen with our own eyes. Things may feel real, but they’re not, and this is the main fault in Bazin’s work, because he doesn’t seem to acknowledge this.

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.