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FLYING FISH World Wide Angle | March 2011
Slow Burn

One of the great things about attending a film festival such as Rotterdam is that you are always in the middle of watching one hundred completely diverse films — and therefore you intuit the strangest and least likely connections. Doesn't some of the best writing about cinema emerge from this kind of unformed delirium, where films leak into each other?
Festivals such as Rotterdam have become — almost by default — often the only exhibition venue for what today is called 'contemplative cinema' — slow, minimalist films with long takes, static frames in long shot or lateral tracking movements, extended silences, natural rather than musical sound, and prolonged passages of everyday activities such as walking or cooking.
Many of these films (whether by Lav Diaz, Béla Tarr, Lisandro Alonso or José Luis Torres Leiva) can have a heavy air of the unsaid, the unlived, what is secret or repressed. Little is articulated in spoken words in these films, while the burden of expressivity is shifted to externals: the bodily language of gesture and posture, and especially the surroundings of landscape or architecture.
At Rotterdam, what struck me is how many of these films currently end — after so much banality, mundanity and deliberate nothing-much-happening — with a sudden burst of seemingly inexplicable violence: murder, suicide, even brutal castration, which made a few star appearances in the festival program — as in the otherwise the very studied and puristic minimalist film from Sri Lanka, flying fish.
More usually, minimalist/contemplative films end with murders by shooting or knifing: sometimes a veritable orgy of death, as in the bleak Ukranian film with the ironic title of my joy, which ends with a character whom we haven't spotted for about 30 minutes suddenly bursting into a police station and killing everybody in sight. But remember, we're not talking here about Peckinpah or Tarantino movies here. This is a very attenuated and refined form of art cinema which, after a very 'slow burn', suddenly appears to splice in a genre or exploitation code. Maybe Bruno Dumont's 29 palms (2003) set the template in recent years.
The whole business began in the early to mid 70s, with Chantal Akerman's jeanne dielman in 1975 — detailing several days and nights in the life of a housewife-prostitute, and ending in her murder of a client — or even earlier in 1970, in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's why does herr r run amok, one of several studies by this director of violence as a response to the miseries of everyday exploitation at work and in the home. Indeed, already back in the '70s the critics Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson gave this structure a splendid description: part of Fassbinder's "ritualized syntax", they wrote, is the sudden bringing to the surface of "violence and tensions beneath stupefyingly mundane talk".
Heretical thought: I wonder if there's some kind of pure delight in ending two or more hours of contemplative, minimalist cinema in an explosion of violent death. It's easy to think of it as a kind of orgasm, a climax that has been prepared for very slowly, very exquisitely. The impulses behind contemporary contemplative cinema come from many places and are conditioned by many factors, but this, it seems to me, is one inescapably erotic factor. And I know it's one source of my own immense pleasure in these films: a slow release, with a big bang at the end.

Adrian Martin



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