There has been much written about slow cinema. Possibly too much. It’s a taste thing certainly. There is apparent within small factions of the cineaste community a type of extreme sport mentality or you could even compare them to a group of drunk alpha males in a curry house. Bring me the slowest thing you’ve got! They then force down something that is just slow with out any concerns for the millions of flavours and textures than duration can allow for.
This is a sort of messy preamble into my discussion of Phillippe Grandrieux’s new work – White Eplilepsy – and the fact that it takes the notions of slow to a new extreme as well as being the kind of wonderfully and willfully experimental cinema we see all too little off (and outside of the Edinburgh Film Festival and the DVD I was sent by the production company the chance of seeing it is very slim indeed). This is a film of a single evolving event. Two naked figures, one male and one female, are involved in an interaction in some deep woodland. I say event because this moment is never clearly described. It seems violent so it may be a fight but it seems so stylized it may be a dance. The act seems to have some importance so it may be ritual. Both figures are intimately close so is this some strange foreplay? What can be said for certain is it is slow in every sense of the word. This event is all the content of the film and it is presented in a very slowed down image – every gesture has literally been stretched to breaking point. Even the sounds of breath, shouts and contact have been so elongated as to become almost inhuman. This film may have little narrative but what this film gives me is a wonderful space to explore elements of collective and personal unconscious. This may be the slowest most minimal work I have ever seen but it is also one of the most beautifully crafted and considered films I have seen in a very long time. To continue the probably misguided analogy in the first paragraph – this is a film full of the flavours, textures scents possible through durational cinema. It is not just slow.
The space the film opens up is for a viewing of the very known and the very unknown. It allows for collision of the basest of ideas and primal archetypes. Grandrieux’s films - from his deconstructed liminal serial killer flick Sombre (1998) through to the almost folk tale simplicity of Un Lac (2004) - have been obsessed with physicality – never has the body been felt more than in a Grandrieux film. The killings in Sombre are terribly physical – bodies are thrown around, hands enter mouths and flesh is gripped. This is made all the more disturbing by the manic humanity of the cinematography – figures are too dark, out of focus and the camera careers around in wild hand held motions – not the angelic cinematography of Hollywood. In La Vie Nouvelle (2002) we end with an elongated sequence filmed in night vision – blackened noses and white hot genitals fill the screen. Here the presence and real being of the images is in the forefront of the narrative – these are stories about the death, lusts and endurances of bodies. But they still possess a narrative. What White Epilepsy does is to remove all of the necessary of cinema and boil down Grandrieux’s film to an essence. That essence is a physical wordless communication. Sure there is no dialogue but what I mean here is that the ideas being communicated here are a pure cinema – they cannot be fully described in language. Something I will now foolishly attempt with varying degrees of success.
To return to the ‘event’ of the film for a moment as I feel this is the center of the films mode of wordless communication. What is set up is a neither / neither situation. Not fight / not fuck. Both and neither exist clearly on screen. What this allows is for an audience to be given a space to negotiate. When I watched the film my thoughts became over run with a plethora of different ideas. How ambivalent human relationships can be, how we all feel a return to the primal forest every now and then, how violent sex can be, how human sounds are only so few steps away from the animal. What I think you may be thinking at this point is that surely this is just another open text – reader makes the meaning and all that. True – but what I am attempting to communicate is the masterful double negation of ‘narrative’ apparent here. Over time it allows for a fully engrossing experience and allows myself as an audience member to sink deeper and deeper into more primordial levels of experience and thought.
In “You are Not a Gadget” by Jarod Lenier – a book about changing social interaction in the face of new technologies - he discusses at great length the problems of deeply embedded errors. For example there may be some mistake made in the very earliest versions of DOS that means everything from Window 3 through to Windows 8 will be affected. It is is now impossible to fix this primal problem without rewriting everything from that point onwards. The foundations are faulty. Strangely I thought of this when sinking into that primordial space in my mind viewing White Epilepsy – here I am given an experience so simple (maybe read pure or original but neither actually express the nature of the film), shorn of storytelling and character that I have been given permission to work on these primordial elements of my consciousness. To really think how these problematics of humanity bubble up through relationships, families, wars etc. In many ways I feels this is a very Jungian film – it deals in rich archetypes. These archetypes are presented in a mystery play and turn on to the audience for analysis but not resolution. To continue with the psychoanalytic discussion it strikes me now that White Epilepsy is constructed from that neither/neither notion found in the Rorsach Ink Blot Test. What do you see in these images? What does this tell you about yourself rather than the fictional characters on the screen?
It is impossible to continue any discussion where I have so liberally used the term neither/neither without referring to Austin Osman Spear – London’s lost occult painter of the early 1900s. Spare was renown for his strange images of part plant, part human figures as gates to meditative states – the neither/neither state. It is in this act of contemplation of a double not-being that a middle ground can be found where space can be held negating both strict definitions of an image. In this vacuous space – similar to a Yogic or tantric meditation – the subconscious can be unleashed and explored. It is very interesting that in Marcus M. Jungkurth’s essay – Neither-Neither; Austin Osman Spare and the Underworld he references the writer and psychologist James Hillman who “has even gone further claiming that each individual appears to be re-living some archetypal drama from ancient mythologies prevailing as a main theme underlying individual life.” Certainly while this is not something we are consciously aware of in everyday life White Eplilesy allows this idea to be investigated. The negation of plot and character allows for a deeper submerging into the mythic level as an audience we are not distracted by a concreting reality.
So is this cinema? Certainly it is based on a video art piece with its inherently different modes of spectatorship. While watching the film I was overcome by how deeply it is cinema. The effects I have detailed above could only happen in an experience where I was seated (admittedly slumped in my living room). The cinematic experience is one of bodily death – the warm comfortable seats, the dark with the lack of movement etc. The video art spectatorship is entirely different – it is about the body. People stand, walk around, enter a space and then leave it. To view White Epilepsy in this space would be to see it more akin to a very slow moving painting and would result in a very different reading. My reveries were only possible because my body was becalmed. Through my many experiences of sitting watching video art on hard floors as people block my view or standing with tired legs as people fall over each other in the dark I can say that this is a cinematic film. The body needs to be ‘laid to rest’ for the work to have it’s full effect.
Grandrieux’s film is quietly amazing. While this piece may be highly personal – not in the content from the author but in the experience it stirs in the viewer. I feel the work cannot really be approached with the usual tools of textual analysis and I do hope you forgive me my digressions but few films have stirred up so much in me. I implore you to go and see the film or more correctly to enter it’s space. And once you have left that space you could always spend time considering it over a curry.