ON CINEMA AND WALKING

Satantango 1994 Bela Tarr
Sátántangó, 1994, dir. Béla Tarr

Following his seminar at Slow Film Festival 2019, Emre Çağlayan reflects on cinema and walking.

 

In what ways does cinematic experience relate to the act of walking? This may already sound like a nonsensical question, because on one level the two experiences are completely different. Watching films is defined by physical immobility, during which audiences are lulled by imagined events, whereas walking is active and appeals to our senses in a more direct and unfiltered manner. And yet both activities can be said to share a common sensibility in the realm of aesthetic experience, particularly in the ways in which continuous movement can initiate attentive looking and rivet our concentration on real and mediated spaces. Indeed, when watching films we are never as paralysed as one would have it, since we continue to make visceral and affective responses to audiovisual stimuli. Walking in turn is an inherently meditative activity that can help us collect our thoughts and expand our consciousness. It is not too farfetched to claim that walking—especially, aimless wandering—can function similarly to cinematography, in that we may be captivated by rolling landscapes before our eyes or the ambient noises in the surrounding environment. But what of the precise opposite: can cinema recreate the experience of walking with the unique aesthetic devices at its disposal?

These were the questions explored in a seminar at the Slow Film Festival in October 2019, with the proviso that together with the participants, the session would be supplemented with a walk in the local woodlands, which is recognized as part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The idea was to interrogate the relationship between cinema and walking by bringing together both modes of experience, first by watching the diverse ways in which filmmakers depicted walking and thinking about cinema’s intrinsic capacity to simulate it, and second by stepping out and wandering with that particular framework in mind. The following notes are an attempt to sketch out the ideas underpinning this embodied inquiry into a distinct aesthetic experience.

Walking as an act has rarely been attributed any aesthetic significance in mainstream cinema. Its conventional treatment has more often than not been a function of transition between two events and much less an event in itself. Most sequences draw less attention to the means of walking than to its end: the action is both squeezed in order to keep the narrative momentum forward, and depicted in the foreground of an environment that connects places— through narrow corridors or dark alleys that lead up to an open space where the real action takes place, for instance. How many times have we been introduced to the back of a marching protagonist that emerges out of the depths of a tunnel to a key scene of confrontation? Walking can serve a variety of dramatic ends. In scenes where walking persists for a relatively extended duration, the slow build up can increase tension by giving weight to the amble, the silence before storm. Alternatively, filmmakers use the walk and talk technique to flood the silence with an unrelenting torrent of dialogue. In other cases, walking is part of the point, but only coincidentally so: the bad-boys-walking-in-slow-motion motif established probably by Reservoir Dogs (1992), for example, has become a prototypical model for conveying offbeat heroism.

Thankfully not all filmmakers portray walking with such insipid attention. There are other films where walking features prominently to the extent that its significance extends beyond subject matter and informs the fabric of their storytelling. One can think of Bicycle Thieves (1948), which was fondly described by André Bazin as a stroll through Rome. Here the walking is still goal-oriented with a specific objective, but is nonetheless interrupted with digressions that develop a unique father-son relationship and unveil glimpses of a society undergoing dramatic shifts economic opportunities.

More importantly, we owe it to the French New Wave for making cool the modest act of leisurely strolling. Armed with portable equipment, the French filmmakers descended on the streets of Paris and aspired to capture everyday life as it is, contrasting the accelerated tempo of post-war conformism with carefree bohemian hedonism. These characters were the cinematic successors of the flâneur, a figure much lauded by the poet Charles Baudelaire as a man that saunters through Parisian boulevards, to walk only for the purpose of walking, but in doing so observe, absorb and filter out the many shocks of modernity and disentangle the secret code of everyday urban life. Such was the cultural heritage that gave birth to cinematic drifters: from the feminist wanderer in Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985) to the queer vagabond played by Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s early features.

But what happens when films depict walking as an event in itself, when walking is not just a transition between two different points, and rather as the means through which cinema simulates the attentive looking and the absorption of an environment that characterizes the experience of strolling? Because it produces attentive looking, flânerie has been a pertinent metaphor for cinema, also an invention of modernity. But cinema’s opposition to the culture of speed has only recently been a discursive force since the emergence of the slow cinema debate, though of course slow films existed much before then. Typically identified by a meditative and contemplative mood, slow cinema dismisses narrative momentum and instead presents an expanded experience of duration—or dead time, empty yet reflective moments, which often consist of aimless walking.

Walking has been a prominent theme in slow cinema because of its association with everyday ordinariness and its capacity to present novel experiential possibilities. As opposed to other static daily activities, walking is both visually and aurally interesting: it conveys a strange, dream-like mix of stasis and movement, of monotony and development, and can produce arresting visceral experiences or release emotional responses otherwise not attainable through other means. It is no coincidence that the article by Jonathan Romney defining slow cinema mentioned as a paradigmatic moment a walking scene from Albert Serra’s biblical parody Birdsong (2008). In this nine-minute sequence, the Three Kings walk across a desert landscape, followed by the camera panning left. They trudge towards a distant hill and disappear, but after half a minute they reappear only to linger on the horizon, plodding back and forth in an attempt to find their way. The scene works as an absurdist gag on getting lost and the spectatorial position of waiting, of the desire to see the predictable.

Although exemplary, Birdsong is relatively limited in the creative potentials that slow cinema has explored in relation to walking. In an audiovisual essay juxtaposing scenes of walking from Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989) with Gus van Sant’s Elephant (2003), Tiago de Luca demonstrates how the long take technique can produce entirely different emotional tones through the modulation of cinematic temporality and sound design. Both films depict walking scenes at length, but Clarke’s treatment—“unrelenting, pitiless in its urgency”—is far too revolting to stomach in comparison to the “dreamy languor” of van Sant’s wandering teenagers. With two aesthetic decisions comes two politics of representation: Clarke’s Elephant is unanimously viewed as a direct, shocking statement on the abominable acts of murder, whereas van Sant was accused of indulging in romanticism at the heart of a tragedy (though arguably the film also encourages a reflective stance on what is also a socio-political issue).

The emotional contrast between the brutality of gun violence and the tranquillity of strolling also appears in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s debut feature Love is Colder than Death (1969). Roughly halfway into the film, a group of petty gangsters led by Frantz (Fassbinder) take a walk straight through a road, having just killed two people at a nearby café. Here, Fassbinder’s much-criticized nihilistic attitude is underscored not only by the ruthlessness of the killing but the extended, two minute walking sequence: devoid of remorse, the gang light up their cigarettes and ramble towards the camera, which is tracking backwards along the street. We hear birds chirping in the background and Frantz spends the otherwise tedious stretch of his trek by swaying dance moves, with occasional taps and hops on the road, as well as a blithe disregard for his actions. Seen out of context, the scene could be misapprehended as a commentary on German youth and their buoyant, yet humdrum existence, except for the interruption caused by a patrolling policeman, who is shot down as nonchalantly as were the earlier victims.

Fassbinder’s portrayal of walking does not quite reproduce the experience of being absorbed in an environment, but the strategy of extended duration opens up a temporal space during which audiences are invited to negotiate the moral underpinnings of the film’s narrative. The aesthetic design of the whole scene, however, visually anticipates what has arguably become the gold standard of all walking scenes in the history of art cinema: the homecoming of Irimiás and Petrina in Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994), though in this instance they march forward with their backs turned at the camera and through a street in ruins. The anarchic artificiality of the scene is self-evident and their trudge against the merciless wind is all but an indication of the physical (and, probably, existential) crisis faced by the inhabitants of this imaginary Hungarian village. Tarr is of course known for his admiration of Fassbinder’s tight framings and mise-en-scène arrangements, and nowhere is this more evident than Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), one of the most beautiful walking films ever made. The scene in which we are transfixed to a close-up on the faces of Janos and Eszter, who are walking side by side, is particularly compelling, and is reminiscent of the opening shot of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) as well as imitated by Gus van Sant in Gerry (2002). Elsewhere, I have written about how sequences like these are simultaneously immersive and estranging, because the aesthetic design is striking it appeals to our senses, and yet these sequences are prolonged to the extent that they betray conventional impulses of storytelling.

The protracted depiction of walking in Tarr’s films is worthy of attention because of the way in which the action is constructed. Tarr brought into walking sequences a dynamic configuration of cinematography and mise-en-scène, which is predicated on a camera in constant motion. In Werckmeister Harmonies, the camera interacts with the characters and the environment in a way that exceeds traditional narration: it frames and reframes characters, revolves around them, zooms in and out of material details, reveals and occludes surrounding surfaces. Its expressive qualities rarely arise from dramatic conflict and often through an indelible performance carried out both by the actors and the camera operator. Take the scene in which Janos visits the town square for the final time and strides through a mob of protesters, who are about to unleash chaos upon the local hospital. The camera begins its manoeuvre by tracing Janos’s steps, but then steers away and slips through crowds of people—walking, as it were, in rotating circles around the bonfires, relocating Janos every now and then. The resulting effect is one of trepidation of a community spiralling out of control, which is felt by Janos and, by extension, us, since we were made to walk through the same space as if on our own accord, occasionally diverging from Janos’s tread and gazing upon the scene by ourselves.

From a practical point of view, the smooth glide allowed by Steadicam technology enables a faithful rendition of a languid gait and produces a much more tangible experience of cinematic space, as if the viewer is present on the scene. But in Werckmeister Harmonies the camera is not purely autonomous, still dependent on a surrogate figure that guides us through the environment and to whose gaze we continually return. The final example I wish to examine is a pivotal sequence from Chantal Akerman’s observational documentary D’Est (1993), where the camera tracks alongside a busy street somewhere in Eastern Europe, with its lens turned to the pavement. This is perhaps the closest to cinema’s ability to replicate and capture the embodied experience of walking, though here at the expense of the camera’s mechanical tracking motion. Because of the absence of a narrative agent, we are drawn closer to the image and free to roam our eyes upon the space: we watch the day go by and watch real people watching the camera. Initially a study of space, extending well beyond the pavement in the immediate foreground, the scene later develops into a study of waiting and locks down on human figures pinned at bus stops. The effect is both real and illusory: as if we walk with our heads turned and watch faces in close-up from a privileged position, without the discomfort of being looked at.

The scene reminds me of a key passage from “The Camera and Man” (originally published in 1973), a reflective essay written by the great ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch:

For me then, the only way to film is to walk with the camera, taking it where it is most effective and improvising another type of ballet with it, trying to make it as alive as the people it is filming. I consider this dynamic improvisation to be a first synthesis of Vertov’s cine-eye and Flaherty’s participating camera. I often compare it to the improvisation of the bullfighter in front of the bull. Here, as there, nothing is known in advance; the smoothness of a faena is just like the harmony of a traveling shot that articulates perfectly with the movements of those being filmed. In both cases as well, it is a matter of training, mastering reflexes as would a gymnast. Thus instead of using the zoom, the cameraman-director can really get into the subject. Leading or following a dancer, priest, or craftsman, he is no longer himself, but a mechanical eye accompanied by an electronic ear. It is this strange state of transformation that takes place in the filmmaker that I have called, analogously to possession phenomena, “cine-trance.”

Both Béla Tarr and Chantal Akerman have been stringent practitioners of the “cine-trance,” that elusive mode of filmmaking equally applicable to the experience of watching their films, and one that recognizes the shared aesthetic sensibilities between cinema and walking. But crucially it is a mode that demands to be experienced in the flesh, not just in a theatre but also out on the tracks, the footpaths and the streets.


Emre Çağlayan is a Teaching Fellow in Film Theory at Newcastle University, UK, and author of A Poetics of Slow Cinema.

 

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