Berlinale 2014. Impressions Part III: Time as Depth & Cinema-Space

Lessons of the image from films by Ken Jacobs, and (again) Tsai Ming-liang, thoughts on Corneliu Porumboiu's latest, and more.
Adam Cook

Ken Jacobs' The Guests, a 3D-remix of an 1896 Lumière brothers' film of a group of people walking towards the camera into a church wedding (and, in a sense, into the audience of the cinema), exploits an optical phenomenon in which the lateral movement within the image can be used to create 3D by putting two frames, slightly apart temporally, together. It's a process Jacobs himself gleefully described at the screening, making a point of distinguishing this method from his previous approaches to 3D. Essentially, in this case, it is a temporal dis-alignment which controls and creates this illusion of depth. Time creates the space.

It's an imperfect film, and an imperfect application of 3D, but within the space of The Guests (who are the real guests?), these imperfections point to a strange alternate dimension of images. How far can we stretch an image to find more within in it? Here we have an 118 years-old movie that is not simply rendered into 3D but "hacked" into to recalibrate its visual layout. Some objects that are clearly further in the background end up "glitching" and popping out of the frame, intruding on the image's so-called realism, surrealizing its presence. The film forges new space in this century+ old work, re-birthing cinema, and re-contextualizing the ontology of moving pictures. The Guests then, is yet another journey, one towards a future that requires us to first travel to the past.

And now I must return to Tsai Ming-liang's Journey to the West for another observation, a lesson of images. Having met Denis Lavant for an interview after having seen the film, I was taken aback by the man's small stature, and the way aspects of his physical on-screen presence seemed hidden in person. Of course it is obvious that the camera, and the screen, effectively "translate" the human body, altering its appearance in the process. But the extent to which this translation makes an impact dawned on me. The opening close-up of the film I described in my previous dispatch, in which we see Lavant's face for several minutes, acts as an instructive example. The subtle contours and the most minute of details of Lavant's visage take on an incredible power. A landscape in itself, observing this cinema-space for an extended period of time transforms both how we explore this landscape, and how it is felt. Again, as with Jacobs, time is depth. The shot length defines the feel and meaning of an image, yes, but specifically affects not just how carefully we scrutinize but the way in which we apply this scrutiny. The tension of waiting for a shot to end, of settling into a long take, of taking one's time influencing the way our eyes and brain inspect the space. I met Lavant in person, but I did not see the man on the screen. The cinema-space's ability to alter recorded objects by revealing details is staggering. As in a horror film when a photograph reveals the otherwise invisible appearance of a phantom—the camera makes unknowable, invisible aspects of the human face, the body, remarkably bare.

Veiko Õunpuu's Free Range, an aesthetically marvelous (shot on 16mm) film that is undermined by the director's ironic, po-mo instincts and structural clumsiness, contains a very different—but also beautiful—approach to recording the human form. A Minnie and Moskowitz poster on a character's bedroom wall invited a comparison to John Cassavetes, who Õunpuu shares one (and only one) quality with: the choreography of human bodies. In several scenes of dancing, characters unpredictably and crudely move about, the camera intuitively tracking these shifting figures. In one heated fight between two lovers in bed—that eventually gives way to sexual playfulness—the camera abstractly follows them as they toss and grapple in a way that captures the passion and tension of the moment but also lovingly follows the spontaneity of moving bodies. 

Another slight film with moving components, Nadège Trébal's Scrap Yard is an endearingly unassuming picture that evades poetry in favor of simply collecting moments. Snippets of inconsequential conversation, recorded actions of disassembling the cars, a sensitive portrait of this junkyard and the scavengers therein. It's a melancholic vision of the underprivileged and the according spaces they occupy, but its prosaic nature allows the people in the film to come across as individuals, searching for something and moving on—fleeting connections.

And now for one of the most unusual, seemingly unremarkable cinema-spaces. Corneliu Porumboiu's The Second Game attests to how context and breathing-room can also transform the meaning and feelings associated with images: in this case, a recorded soccer game played off of a VHS tape from 1988 (at the tail end of Ceaușescu's reign) becomes something playful, poetic, and mesmerizing. With the element of montage entirely removed, in a sense—there is cutting within the broadcast but none by Porumboiu, who allows the game to play in its entirety—the film is able to unfold with the viewer's constant knowledge of what place we're at in the running time, removing the inherent tension between length and viewing. The result is relaxing and assuring, and shifts the spectator's focus. The key element of the movie is the voice-over: a dialogue between the director and his father who refereed the game. Their back and forth about the play, the political situation at the time, the father's let-'em-play philosophy, contextualizes how we view the match. The conversation is often comical: at one point Corneliu remarks to his father this reminds him of one of his films, "it is slow and nothing happens," to which his father replies "this couldn't be a film".

Almost cancelled due to snowfall, the white-blanketed football pitch as filtered through the videotape aesthetic, conveys a cool, evocative nostalgia. As the match continues, our two narrators get more and more into the game, sucked into its mesmerizing rhythm, and it's difficult not to join them. At times, the pleasure of the film simply comes from watching the skill of the players, and watching the match unfold like any other televised sports event, but there is also a hypnotic poetry to the blurred bodies and the distorted gestures and colors within the frame. The Second Game shows us how a space so un-cinematic can be made just the opposite, here with the play between a temporal neutrality, a sparingly casual presence of father and son in dialogue, and the push and pull between the match's relative insignificance, and the history it hints at.

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BerlinaleBerlinale 2014Ken JacobsNadège TrébalVeiko ÕunpuuTsai Ming-LiangCorneliu PorumboiuImpressionsFestival Coverage
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