for ‘Tribune’ : AV Festival report

PLANET OF SNAIL: a report on the 6th AV Festival

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars. Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor: ‘They are gazing at God’s windows’.
— Milan Kundera,
Slowness (1995)

AS one of the world’s more secular film-makers, American avant-garde maestro James Benning might not appreciate the divine element of that Czech proverb cited by Kundera. But Benning’s works, typically comprising extended takes contemplating American landscapes, do often turn the cinema-screen into a window-like conduit which allows the viewer to experience travel of both a spatial and temporal type. His 98-minute Nightfall represents perhaps the ultimate distillation of the 70-year-old Wisconsinite’s aesthetic and methods, as previously developed in One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), Grand Opera (1981), North On Evers (1992), the California trilogy (1999-2001), 13 Lakes and Ten Skies (both 2004).

It’s a one-take film, shot with a static, tripod-mounted digital camera (Benning worked exclusively in 16mm until 2007, since when the rate of his output has significantly increased) in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, not far from Benning’s Val Verde residence. The director describes it as “a study of real-time light changing from day to night,” one in which no human or animal presence is visible – though both are occasionally audible on the soundtrack, on which birdsong gradually yields to the susurrant (and ultimately overwhelming) thrum of myriad insects.

The screen is filled with dozens of trees, through whose branches and twigs the sky is visible, shading imperceptibly from mid-afternoon brightness to the pitch-black of evening – all that “happens” in the film is the falling of night, in an unambiguous example of movie which does exactly what it says on the ‘tin’. Nightfall, its baldly descriptive title presumably also a nod to Jacques Tourneur’s atmospheric 1957 noir of identical moniker, received its UK premiere at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle on March 3, starting at 4pm and finishing around 5.30 – the choice of timings designed to match the gathering of dusk in the ‘real’ world outside.

This scheduling was a typically imaginative touch from AV Festival (in the US, AV is a commonly-understood abbreviation for ‘Audio-Visual’; less so over over here) whose sixth renewal ran for the whole month of March across various venues in the north-east of England, from ‘NewcastleGateshead’ (as those two Tyne-straddling civic entities are often called in art and marketing NewSpeak) to Sunderland and Middlesbrough. AV 2012’s motto ‘As Slow As Possible’, homaging John Cage, was selected as a counterbalance to the Olympic slogan Citius altius fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger – proposing “an alternative slower pace and relaxed rhythm to counter the accelerated speed of today.”

Cinema is just one part of AV, a biennial event which this year included – according to its catalogue – “22 exhibitions, 34 film screenings, 15 concerts, 6 walks, and … a 744-hour continuous online radio.” Indeed, many of the films selected for AV edge towards the terrain more usually associated with exhibitions and installations – though the experiencing of sitting in a dark cinema for the duration of Nightfall is of course very different from that of encountering it projected in a gallery or museum. While somewhat ill-served by the Tyneside’s digital projector and too-bright screen – Benning himself, present to introduce and discuss the film, noted the latter with regret (suggesting that the auditorium was better suited to examples of what he wryly termed “dominant” or commercial cinema) – Nightfall provided a ruminative opportunity for contemplation and reflection.

The unblinkingly steady gaze of the camera, uncompromisingly maintained for the 90-odd minutes, recalls Heinrich Von Kleist’s reaction to Caspar David Friedrich’s radically minimal 1810 painting Monk by the Sea:
“How wonderful it is to sit completely alone by the sea under an overcast sky, gazing out over the endless expanse of water. It is essential that one has come there just for this reason, and that one has to return. That one would like to go over the sea but cannot; that one misses any sign of life, and yet one senses the voice of life in the rush of the water, in the blowing of the wind, in the drifting of the clouds, in the lonely cry of the birds … Since in its monotony and boundlessness it has no foreground except the frame, when viewing it, it is as if one’s eyelids had been cut away.”

like much of Benning’s work, is unapologetically demanding – someone stumbling unawares into the Tyneside that March afternoon might well have been baffled and bemused by what they discovered, and it takes a certain adjustment to Benning’s approach before ‘Emperor’s New clothes’ qualms entirely subside. But that films like Nightfall feel so startlingly unorthodox is primarily a testament to the way commercial cinema’s range has narrowed over the century of its existence, with ‘MTV editing’ now the default norm for the majority of multiplex product.
Then again, there’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about “fast” movies, just as slowness itself is no indicator of quality – as anyone who has endured a day of faux-profound, treacle-paced offerings at a film-festival would wearily attest. In a list of 2012’s most accomplished first-quarter UK releases, there should be room for the frenetic likes of Hollywood’s Project X and 21 Jump Street as well as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s AV-selected Once Upon A Time in Anatolia. God’s windows, it seems, can come in all shapes, sizes and types. And His glaziers too.

Neil Young
3rd April, 2012
written for Tribune magazine