A friend once asked an Australian if he liked to watch cricket. “Naah!” he replied. “It’s like watching paint dry.”
This was a long time ago, and it is very possible that someone else might have given her a different answer; but though I laughed at the time, I have since wondered what it would be like to sit and watch paint dry. Or leaves fall. Or actually listen to the traffic instead of letting it become one undistinguished background roar. Such an activity doesn’t seem possible or even desirable, which is why watching the paint dry is supposed to be an exercise in futility.
Abbas Kiarostami’s film, Five Dedicated to Ozu is a film that sets out to, in his words, “escape from the obligation of narration and of the slavery of mise en scène.” If this comes as close as it can to watching the paint dry, it is not, I found, a disadvantage. For 74 minutes, Kiarostami sets the camera down on the seashore somewhere along the Caspian Sea.
We get to see a piece of driftwood floating on the waves. A piece of it breaks off and though we stay with both for a while, one floats away.
From very far away, we watch people walking to and fro on a promenade. Sometimes people talk to each other; other times they stare at the sea; some just walk on as if they had other places to go to and other things to do. Not one of these people’s faces or features is distinguishable.
In the third take, some dogs sit on the beach. Every once in a while a dog scratches itself; one gets up and stands for a while before sitting somewhere else.
A number of noisome ducks cross the frame and then re-cross it.
A moon shines in one corner of an otherwise dark frame. Frogs, crickets, the usual chorus of the night keep the moon company. A storm breaks and passes.
People do fall asleep during the film. Kiarostami has repeatedly said that he doesn’t mind if people fall asleep in his films, that it’s good they can sleep. This usually elicits the same kind of laughter that watching-the-paint-dry gets. I find this a very curious response on the part of a filmmaker. Why would anyone want people to sleep through their films? Why is the director not offended? At the Trivandrum Film Festival, Kiarostami had one caveat: sleep during the film if you want to, but please don’t leave the theatre, because that would be disturbing for everyone else watching the film.
I wanted to get up and clap, because there is nothing more annoying than people streaming out of a film they no longer want to watch.[*]
But this also says something very interesting about the conditions in which Five can be watched: walking in and out is to be discouraged. One should preferably view it in a theatre, and not in an art gallery (as has sometimes happened) or at home where the pause button is within reach. A darkened theatre, with no distractions, no easy conversations surrounding the experience of the film, and no retreat from it, are the most desirable conditions.
Under these circumstances, several things become apparent while watching the film. In the first take, for instance, the one with the driftwood, you begin to see the care with which the frame is restricted. When a piece breaks off the driftwood, we stay with the first one. How difficult would it have been to widen the frame to include both? But to not have done so creates a certain sense of drama that, if you’ve been watching, come close to wanting to know what happens next.
One eventually figures out that Kiarostami is not interested in repeating himself. In the third take – with the dogs – he plays with exposure so gradually, overexposing the frame so that by the end of fifteen minutes there is only an abstract image where the dogs are black dots, and the sunlight reflecting off the waves moves across the frame like brilliant beads of light.
The other thing that happens, if you refuse to sleep is, you are forced to watch what makes you restless. In the world outside a darkened theatre, if one’s mind says ‘enough!’ there are other things to occupy it; in the theatre, there is nothing except the large image in which nothing much happens. It forces one to look at our expectations of cinema as something that has to be narration; that ought to parcel out experiences we might have missed, and construct them in such a way that they take their proper place in the hierarchy of meanings.
All the innovations of cinema that we take for granted: the moving camera, the range of available shots – close-up, mid and long shots (and zooms), montage, flashbacks – all these are unavailable to us in this film. Like a Lumière from another century, here is a camera, and there is what is in front of it. And behind it is all the weight of film history and the ways in which stories have been told for one century. We return to the way in which the Lumières made their first films, but we are aware of a difference, not just in our knowledge, but in the possibilities of technology that gives a different sheen to the act of placing a camera somewhere, anywhere, and watching the result.
Shooting on DV makes it possible to have a shot that lasts for fifteen minutes. This would have been inconceivable in an earlier time. But the most interesting thing for me is the ways in which different directors use the freedom of the long take. What Jansco might have done would be very different from what Hitchcock would have tried. Alexander Sokhurov’s experiment was one of the first to use digital cameras; it couldn’t be more different than Kiarostami’s experiment.
The most amazing thing about Kiarostami and Five in particular is the refusal to make concessions to the viewers expectations. There is no manufactured drama – not even in the take with the comic ducks which have, as anybody who stays awake through the take will know, been harried by someone outside the frame to move in a particular direction. There is no story within a story. There is no choreography (unless you count the sound design of the last take, which apparently took Kiarostami months to get right). There is nothing except the fact of the sea and what happens in front of it. If that is too hard to watch, it says more than we might want to know about us and what we want cinema to be.
The Rave Out piece here. I couldn’t say all of this in 200 words!
[*] If Kiarostami ever wanted to repeat the experiment that was Five he could do no better than to have one take of people leaving the theatre in bewilderment and disgust!