Three delayed notes after ‘the end of the world’
Death in the Land of the Encantos (Lav Diaz), Antigone (Tacita Dean) and Xenos (Akram Khan)
I’ve been meaning to write a couple of lines about each of these remarkable works of art ever since I saw them: in each case, the purpose was personal, so that I would remember undergoing them. Nevertheless, I upload this here for the following evident reason: even though they are absolutely singular pieces, in the sense that viewing them is an absolutely singular event (and thus, I would not subsume them under a conceptual unity), they all share a certain ‘after-the-end-of-the-world-ness’, which befits these days: in their three, very different ways, they are reflections on the wandering, bodily, but also psychic and artistic, that happens after the catastrophe. The catastrophe may be natural (the typhoon and volcano eruption), or human (war, personal), mythical (Antigone) or historical (Xenos) or a mix of the two (Death…), but it invariably brings after it a wandering. The three protagonists of these pieces, all male, are caught up in that moment of wandering; they all share a deep solitude, the break with a previous time (not only space) and thus, at present, a suspension of themselves in time, and a blurring of the limits between reality and imagination. These are common emotions right now, as is the urge to transform them into art.
1. Death in the Land of the Encantos, Lav Diaz (October 2019)
I am not sure what made me want to see ‘Death in the Land of the Encantos’ when the Hamburg Film Festival announced it was running its full 9 hours. I had never heard of Lav Diaz’s work before, so it was most probably the announcement of the Festival in its leaflet: something in the lines of ‘the now famous poet Benjamin Agusan returns from Russia to his homeland in the Philippines after the destructive 2004 Typhoon’. And it mentioned the duration, but (in what I gradually found to be a typical Hamburgian way) without putting an accent on it, just as they would have announced that the film’s duration was 90 or 120 minutes.
In the small room of the cinema Abaton, we were perhaps 10. I found the Abaton’s rooms cold, so I had taken a scarf, apart from my coat, which I had counted on keeping on, but nothing prepared me for what I saw: most of the other spectators had brought pillows and blankets, their food (among which terribly noisy bags of crisps, I found out later), and extra scarves and hats. Lav Diaz came in with one of the festival organisers to say three sober words of presentation and left again.
The first hour passed in reasonable surprise and curiosity – the state in which every spectator watches a good, new film. That the film was good was quickly settled: the soundscape was strikingly made only of natural sounds, very often rain, or rain drops or dialogue; the black-and-white of the film was touching all the areas of grey, managing to convey the devastation and mourning after the destruction, the fear in the face of violence and madness, but also the hope that came from the dialogues among the three main characters (the poet, and his old friends, a sculptor and a former poet) and among those three and secondary, documentary people; and the narrative, while very diluted, was touching upon themes that deeply interested me: exile, the relation between history and aesthetics, the madness of the past and its absurd bearings in the present, the mystery of life-long friendships, and last but not least, poetry (the film begins and ends with verses by Rilke and Diaz). The length of the movie was immediately perceptible too, due to first long uninterrupted documentary scenes of wandering among the debris left behind by the wave. For the next twenty minutes past that first hour, I kept on taking glimpses at my watch: how quickly or slowly was this grey, silent film going?
Soon, I fell asleep.
I cannot calculate how long I was asleep, because I don’t remember either when I last looked at my watch or when – or even if – I looked at it when I woke up. However, after that nap, I entered in a different area, as if the nap had been a rite of passage. I watched the rest of the film without any resistance, be it bodily or mental. I had to shift position from time to time, gather my legs closer to me or stretch them in front of, bend on the right or on the left side of my seat, wear my scarf around my head or around my neck, but these movements happened at a remove. The main event that was taking place experientally, as it were, was my full immersion in the magma of the movie. The fact that there was at least a pretence of narrative thread may have helped: the parentheses of the lengthy, philosophical or political dialogues among the friends, the encounters with others (for example, a person who, a few years back, had helped out in another film, whose footage we see, or a regime spy who threatens the protagonist) could all be seen as lengthy digressions from this main thread. However, it is wiser to see things the other way around: those meaningful, conceptually and visually thick episodes were actually the film’s substance – the storyline was just a line to hang them on. And while each such episode was taking place (consider one may develop in ten or fifteen minutes), the camera shot one long single-take, often one frame.
I never wanted any of the scenes to end, however long, however bare they might be. All the more so when they were shots of the same landscape – a road or the amazing, conical shape of the volcano. And one had to just sit and wait until something moved or came towards the camera.
Lav Diaz’s abnormal cinematic time is challenging to today’s impatient viewer. However, other authors’ movies also represent such a challenge to contemporary viewing culture (Angelopoulos or Béla Tarr or, earlier, Tarkovski in some instances). To me, what is exceptional here is how this stretching of time in Death in the Land of the Encantos actually annihilates time: the film is a continuous, eerie present, a present of great earthly detail and phantasmatical suggestion, where the soluble boundaries between sanity and madness, wake and dream, blur the boundaries of time itself.
At the end of the movie, I would have sworn it lasted an hour and a half.
2. Xenos, Akram Khan (July 2018)
‘This is not a war, it is not a war, it is the end of the world’, says Akram Khan’s off-voice in Xenos.
I first saw Khan performing in Brighton in 2003 or 2004. I went to the venue with curiosity and eagerness but not at all prepared by echos of fame and glamour. I left it astounded: I had not seen such a powerful performance for a very long time. It was, for starts, utterly unpredictable to be scrutinising the dark until one started discerning a man hanging upside down at the sound of traditional Indian music. The last time I had been so blown away was by Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring in Paris in the Théatre du Châtelet as a student (only once more did I have the chance to see a Pina Bausch show live – in Epidaurus in 2008. The story of how the security people would not allow us in because we had a 3-year-old and a baby with us, of how we tried to sneak in through the several ways but were always told off and of how, finally, the orchestra members – it was a live performance of Gluck’s Orfeus and Euridice – let us go in with them is worth telling in detail another time).
I decided to write something about Akram Khan last time I saw him performing his piece Xenos. Towards the end of the show, tears started pouring out of my eyes. This was remarkable enough, but even more remarkable was that the same phenomenon had occurred a few years earlier, watching a short version of Desh (Chotto Desh) with my children and one of my best friends who had very recently lost her partner and from whom, in deep embarrassment, I was trying to hide my tears. (Thankfully, I didn’t cry each time I saw him performing, whether with Israel Galvan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui or on his own).
In Xenos just as in Desh, Khan dances entirely alone. Technically, these are long solos, alternating between his perfect mastery of kathak and his own idiom of contemporary dance, this alternation being danced with strict precision and a great gift for interpretation. That one single dancer is constantly on the stage alone for durations of as long as or longer than an hour is always a matter of wonder. When the dance is executed with such force and stringency, well … it forces admiration. But this only addresses the technical side of the performance, as it were. Additionally, and equally importantly, Khan enacts his isolation as an artist growing up in a non-artistic household (despite his mother’s support), and the loneliness of the second-generation diasporic condition. This is explicitly thematised in Desh, where he also amazingly embodies and interprets the loneliness of the father, but it is also very strongly there in the subsequent Xenos, as the wretched human being, torn by loss and fall and disorientation, bounces and falls and stands up again on the stage. Apart from the musicians that accompany him – in the admirable dramaturgy and scenography of the piece – Khan is alone on stage. ‘I am alone’ says Khan’s off-voice during the performance, ‘alone’ now by contrast to ‘another time’ when the dancer-soldier was part of a net of relations.
Khan’s relation to the ground is very particular: on the one hand, his feet tap the ground in the kathak way when he dances kathak parts, while his back remains erect; and on the other hand, he is very often bundled and rolling around the stage, getting up and falling again, as if the ground had an added gravitational attraction, as Royona Mitra points out in her book on Khan. Anyone who has followed his evolution will have heard him referring to movement as life – and indeed, Khan is constantly, incessantly and furiously (sometimes, funnily) moving on stage. Even when, like in Xenos, he treats the ‘end of the world’, he moves incessantly, performatively contradicting the whole pronouncement, as it were, and thus showing the invincibility of life. Again in Xenos, even when he falls on the ground, when he becomes close to an animal looking for food, his hand (which can also be a fist or a butterfly) keeps on becoming feet and legs, the feet and legs of the erect human being who will stand up and move again.
Perhaps the most evident but also most problematic element in Khan’s capacity to move the audience, is the mysterious monologue around the diasporic cultural area in which the British-Bangladeshi artist finds himself. By always referring to kathak and injecting it into it radical qualities of contemporaneity, Khan always, again and again, deals with his (at least) dual cultural condition. People like me, who share this (at least) duality, cannot but feel moved by such performances, which do not fail to toss up the inevitability as well as the creativity of such a fate. However, contrary to what Mitra says in her book, and even though I clearly see the post-colonial point of not translating the short bits of urdu spoken on stage, I do not feel that Khan constantly and consciously addresses a dual audience, those who know urdu and those who don’t. Blame it on my not wanting to feel excluded, but what I find great in great works of art is (also) their part of mystery. Khan’s performances, while being wilfully and explicitly addressed and accessible to a large audience, are not ever utterly accessible. My guess is they´re not entirely accessible to a kathak-dancer-speaking-perfect-urdu-now-turned-contemporary-dancer-speaking-perfect-English either. Because what this diasporic monologue is about is not the two, as it were, sides of cultures (as if each culture were a monolithic, fixed bloc), and not – or not only – the Third Space between them, but the universality ie the capacity of universalisation of this very specific artistic expression which is Khan’s. To be aware of his and our biographical trajectory and be well-read in post-colonial studies cannot reduce this art, for it is much greater than the explanatory devices deployed to get a grip on it.
The forlorn, used body of the dancer-turned-soldier in Xenos is the same and an other of Akram Khan. For those who have followed him for the best part of 20 years, it is striking to see the change in his beauty every time he dances, his beard greying, the areas around his eyes becoming deeper, darker. At the end of Xenos, I remember thinking that he looked physically exhausted from the harrowing performance – when I watched it again yesterday on Arte (a performance filmed in Paris), I thought the same. Xenos is the same and an other of Akram Khan, he is the same and an other of each of us.
3. Antigone, Tacita Dean (2020)
I almost left Copenhagen without seeing Tacita Dean’s major work Antigone. It was my 11-year-old son who alerted me on our last evening there, when he saw a poster of a film-shot – an image he recognised having seen at home – and the artist’s name. I quickly calculated I had enough time to visit the Carlsberg Glyptotek the next morning before heading off to the airport. In the event, I saw it twice in a row, sitting on different armchairs, in front of different screens.
Antigone, whose title refers to the artist’s sister, is about Oedipus not Antigone, and it is explicitly concerned with the gap between Aeschylus’s two tragedies: Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. It is the result of a lengthy process of thought (as is often the case with Tacita Dean, but perhaps this is one of her oldest ideas) and a lengthy process of fabrication, during which she found out that Anne Carson, the poet, had also worked on that gap in her stage poem TV Men: Antigone. In the film, a central place is reserved to the dialogues between Tacita Dean, Anne Carson (also cast as the Sphinx in an extract) and Stephen Dillane, the actor playing Oedipus.
This was the first and only time I could watch a film by Tacita Dean, and it had until then been an ongoing ambiguity that my only access to this artist’s work on, and activistic defence of, analogical film had been digital. This was thus a rare opportunity. The film was screened in an airy room in a relatively isolated area up a flight of stairs in the Glyptotek. It was recommended to watch the film from beginning to end, instead of catching it at a random moment, and that suggested from the start some sort of narrative or formal thread. One could peacefully wait in a foyer which contained copies of the screenplay and drawings by Dean on the themes of the film: blindness, swollen foot (arthritis), liminality, wandering.
In the screening room, there were two rows of very large and comfortable armchairs aligned in front of two screens showing different things. On the back wall of the room, two windows allowed two projectors to send their images. I could see pieces of film on a pile on a table and the floor, and instruments I did not recognise – and now I think I recall scissors and glue too, but I wonder whether this image does not come from another image. I was so thrilled and prepared for wonder that the double screen and the double holes in the wall seemed normal. So, being the first one there, I sat almost at the end in front of the left screen and waited for the miracle.
It happened. The film is an intense poetic reflexion around the above-mentioned themes. The extraordinary landscapes filmed with admiration and patience and a keen eye for their beauty, the almost surrealist dialogues between the three personas of the film, and the alternation between the sensual and the conceptual all contribute to an extraneous familiarity, as it were, which is to be brought close to the universality in Akram Khan’s work. One gradually but quickly opens up to Dean’s idiom, and is completely absorbed by it, comprehending it entirely while admitting to its mystery.
Post-hoc, I would add that one of the main motors of the piece is dissociation – dissociation between sound and image, between music and gesture, between words and image, one sense and another sense, and here, between image and image in the two screens, but also, later, as the screens are cut up, within each screen. This is funny, considering that a narrative was a main concern for Dean for years of thought around this film. The ‘clock’ of the sun solar eclipse (which was shot blindly and without knowing how it looked like until all of the material was developed, as Dean has explained) allows for reprieve but only to remind us that this is moving on.
The brain is continuously both in awe of the heightened sense of presence – and by the same token absence – induced by the rolling of the film and of its imperfections on the screen and in struggle, due to the double screen and the impossibility to simultaneously grasp everything that takes place. To imagine this, one can bring it close to the experience one can have with some of Godard’s movies or with some of Merce Cunningham’s pieces (even though Dean’s films are aesthetically a far cry from both, notwithstanding her film on, and admiration of, Cunningham).
The second time I watched it, just after the first time, I sat on the right side of the room. This time, more viewers were present – and some people left during the screening. Despite these interruptions, I had an entirely different (and more thorough) grasp on the movie, in particular of the conversations between Carson, Dillane and Dean. Antigone’s touch on Oedipus’s shoulder was more suggestive. And the ending was doubly poignant.