The measure of all things

Xcentric's programme December 2009

Gonzalo de Pedro

In one of the short stories in his first book, El que apaga la luz, Juan Bonilla told the story of a man who, as a child, decided to become a terrorist the day he discovered that, contrary to maps’ promises, countries do not change colour when you cross a border: Portugal was not red, Andorra was not yellow and France was not green, as he had studied in his school books over the years. The fact that this same man decided to take action after spotting a watch on the wrist of a Roman soldier, a supporting actor in an old sword-and-sandal film on TV, is irrelevant. It is also another story.

Because ours is a story about the people who, like the character in Bonilla’s short story, decide to become terrorists when they discover that books about cinema also lie, just as maps, atlases and encyclopaedias do, when they say that films should be green, red or yellow. When they say that films are acted out by actors, directed by directors and photographed by photographers. When they hold that films are always images frozen on a support, any support, beyond time and space, beyond death. Or when they say, for example, that films last A, or B, or C.

Ours, then, is the story of terrorists who discovered that films can be any colour you choose. They can be black or white; they can be silent, with sound or inaudible; and, most of all, that they can last D, or Z, last no time at all or last for ever, walking beside life, growing up with it, getting old with it and disappearing with it. It is the story of those who tear pages out of books, who draw over the maps in encyclopaedias, who remake the films they don’t like, and who want to rewrite the history of cinema by blowing up one of its headquarters: that of form, format, time and duration.

1. The first deception practised by cinema was to make us believe that it was capable of freezing time for us and thereby vanquishing death, conserving our memory forever, irrespective of the days, months and years. Its second deception, a little less flagrant, was to force us to consume these scraps of frozen life in measured, established doses, as though these little pills were the only way of addressing a screen and the images projected onto it. Three minutes. Twenty minutes. Ninety minutes. Fifty-two minutes. Two and a half hours. Less than 59 minutes, or more than 61. Standard durations have always been like the colours of countries on maps: convenient lies used to tame something inconvenient. Perhaps this is why experimental cinema not only set out to blow up the deception of the content, but also attacked—and continues to do so—the nonsense of form—or, rather, the farce of the container. The huge lie of duration. How long does a film last?

2. Billy Wilder is attributed (and yes, it is a provocation to cite Wilder in a context of blasting) with a peculiar cinematographic classification: “There are only two types of films: good ones and ones that start at eight, and at midnight you look at your watch and discover its half past eight.” Good, bad, so-so; long, short, average; boring or otherwise. Perhaps the problem lies not so much in the films, or in their duration or their narrative or emotional efficacy, but in our haste to classify or pigeonhole them, to define standards, brightly-coloured maps that guide us through familiar, comfortable territory—an asphalted road, a long stretch of uniformly-coloured, predictable ground.

3. There is a particularly revealing moment in Crude Oil (2008), the 14-hour film by Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing: Bing films the workers at an oil field in the desert in very long fixed shots. In one of these shots, the workers are dozing in a shelter, rocked by the constant, obsessive sound of the machines. Reflected in a mirror, at the far end of the room is the camera, and, beside it, the filmmaker. At one point, Bing moves away from the camera and leaves the room, leaving viewers with the reflection of the camera in the glass and the workers sleeping uncomfortably in a very long fixed shot. We could draw a line that joins Sleep (1963), Andy Warhol’s first film, during which he filmed his friend, poet John Giorno, asleep for a whole night, and Wang Bing’s shots of his sleeping workers. The line would not be straight, but hesitant and confused, like the contours of a mountainous country, drawing out a hazy territory where the viewer has to face himself, his time and his patience, not just the film, its characters and its plot. There are differences between Warhol’s film and Wang Bing’s (Bing doesn’t have to change the film every three minutes; he can film for hours without cutting), but something remains unchanged: ultimately, it is the viewer who has to mark the time of the film, looking at himself in the mirror of the film. The viewer is the measure of all things.


Gonzalo de Pedro Amatria