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New York Film Festival Correspondences #4: Sensual Experience

At the festival, Viktor Kossakovsky's "Gunda" and Tsai Ming-liang's "Days" explore cinema's capacity for sensuality and texture.
Doug Dibbern
The Notebook is covering the NYFF with an on-going correspondence between critic Doug Dibbern and editor Daniel Kasman.
Above: Gunda.
Hey, Danny—
I know what you mean when you wonder whether or not we’re actually attending a film festival. I’ve never been a fan of digital streaming or projection or of watching movies at home, each of which flattens and diminishes the inherently sensual aspects of the movies. And I’m worried that we’re living through some sort of shadow experience even more now because we usually watch these films for the festival on two of the biggest screens in the city: the Walter Reade and Alice Tully Hall, packed in tightly with sold-out crowds, which always intensifies the fact that movies aren’t just visual—they’re auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory, too.
So like you, I’ve been struggling to recreate some simulacrum of the theater experience at home. My favorite movie-watching time in pre-pandemic days was the late afternoon: a movie is the perfect curative for a stressful day on the job, the perfect gateway into a relaxing night at home. But afternoon screenings in my apartment are especially tough: I don’t have curtains flapping into the room like you, but I do have big, West-facing windows, and pulling down my white blinds can only do so much to dampen the sun.
But I think that I may have inadvertently come up with a solution. Maybe because I’m getting older—or maybe because of the added anxiety of teaching in-person during pandemic times—I’ve been waking up earlier and earlier: recently as early as 4am, if you can believe that. And I’ll tell you a secret, Danny: I kinda like it. Watching a movie in the pre-dawn darkness between 4:30 and 6am while I’m still groggy from dreams, I’ve discovered, has turned out to be the best at-home approximation I’ve been able to conjure up for the darkness, immobility, and silence of the movie theater.
One of the unexpected—and quite positive—consequences of my new at-home moviegoing strategy is that it’s allowed me to sink deep into the type of cinematic art-house fare that’s usually too slow and demanding for watching at home. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve managed to have a sensual cinematic experience in my living room maybe for the first time ever.
In the week since last I wrote, I’ve seen eight more movies—Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, Philippe Lacôte’s Night of Kings, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears, and Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda—all of which I liked—some, admittedly, more than others.
But my favorites of these were the two movies that initially would’ve seemed much too stylistically arduous for domestic viewing, two movies I remember you telling me you liked quite a bit as well: Tsai’s Days and Kossakovsky’s Gunda, each of which is an almost wordless meditation with only the barest hint of a narrative, the type of festival film that might strike even the most sophisticated viewers as masturbatory experiments in the limits of cinematic duration.
I’m not as up-to-date about contemporary cinema as you are, Danny, so I’ll be honest: until this year’s main slate was announced about a month ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard of Viktor Kossakovsky. But now that I’ve seen this one—as well as his previous feature Aquarela—I’ve suddenly become an ardent fan.
On the surface, Gunda is a documentary about animals’ lives on a farm, showing us pigs, roosters, and cows, framed around and focusing on one mother pig raising her litter of piglets over the course of a few months. On another level, it’s a film about surfaces and textures, about cinema’s capabilities of both presenting and provoking our imagination about the sensual qualities of the material world. As in Aquarela, Kossakovsky seems interested in pure sensation. There are no human characters, no dialogue; instead, all we do for 90 minutes is just look at and listen to animals wandering, sleeping, standing, eating.
The more sensual a documentary is the more easily we fall into the old trap of thinking we’re merely observing reality. But Kossakovsky clearly has a story to tell—and thus a philosophy to impart. Artists’ renditions of animals inevitably tell us more about their attitudes about human beings than they do about the animals themselves. Théodore Géricualt’s horses, for instance, are essays about the nobility of wealth; Rosa Bonheur’s horses—as well as her sheep and cows—are paeans to the nobility of the rural world and of peasant life.
So Kossakovsky’s pigs tells us a lot about his attitudes about human beings—about mothers and children and families and of his reverence for life. He organizes his feelings primarily through his narrative structure, tracing a sow’s relationship with her litter of piglets, from their birth through their development to the ending of the film (which I’m about to ruin, in case anyone wants to skip ahead to the next paragraph). In the first scenes, Kossakovsky shows us what seems to be just moments after the litter’s birth: we see a dozen newborns scrambling on top of each other, mewling and squeaking, to feed greedily and desperately at their mother’s teats. Then he proceeds chronologically, following the family as they wander through the forest, foraging for food, growing bigger and bigger until the day when they’re loaded onto a truck and taken away, and Kossakovsky leaves us with the mother pig scrambling about the yard, snorting wildly, desperate and confused, in search of her children. Though scientists tell us that we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize animals, Kossakovsky organizes his filmic elements into this particular shape in order to do just that. He has a poetic sensibility, but a humanist one as well.
Kossakovsky’s visual design, too, provides us with a humanist understanding of the animal experience. As with Aquarela, he emphasizes the lyrical grandeur of nature. His images are lush. He (along with his co-cinematographer Egil Larsen) loves high contrasts: his darks are very black—sometimes with an ashy, coal-like quality, sometimes so dark as to seem a featureless void; his whites, meanwhile, are so bright they appear washed out and hot. He captures soft sunlight dappling the piglets’ sleeping backs. Roosters clambering over fallen branches evoke the photography of Edward Weston or Ansel Adams. His cinematography bestows upon these animals a graceful dignity. His handling of the camera, too, romanticizes these animals. He shoots many scenes with a wandering Steadicam, often only six inches above the ground, so that the images have a dreamy, hovering voluptuousness. He shoots cows running from above in a slow-motion fantasia so that we feel cloudlike and invisible, imbuing these animals with an ethereal feeling that Kossakovsky inspires us to feel just as much in ourselves.
These pigs are not all nobility and grace, though. Kossakovsky matches his grandiloquent vision, thankfully, with a gritty earthiness. He humanizes his pigs equally well by making them seem grimy and base, just as we sometimes picture ourselves. His careful attention to audio and visual brings forth the unexpected tactile qualities of film. The mother pig’s hairy hide reminded me of running my hand over a thick blanket or a suede coat, while the newborn piglets’ slimy, hairless skin made me cringe. Flies streaming over the cows’ unperturbed faces made me want to scratch myself. When the mother pig stepped through mud or wallowed in a muddy pool or rooted her hairy snout into mud, I felt a visceral connection with her.
Above: Days.
I loved the new Tsai Ming-liang film for many of the same reasons: it was just as sensual, just as tactile—but perhaps Tsai emphasized these filmic qualities in the service of a different attitude about the human condition. As with the Kossakovsky film, Days didn’t initially seem to have much of a plot. For the first forty minutes or so, I assumed that the film’s subject was something abstractly philosophical like postmodern anomie or the hopeless dislocation engendered by global capitalism: the two characters that the film was sort-of following didn’t seem to be doing much of anything; they didn’t seem to have any particular needs or desires that might propel a narrative forward. Tsai gave us only long, still shots from a distance that didn’t seem to have any connection with each other. At times, it felt like the whole thing was more like a video installation than a real movie.
As it kept unfolding, though, I started to think that Tsai’s true subject wasn’t philosophical at all, but purely material: his main interest, I thought, was the omnipresence and variability of ambient sound—street traffic, water splashing in plastic tubs, the hum of electronics we barely register in real life but which film recording can bring to the fore. Or even more than sound, maybe the film’s true subject was palpability. Tsai shows us glass, tiled walls and tiled floors, plastic tubs filled with water, knives scraping what appears to be the world’s largest cucumber, acupuncture needles, flames and smoke, mattress fabrics, cotton drapes, and more than anything else, the male body: shirtless torsos, back muscles, collarbones and necks, Lee Kang-sheng’s buttocks. Like Kossakovsky, Tsai takes real pleasure in making us imagine the sense of touch. And as always, he’s obsessed with the oppressively ubiquitous tactile and sonic qualities of water: rain against glass, the reflective surface of a pool, tubs of water in a cramped bathroom, massage lotions, the dampness of streets after rain.
But just when I’d finally accepted that the movie wouldn’t have any narrative—and thus no position on the human condition—the halfway point of the film came upon me, and the two seemingly unconnected main characters—and thus the two seemingly unrelated filmic sections—finally met in the most gloriously tactile scene yet. This climactic scene, an extended massage/sex session (I think it was like 20 minutes long!) between an older man and his much younger hustler/masseuse, provides the movie with a suddenly unexpected emotional core. Tsai makes his muse Lee Kang-sheng’s naked body—and his young friend’s tender ministrations of his flesh—the essential human element of the movie in contradistinction to the inhuman pavement and tiles and plastic and glass that pervade the modern world.
And Tsai positions this climactic moment at the halfway point of the film to make a point about human connection: he’s organized the film centrifugally, with every other scene stretching forward or backward in time from this sensual locus. So the combination of this tactile sensuality at the film’s very center and the expanding distance of every other scene from that erotic nucleus emphasizes the characters’ isolation at both the beginning and the end of the film. They encounter each other only briefly; the rest of life is just duration and endurance. Lee’s gift of a tinny music box to his new young friend is a sign of hope, but it’s a pretty meager one. In Tsai’s mind, it seems to me, physical sensation cannot heal the hopeless dislocation and postmodern anomie engendered by global capitalism.
If, days later, I’m drawn a bit more to Tsai’s vision than to Kossakovsky’s, it probably says more about me than it does about the films in question. But I was grateful to have the experience of seeing them—and hearing them and, yes, imaginatively touching through them—in a way that I hadn’t thought was possible outside of a movie theater.
So if I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that you should set your alarm for 4, Danny. Trust me: it may be the best way to let yourself sink back into the sensual depths of a real movie experience again.


NYFFNYFF 2020Festival CoverageViktor KossakovskyTsai Ming-LiangCorrespondences
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