“Images unfold in space, texts in time. This assumption has prevailed for centuries, and no critique of it will eradicate it, even though it is obviously false. It is based on the idea that a text needs time in order to be read; but so does an image. It also presupposes that an image takes space; but so, too, does text.” – Mieke Bal

Maria Ångerman’s single channel film The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living (2016) opens up with a serene scene in which a cavalcade of exotic animals filmed at the Antwerp zoo is accompanied by the constant buzz of cicadas. Ångerman’s camera follows the animals from a close-up, sweeping so close to their bodies that the whole image field is filled with grey hair, grooved skin, scaly slough and lash-like tail. Images of a couple engaged in an uncomfortable discussion about separation – following the dialogue of Marguerite Duras’ play Agatha (1981) – are interlocked with the close-up portraits of the animals. Similarly in these images the camera comes close to the characters picking up details of their appearance; the nervously fidgeting hands, the tired-looking faces and the begging eyes that encounter the elusive gaze.

The filmed characters and creatures merge with the surrounding milieu, communicating with each other and the viewer just by being present at the same time, in the same space, sharing the moment and experience. At times, the image appears to be deprived of action and events, it appears almost abstract, and thus hard to distinguish between what has been filmed and what we perceive. Instead, the details chosen and presented by Ångerman direct our thoughts from identifying the object of the image to sensing it in a haptic way in/with regard to time; how warm is it in the room, how does the texture of the grooved slough feel under one’s hand and what does the woman see through the pale windows?

Ångerman describes her film as a cinematic meditation on loss of control in three scenes or episodes; the film opens up with the above described scene from the zoo intermingled with the scenes from a dialogue between the couple. The second scene introduces an adorable pair of chimpanzees absorbed in grooming each other. In the last scene Ångerman turns her camera to the surroundings of the animals living in the zoo and accompanies the slow camera pans with a voice-over presenting various experiences of encountering urban spaces. Through the sense of disorientation – not quite knowing what one is seeing – she heightens the possibility of inhabiting a different perspective.

Ångerman’s gaze is a haptic, caressing one, which sweeps and smooths on the surface of the image, and on the skin of the filmed animals, plants and characters. It stays on the surface of the image, contemplating its material presence rather than plunging into the illusionist depth of the film and its narrative wheel. Foregrounding the sedate and materialist image in the film, Ångerman invites the viewer to consider how the proximal senses are being accentuated and – at the same time – the prioritization of the vision as a sense for acquiring knowledge and experience can be supplanted.

The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living demonstrates how cinema appeals to the senses which it cannot technically represent, such as smell, touch and embodiment. Thus, Ångerman’s approach to both filmic image and sound in film resembles more of that of the haptic visuality and sound. In cinema, haptic visuality, as described by film theorist Laura U. Marks, is often transmitted through such formal and textual qualities as grainy, unclear images, or by sensuous images that evoke memories of different senses or depict characters in acute states of sensory activity. Similarly, changes in focus and under- and overexposure, as well as close-to-the-body camera positions and slow panning across the surface of objects or creatures – as can be seen in The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living – are typical for filmic works that can be seen as representing haptic visuality. Ångerman’s lingering images of the animals, tender chimpanzees caring for each other, empty rooms and a troubled couple present sensual moments and moods which encourage the viewer to use a tactile way of seeing and knowing. When aiming to comprehend the cinematic image through one’s own body, with the help of non-visual knowledge, the concept of haptic visuality can be of help.

Marks’ formulation of haptic visuality offers a materialist multi-sensory and culturally specific approach to film. According to Marks, haptic visuality is a way of seeing and knowing which calls upon multiple senses, offering a method of sensory analysis which does not depend on the presence of literal touch, smell, taste or hearing. Marks’ concept provides an alternative framework for discussing film works – such as Ångerman’s – which are often seen just as visual in relation to multiple senses, affect and embodiment. Marks’ haptic visuality refers to viewing which draws upon other forms of sense experience, primarily touch and kinesthetics. In this framework vision can be seen as a tactile sense, “as if touching a film with one’s eyes”.

Memory is embedded in all the senses. Our body has a visceral, mimetic relationship to the external world that is – like memory – both cerebral and emotional. Haptic images provoke sensations of touch and movement, making past events animated again; through the act of looking at film we move towards the act of sensing the film with all our senses and with the whole body, not just with our vision. In a way, the haptic image is less complete requesting the viewer to contemplate the image as a material presence than it is as an easily identifiable representational coy in a narrative wheel. Ångerman’s The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living shows how cinema appeals – alongside vision and hearing – to multiple senses and their memory.

Instead of a clear and coherent sequence of events, The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living serves us with atmosphere and time, a strong feeling of a fleeting moment that we can share with the film in the present tense. The film represents a kind of contemplative cinema which is not in a rush to anywhere, but which similarly does not always seem to know where to head next. Rather, its path seems to follow the logic of a dream, cascading directly from the subconscious. For this reason it seems to be safer just to halt, look and think for a moment, before taking the next step ahead in the ‘here-and-now-ness’ of the film. With its long takes and serene rhythm Ångerman’s film resembles the examples of slow cinema; during the long takes reproducing the present we are invited to let our eyes wander within the parameters of the frame, observing details that would remain veiled or merely implied by a swifter form of narration. The camera focuses on the details and textures leaving the screen with very little – if any – action and events.

Ångerman’s slow aesthetics downplays events in favor of atmosphere, mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality. Instead of looking for events and actions, we should aim to dive deep into the film’s cinematic images. In the last scene of her film, Ångerman takes us on a journey through the seemingly empty spaces of the closed zoo. The main animal characters presented in the first two scenes of the film seem to be hiding somewhere as the camera slowly pans or focuses-in to details and surfaces in the dimly light surroundings – we can only hear their calls and sounds in the distance. When the image is nearly empty of any action, the voice-over takes the lead. The uttered sentences depicting an experience of urban space start to direct the perception. The eye is grateful for the hints and steering offered by the voice-over which directs our focus on the image in a specific way; we start to sense the atmosphere of the space, making meaning from the monochromatic dimness, reflections on the water and the lush culture.

Despite the seeming plotlessness, wordlessness, slowness and alienation, Ångerman’s film is rich with details and serves us handsomely with both time and relaxed rhythm. The film opts towards an ambient space and sound which do not necessarily guide us through the spaces and events, but rather give us a sense of an atmosphere and moment; the warmth of the day and the blinding force of the light penetrating through the pale curtains. The subdued visual schemes of the film require certain kinds of readiness and activity from the viewer, who has to do some work in order to enjoy her film to the full. In order to understand the depth of the image and the complexities in the intervals between the seemingly apparent details, a bit of work must be carried out in order to find the content behind the appearance of emptiness.

In the end, the main subject of Ångerman’s film seems to be time, as it is what she offers us for over 22 minutes – 22 minutes of wondering, watching, listening, and just sensing with our eyes, ears, touch and with the whole body. Time is manifested in films both as a narrative element as well as an element that is connected with both the experience of the viewer and the fictive characters. In Ångerman’s film time is being thematized both on the level of form as well as of content; it becomes more a non-narrative matter, temporality that is being detached from the causal relations. The awareness of time from the viewer’s perspective is an important, non-narrative element, detached from narration. In Ångerman’s film the focus is on the here-and-now movements of the emotions and affects instead of target-objected actions.

The Dead Walk Side by Side with the Living reveals to us how filmic time is much more than just a narrative feature, as it is also the time of the experiencing and understanding of the film, and is thus always subjective. Slow and long takes depicting the landforms and verdant flora move our attention away from the narrative as they remind us of time in its purified form. In these dense moments, the temporality of the film should be analyzed as a non-narrative element; our attention is being focused more on what we see in the image instead of what we expect to happen in the near future. The rhythm of the film seals its meaning, the montage connects events and moments to one another in narration. Thus, the pleasure of the film experience is based on the experience of finding meaning between the temporal and spatially organized elements of which the film is comprised.

Kati Kivinen

– Bal, Mieke 2000. “Sticky Images: The Foreshortening of Time in an Art of Duration.” In Amelia Groom (ed): Time. Series: Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery & MIT Press, London/Cambridge, 62-64.
– Elsaesser, Thomas 2011. “Stop/Motion”. In Eivind Røssaak (ed): Between Stillness and Motion: Film, Photography, Algorithms, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 109-122.
– Flanagan, Matthew 2008. “Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema” in 16:9, #29/6. (http://www.16-9.dk/2008-11/side11_inenglish.htm)
– Marks, Laura U. 2000. Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses. Duke University Press, Durham and London.
– Marks, Laura U. 2002. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis & London.
– Mulvey, Laura 2003. ”Stillness in the Moving Image: Ways of Visualizing Time and Its Passing.” In David Campany (ed): The Cinematic. Series: Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery & MIT Press, London/Cambridge, 134-139.
– Ångerman, Maria 2014. The Skin of My Film. Un-published MA paper, Netherlands’ Film Academy, Amsterdam.