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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Slow Film Festival

Recently on the Film-Philosophy salon (newsletter, subscription required), Alan Fair from the UK suggested a slow film festival which relates pretty well with the topic of our blog :
Hi all,
I wonder sometimes if Sokurov is trying this single shot in revolt against the fragmentation of time and space implicit in what Bordwell has called, if I remember rightly, intensified continuity. Bresson, Tarkovsky, Davies, Sokurov and maybe even Antonioni and Ozu might all be examples of what we might call slow cinema, although I imagine some would argue this point. I was suggestingto some students that we should stage a 'slow film festival' a bit like the Italian 'slow food' movement. They, of course, made the point that no one would turn up. Still it seems to me that this exploration of the cinematic image and the indexical, as mentioned by William, I think, is one that we should champion whenever possible.
A. Fair

Follow up discussion (I hope it's ok to republish it here) :

  1. Alan,
    I think the idea of a slow film festival is great, in militant revolt against short attention span cinema. It would start with Warhol's Sleep and Empire, go via Wavelength obviously, and there must be lots of other gems. I recall Larry Gottheim's Fogline and films by Peter Hutton, for example.
    It would take in Tarkovsky, especially his 360 degree pan from Stalker, and so on to Sokurov. Actually Russian Ark positively races along beside his Spiritual Voices films. Antonioni would be in if only because he makes (fairly) slow films about people with little to say for themselves. He could have been slower, I sometimes think.
    But not Bresson. No director packs more narrative into his shots. Pickpocket is an 80-minute version of Crime and Punishment which is over 600 pages long, but remains fair and honourable to it.
    Only Bresson could have managed it. Miss one shot from L'Argent and you risk losing the thread of the film. Compare Warhol who felt that you could always turn away from his films and they'd still be there when you turned back.
    When is Manchester going to host this?
    > Tim Cawkwell (Norwich, UK)
  2. Way back, I think in the early 80s, Godard said in a tv interview that the cause for things speeding up was that fundamentally people were afraid of life. Hmmm...
    > Henry M. Taylor
  3. To those interested in "slow films": The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati has devoted a year to an exhibition on "slow films" called "The Long View"
    > Kirk Boyle
  4. Another master of 'slow cinema' and of the use of the sequence shot in particular is Theo Angelopolous. His 4 hour epic The Travelling Players contains only about 80 shots. The title of his 1998 film Eternity and Day was deemed somewhat appropriate by certain critics at the time, unaccustomed as they no doubt were to the typically rather slow pace of Angelopoulous' work...
    > Les Roberts
  5. Slow compared to what? The overexcited unconsciousness of commodity cinema? A pretty pathetic comparison, it seems to me. Slow compared to the passing of the hours? Are surveillance videos slow (e.g., Michael Klier's Der Reise)?
    Clearly, slow/fast are observations about the subject, not the object. The undecideable enigma of time problematizes any such discussion from the beginning, and Bergson, among so many others, nuances the discourse. If we're into dualisms, I prefer open/closed rather than slow/fast.
    I would suggest that Warhol's Eat, Kiss, Sleep, Empire, etc. are not, and cannot be said to be, ontologically slow. Santantango, on the other hand, is very slow indeed if one privileges dominant cinema as the reference. Why do that? Time may or may not exist, but there is always choice. A Slow Film Festival, for what it would say not only about our acculturation but about our attention to experience, would inescapably be an embarrassment.
    > gyoungblood
  6. "Time may or may not exist"
    I don't know if I'd go that far, but 'slowness' needs thinking out. What are we measuring 'over time', as it were -- not distance, but what?
    > Henry Miller
  7. Probably the slowest film I've seen would have been something in a language I didn't really understand with no subtitles.
    > Jun-Dai Bates-Kobashigawa
  8. A film that I find to be a perfect staging of slowness is Satyajit Raj's Jalshagar/Music Room from 1958. Celebrating a specific rasa between stubbornness and fidelity, this work brings about a very special slowness of decay.
    > Julian Rohrhuber
  9. You can't NOT go that far, and of course we are measuring ourselves.
    "A measure measures measuring means." John Cage
    > gyoungblood
  10. Slowness is obviously relative, but one needs to determine the objects of comparison, the elements measured and the means by which to achieve the effect. Cinema's objects are Life's practices, and its basic element is movement. A slowing-down of movement within this filmic context may be achieved in many ways and for different purposes. An Antonioni can present asituation where practice becomes impossible, or at least insignificant, so that time loses its rhythms of action and we achieve an infinite slowness (nothing really moves, but you cant say the image is frozen). A Fellini will present similar slowness, but only to gain astounding energies of acceleration towards some sort of festivity. A Rossellini on the other hand will present a slowness which is determined by its incessant regularity (here rhythm is present, but in such a slow way as to become ambient -"Francis, God's Jester", especially the leper scene). These are only Italian examples.Warhol's "sleep" is a whole other story. There, it is the machinic gaze of the camera which achieves a certain endurance that is nonhuman. There is no slowness since it is lifeless. a sleeping man, a dead camera, both operating. It is not interesting to call this film "slow" relative to mainstream cinema in general (why state the obvious?), but to examine how slowness is achieved relative to the whole of the film itself and its particular links to conventions of film. Now, sleep is usually depicted in transition to something else (the figure awakes..., the figure's dream...) or at least relative to something else (the sleeping figure is undisturbed by the racket outside...), but here it is cut off, shown in-itself. This absolute cut and elongation-of-description should not be measured in terms of slowness, since nothing is being slowed down (its not that the transition from sleep to wakefullness occurs slowly; it never occurs). The dynamics of this machinic typology of practices (sleep, kiss, [gazing at] the empire state building) is one of autonomous frames or categories which never achieve rhythm, and therefore are never "slow" or "fast".
    > Adam Aboulafia
  11. Slowness is not just relative, it's entirely subjective unless you're going to define certain criteria weighted against each other for a specific definition of 'slowness' (e.g., length of takes, amount ofcamera movement, lines of dialogue, etc.). A large part of what makes it subjective is that a conception of slowness depends on weighing the significance of the types of events that you are measuring the rate of.
    Andy Warhol's 'Eat' might be considered very slow by most people, since very little happens that will register in most people's minds as events, but that definition of slowness depends on downplaying the significance of events that most people don't consider important (film grain, facial micromovements, etc.). If you decide to make a slow film festival based on a definition of 'slowness' relating to what most people consider slow, then the first task is to figure out what most people consider slow. One thing that seems to make a big difference is that an otherwise silent scene will appear much faster if appealing music is playing in the background, but that's just an observation on my part.
    Alternatively, it might be more interesting to come up with a few dozen ideas of what might constitute criteria for slowness and show films that represent extremes of those notions of slowness.
    > Jun-Dai
  12. There is one general criterion for the experience of slowness that can be further analyzed and specified experimentally.
    E.g. the experience that an addition of music do 'quick up' a film sequence (there is a consensus on it by film composers, film directors and producers) can be explained by the fact that film music adds processing burden to the existing one offered by the film sequence without music, that it brings an additional information package to that offered
    by the film's diegetic world.
    Now, there is an accumulated filmmakers belief that our experience of the 'pace' of the shot depends on the 'information load' of the scene presented in a shot.
    E.g. if a shot presents a bare landscape with nothing in it to attract specified attention, with nothing worth exploring, it will be experienced as the very long (slow) shot, compared with a shot of the same length that presents crowded city street filled with different types of simultaneous events difficult to grasp in a glance - which can be experienced as very 'fast', even as to 'short' for satisfactory perceptual 'grasp'.
    These experiences with the 'optimal length' of a shot do offer a 'default' criterion for the experience of the 'pace' of a film segment: the comparatively less information load on processing the slower a segment of a film will appear to its perceiver, the greater the information load on processing of a segment the faster it will appear.
    Of course, some 'slow' films by this 'default criterion' can become quite informationally filled up (faster) if the attention is rearranged, specified differently then the 'default' one - that happens, say, in experimental, avant-garde filmmaking and videomaking (like Warhol's Sleep).
    When saying that a criterion is a 'default' one - it means that it is 'automatically' applied if no other criterion is offered of specified. One can think of a number of different criteria that will 'flout' this default one.
    E.g. if we are set to expect quite specific information in particular moment of a film discourse, and some distraction shot of a crowded city street is offered instead, this distraction shot may seem overlong to us because we are delayed in getting the wanted information. Etc.
    > Hrvoje
  13. (in response to #11) Yes, and it very much depends on the individual spectator's involvement with the film in question. And on the venue in which it is seen. I once watched Tarkovsky's Stalker on video, on a smallish tv screen - it was almost unbearably slow. It's meant to be and has to be seen in a cinema, on a large screen.
    Speaking of viewer involvement, Sokurov's 5-hour video Spiritual Voices (1994) is probably one of the most intense film experiences I've ever had. I saw it towards the end of Locarno film festival, exhausted after having watched 40 or 50 films in ten days, and I'd anticipated falling asleep. The very oppositie was the case: I was completely enthralled, almost trance-like, in the mysticism of this wonderful documentary.
    Finally, take Rear Window: not suited for open air cinema, where it will seem remarkably slow. Again, you have to watch it in the cinema, or in a very controlled setting.
    > Henry M. Taylor
  14. (in response to #11) Doesn't this mean precisely that it *is* just relative, ie a certain property measured against another? Unless you're going to go without a definition of 'slowness', which might make choosing films under this criterion an uphill struggle. Dare I introduce the use of narcotics and their effects on perception into this discussion?
    > Henry Miller
  15. (in response to #12) It's a good point that our experience of pace is tied to information load, but there are two points that I see coming out of that:
    1) - What constitutes 'information load' and how heavily different types of information weigh upon us are quite subjective and are determined by things like our shared cultural assumptions, our personal experience, our mood, preoccupations, and attention span of the moment, as well as our level of understanding of the various types of cinematic language that are being used in the film. If information is missing from the film and we have to fill in the gaps, does that increase or decrease the information load? Which produces more information load, color or black-and-white film?
    Low-resolution video or fine-grain 70mm?
    2) - I think 'information load', insofar as it includes things like music, camera motion, edits, plot points, dialogue, etc., can be broken into at least two categories: foreground and background (ormaybe conscious and semi-conscious). In a scene where there is music that I am not really paying attention to, although I may be aware of it, the 'information load' increase from a silent version of the scene is primarily in the background. On the other hand, if I'm parsing dialogue, or trying to puzzle something together in the plot or simply follow a sequence of events, I'm more actively processing the information. In the example I mentioned earlier, if I'm watching a film in a language I don't understand, and I don't have subtitles, much of what is foreground information for most of the film's viewers becomes background and textural for me. On the other hand, if I'm trying to piece together what's going on, I may seize details about the way that the actors are speaking and try to process it consciously in a way that a native audience would not. Most likely, however, I will quickly tire from that task and the entire film will slip into the background for me until something jarring or some odd detail captures my attention. Either way, however, the experience will seem as though it must have been slower than it was for the other viewers.
    I think part of why slowness as we normally think of it is subjective is that so much of our perception of slowness has to do with our level of engagement with a film. If there is appealing music in thebackground of an otherwise silent scene, I will become substantially more engaged with the experience. Likewise if I find the acting to be compelling, and if the cuts don't distract me.
    Another piece of the puzzle for me is that I tend to feel things as being slow when they are new to me. I feel like the first week I spend in a new place goes by much slower than subsequent weeks. My first month at my last job went by very slowly in comparison to the last month there. It's as though my memory were skipping over things that it was already familiar with, perhaps reinforcing the existing memories rather than creating new and distinct ones. I feel the same way when I watch a film the second time, no matter how much I liked it or disliked it. It always go by faster the second time. At individual moments it may still seem as slow or slower, but the overall of the experience of the film _always_ leaves me with the feeling that it went by faster.
    > Jun-Dai
  16. (in response to #13) Not quite what I meant. If you pick certain criteria and a way to weigh them against each other, then it becomes relative (and at that point you have created a specific definition of 'slowness', which may have a lot or a little to do with what most people perceive as slowness). Until then, it's purely subjective, because 'slow' as I normally see it used simply refers to a particular subjective experience of a film (or a collection of them), which may have a lot or a little to do with various qualities of the film itself. Much like 'good', or 'interesting', or 'witty', or 'important', etc. Choosing films under a subjective sense of 'slowness' doesn't have to be an uphill battle. You could simply take a poll, informal or otherwise, and pick those films that are frequently mentioned as being'slow'.On the other hand, trying to pick films under a particular set of criteria does raise the question of how those criteria relate to 'slowness' (and why other criteria have been excluded or given littleweight), and figuring those criteria in a satisfactory way sounds like an uphill battle, because then you have to figure in questions like "does the lack of music make this film a slower one, and if so, how does that weigh against the fact that this other film has lots of music but no dialogue?". Then there's also the question of why you are using the term 'slowness' for those criteria, rather than having 'The Musicless Long-Take and/or No Dialogue Film Festival'.
    And yes, I think narcotics bring in an excellent point. If you are able to amuse yourself during a film, then the experience will seem less slow (though the film may still seem slow when you reflect onit).As a side note, one of my professors once mentioned that when he was struggling with a film because it was slow, he would focus on the technique of the film, thinking about the angle of the light and where that indicates the light sources to be, the framing, etc., all in a conscious way. This worked for him (and sometimes it does for me as well), because as long as he was in an appropriate frame of mind, filmmaking was a fascinating topic to him that could give him something to think about when the content of the film failed to.
    > Jun-Dai
  17. This is just to second Henry's admiration for Spiritual Voices. Not only is it Sokurov's most powerful work, it is surely one of the most intense and transcendent observational/meditative films ever made by anyone. Movies don't get much slower than this, but "slow" doesn't even enter one's mind while watching it. You think instead about presence and the present, about being there, which leads to the miraculous.
    > gyoungblood
  18. Someone said "'slowness' needs thinking out." For a film festival, I'm not sure that it does. I think a whole range of films that may or may not be considered 'slow' should play at said festival - and the spectators can decide which is the 'best' slow film or the 'slowest' film - and participating debaters might use this variety of films to come up with a/several 'theory/ies of slow' - rather than having it determined in advance for them...
    > William Brown
  19. 1) - the problem of slowness etc should also be viewed from a more concrete, industrial level of narrative rhythm. after all, the majority of films are written by writers/teams that are trained according to certain rules of narrative structure, scene length, etc. this ties the speed of gratified curiosity to the ideological base of the industry, as well as the conventionality of certain modes of expression...
    2) - there are also problems between the rhythm of montage and the speed of information/meaning in a conventional sense: watching "last year at marienbad" the actual sequences move extremely fast for the most part, but it seems as though it is moving increeedddddddibbbbbllllly slowly because there is no certainty of information, no sense of narrative progress, not even minor moments of closure (is closure required for the fixation of duration, and thus the analytic impression of speed?)...
    3) - an interesting application of problems raised thus far would be a look at Wong Kar wai's "In the mood for love" and "2046", made at the same time, expressing certain similar issues and even using overlapping characters, yet completely opposite in the conventional sense of speed and slowness just some quick ideas, not incredibly well formulated, but food for thought
    > hunter
  20. Talking about speed, there is this (conceited) notion that films have increasingly become faster, leading Bordwell in his article on 'intensified continuity' to conclude that Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998) is, at 1.8 seconds per shot, the fastest edited film he came across. Sure, editing plays an important part in terms of speed. But the pace of dialogue delivery may be equally important: having recently seen again Cukor's The Women (1939), I couldn't help thinking that this has to be one the fastest movies ever made. One might also consider, in this context, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961), which also builds on a machine-gun rhythm of dialogue.
    > Henry M. Taylor
  21. (in response to #18) on the other side of town there could be a festival of 'thrillers' along the same lines, with spectators arguing the toss over what is and isn't 'thrilling'...
    > Henry Miller
  22. Hi everyone,
    nice to see so many responses maybe I should think about a conference on the topic. Of course Gene Youngblood is right in pointing out the relation between duree and time, I think most people would see that as a starting point for any discussion of this topic. Nevertheless I still contend that some film makers are deliberately making films in response to the hegemonic form, isn't this part of the debate that produces the dynamic of film history. Angelopolous' 'Ulysses' Gaze' for instance unfolds at a particular pace in order for the viewer to contemplate space in the manner in which the protagonist experiences it, or at least this is how it works for me, similarly the opening of Herzog's 'Heart of Glass' which at one point (paradoxically) I think the actual film is speeded up, begins by insinuating the viewer into the shepherd's vision through the slow forward movement of the camera, and what about new film makers such as Reygadas, aren't all these people trying to induce a sense of the contemplative into the experience of cinema, something, judging by my experiences at local cinemas, that is a radical response to movies such as Die Hard 4.0, not that this type of film doesn't have its pleasures, clearly they do. Anyway, time waits for no one.
    > Alan Fair (IDS)
  23. Les extremes se touchent? In Wong Kar Wai's strongest film (arguably), the miraculous Chungking Express (1994), there are scenes where extreme acceleration (time-lapse) is combined with extreme slow motion in the same shot. Maybe the cinematic sublime is possible at both ends of the spectrum, the extremely slow as well as the extremely fast?Any suggestions?
    > Henry M. Taylor
  24. not only slow-motion. is variable obturation motor.
    > andre gil mata


weepingsam said...

Nice to see you around, Harry! That's an interesting thread - looks like they got tangled up in some of the same kinds of things this board struggled with - the difficulty of defining terms, especially when you are dealing with something as relative as "slowness". It is hard to parse out the relationship between editing, camera movement, action on screen, dialogue, the organization of space in the shot, and how all these things work to make something fast or slow.

HarryTuttle said...

Hi sam,
yes it's nice to see the same theme discussed elsewhere. Though the subjective perception of slowness is inherant to any filmmaking type. It's a general consideration for cinema.
But I think CC use slowness (in coordination with the other aspects we highlighted here) as an aesthetical affirmation. Not just a rhythmic pace, but as an appropriation of the slow gaze, to be able to show and to see something else, something that mainstream cinema has never filmed before. It's hard to grasp indeed. I'm struggling with it for ages.

................................................................... said...

I agree with Adam that Sleep is not slow at all, it's just long. I have the feeling that since it's real-time, the cinematic time does not exist.
Tsai Ming Liang can sometimes be reffered to as 'slow cinema', but i'm not so sure about it, since his camera let you see things as they are, long takes, so maybe it's not 'slow cinema' but simply slow life?