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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Slow films, easy life (Sight&Sound)


Via Filmwell :
"Part of the critical orthodoxy I have complained about has been the dominance of Slow Cinema, that “varied strain of austere minimalist cinema that has thrived internationally over the past ten years”, as Jonathan Romney put it [see here]. “What’s at stake,” he wrote, “is a certain rarefied intensity in the artistic gaze . . . a cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality.”

I admire and enjoy a good many of the best films of this kind, but I have begun to wonder if maybe some of them now offer an easy life for critics and programmers. After all, the festivals themselves commission many of these productions, and such films are easy to remember and discuss in detail because details are few. The bargain the newer variety of slow films seem to impose on the viewer is simple: it’s up to you to draw on your stoic patience and the fascination in your gaze, in case you miss a masterpiece.

Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey (”Bal” Semih Kaplanoglu, 2010) – a beautifully crafted work that, for me suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu – there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not. Slow Cinema has been the clear alternative to Hollywood for some time, but from now on, with Hollywood in trouble, I’ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion."

“Passive Aggressive”, editorial by Nick James, Sight & Sound, April 2010
Typical. Misunderstanding CCC. Looking down on art cinema.

We're back in 2006 when CCC was ironically nicknamed "boring art films"! And this is not the dumbing down mainstream press uttering these words... it comes from the most artfilm-friendly cinephile publication in the UK, by the very colleague of Jonathan Romney (long-time defender of CCC) cited in the article. Real film critics giving up on art... who is going to defend real culture then?

First he calls it "slow cinema", like Matthew Flanagan (read "Slower or Contemplative?"), which is a mischaracterisation that induces contempt and caricature. Limiting this cinema to "slowness" is reductive and superficial. This is precisely because unhappy viewers remain on the surface of these films that they are unable to obtain any substance from them.

"Details are few" says he! It's not because you can hardly fill a half-page with plot points and characters arc, or because the list of notable features appearing on the screen is short, that there isn't anything else there to see. Critics need to learn how to name things (and fill up their list of itemisation) that are not obvious, to learn to find the content behind the appearance of emptiness, to learn to understand the depth and complexity in the intervals between the apparent (nominal) details.
It's like dismissing Kasimir Malevich or Yves Klein because there isn't enough "details" on the canvas... sometimes Art is not about WHAT is represented, but about what is NOT represented, or an abstract reflection on the effect of representational minimalism. I thought critics assimilated this breakthrough of non-figurative art long time ago! (see: Non-narrative Film Criticism)

I can't believe a serious magazine would publish such anti-intellectual banter. If you don't like these films, deal with it frontally. No need to pretend that art would never put you to sleep. I believe the guilt is onto the sleeper. Filmmakers, good or bad, don't have to make your job easier. That's your problem. If you have trouble watching films as an imposed assignment, find another job less strenuous on your patience. Because Film Criticism isn't going to change to suit your Diva's demands. When you trade your opinions on cinema, we don't need to know whether you enjoy getting up in the morning, forgetting to drink your coffee, driving to the screening room, struggling with your digestion, feeling nauseous from hangover, falling asleep... This is not the kind of "opinion" you're paid for. We don't ask critics whether they ENJOY watching films for a living, we ask them if these films are any good!

Here is how he defines his profession of film critic : "it’s up to you to draw on your stoic patience and the fascination in your gaze, in case you miss a masterpiece". The guy is paid to watch movies to give his opinion, and he would like us to feel sorry for him to have to watch all films before knowing whether it's a masterpiece... Maybe he expected the job to be signposted in advance, with big labels in red letters saying "MASTERPIECE" on the DVD screener, so he knows which films to watch and which ones he may skip. Dude! Your job is to watch the damn films, masterpieces or not. "Patience" and screen "fascination" is a REQUIREMENT of your job! "Precious time" is what your are required to invest for the privilege to give your opinion on films.

"sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not" : wonderful insight! Thanks for the truism. How is this any different when you watch dumb comedies and superhero sequels??? Yeah, sometimes it's worth it, sometimes not. But if we knew in advance, you'd be out of job!

If you want to watch only "masterpieces", you're not a critic, you're a READER. Readers don't have to watch all the films, they sit at home and read in YOUR magazine which are the "masterpieces" because critics did their job. What is so hard to grasp here?

And this guy runs a film magazine and writes editorials??? At least he admits he's "bored and a philistine". Typical of the anti-intellectual, pro-entertainment inclination that plagues today's film culture. If you can't tell art from boredom, you won't be taken seriously when you think you've found art in mainstream formulaic genre... cause THAT is the easy life for a film critic (and most of the time they are overstating the alleged greatness of genres, hoping to pull a Truffaut)


This said, to be able to identify CCC in "slower films" doesn't mean that they are therefore ALL great or revolutionary or exceptional... Yes, there are bad CCC films! Who would have thought?
There are bad Soviet Montage films too, bad Italian neorealism films, bad Nouvelle Vague films, bad Westerns, bad documentaries... Yes. It happens! Thanks for the lesson Sight & Sound.
Did you expect films that play it "artsy" to be automatic wins? that if it LOOKS slow, then it must be great art? There is no recipe for art, not in art-films, not in genre movies.

CCC is not a formulaic trend that only produces masterpieces. It is an alternative way to make films, a new narrative mode, a different angle in storytelling, and it gives a new perspective to the audience. You can't judge it with your subjective mainstream prejudices (lack of details, lack of events, slowness, boredom...)

If young filmmakers try to imitate certain traits without understanding what CCC is, they are wrong and they make bad films. But that doesn't undermine CCC, not for savvy critics anyway. There are a lot of wannabe directors who think they can imitate a comedy formula and become a great filmmaker... but it's not that easy. Why? Because critics don't have the "easy life", they know to look past the surface and tell uninspired imitation from a genuine research that happens to take a form common to a certain trend.

If artists tried to avoid their art to look like nothing else around, we would never see the emergence of a collegial trend in the major aesthetic movements of cinema history, in Art history in general.
_________________
see other posts on this debate : 1 (Flanagan) - 2 (James) - 3 (Shaviro 1) - 4 (Shaviro 2) - 5 (Thoret) - 6 (Guardian) - 7 (Boring is not an argument) - 8 (Lavallée) - 9 (Frieze) - 10 (James 2) - 11 (Romney)

17 comments:

Surrealist Cientist said...

This reminds me a recent conversation I've had with a college professor.
Long Story Short: I'm in a course called artistic studies, and we do study Cinema. We the students visited a production studio and met the persons behind the project. They're established and make movies with a certain regularity - and quality. The persons behind the project said to us that is impossible to make movies without compromising your artistic integrity at some level. I violently denied this view of Cinema. Although it is a reallity that the Cinema as Industry is somehow dominant, it sure doesn't mean that the Cultural Relevance of Cinema comes out of it. I think that the Cultural relevance of Cinema always comes from it's artistic singularities and the way it communicates with the World around us. This means that the filmmaker must be able to do his thing wihtout target audience X and Y in mind. To my surprise, this argumentation of mine was totally bashed by the guys from both the production company (no surprise here) and my universty teacher. Their argumentation was something like this: a) if you want to make movies as you want, without compromising your views, go make movies with your friends (and this was said in a total denotative way - I even mentioned Glauber Rocha and Cassavetes as examples of sublime-low-budget-anti-hollywood but got no feedback...) b) Cinema was always an industry, and even the idea of a Free Artist is very recent, so forth and so on.

So, if the ones with some kind of responsability in the field of cinema (respected magazines and college professors) don't really give a shit about cinema as art (or culture,) and only care about the financial outccome of things, what kind of future do we have?

HarryTuttle said...

Yeah I wholeheartedly agree with you there. It is depressing to see that even the creators themselves, the big players of the industry, the educators are thus disillusioned and populist.
I've learnt over the years that filmmakers are not necessarily the best spokespersons of cinema in general.

Besides, art cinema doesn't have to be distributed, to foster a large audience... these are concerns for the producers. An auteur makes a film for him/herself, because they believe in their vision. Like a painter with a canvas. If lots of people want to see it, and if it makes tons of money : all the better. But the end shouldn't compromise the means.

HarryTuttle said...

"Her genius, with her slow, steady, held frames, is to allow the viewer to dream the Fernsehturm; to enter it without hurry, without expectation, and to accept, as we do in a dream, a different experience of time, and a different relationship to everyday objects. [..] Time slows, then slips its loop altogether. The restaurant revolves, but we are outside of time - observers in space, with a weightlessness that contrasts to the solidity of what we are asked to observe.
I have watched people watching this film - one of her longest - and some walk away quickly, some lie down and have a snooze, some surrender themselves to the intensity of the experience. Others watch half of it, then complain bitterly in the cafe, because they waited and waited, and nothing happened. But climbing out of the nothing, like shy creatures, trodden-on and overlooked, is the curious life of objects freed from their everyday imprisonment. We understand that when Cézanne paints an apple, or Vermeer a milk jug, it is as though we had never seen these objects before.
On film, which has become the medium of action, contemplation is anathema. Yet when film allows a moment to unfold in real time, we realise that a moment is agonisingly long and that our perception of time is both subjective and approximate.
[..] She likes the beginning, middle and end that film allows, but far from reaching for a conventional narrative, she uses the time-line of the film to release her subject into its timeless state.[..]
'I do not think I am slowing down time, but I am demanding people's time,' she says. In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters is its ability to stop the rush. Art on film makes us conscious of the time and space we occupy, and give us an insight into the nature of time itself. [..]
The vividness of her images and the vibrancy of her soundscapes are a challenge to the desensitised, coarse world of normal experience, where bright lights, movement and noise cheat us into believing that something is happening. Tacita Dean's slow nothingness is far more rich and strange."

Jeanette Winterson (The Guardian) on Tacita Dean (read here)

abdallah said...

I have just seen the film that initiated that discussion at that sigh't and sound issue today , the Turkish film "Honey" that winner of this year's Berlin Golden Bear , I find the passage to be truly representative of what i concluded while seeing the film , I am avid fan of most of the films of Tarkovsky , Tarr , Ceylan ,etc... , but for example , when u have that loooooong marching scene in Werckmeister , u will have the stunning (both technically and emotionally ) hospital scene , the film "Honey " didn't offer any kind of emotional punch , it was just a series of admittedly painstakingly composed scenes , so I find the conformist tone of ur criticism to the thoughts of that magazine writer simply surprising and totally unjustified , because I really think that making a so called art-film nowadays has become so easily , just u have to master a bunch of techniques , OK u may make a well-composed film , but I think this is not "Narrative Cinema "

HarryTuttle said...

Defending contemplative cinema that doesn't beg the spectator to be entertained is more "conformist" than to long for the good old films that used to "reward" the spectator for his/her patience after a slow scene with a "punchy scene"?

In our era, doing "narrative cinema" is being conformist. Not the other way round. Did you read the discussion about "non-narrative cinema" (from 1978!!!) linked above? And the non-narrative cinema has evolved greatly since 1978.

Bal/Honey is a beautiful film that speaks with poetry, dreamwork, simple, evident lives, contact with Nature and contemplative scenery.

Wasn't the last sequence, the run in the forest, rewarding to you?

abdallah said...

Actually ,I was rather irritated of the mocking attitude of the very few ( 6 or 7 persons ) who was attending the screening with me ( a promotional DVD screening at Alexandria Film Fest. ) , I felt irritated not because I liked the film ( It actually didn't register for me ,which was a response I had for many so called "contemplative films " before , but I when I came to revisit them they proved to be much more rewarding than the 1st time , I don't feel that this will happen this time ) , so I felt less confident about my cinematic tastes , I imagined showing them a film by Tarr , Tarkovsky or "Uzak " for example , and they would have the same lackluster response :)

abdallah said...

Also , the seeming contempt for some cine-literate guys for even mainstream art films like "There will be blood " or David Fincher's work is of no use for the future of cinema I think ,I think that sometimes making some kind of restrictions imposed on the filmmaker in order not to indulge too much in his own inflated sense of his talents , even Doestoevsky has written some of his masterpieces under very restricting conditions ( u can search for the story of his writing of "crime and punishment "

HarryTuttle said...

Dostoyevsky had talent to begin with. Imposing restrictions on talent-less people will never give you great art... It's not the restriction itself that produces greatness. It's the artist him/herself, regardless for any restrictions imposed.

Do you think the reason Tarkovsky or Tarr are better than other lesser "slow films" is because they were formated/restricted by the mainstream narrative system? Their best films don't compromise and still achieve great art, even if it's strenuous on the audience sometimes... But it's not the audience's popular vote that decides what is the best art. Only history tells. And most of the time the audience that gets to watch it first gets it wrong because art is ahead of its time. Only later audience have the necessary distance to appreciate it.

Bal (Berlinale winner), Uncle Boonmee (Cannes winner), Nowhere (Venice winner) which are all low-key narratives, more poetical than plot-oriented are better films than any system-formated (so-called) indie films.

HarryTuttle said...

Jonathan Romney : "In recent issues of this magazine, Nick James has commented sceptically on the reverence accorded tto such cinema, and on the assumption - not uncommon on the festival circuit - that cinephilia is synonymous with a commitment to it. True, staking one's colours to austere cinema can allow critics to flaunt their aesthetic and moral seriousness. But it is also understandable why critics (myself included) seized eagerly on such films. In part, it is because the codes of commercial cinema have ossified, offering so much less scope for interpretative pleasure than, say, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when there was, at least, a genuine cultural-studies thrill to be found in responding to an energetic and rapidly changing mainstream."
Sight&Sound (Feb2010)

S.M. Stirling said...

The emperor has no clothes.

To begin with, if you make "art" solely for yourself, it ain't. Art, that is. It is to art as masturbation is to actual sex. It's narcissism and arrogance.

Art is a collaborative process between creator and audience; it's a conversation. To have a conversation, you must:

a) speak the same language, and
b) say something an audience finds interesting.

As long as the people making the films do so with no public money whatsoever, fine. It's a free universe. I see no reason why anyone should subsidize them, though. Sink or swim on your own.

HarryTuttle said...

Typical speech of a demagogue. I can tell you don't know much about "Art" if you think that the greatest artists in History have made their masterpieces to meet the current needs of their contemporary demographics.
Making good art isn't about ending up on the best-sellers list of commercial books, or the billboard chart of most popular songs...
Manet was rejected when he painted "Déjeuner sur l'herbe", Picasso with Cubism, Duchamp with his urinal, Thelonious Monk with his harmonies off the chart... You don't make aesthetic breakthrough by following the mainstream, by yielding to populist compromises!

Your conception of art is very narrow-minded, and consumerist.

HarryTuttle said...

Zach Campbell : "For I have also sat in on the contemplative films of authors I've loved, as with Tsai Ming-liang in Goodbye Dragon Inn, or Claire Denis with L'Intrus, and thought to myself: 'This doesn't seem rich, heady, risk-taking, or beautiful so much as it seems a bit stale, predictable, hitting only pre-approved notes.' I will go to the mat, anytime, for Tsai and Denis as terrific filmmakers; but if I am honest with myself & you there were also some of their films that seemed to be missteps precisely because they appeared to satisfy the conventions of a mold before anything else. This mold seemed to be the aesthetic/stylistic expression of a highly stratified structure of funding & distribution for an elite minority of audiences."
Elusive Lucidity; 18 June 2010

Liva said...

I don't know where the author of this blog comes from but just in case - does he know it is the editor of one of the most respectable film magazines in the Western world he is talking about? It is not "banter", but his vast experience in the industry he is drawing upon, smth the author of this post would never be able to achieve. And the never-ending protestant lament on "it's hos JOB" is simply ridiculous.

Shane Danielsen said...

Just happened upon this doctrinaire pronouncing-from-on-high ... heavens, I bet you're a laugh at dinner parties, mate. Though somehow, I rather suspect you're not invited to many ...

For what it's worth, I happen to agree with James - who never denied that some great works are born out of the very conditions you celebrate; but merely noted that the style has ossified into a cliche, and worse, a reflexive default for filmmakers lacking anything in particular to say.

But I would add: it's hard to take you even remotely seriously, Mr Tuttle, when you hide behind a pseudonym. Many of us think and write under our own names, and accept the burden of scrutiny and argument; we don't shelter like cowards behind an 'ironic' nom de plume. Until you do this, your opinion is worthless.

HarryTuttle said...

Appeal to authority (Fallacy)

HarryTuttle said...

"Critics are suspicious of a primarily, but not exclusively Hollywood-influenced popular cinema that seems committed to producing increasing numbers of films that prioritise both spectacle over substance, and high-speed violence without any ethical perspective of the consequences to the human body, in an attempt to make ever increasing amounts of money. According to this perspective, slow, contemplative cinematic speed has been critically elevated over pure sensation. Rushing excitement and adrenaline is seen as a negative experience which lacks meaning and artistic merit. [..]
If the criticisms directed at this style of filmmaking stem from the actual fast stream of images on television, the internet and in advertising, they are also a result of the recent cultural, critical and artistic speculative emphasis placed upon the use of slowness in creative endeavour: namely, its use in moving image work as a philosophical reaction to modernity‘s high-speed vacuity, as seen, for example, in the video art of Douglas Gordon and Tacita Dean, or in the films of Michael Haneke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This contemporary critical trend towards slowness recalls Walter Benjamin‘s much earlier revolt against the speed of modernity in ‗The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction‘. [..]
On the other hand, and as a reaction, avant-garde and art house cinema has become predominantly slow, with the apparent intention of allowing the spectator more time to seriously contemplate the image."
In Praise of Speed: The Value of Velocity in Contemporary Cinema (Lara Thompson; Dandelion; Spring 2011)

HarryTuttle said...

Nick James : "[..] In terms of time and contemplation maybe we're all losing something we'll end up missing in the long run."

Elegy for Analogue. Editorial (Sight and Sound; April 2012)