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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bored in Malaysia too

Slow century
Aidil Rusli, The Malaysian Insider. August 14, 2010

AUG 14 — The history of film is now more than 100 years old. That sounds like a big number but compared to other art forms like painting and music, movies are still very young indeed. It’s been absolutely miraculous to witness the many forms and styles of image-making that have been in existence so far.

My personal favourite genre has always been the Hollywood screwball comedies from the 1940s. Particularly great are the astonishing eight films in four years made by Preston Sturges at Paramount and various other gems like “The Awful Truth” by Leo McCarey and “It Happened One Night” by Frank Capra.

The highly polished and subtle film-making style of Ernst Lubitsch and Powell & Pressburger is also another personal favourite of mine. And judging by these personal choices it’s fairly obvious that I highly value storytelling skills, and visuals that support the storytelling instead of just being there to show off one’s skill with a camera.

While dialogue and strong plotting are undoubtedly important elements in telling most stories, in some cases what you need can just be the barest of plots and a whole lot of feeling. Sometimes you don’t even need dialogue and yet you can convey the deepest of emotions in a way that words can never seem to do. In short, what can be done with words and be turned into poetry can also be applied to movies.

But, as impenetrable as poems can be in the medium of the written word, movie poetry can also leave a lot of us cinema-goers baffled and maybe even bored with their “slowness”. I’m guessing that most people use the word slow to describe these movies precisely because nothing much seems to be happening in them in terms of plot. And when “nothing much” happens in the course of two hours, it will seem unbearably slow.

Although slow, poetic movies have been around even during the era of silent movies (Carl Theodor Dreyer’s transcendent and majestic “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is one prime example), it’s only in the last 10 years or so that it has really come into its own as a viable genre in the film world.

While earlier on there were always a small number of slow, poetic and contemplative movies being made every few years by internationally respected European auteurs like Robert Bresson, Theo Angelopolous and Bela Tarr, the last 10 years have seen a dramatic rise of similarly slow films being made by newcomers from all across the globe, from Argentina to Spain to Turkey to Taiwan to Thailand and even Malaysia. Film critics have even coined the phrase “slow cinema” to describe it.

I must admit that slow cinema is a truly hit-and-miss genre for me. For every slow film that I’ve fallen in love with (like “The Taste of Cherry” and “Through The Olive Trees” by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami), there’s also very likely a similar number of movies from the same filmmaker that I do not even want to go near. Take Kiarostami’s “Five”, which is basically five long shots of nature being called a feature film, or his recent “Shirin”, in which we watch the faces of various women watching a movie in a cinema, for the whole damn movie.

Maybe it’s just the non-arty average Joe in me, but sometimes you can get a bit too arty and disappear up your own backside when it comes to making art.

Some films (like “L’Humanité” by Bruno Dumont) became unintentionally funny because of how seriously it takes itself and how extremely morose the lives of the characters are. And some of the exercises in the “poetic gaze” in recent films like Albert Serra’s “Birdsong” (in which the characters silently walk towards the horizon, disappear and then walk back towards the camera, all in one long uninterrupted take) and our very own “Karaoke” by Chris Chong (in which the characters also walk from one end of a beach from deep inside the right side of the frame right till they go outside of the left of the frame in one long uninterrupted take) can also elicit cynical or ironic laughter from the audience, especially those already expecting these slow cinema cliches to happen.

Yet it is totally understandable how some people cannot resist a laugh or two at slow cinema’s expense. Advocates usually argue that the enjoyment comes from our immersion in the movies’ moments, with our awareness and sense of time heightened by the intentionally slow and unhurried pace. It’s almost like real life, they say. And to which some people might want to reply that if they want to live real life, they don’t need to watch a movie to do so and can just go live it, which is a very fair point to make.

Married to the right stories though (no matter how slight), the by-now well explored techniques (or clichés) of slow cinema such as repetition of motifs, the long slow gaze of the camera and characters in proximity yet utterly failing to communicate with each other (usually two or three people sitting silently at a table, puffing away, for what seems to be an unbearably long time) can still feel surprisingly fresh and exciting.

It’s when these clichés can produce something as magical as the quite recent Australian movie “Samson and Delilah” (in which the title characters don’t even speak to each other throughout the whole movie) or something as majestic as the relatively recent three-hour-long slum poem “Colossal Youth” from Portugal that all the patience needed to enjoy them does suddenly seem very worth the trouble indeed.

It’s when things like these happen that we’re reminded of why some of us keep on coming back to the magic of the movies, even slow ones.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


HarryTuttle said...

I like the disclaimer at the end of the article, added by the editor, to avoid the mainstream spirit of the newspaper to be conflated with an elegy of boredom. Certainly to praise Through the Olive Trees and to dismiss Shirin is a bold move that the mainstream readership isn't prepared to face...

Anyway, apparently agreeing with S&S's lame "slow cinema" label is more popular than to find greatness in Five or Shirin like we do here at Unspoken Cinema. It really means they just enjoy mere slowness, and are refractory to actual contemplation.

It's a step up for the mainstream sector, good thing in itself, but it's a uphill battle for CCC, to enlighten the specialized press with a new paradigm.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Hi Harry, Do you think Shirin counts as CCC (I think it does)? If so, I can post the review...


HarryTuttle said...

Of course. Even the melodrama dialogue is off-screen, so it counts more as an ambiant sound, like if someone keep a TV on in the background in a film.

Yvette Biro posted an article on Shirin already, so you can add yours too.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Oh yes, totally forgot that superb article. Will post soon. Thanks.