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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Wasted time (Romney)

Jonathan Romney (S&S, Feb 2010) : "In recent issues of this magazine, Nick James has commented sceptically on the reverence accorded to 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."
Last year, Sight and Sound surveyed the unfinished first decade  of the XXIst century, and concluded that there were too many "slowish films" on their top30... Instead of embracing this inevitable fact, they decided to lament and blame filmmakers for failing to entertain them enough. That was the brightest idea they could come up with. I amply commented the boredom of a certain caste of film critics whose weak attention-span dictates what is art and what is not. (see here)

But what started all this was really Jonathan Romney's article in the same issue : "In search of lost time" (Sight and Sound, Feb 2010), which I had indirectly commented in my review of Matthew Flanagan's "The Aesthetics of Slow" on the similar binary opposition of "slower cinema" with "mainstream Hollywood"...

Jonathan Romney (S&S, Feb 2010): "If you wanted to lampoon a certain school of slow, ruminative cinema, one shot in particular would suffice. It's from Albert Serra's El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong, 2008): an eight-minute single take of a desert plain. Three men stagger laboriously into the distance, disappearing over the crest of the horizon. The camera holds on the dunes for a while, before the three - and don't say you can't see this coming - reappear and start traipsing back. If you aren't of an inclination to take this type of film seriously, you may well split your sides."
In 2000, Jonathan Romney declared his love for the "slow, oblique existential film" (Are you sitting comfortably?, The Guardian, 7 Oct 2000) : "The work of these rare, rejected but vital castaway directors can't easily be defined in terms of where it comes from, how it is made, or even how slow it is"... That was before 2001, right. And in 2010 he says :
Jonathan Romney (S&S, Feb 2010) : "Apart from filling the gap left by philosophical-poetic auteurs such as Bergman and Tarkovsky, the current Slow Cinema might be seen as a response to a bruisingly pragmatic decade in which, post-9/11, the oppressive everyday awareness of life as overwhelmingly political, economics and ecological would seem to preclude (in the West, at least) any spiritual dimension in art."
Magically, because of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, he forgot everything he had written until then, and figures that 9/11 is now THE cause of all these cultural changes (that existed before 2000!) What a load of bollocks. Deseperately trying to make their presumptions sound remotely tied to political actualities, they come up with extravagant, far-fetched, half-baked conclusions, and stuff their readers' head with it. A job well done indeed. Everyone jumps on the same pseudo-political bandwagon because in today's global world, EVERYTHING must be linked one way or another to either Hollywood or 9/11... It's not even funny (in a cynical way) at this point.

He talked in 2000 about the very same trend, the same form, the same filmmakers (Tarr, Tsai, Hong, Kelemen, Sokurov, Costa, Monteiro, Dumont, Bartas), with the same clichés about slowness : "painstakingly slow European art cinema", "Tarr's characteristic slow, analytically prowling shots", "severe to a fault", "muted, enigmatic miniature", "these poetic and exceptionally mysterious pieces are closer to art video than narrative cinema".

In 2010, 10 years later, he still uses the same hollow, pejorative shorthands to describe this unfathomable slowness : "lost time", "Slow cinema", "ruminative cinema", "laboriously", "nebulous vein", "austere minimalist cinema", "near-absolute narrative opacity", "parodic echo of Bressonian solemnity"... that's how impertinent the support for these films is articulated in the film press. They don't know what it is, where it comes from, where it's heading to, how to talk about it... and still they are so bored they want to move on already, and forget about this infamous "school of slow". Film Culture used to shine brighter than that! Why would filmmakers want to create progressive film form when film criticism is so superficial?

Jonathan Romney (S&S, Feb 2010) : "'Slow Cinema' has been embraced by critics and festivals the world over. [..] The last decade certainly saw an increasing demand among cinephiles for films that are slow, poetic, contemplative - cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality. Such films highlight the viewing process itself as a real-time experience in which, ideally, you become acutely aware of every minute, every second spent watching." 
What is going on here? First he blames the spectators for tipping the supply-demand balance, as if auteurs started to make more fashionable films to benefit from a growing "fad"... I don't think that there are such commercial potentials within the art-cinema niche. I don't think that festivals pick films just because that's the type that pleased their audience the previous year... Don't transpose an industrial model that belongs to Hollywood executives onto the art-film "circuit". In fact, it's quite the opposite : major festivals strive to uncover the talents of tomorrow.
Secondly, any amount of success that we could witness within the festival world or the art-house circuit will never give these films the power to influence the mainstream zeitgeist. When you talk about an art-cinema trend, or an art-cinema success, it is not comparable to what happens in commercial cinema, and its repercutions on the cultural landscape. Why would you find suspect the minor prosperity of an art-film trend? Don't worry so much, it is not going to threaten your taste for spectacle...

Look what he says further down :
"Yet Tarr's films, with their elaborate camera play and moments of apocalyptic action, look like big-time spectacle compared to other recent work [i.e. Lisandro Alonso]. [..] Surely we watch, say, Sokurov's Russian Ark (slow Cinema's most spectacular novelty hit) in order to escape the oppressive everyday - the same reason we turn to Casablanca and Mamma Mia!"
WTF? He feels compelled to compare Tarr to "big spectacle" and "action" (entertainment). Classic Hollywood and Broadway! I already noted this entertainment-centered mentality in my commentary of this whole "boredom" debacle of 2010. Do we really need film critics with the vocabulary of the "Image-Action" to review our "Image-Temps"? Deleuze explicated this over 20 years ago! Get on with the time! Update your uptight mental models! Please, don't talk about "contemplative cinema" with your entertainment rhetoric.

Jonathan Romney (S&S, Feb 2010) : "Surely we watch, say, Sokurov's Russian Ark (slow Cinema's most spectacular novelty hit) in order to escape the oppressive everyday - the same reason we turn to Casablanca and Mamma Mia! Art cinema, even at its loftiest, simply offers a different (not necessarily nobler) form of escape. We understandably thirst for abstraction at a time when immediacy and simultaneity - culminating in the multiple-strand captioning of television news screens, or the instant feedback of Twitter - are tyrannical demands, forcing our aesthetic sensibility to seek ways of slowing itself down. [..] Slow Cinema [..] can also cut to the quick."
Again... the only way a film critic could find to explain art-cinema to its stupid readers is to compare it to the escapism familiar to Entertainment. Really? Do you still need to find escapism in a Global World that brings every corner of the planet to your living room, every extreme sport, every sensationalist leasure to your videogame console. So the only purpose of Art is to provide distraction, just like entertainment? You really don't have a high opinion of art... Culture is there to broaden our mental horizon, to access enlightment... If you only care to fight off your own miserable boredom, don't expect Art to provides answers to this narcissistic problem.

Let's hope 2011 will bring better judgment, better memory and better writing on non-action-driven cinema... because if "festival films" are "slow", film criticism is even slower!

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)


JeanRZEJ said...

'Let's hope 2011 will bring better judgment, better memory and better writing on non-action-driven cinema... because if "festival films" are "slow", film criticism is even slower!'

Here I was thinking that you were developing a theory that 9/11 was the event that killed thoughtful film criticism. You were making a case that those critics would be jealous of - one with a wealth of evidence. Specious evidence, sure, but if specious evidence were the standard we held the authors cited to then they would come up woefully short. Let this be a lesson to them, then: They're going to have to try harder to pull the wool over your eyes. They'll try thicker wool, no doubt. Shame.

Fun read, though! Hypocrisy makes for the most pungent stink.

HarryTuttle said...

No need to turn simple negligence into a deliberate conspiracy to hide the truth. It wasn't my point.

HarryTuttle said...

Nick James (Signt and Sound, Nov 2009) : "[..] But what concerns me most about the purism of On Film Festivals is its use of the word cinephilia, as if it were a religion of shared belief. The same directorial deities come up : Lisandro Alonso, Béla Tarr, Pedro Costa, Bruno Dumont, Apichatpong Weerasethakul - great directors all, but all also unified by a post-Tarkovskian idea of poetic cinema that currently holds sway. The reverence with which much of this cinema is regarded is for me too often uncriticial - though that's not a view shared by everyone at Sight and Sound. For myself, I'm too susceptible to glamour, fun and humour to be so constantly worshipful. In any case, cinephilia is not a unified belief system but a series of subjective, overlapping, shifting, individual canons held together by advocacy and debate."