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Friday, August 12, 2011

The Post-Tarkovskian bandwagon (Pigott)

Excerpt from a thesis by Michael Pigott: "Time and Film Style" (University of Warwick, Department of Film and Television Studies; June 2009) [PDF] :
Slow Cinema
While one of the central goals of this thesis was to show that temporal stylisation occurs across a range of film styles, a distinction may still be made between the kind of cinema that uses time as an equal or lesser element within a formal framework and those that actively foreground the temporality of the moving image as an aesthetic principle, a mode of enquiry and expression. I have stayed largely away from contemporary arthouse cinema,

  • FOOTNOTE: This was partly in an effort to maintain a sense of comparability between categories. To embark upon a discussion of a whole sub-genre within the Long Take category would be to unbalance the structure of the whole thesis. Also, my method throughout has been to analyse key examples and limit cases that demonstrate the major characteristics of a particular category’s temporal stylistics. While this loose genre contains a wide range of uses of the long take (and would provide a rich source for the study of long takes already mentioned) it is rooted in the mode of the Tarkovskian/Akermanian long take. 

of which one particular trend (stretching from at least the early nineties into the present) has particular significance in this respect. This ‘wave’ has come to be known as ‘contemplative cinema.’ While geographically dispersed these films share certain distinct formal characteristics, such as a preponderance of long takes, tracking shots following characters through streets or halls, along plains or beaches, and a slow (sometimes seemingly non-existent) development of plot within these long sequences. The progenitors of, and main influences on, this wave are Tarkovsky, Akerman, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker (though it is Tarkovsky who is most often cited). Contemporary directors working in this vein include Hou Hsiao-hsien,Tsai Ming-liang, Alexandr Sokurov, Gus Van Sant, Jose Luis Guerin, and Béla Tarr.
This area is still under-served in terms of concentrated critical analysis, though such a project is currently being undertaken by Matthew Flanagan, his opening gambit arriving in “Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema,”

  • FOOTNOTE: Matthew Flanagan, ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemprary Cinema,’ in 16:9 no. 29, November 2008. Available at http://www.16-9.dk/2008-11/side11_inenglish.htm

as well as by the editors and contributors of the recently established journal Unspoken. Much of this work discusses time predominantly in terms of speed. The ‘slowness’ of these films and their focal sequences is often what seems to define them for audiences, attracting some and putting off many others. And most of the scholarly work done on them has engaged with this idea, examining the aesthetic effects of this slowing down. This study differs somewhat in that speed has not been the primary optic through which time is considered. To accurately describe cinematic time in terms of qualities has been my aim throughout. Speed was just one parameter within a matrix of qualities available to invoke. Throughout there has been an effort to produce a description of the texture of time, the sensuous surface of its image, and the tonal density of its flow. This has allowed me to look with equal interest at films that are not characterised by their slowness or fastness, those that risk being ignored by discussions of cinematic time precisely because of their seeming ordinariness.

Does this remind you of the Post-Tarkovskian bandwagon?
Nick James (Sight 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."
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."
See my previous commentary of these topoi (Slower or Contemplative?) and (Slowish obsession, ter).

The most recent "slow films" Michael Pigott uses as evidence for his theory on "time" are Caché (from 2005), Russian Ark and Irreversible (from 2002). The other recent ones are cited under the speed montage category. However the bulk of his material largely belongs to an anterior era altogether, aesthetically speaking. Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bresson, Altman came before CCC and are obviously a much milder form of minimalism (See this 2007 Tentative Genealogy for historiographical issues), let alone all the examples from the Classic era.
I'm definitely against the oversimplification of "slowness" in cinema history, lumping everything together, Silent Cinema, Classic Cinema, Modern Cinema, Avant Garde, Post Modern Cinema... They might be slow, each in their own way, but the fact they emerged during a very distinct aesthetic period is enough to realize that they deal with the problematics of time in very different ways, and for very different results. Seeing one single homogenous slowness is a superficial mistake. Just like thinking that "time" is an element (re)discovered by Modern Cinema (because they are slower than traditional narrative), and that Mainstream cinema doesn't play with "time" (because they are not "slow"). Somehow the idea of "time" only interests academics when related to "long takes" or "slowness"... The long take is the grand unifier of all styles across half a dozen eras since the end of Silent Cinema, as if a painting critic would use paintbrushes to lump together Renaissance, Baroque, Pointillisme, Impressionism and Cubism. Yes all these painters use brushstrokes, but their singular technique results in very different styles and in unmistakable successive aesthetic periods (thus the different names)! 

Get over it. The long take is a basic film language tool, it doesn't define in itself a predetermined style. And the long take is not the only thing Bazin wanted to see develop in cinema (in very specific circumstances).

As for pairing up Tarkovsky and Akerman (and I'm not even referring to her mainstream musicals), as if they produced a comparable style... There are evident structural and qualitative similarities between Jeanne Dielman's long takes and what Béla Tarr (not his early work) does with it, or between Gus Van Sant's Death Trilogy (not the rest of his filmography) and Béla Tarr's later work. But there is a stylistic leap between Tarkovsky's aesthetic generation (Bergman, Garrel, Jancso, Kubrick, Angelopoulos, Wenders) and the later conformation of a (non-verbalised) long take (a couple of Akerman's, Tarr, Bartas, Alonso) which functions on other stylistic devices. When you only care for mainstream plotlines and classic montage, I understand that glancing at Tarkovsky and Akerman from the distance they might look alike, or at least similarly distinct from the traditional Hollywood norm. But if you watch the films carefully enough, you'd realize that if you take away the dialogue from the Tarkovsky generation, the films do not collapse, but the content of the filmic message is obviously amputated of a significant portion, a portion that the images cannot replace because they are not redundant of the spoken message. Not hearing Jeanne Dielman's outloud letter doesn't deprive the spectator of an irreplaceable information, because the spoken words do not provide a foundamental structure to the  story we are expected to pick up on. 
Deleuze divided film history into a very simple binary : Movement / Time. But he never said that all filmmakers of the Image-Temps were equivalent, in fact he refines the subcategories that developped under these two very broad and Manichean umbrella terms.


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