Fast Cuts, Slow Views
by Richard Herskowitz (Virginia Film Festival; 2004) [cache]
Early this summer, before the onslaught of summer blockbusters had completely destroyed his capacity to protest, Variety’s film critic Todd McCarthy described Stephen Sommers’ truly awful Van Helsing:
Packed with nothing but big scenes and breathlessly paced in a way that suggests panic at the idea the audience might get bored if things were slowed and toned down even for a moment…Sommers knows how to startle an audience—he’s big into suddenly dropping hideous faces into the frame from above—but never develops any sense of creepiness or dread because he won’t take the time to do so. (Variety, May 3, 2004)Less than a month later, another blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, seemed determined to raise the audience’s consciousness about global warming. However, the filmmakers clearly felt it was necessary to speed things up. Dan Schrag, a Harvard paleoclimatologist acknowledged that the facts of global warming as conveyed by his scientific colleagues in Senate testimony were relatively dull: “Getting people excited about something that happens over decades is difficult, so I understand why they shortened it to a couple of days. The consequences are going to be just as severe as the movie suggests, but it may be boring to watch.” The fact these blockbusters are frenetic is not surprising. Speed and cinema have always gone together, as evidenced by this 1915 quote from Vachel Lindsay: “The keywords of the stage are passion and character; of the photoplay, splendor and speed.” The chase scene, for example, was a key component of early cinema. Its best practitioners, like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, made their chase scenes address directly the experience of modernization and the accelerating speed of modern life. This is certainly true in the Lloyd film we’re screening, Speedy, which races the last horse drawn trolley in the city against the dark forces of the transit monopoly.
Cinema was one of the fast machines of modernity, like the railway journey, whose rapid panoramic views were often evoked and echoed in movie theaters. Movies gave audiences a thrill similar to that of the train and automobile, a sensation that Milan Kundera has described perfectly: “when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine…his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, non-material, pure speed, speed itself, ecstacy speed.” He believes we like this feeling our prosthetic mechanisms give us:
“Speed is the form of ecstacy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.”Fast forward, as we are wont to do, almost a century later, and the thrill ain’t gone. Since the eighties, in fact, there has been a notable speed-up in cinematic pacing, and many believe that the instigator was MTV. The station’s editors took advantage of the emergence of the “Avid” and digital editing to give the station “a helter-kelter style of quick video bursts.” U.Va. alumnus Mark Pellington worked on the MTV show Buzz in 1990 with editors who were “just punching images into the machines, to see how fast we could get them to go.”
During the same decade, digital editing equipment began making it easier for Hollywood filmmakers to “give the screen energy” by speeding up the cuts, piling on extra shots, and so keep up with MTV. Some observers actually began counting average shot length, and noticed that the duration of shots in contemporary Hollywood films was considerably less than in the classic period:
“Where it lasted 7.85 seconds in Spartacus, it was only 3.36 seconds long in Gladiator, 8.72 seconds in The Fall of the Roman Empire and 2.07 seconds in Armageddon” (Michel Ciment, “The State of Cinema”).Critics began to notice and complain:
“Closeups predominate, because they play well on television….Contemplative long shots and a smooth, methodical pace have largely disappeared, as filmmakers worry that moviegoers will grow restless. Action has become confused with movement” (Scott Eyman, “The U.S. Screen Scene”).It may be satisfying, but it’s not fair to pin the blame on MTV. There is obviously a cultural context that has spurred the recent rise of fast food, instant messaging, video games, and sound bites. Audiences prefer the hair trigger reaction to the reflective response. Kundera bemoans this in Slowness (a short book that is—and this is a compliment—not a quick read). He believes we’re collectively trying to avoid reflecting and remembering: “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.” He asks: “Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear?” Once upon a time, Kundera claims, indolence didn’t mean boredom and the lack of activity; an old Czech proverb admired the happy indolent who were “gazing at God’s windows.”
Kundera is joined by other cultural renegades who resist the cultural maelstrom and the impatience of modern life. One of these heroes, whom our Festival is welcoming to Charlottesville, is a man named “Speed” Levitch. From New York City tour buses, he encourages people to meditate deeply, and join the higher Cruise. When the bus stalls in traffic, he reassures: “Congestion is the city-teacher’s method of inflicting patience on a population addicted to impatience.” His first precept in Speedology is: “The fastest way to adventure is to stand still.” Are you bored? “Boredom is the continuous state of not noticing that the unexpected is constantly arriving while the anticipated is never showing up. Boredom is anti-Cruise propaganda. Cruising is an act, the realization that standing still is exalting.”
Milan Kundera and “Speed” Levitch have many comrades in the cinema world, making movies that resist movement, and we are featuring them in this year’s festival as exemplars of what Michel Ciment calls ”the cinema of contemplation.”
Facing this lack of patience and themselves made impatient by the bombardment of sound and image to which they are submitted as TV or cinema spectators, a number of directors have reacted by creating a cinema of slowness, of contemplation, as if they wanted to live again the sensuous experience of a moment revealed in its authenticity. Angelopoulos in Greece, Nuril Bilge Ceylan in Turkey, de Oliveira and Monteiro in Portugal, Bela Tarr in Hungary, Abbas Kiarostami in Iran, Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taiwan, Philippe Garrel and Bruno Dumont in France, Souleyman Cisse and Idrissa Ouedraogo in Africa, Sharunas Bartas in the Baltic state, Aleksandr Sokurov in Russia, and several directors in Central Asia have been proponents in recent years of a resistence to the fetishism of technology. (Michel Ciment ,The State of Cinema)
The contemporary directors Ciment cites (all worth tracking down, and you can get off to a glorious start with Ceylan’s Distant in our festival) have significant predecessors: Antonioni, Ozu, Bresson, Kubrick, Rohmer, Malick… These slow-teurs have suffered some abuse for telling uneventful stories. Remember how some critics dubbed Antonioni’s leisurely films about alienated characters and their environments “Antoniennui?” How Gene Hackman in Night Moves passed on an invitation to watch an Eric Rohmer film by comparing it to “watching paint dry?” In response, I’ll quote Robert Bresson: “Condemned are the films the slowness and the silence of which are mistaken by the slowness and the silence of the audience in the cinema.” The action of contemplative cinema is latent in the mind of the viewer who becomes, in our featured guest Paul Schrader’s words, “an active participant in the creative process.” Schrader’s influential book Transcendental Style in Film, on Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, noted that the paring down of action and performance and spectacle liberates the viewer to soar imaginatively and spiritually.
The contemplative style is not limited to the realm of the less-than-popular art film. Last year, Peter Biskind marveled that Lost in Translation, with little plotting and an inconclusive ending, somehow was made and widely seen: “I really felt like I was back in the 1970s…The shots were held longer, like in the ‘70s. It wasn’t bam bam bam. I could watch a medium shot of Bill Murray standing in an elevator full of Japanese businessmen for about ten minutes.” And David Chase marveled, in The New York Times, at how successful he was making a TV show, The Sopranos, that was, just like HBO claims, not TV.
Television is a prisoner of dialogue and steady-cam. People walk down a hall, and the camera follows them around a corner. It looks like they’re off to some important thing because they’re walking 15 miles an hour and they’re talking and handing papers off. It’s the modern style….I prefer sitting in the therapy office for a 12-minute scene…I wanted the audience to have to figure out what was important, to actually do the same work that Dr. Melfi was doing….I think there should be dreams and music and dead air and stuff that goes nowhere. There should be, God forgive me, a little bit of poetry…. (New York Times, 2-29-04)
Meanwhile, one of Michel Ciment’s contemplative directors, Bruno Dumont, has been trying to get financing for a murder mystery called The End, to be shot in L.A. with major stars. He told the Village Voice: "Humanité is very slow, and now I want to make a film that's fast—there's as much power in speed as there is in slowness.” He believes his fast film will permit contemplation: “The interior of a film can stay very austere, but have the appearance of a Hollywood film." I’d like to go further and argue that one can and should watch any fast film slowly… the mind can speed faster than the film (sort of like bullet time) and examine and explore instead of simply gape. This year’s Festival, then, offers both fast (Bullitt, The Great Escape, Faster, Speed) and slow films for your contemplation. So hurry up and order tickets. Then take your time.