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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Slow Cinema Discussion at ToBe(Cont'd) 2014

Slow Cinema
by Zachary Lewis and Michael Sicinski

Zach is a Mississippi-based, New-York-bound freelance film writer. He has been a guest on Mousterpiece Cinema and Almost Arthouse, and he has written for Sound On Sight and In Review Online. Michael is a writer and teacher based in Houston, Texas. He has written for Cinema Scope, Cineaste, Cargo, Mubi and Fandor. He also maintains a film review website, The Academic Hack.

This exchange was originally published in August 2014 by the online magazine TO BE (CONT'D).
Thank you to Peter Labuza (founder of To Be (Cont'd)), and the authors Zachary Lewis and Michael Sicinski for giving their permission to re-post this content.

Part OneWhat Do We Mean by Slow?


When my love for cinema began, I skipped filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, and classic Hollywood in general, in favor of the austere arthouse flair of Béla Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Manuel de Oliveira, and Chantal Akerman. At the time, it was easier for me to  see film as a serious artform if it was a black-and-white foreign import. And the slower the better. Compared with the fast-paced, soulless commercial products flooding theaters, the hint of punk philosophy in these stripped-down films appealed to me. I lapped up any and everything labeled “slow.”
My flirtation with slowness has continued, but, like all relationships, it’s more complicated now. I’ve cheated on it with rapid-pace action films and the mainstream canon I avoided earlier, and I’ve learned that slowness isn’t inherently good. And yet I'm consistently drawn back to the first ten minutes of Werckmeister Harmonies, a single shot that embodies what makes a director like Tarr so special. Jànos, the protagonist, finds himself in a sullen bar amidst a crowd of drunks and, for no immediately understandable reason, spins them around one another to make a working model of the solar system. When music is combined with the spinning bar patrons, the drunken elementary science lesson becomes an alluring ballet. In this one shot, Tarr encompasses his thematic strengths, a perfect mixture of mundanity and profundity, Mihály Vig's haunting score slowly sucking out any hope for these townspeople. Tarr works with dynamic shots and bombastic scores, but his extended scenes and careful camera movements allow the frame to occupy an existence closer to a doomed moving painting. I was awestruck when I first saw this, and I sometimes look for it on YouTube in a vain attempt to recreate my first moments with slow cinema.
But slow cinema is a young term without a history of rigorous study. How should we talk about it, and where is it’s starting point? We could begin with the heightened slowness of Ozu and Mizoguchi in 1930s Japan, likely influenced by the pace of kabuki and Noh theatre. We could also mention the religious atmosphere in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, who saw such a strength in slowness that he named his book on cinema Sculpting in TimeOr we could investigate the introduction of slowness into the mainstream through the political independent works of Jim Jarmusch in the 1980s.
The potential problem with any of these points lies in the actual term itself: What are we talking about when we talk about slowness? Consistent elements include: long, static shots with little to no narrative or dialogue, and a predilection for mundanity. But if we wish to outline the first sort of history, do we merely test for these components? Should we measure the films of Méliès and Lumiére for stillness (since, despite lengthy static shots, their frames are usually filled with action)? Do we include films like Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andrewhich is visually static and has little action but also contains rapid-pace dialogue? To construct a history, we must separate what we mean by “slow cinema” from films that just happen to be slow in a few respects, lest we create a gray area even larger than film noir studies. This is an odd mission as we’re now concerned with something beyond “slow”, the sole distinguishing factor of “slow cinema”.
If you read a detailed piece on Tarr, Hou, or Benning, you’ll likely find a discussion about how well the artist “uses” time in his films. You can “feel” it pass by. It can “punish” the audience into a state of existential dread. It’s also more “real”. We’ve invented this language to remark upon the creative ways artists can utilize space and time. For instance, when Stanley Kubrick adapted A Clockwork Orange for the screen, he did so within the shadow of Andy Warhol’s own conceptualization of the Burgess novel Vinyl. Where Kubrick fancied narration, standard editing, and a relatively quick pace, Vinyl contains lengthy static shots that make time more obviously present. Audience members may check their watches out of either frustration or curiosity: how long can a single take of improvisational muttering last? Meanwhile, Kubrick grounds his film in a subversive narrative as we follow Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in his crime-filled journey through a dystopian Britain. It has a set beginning, middle, and end, and a well-defined character for audiences to fix their attention on; concerns of time rarely come up. However, Warhol’s vision strips the production down to a minimalist, proto-slow state. It’s no stretch to say that his other projects, including the epic-length Empire and Sleep, which are purposefully slow and “boring” (as a descriptive, not qualitative statement), would pave the way for the how we view and categorize slow movies today.
Of course, this simplification taken to its extreme leads to the kind of highbrow/lowbrow divide that has long dominated the discussion of slow cinema. There’s a common understanding about what’s being talked about here, a sort of “you’ll know it when you see it” mentality regarding what this slow cinema might be, with a certain amount of posturing on both sides of the divide. For instance, you could equally argue that Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn conveys a strong sense of mysterious alienation or that it simply caves to recent festival circuit tricks to win over critics who wish to appear smart. What’s much harder is extending that reasoning to nearly every film by Lisandro Alonso, Sharunas Bartas, Chantal Akerman, Liu Jiayin, Béla Tarr, James Benning, Lav Diaz, Wang Bing, Yasujiro Ozu, and Sharon Lockhart–auteurs whose work varies tremendously in both ambition and execution. Indeed, dismissing or venerating slow cinema sets off a personal alarm, perhaps because I’m so unsure about my own position regarding what we might be talking about.
I commend Harry Tuttle, a long-time Contemporary Contemplative Cinema (CCC) promoter for setting up the first steps toward a definition. His criteria of plotlessness, wordlessness, (visual) slowness, and alienation fit right in with the ennui of Gus Van Sant's Elephanta plodding tale of troubled boys versus society that reflects the events of the Columbine High School shooting. The action sequences are purposefully unsexy, the boys are certainly alienated from their peers, and any sort of driving narrative is trimmed in favor of brief character profiles. However, even Tuttle's measures for slowness or contemplation are not ironclad–what of the political voiceovers in James Benning's projects, or the narrative-driven features of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, or the visual uniting of Russian history, a step away from alienation, from Alexander Sokurov's single-shot Russian Ark?

Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre
There have been several other formidable attempts to break slow cinema’s guise, but little thought has been given to what sort of classification “slow cinema” entails. It’s an important detail, as a genre with its own well-established tropes carries more weight than a word that is used to simply note similarities between Hou and Ozu. Therefore, I’d like to submit a “noir test”: if the terminal definition of slow cinema is less complicated and inclusive than film noir, we might as well consider it a genre. Film noir has a notoriously nebulous and inclusive classification for films that takes away surface similarities of gumshoeing and femme fatales in favor of intense lighting (as in Anthony Mann’s The Black Book) or existential properties (Blade Runner and other spiritual successors of the genre, or neo-noir). By comparison, movies can be slow without falling into the “slow cinema” category (as in the previous example of My Dinner with Andre), just as a film could be considered a part of “slow cinema” without being slow–Tarr’s dynamic shots and overbearing scores seem much less “slow” than Alonso’s static takes and diegetic sound). We consider noir a genre, but slow cinema something less. Perhaps noir just has more academic and historical backing, or perhaps slow cinema really is even harder to rigorously pin down.
What do you think, Michael? Is investigating a singular definition of slow cinema worthwhile, or would this be like combining and comparing all films in 16:9 ratio, or with a warm color scheme? Should we be invoking it to link Akerman to Diaz to Tsai as much as we do today? And perhaps most importantly: what the hell is it?


Part Two
A Networked Approach to World Cinema

When critics or viewers make a comment like “that Bolivian film was slow,” or “wow, that debut feature from Georgia was a tough sit,” there’s a tacit understanding about what's meant. The “slow cinema” idea is shorthand, but is it a genuine formal description? Does it speak to actual ways of making and viewing films, and does it allow us to find real parallels and homologies? I’m actually not sure, but I do think it pertains to a new way that we receive films. They can now be seen as examples of a wider-ranging cinematic culture, wherein cultural and historical specifics remain important but are not the last word in understanding what a film is.
One of the reasons that “slow cinema” has gained traction as a sort of critical shibboleth (if not an actual formal category or proto-genre) is that it helps us organize groups of artist-driven films from around the world without relying on the boundaries of national cinemas. For years if we needed to think beyond the strictures of the auteur, time period, or some other more basic category, national divisions (“French film” vs. “Brazilian,” “Irish,” etc.) seemed like the most logical way to construct groupings. This focus on national cinemas, as a kind of dialectical byproduct, allowed us to perceive a number of local, specific counter-cinemas (e.g., New German Cinema, Cinema Novo). We could understand the resistance of Wenders and Fassbinder, Rocha and dos Santos, because their work could be compared with both the earlier output from their own national cinemas, and the dominant Hollywood model.
But globalization and neoliberalism changed this, and not only with massive shifts in funding and distribution (e.g., your average Ken Loach film, paid for with monies from four or five different countries). The relative ease of digital communication means that artists and filmmakers across the globe have more contact, and so virtual communities, based on shared aesthetic and political concerns, become just as important as local, face-to-face relationships (the “hot new scene” model: Tehran, Seoul, Istanbul, Recife, etc.) At the risk of sounding like the kind of techno-utopian that I decidedly am not, we are living in a networked world, and this changes how artists think and produce.
But while local cinema communities continue to exist, thinking that filmmakers' primary influences (or the major targets in their sights) would be their own national cinema and/or Hollywood isn’t as logical an assumption to make any longer. To take one current example: the directors of the Berlin School (Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanelec, Maren Ade, Christoph Hochhäusler, Ulrich Köhler, Valeska Grisebach, et al.) draw inspiration from the New German Cinema. But they cite influences as diverse as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Olivier Assayas, Hong Sang-soo, and Lav Diaz.
What has come from this networked approach to world cinema is a recognition that there are various artists around the world who are interested in long takes, tracking shots, medium-long and long shots, staging action within master shots, and a kind of neo-Bazinian commitment to maintaining the temporal and spatial integrity of what’s in front of the camera. (As Bazin wrote of Jean Renoir, we could say that they display an urge “to reveal the hidden meaning of beings and things without breaking up their natural unity.”) Sometimes, but not always, this tendency is wedded to an interest in what would generally be considered mundane or “boring” activity, a minimalism of action. This is not always the case, though. Chantal Akerman is pretty different from Miklos Jancso. Akerman’s use of duration in Jeanne Dielman or je,tu, il, elle draws upon the mundane–peeling potatoes or obsessively eating sugar from a bag–to heighten our attention on minuscule actions. (Given that more “important” events happen later in both films, we could certainly say that Akerman employs the mundane as a tool for contrast.) But the long, winding takes in Jancso’s The Round-Up or The Red and the White are bursting with action from the get-go. They send us gliding through fields and forests as important activities engulf us, Jancso trying to slowly sweep us up into the disorientation of the historical present.

Miklós Jancsó's The Red And The White
Despite these differences, we can nevertheless observe a set of shared interests between Akerman and Jancso, and among all so-called “slow cinema” practitioners. There is a concern with the plasticity of cinematic time, the unique effects of concentration and/or boredom (I prefer to call it “drift”) that can be achieved by distending the time of looking and listening. (In his book Cinema 2, Deleuze called this mode the “time-image,” that which provides a picture of time itself, rather than using time as a mere vehicle for the transmission of plot and narrative.) There is also a deep concern with the material possibilities of cinematic space, and how the careful, attentive movement of the camera through a landscape, staged performers, or meticulous mise-en-scéne, can articulate cinema’s complex relationship between the second, third, and fourth dimensions. This, I think, is where “slow cinema” intersects with the avant-garde: Michael Snow, Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Yvonne Rainer, and many, many younger artists as well.
Seen in this light, it makes sense to consider certain of these films in conjunction with one another. This stylistic approach to thinking about the cinema–what I’m calling a networked approach, since it traverses national and continental boundaries–recalls Bazin’s realignment of film history in “The Evolution of Film Language” when, instead of subdividing cinema into the obvious categories of Silent and Sound, he proposed the concepts of montage-based and realism-based cinema, a distinction that went beyond the epiphenomena of technological change, into the films’ very genetic code. Despite Eisenstein and Murnau both being silent filmmakers, Bazin saw that Eisenstein had much more in common with Hitchcock, and Murnau with Rossellini and Dreyer, than the two men had with one another. Likewise, we could say that Carlos Reygadas has a bit more in common with Kelly Reichardt, and Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu with Darren Aronofsky, despite their national origins.
Of course, Bazin himself noted that this distinction was not absolute, and there are many other ways to think about “slow cinema” than as a continuation of this very old narrative. What we can do, however, is think about Bazin’s stylistic reassessment of film history as a prelude to a new, more networked method of charting some tendencies that cross borders and socio-political circumstances. When we look at different films, we find that “slow” can be put to multiple uses. All it ever seems to have as a constant is that slowness asks viewers to engage with time and space as basic elements of meaning, not just neutral containers for narrative data. What the meanings of “slow” turn out to be, and if there’s much commonality there, seems like a question worth exploring as we continue.


Part Three
As Long as it Needs to Be


The Bazinian dichotomy between montage-based and realism-based films seems like the perfect analogy for the interpretation of slow cinema. The strict division between Eisenstein’s belief in montage editing or Bazin’s notion of formal realism, highlighting the individual image’s power to replicate reality, is outdated, because we don’t think of films today as one or the other; today’s film culture accepts the merits both. But the way we talk about “slow cinema” reminds me of this previous division.
Bazin championed the work of Flaherty, Murnau, Welles, and several others based on how strongly their images came across. Juxtaposing shots can create meaning (as a shot-reverse-shot can show a conversation between images), but for Bazin, film’s artistry lay in “the plastics of the image." When I want to explain the uniting techniques of slow cinema practitioners, I find myself also describing the formal techniques of those realists. Extended shot lengths to emphasize space and action, costume and set design, framing, and blocking all take precedence to post-production choices in both categories. With such a prominent use of their visual features, it’s no surprise that slow films contain little dialogue or narrative–their quality comes from the accentuated “plastic” parts themselves, not their combinations.
As an extreme example, let’s look at James Benning, whose films seem more like curated collections of moving photographs. RR (2007) consists of just forty-three shots of trains, each shot starting when a train enters the frame and ending when it leaves. Shot length depends on the camera angle, the space and landscape the train is traversing, the velocity of the train itself, and other spatial features. It’s slow, sure–especially at 111-minutes–but it’s also exactly as long as it needs to be (per Benning’s requirements).
Several other experiments by Benning–Twenty Cigarettes13 Lakes, and Ten Skies–all portray exactly what one would expect from those titles. Though interested in real-life subjects, his work is more like a video installation than a proper documentary. They feel tailor-made for explicitly noticing the passage of time, every shot dragging long past any standard length. This forcefulness is predicated by Bazin’s appreciation of Robert Flaherty, an early director whose work appears like an anthropological Benning. In a scene of his most famous film, Nanook of the North (1922), Flaherty avoids using editing to “trick” us into believing time around the Inuk fisherman has passed. Instead, he focuses on the waiting, the real-time involved in this Bazinian realism, and extends the scene so that the audience clearly understands the fisherman’s patience. The magic of Benning’s films also lie in this patient observing of a subject, whether it be the full length of a train or the full ashing of a cigarette. Benning’s craft involves painting reality with light–editing is simply a means of unifying his project.
If Benning can be seen as Flaherty taken to his extreme, perhaps slow cinema can be viewed as a modern extension of Bazin’s realist formalism–especially given our want to catalog slow cinema by its formal qualities. However, none of Bazin’s heroes are championed as slow auteurs. What extra ingredient exists to separate Tarr from Welles, Renoir, or Flaherty? The answer lies in some of the other names you’ve mentioned–Warhol, Snow, and others involved with the 60s avant-garde scene.
Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) stands out as the most obvious example of a film that explicitly centers on time and space. For the most part, it consists of a single zoom in a city loft, an image of the ocean on the opposite wall slowly coming into focus. Filters on the camera change, time skips forward, and a rough narrative takes shape, but what the film really hailed was, as P. Adams Sitney describes, the beginning of structuralism. The zoom takes forty-five minutes, with little more than the disorienting changes from day to night and the sine-wave soundtrack to keep the audience occupied. It’s more structured than Benning’s often haphazardly compiled time-image “collections,” yet both of these auteurs work in the same framework: time passes, space is warped, and we’re left to ponder the interaction of these dimensions.

Michael Snow's Wavelength
Where Bazin’s category of realist films fetishized the power of photographic realness and its ability to create “objectivity in time” and exhibit “change mummified”, Snow’s projects stripped realism made time and space the main attraction. Benning hails from both traditions, mixing the deep-focus, montage-lite narrative features of the realists and the minimalist avant-garde of the 60s. That’s not to say that slow cinema can be understood in terms of such a simplified equation (Flaherty + Snow = Benning), but the language we use to catalogue these films overlaps far too often to ignore. Where these two traditions collide, slow cinema truly begins.
With the critical forethought of slow cinema in place, perhaps we can tackle that pesky question: what do we mean by “slow”? If the Bazinian history is to be trusted, slowness arises from these formal decisions–long takes and powerful images. Beyond these decisions, slowness lives in the rote and the mundane: Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Gerry develop at a walking pace, because walking is the only action to latch onto. The subject material of RR could be viewed by visiting a local train track a few dozen times, but by contextualizing these boring events as methods of studying the fundamental characteristics of cinema–time and space–these cineastes instigate a contemplative (though, like in Tati’s Playtime, sometimes humorous) atmosphere into each work.
Though we can identify the formalistic qualities that make a film slow, the uses for slowness vary. In Jeanne Dielman, mundanity and routine rule over the first several hours to lull the viewer into accepting the housewife’s rote daily life, only to make her abrupt final actions even more shocking, as if interrupting a soft piano ballad with a black metal crescendo. By contrast, Tarr’s Sátántangó exudes slowness not to purposefully bore, but to establish a universe where characters must walk toward an infinite horizon in a tone of apocalyptic despair. Time must pass slowly in Tarr’s world, for the characters simply wait for their demise as optimism drains in the face of political corruption. Benning’s slowness excuses itself for its practicality. His films are experiments in the same vain as Snow’s and Warhol’s: just keep the camera rolling. Tarkovsky’s slowness paints a religious reverence, as does Reygadas’ opening shot and ultimate reveal in Silent Light. This variety should be celebrated but also recognized as a potential problem to those who wish to unify every film that submits to the drift (again, to steal your term). What should be made of this intense variety in the networked world cinema?


Part Four
Film Is Death at Work

I’m glad to see that this discussion has rolled around to the avant-garde, and not just because its the corner of cinema I’m most committed to. The turn toward “slow cinema” in global narrative filmmaking has perhaps narrowed a gap between the avant-garde and international art cinema, one that I think critics and viewers used to consider a bit more absolute. I was just writing about this from a slightly different perspective a few days ago, as it relates to the Toronto International Film Festival.
Three years ago, TIFF made the rather bold move of combining two of its programming sections. “Visions” was for formally adventurous narrative cinema: Bruno Dumont, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, João Pedro Rodrigues, Tsai Ming-liang, and the like. “Wavelengths,” named of course after Snow’s (Canadian) masterpiece, was for strictly experimental work: James Benning, Nathaniel Dorsky, Rose Lowder, and other more formalist filmmakers. Now there is no Visions section. All of those films are programmed under the Wavelengths banner, along with the experimental shorts.
In some ways, this has proven to be an uneasy combination. The difficulties are mostly procedural. A two-hour Pedro Costa film is not the same kind of aesthetic object as a ten minute Ken Jacobs piece, and yet an attentive critic should try to afford them equal coverage and respect. But if we think of the combined Wavelengths as a theoretical and philosophical project, it tells us a great deal. Partly it tells us that experimental film is coming up in the world, from its long-time second-class status to something necessary to consider as part of “serious” cinema. But more than this, I think it’s about a set of viewing strategies that are more omnivorous and driven by curious personal taxonomies.
This curiosity, and the technological means to satisfy it, seems to be a defining trait of 21st century cinephilia. We realize that (for example) Benning and Kiarostami come from very different traditions–structuralism, the Nouvelle Vague, the New American Cinema, Iranian pre- and post-revolutionary filmmaking, the work of Ozu and Mizoguchi, etc. But we detect aspects of a shared ancestry. The concrete historical circumstances of how a filmmaker’s sensibility was formed, or how a film got made, are not the only ways to think meaningfully about what’s on screen, even though we must be careful not to conflate traditions that are unique in their own right.
All this is a way of saying, slow cinema as an idea allows us to forge connections through form, connections that we cannot see if we insist on reading film history through more conventional narratives. Granted, some of these formal connections are drawn by the filmmakers themselves. Gus Van Sant has made his debt to Béla Tarr explicit. Apichatpong Weerasethakul frequently cites Warhol and especially Bruce Baillie. But even without that hard “evidence,” we're able to bring films into dialogue by our ability to observe common patterns and gestures; ways that filmmakers treat bodies as sites of physical or sculptural investigation, rather than as mere actors in a narrative; the treatment of time as a plastic medium; and the phenomenological engagement with film space, as a haptic, tactile experience. Perhaps there are even deeper, as yet untapped aspects of formal analysis to investigate. Does the predominance of certain colors, for example, lend itself to an overall optical agitation or retardation, an increased or decreased sense of “slow” vs. fast? It sometimes seems that black and white cinematography aids in the encounter with slowness, since it differs from the way most of us see the natural world. But there’s no guarantee that this is an absolute. More study is required.
What we do know is that, despite the obvious downsides of digital image-making replacing 35mm shooting and projection, this broad network of production and circulation–this sprawling nexus of availability has helped us to not only define “slow” but to appreciate it, to acclimate to it. After all, you cited Wavelength as a “film that centers on time and space,” which it certainly is. But is it slow? When most people had only heard about the film, but few had any real hope of seeing it, it was billed as “a 45-minute long zoom across an apartment.” Granted, it does contain that. But as you also note, there is so much else happening in Snow’s film, much of it on the surface of the screen–filters, changes in film stock, aperture shifts, and rather quickly at that–that it cannot be said to be “slow,” exactly.
To a great extent, Wavelength just swaps narrative incidents for another set of concerns: problematic irruptions in the process of representation. Snow forces us to make a distinction between “slow” (which Wavelength isn’t) and “boring” (which the film may well be, for those who are unable to get on its . . . you know.) And then there’s La Région Centrale, which never stops moving and is a veritable tilt-a-whirl of spatial dislocation. Again, it’s both long and “long”–a three-hour film without any organizing narrative principle. But it doesn’t necessarily count as slow cinema. Sometimes that camera really books. And if you take those camera moves and add in murder, sex, and depravity, you get Gaspar Noé, who some may find boring, many might find offensive, but whose films could never be called slow.

Gaspard Noé's Enter The Void
So where does this leave us? I think it should leave us in a place of optimism, since the tenor of this dialogue, the fact that it seemed necessary in the first place, speaks to the greater overall acceptance that different sorts of viewers have for difficult films. I think this has to do not only with their wider accessibility, although this is indeed a factor. It seems to also have to do with an interest in cinema’s specific potentials (the exploration of concentrated and even uncanny temporalities and spatialities) at the moment when “cinema” (as celluloid, at least) seems to be over, on the verge of being replaced with some as yet undefined New Thing.
Zach, since you mention James Benning as a kind of paragon, and with good reason, I think, we should consider what his turn to digital filmmaking might tell us about “slow cinema,” if not the changing face of cinema overall. You’re right that films like RR13 Lakes, or his “California Trilogy” (El Valley CentroLos, and Sogobi) use either event lengths of predetermined shot lengths as structuring principles. With the virtually limitless shot length of digital, we’re through the looking glass. Take a look.
And of course, it could even be as simple as an unconscious aesthetic impulse toward preservation, of both cinema and the world it’s out to depict. Map the place, explore the contours of people and things, before everything and everyone is gone. As Bazin told us, film is death at work, and pace Mitchell Leisen, death never takes a holiday.


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