Slower or Contemplative?
Review of : The "Aesthetic of Slow" By Matthew Flanagan (16:9, Nov 2008)
This article published over a year ago, explores a certain formal trend in contemporary cinema that seems to converge with the many themes developped here at Unspoken Cinema. Matthew Flanagan names it an "Aesthetics of Slow"; perhaps the distinct appelation explains why his researches never met "Contemplative Cinema". I'll point out what they have in common and where they are distinguishable. Unspoken Cinema is focused on one particular definition, characterised by the "contemplative" aspect, one of many faces of this trend. I would like to see more of these alternate studies investigated and furthered deeper, either here or elsewhere. Unfortunately few critics are curious enough about this area of cinema to write more about it and generate a plural discourse around the various possible approaches to this new trend...
The first thing I notice, is the familiarity of his contenders list, from Garrel to Serra, which could suggest that we are talking about the same thing. I'll come back to my take on this large family, why I feel the need to distinguish an older "school" from its new iteration which departs from these precursors on key levels. Even if we consider these auteurs solely under the prism of "slowness", I believe their attitude might be somehow different whether applied to the Modernist off-screen inner voice or to the absence of narrator altogether. This is why CCC takes into consideration, not only slowness but the silence as well (among other key characteristics) to define the nature and intentions of this new style of mise en scène. So this is my first point of contention with what his theory wants to make of the same trend we both approach from a different side. Although there is no reason why two theories should make one, the potential of a tension between "slow" and "contemplation" makes this conversation more fertile and dynamic. We'll eventually have to delineate the distinction between what is slow and what is contemplation.
After due disclaimers, what could CCC learn from this article ? Maybe it is the occasion to clarify, once again, the common confusions associated with this trend. Most people would agree about its existence, and usually the same names come up, so we have an identifiable entity under the microscope without any definite way to grasp it yet. Too many people dismiss it in negative terms, as a posture or even a ready-made recipe to please festivals. We discussed the superficiality of this unconstructive approach in the first roundtable of the second blogathon in January 2008.
On the contrary I think it is the most important incarnation to date, to understand the very essence of cinema. This is only a new step in cinema history, and cinema as an art hasn't reached maturity yet.
Turbulence and Flow
Basically, Flanagan organises his theory around a tension between speed and slowness, which corresponds, according to him, to the opposition between "mainstream continuity style" and "marginal art cinema".
Before all, to restrict "art cinema" to this "slow trend" is abusive, there are of course lots of film styles amongst the non-mainstream formats. If there is a structural tendency for mainstream narrative to fit in the standard mould, to all copy the exact same grammar of continuity and tripartite dramatic progression, Art cinema however, is diverse and there is no particular incentive to appeal to a standardised audience. Almodovar, Haneke, Resnais, Gondry, Jonze, von Trier, Audiard, Breillat, Guediguian, Bergman, Tarantino, Kusturica, Schnabel, Kim Ki-duk, Lee Chang-dong, Fatih Akin, Wes Anderson... are neither representative of a full "intensified continuity" or a full ultra-slowness. I guess the definition of "art cinema" is another of these empty words devoid of any consensual meaning...
Conversly, a closer examination of mainstream cinema would show a clear variation in the use of intensified continuity, depending on the genre or the nationality of these films.
Anyway I find it restrictive to make this speed/slowness dichotomy the main indicator of any and all contemporary filmmaking problematics, much less if we are talking about this particular trend of contemporary films. Moreover, I disagree with the idea that this slow tendency is only defined by a strictly formalist reaction to whatever would happen in the mainstream realm. Intensified continuity took a dramatic proportion within mainstream narrative rather recently, later than we can trace the origin of this tendency to slowness. At the time of Deligny's Le Moindre Geste (1971), Kiarostami's Breaktime (1973), Akerman's Jeanne Dielman (1974), we can't say that Hollywood or mainstream narrative in general (before the advent of MTV) was as fast as it got today. Besides, we could easily argue this slowness has been present in cinema history since the beginning. This has to be a misleading antinomy.
Yvette Biro develops this tension between speed and slowness in her book "Turbulence and Flow" (2007), as she defines the tempo of Modern cinema like an alternation between event and non-event, a narrative rhythm in filmic time. So this would be a more convincing theory to approach the dichotomy chosen by Flanagan in his article.
Yet the notion of "rhythm" is still attached to the old traditional, elliptical narration. I believe we should be able to reconsider the most recent CCC films on a plane going beyond the segmentation of time in positive/negative periods : action/inaction, event/non-event, drama/boredom, speech/silence, meaning/insignificance, attention/inattention, efficience/waste... This binary conception is very important to understand all cinema, all narrative forms, and maybe most especially the peculiar dramatisation of le Nouveau Roman in the 60ies. But I don't think this scheme is more prevalent in CCC than anywhere else; in fact it is less central to undramatised narration, which is one of the key characteristics disconnecting CCC from Modern cinema. More on this later.
Dramatisation of the undramatic
Another bothering trope recurring about CCC is the tendency to re-positivize negative space, to re-dramatise the de-dramatised moments. A certain aversion for the absence of positive values in the film lead the rhetoric of supporters of these unpopular films to spice up what isn't there, just to persuade people to watch CCC films for the wrong reasons. If CCC works hard to develop a unique perception of silence, time and the contemplation of absence and frustration, it's not to make the audience believe in the end that all of it wasn't there and that we can still bring home some sort of entertainment, story, psychology, action from a pure contemplation that would be otherwise boring to watch. It's useless to invent a drama that isn't there just to make the film seem interesting to the mainstream audience. If you miss the purpose of contemplation, the importance of emptiness as a metaphysical state, the value of uneventfulness, you fail to experience the profound and unique particularity of contemplative cinema.
"Lisandro Alonso’s understated style in particular is remarkably close to the Bazinian ideal of long take filmmaking, demonstratating a deep-seated belief that cinema allows us to examine the world clearly without interiorising it."
The idea of the long take is not to reveal signs that are invisible at the fast pace of intensified continuity. The intent is not to populate this down time, these empty frames with a profusion of hidden signs that would suddenly give more content, more power, more value to slower editing. Nonetheless, most CCC films reviewers always attempt to positivize the experience : to make the film seem less "boring", to superimpose possible interpretations on the empty canvas, to add inexistent mystery, to overcomplicate meanings, to fill in the gaps, to offer false promises. This attitude falls back on safe territory, the learnt reflexes of traditional narration. But making sense of the nonsensical is only a superficial feeling of security and satisfaction.
Is it impossible to attract a public to CCC with an invitation to a momentary contemplative state where the visual embrace of the screen supercedes the rationalisation we could make of it afterward? Can we get lost in the frame for a short while without questions, without answers? Can we appreciate a contemplative film for its contemplative value itself?
Can we get a public to visit an art museum for its offering of plastic aesthetics alone? Can we enjoy the self-evident harmony of a natural landscape?
It is an evasion without a destination. It is not advancing towards an end in sight with the pull of a suspense or the contentment of progression. This is a major problem CCC narration has to resolve to build a linear continuity without the aid of the traditional dramatic cues.
"The minimal narrative structure of contemporary slow cinema is predominantly achieved by a process of direct reduction, a sustained emptying out of deeply entrenched dramatic elements [..] This reduction often risks boredom on the part of the spectator, dissolving traditional components of storytelling to either the most rudimentary basis of central conflict or a series of de-centred digressive events.""This extended deferral of the imminence of editing opens a space for reflection on events, encouraging a contemplation of presence, gesture and material detail. In Theo Angelopoulos’ words, “the pauses, the dead time, give [the spectator] the chance not only to assess the film rationally, but also to create, or complete, the different meanings of a sequence” (Mitchell 1980, p. 33).""An appropriate note on which to conclude might be one of the many imperative observations by Jean-Marie Straub in Pedro Costa’s Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (2001): “You have a sort of reduction, only it’s not a reduction, it’s a concentration and it actually says more. [...] You need time and patience. A sigh can become a novel.”"
This is exactly what separates Modernist cinema from CCC. Angelopoulos and Straub & Huillet, however prone to slowness and long takes, are filmmakers of intellectual discourse, thus conceive the purpose of dead time and empty frames in a fundamentally different way! In CCC, a sigh is not a novel, it's a sigh. Can you tell the indefinite value of a sigh without the necessity to know all the untold drama behind it ? The poet doesn't intellectualize the simple beauty of nature, the poet observes and takes it all in.
Costa's documentary is a particular example to note the distinction between WHAT he films (the intellectualized discourse of Straub's work methods) and HOW he films (the non-intrusive, immersive yet distant observation of two people at work). There are two films in one. The WHAT delivers a verbal content we can remember from the educational documentary (part biopic, part reportage), this is a traditional narrative coming from the subjects on screen. But the fact they talk is almost incidental... We could imagine a non-cinephile audience (without any interests in the technical making of cinema) coming to this contemplative film that observes a couple living their daily life and discussing with a friend.
My example isn't that evident here, I admit it is not the most representative film to grasp the singularity of CCC.
But like his fiction film Vanda, it is not Vanda's monologue that makes it CCC (or even disqualify it), it's the fact the speech is not a narrative drive for the sequences. Compare this to a similar talking head type of documentary : He Fengming (2007/Wang Bing) which is less of a contemplative documentary because we are really listening to this woman who sat there to tell the story of her life. The observation of this woman in her environment and her daily life (at the time of the documentary shooting) is here incidental. Her mundane behaviour is directed by the documentary imperatives, therefore more posed and forced. Straub & Huillet's behaviour is genuine however, it is truly a slice of their real life, it's their workplace, they own their gestures they don't pose for the camera. So the object of contemplation offers a genuine sum of unspoken language that speaks to the mind without thought-out dramatic constructions.
It's easier to see the contradictions of these methods in films that are clearly and entirely "contemplative" than to catch a glimpse of the "contemplative" essence in the midst of an otherwise rather traditional documentary...
So I suggest to refer to the list of examplary models I've put together. If you are looking for contemplative documentaries with a one-on-one "talking head" immersed in his/her own environment go for Le Moindre Geste (1971/Deligny), A Humble Life (1997/Sokurov), Là-bas (2006/Akerman) where the dissymetry of images and voices, the verbal drive and editing narrative are dissociated and independent. The counterexamples in CCC to the existential poetry Angelopoulos puts in his films through the rational words of an introspective narrator, would probably be what Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Pedro Costa or Tarr Béla convey through images alone (despite the occasional mundane dialogues). Their characters don't overexplain the conflict they deal with, in fact they often are not consciously evoking their existential crisis verbally. Futhermore, Jia Zhang-ke, Tsai Ming-liang or Lisandro Alonso treat the themes of broken couples, borders and immigration in a totally contemplative fashion, through the powers of images and mise en scène alone, rather than setting up dramatic situations with a mental commentary.
This is the reason why, to me, Garrel and Angelopoulos (from Flanagan's list) belong to another family, anterior to CCC, in a stylistic junction between the intellectual existentialism of Modern Cinema and today's visual-driven contemplation of the human condition. These types of cinema have a long history in common, but they materialise a similar sense of alienation through distinct means of mise en scène. They are more like precursors. But since his subject is speed, I guess they are all equally slower than the mainstream format, no question about it.
Less narrative and narrativeless
When Flanagan cites Bazin, Bordwell, Tarkovsky he summons a narrative ideology that pre-dates the formulation of new paradigms that only appeared in CCC. Neorealism presents all the elements of a slower cinema distanciated from the imperatives of narrative drive... but it was only there in an embryonic form. Watching neorealist scenes and contemplative scenes side by side make obvious the generation gap along the mise en scène evolution. There is a world apart, narratively wise, slow wise, between Roma, città aperta (1945/Rosselini) and Still Life (2006/JZK), between Ladri di biciclette (1948/De Sica) and Juventude em marcha (2006/Costa), between La terra trema (1948/Visconti) and Satantango (1994/Tarr), between Stromboli (1950/Rosselini) and Japón (2002/Reygadas).
Bazin's fundamental theory about the nature of cinema in general is timeless, I wouldn't be one to deny that. However his analysis of current trends stopped in 1958. I like to believe that the many stylistics and theorethical revolutions taking place since then had unforeseen proportions and consequences on today's cinema. The neorealist films were still deeply entrenched in traditional narrative logic, even if their subjects were original back then, and their pace slower, less eventful, less dramatised, compared to their mainstream genre conterparts : plot-driven dialogue, shot-countershots, editing articulated by dramatic drive, scenes constructed in a sequence to cover the action from different angles. This new style was a shock in the 40ies, a lighter version of mainstream narrative. But today, in light of the later history of cinema, the formal gap between Neorealism and mainstream cinema was much smaller than the gap between Neorealism and Modern cinema or between Neorealism and CCC.
All the theories written about Neorealism only help so far to understand what is going on in slower cinema, inasmuch as we consider the very recent history of slow cinema, and not the global ensemble of slowish films.
To explicit the stylistic identity of CCC, we need to move on beyond the legacy of Neorealism and Modern cinema. Until then, we'll never learn anything new from these truly innovative filmmakers.
The Longer take gimmick?
"The pivotal nine-minute plan-sequence of Serra’s El Cant dels ocells (2008) might be thought to take this notion of a cinema of walking to its limit. [..] After seven minutes we are able to distinguish that the Magi have in fact begun to circle back toward us, and Serra cuts after the figures have regained half the ground between the horizon and the camera."
Film theory related to CCC often barely scratches the surface by noting that time is longer than usual, that pauses give viewers more time to think, to bring in their own meaning, to project their emotions onto these understated situations and characters. Unspoken cinema doesn't conceal a long discourse behind clever allegories to be decyphered. I believe the principal objective in developping a contemplative narration is precisely to avoid talking points and signifiants.
The long take is not a gratuitous trendy stylistic form, to oppose a dominant culture or to be different or to make an intellectual statement about time duration... all this is a rhetoric contaminated with the pervasive elliptical narration. The reflection on narrative speed is something constructed by the paradigms of narrative representation. The reflection on narrative slowness pre-exists outside literature and cinema, on a wider scale than any long take could depict.
In this particular scene of El Cant dels ocells, Serra's objective is simple and practical. Before being guided by the divine star, the Three Kings err in vain. In the desert the sense of orientation is easily perturbated because everywhere you turn to looks the same, especially within the frame of a cinema screen. Shifting the camera axis, cutting up the sequence in shots-countershots, filming the empty desert on one side and cutting away to their faces (or vice versa), showing fading steps in the sand only provide a series of shots which meaning is entirely constructed by a suggestive montage. CCC prefers to put images with sui-generis meaning. Stand alone images. In a desert, it doesn't make sense to cut space and time for the screen. Bazin's "Montage interdit" rule for the continuity of dramatic space applies here; not to put the predator and the prey in the same shot, but to contextualize the wandering of a character within a uniform environment difficult to situate. Nothing looks more like a desert like another view of the desert. With a static camera alike Foucault's Pendulum, the spectator becomes the unique immobile point in the universe, and witnesses the circonvolutions back and forth of the kings lost in the dunes. A single take shows with admirable evidence how they move away from us and then come back unbeknown to them. A series of cuts would completely negate this effect of natural evidence. The spectator retains the sense of orientation in the desert, while the walkers are confused within the fiction.
The long take is not a formal gimmick, and it is more than a reflection on Time.
Realism, hyperrealism and representational modes
"The work of the directors listed above constitutes a cinema which compels us to retreat from a culture of speed, modify our expectations of filmic narration and physically attune to a more deliberate rhythm. Liberated from the abundance of abrupt images and visual signifiers that comprise a sizeable amount of mass-market cinema, we are free to indulge in a relaxed form of panoramic perception. [..]In a manner reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s insistence that the ‘dominant, all-powerful factor of the film is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame’ (1987, p. 113), Serra elongates our sense of duration, liberating filmic time from the abstraction of intensified continuity or montage. [..]An aesthetic of slow uncompresses time, distends it, renewing the ability of the shot to represent a sense of the phenemological real. Herein lies the marked tension between fast and slow: whereas speed perpetually risks gratuitous haste, fragmentation and distraction, reduction intensifies the spectator’s gaze, awareness and response."
What is slower exactly? Is it the filmic representation or is it life itself ? Reversing the problem here is disingenuous. Only dramatic effects such as ellipse or intensified continuity make the screen representation of life much faster, denser and more discontinuous than it is in actuality. Storytelling is a process of summarization of a given timeline, in order to save the meaningful moments and their causal succession. Like literature, like theatre, like television, like history books, narrative cinema uses a selective memory and dramatises key events in an engaging fashion. Reality is rarely dramatic in a narrative sense.
The way Flanagan phrases it implies that this "slow trend" corrects the speed of the filmic representation, whereas, according to me, it is rather a return to pre-Griffith narration, before cinema started to modify real-time continuity with elliptical "continuity". Slow cinema doesn't modify time, it restores the perception of time we usually have in real life. Thus an aesthetic of slow doesn't position itself in reaction to elliptical narrative, nor does it emerge after the inception of intensified continuity (in a sense of regression from a normative speed). This trend shouldn't be assimilated to an anti-mass-market cinema protest.
The mentioned effects this new film style has on spectators are an interesting aspect to analyse : distraction opposed to attention. But the hierarchy of the representational modes changes everything whether this trend is subordinated to mainstream normativity (artificial ellipsis-driven narrative) or directly compared to time and continuity as they exist in Reality (real time, real continuity).
Time is not artificially slowed down on screen. Watching a slow film is closer to reality than watching intensified continuity at work, which turns the spectator into an ubiquitous, omniscient demiurge who perceives many versions of reality, at once at distinct places and times, as only several people could (and often only a bird, a fly on the wall or a God!).
In short, Reality is the common source of content for both types of cinema, but one only remembers the meaningful moments, disregarding the integrity of time (elliptical narration) and the other captures extensive durations as indestructible blocks of time, disregarding the necessity for efficient actions (hyperrealism). These are two very different economies of time. And making one a consequence of the other (while they are separate routes of representational history) underestimates the originality of this trend. I insist to give this trend its rightful role, as a generator of original representation from Reality itself, instead of making it a conjonctural reaction to a later representational form.