There are two pieces of writing which I currently use to position my own research. One of them is Angela Dalle Vacche’s Cinema and Painting – How art is used in film (1996). Vacche makes some important points in her work. She writes, for instance, that “painting for the cinema constitutes a forbidden object of desire.” (1) She goes on to say that “cinema has always had a tendency to challenge not just painting in isolation but rather the whole system of the arts.” (3, my emphasis, reason for this will be clear in a minute)
Vacche attempts to demonstrate how specific genres of painting were relevant to the style of certain films. In her book, she focuses on seven films by seven different directors. Amongst them are Murnau with his film Nosferatu, and Antonioni with Red Desert. While she tries to explore a wide range of films and directors, it poses the greatest limit of her study at the same time. Her focus lies on a well-known canon of films. In addition to Murnau and Antonioni, we see the work of Godard and Rohmer dissected and analysed.
There is no attempt to apply her research to more contemporary films. Rather, this study focuses on directors who have been discussed in relation, for example, to painting, previously. Tarkovsky serves as a good example. Choosing five (European) films from the immediate post-WW II era, Vacche feeds the idea that this way of filmmaking has played a particularly strong part in European modernist cinema, particularly in Italian neo-Realist cinema. (If this sounds familiar, then you’re an attentive reader of this blog. Matthew Flanagan was one of the people to argue the same about the origins of Slow Cinema.)
Also, my impression is that Vacche focuses on deliberate frame composition in order to achieve a painterly look of the films. Jean Renoir is not included in her study, but he’s one filmmaker, who’s work was influenced by his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the painter. His frame compositions were deliberate. I believe that this is the statement of her book: the directors she has chosen all make deliberate choices about frame composition, lighting, etc in order to imitate painting. This is not the case with Slow Cinema. I would be surprised if only one director said that he structured his films according to a famous painting he admired at the time of filmmaking. What I see in Slow Cinema – the painterly aesthetic – is, I assume, wholly accidental.
The second book I use is Eivind Rossaak’s great study The Still/Moving Image: Cinema and the Arts (2009). Rossaak’s work concerns the negotiation between mobility (cinema) and immobility (painting, photography, sculpture). Contrary to Vacche, he describes the interaction between the moving and the static image not as a challenge of one art form over the other. Instead, there appears to be a collaboration at work. In short, he focuses on “how a moving image artwork borrows and refashions an aspect or quality from other art or media forms” (10) from the perspective “of a potential co-existence or co-experience of the interrelationship between different art forms.” (18)
Compared to Vacche’s study, Rossaak applies his method to a wider range of films, despite using only three examples. But with The Matrix, Tom Tom The Piper’s Son and The Passions, he covers mainstream commercial cinema, American avant-garde and video art – from different periods. It’s a truly fascinating study, I can only recommend it. However, there is a downside of it all, too.
Again, the evocation of the still arts is deliberate. Yet, instead of deliberately composing the frames in such a way that it evokes the image of a painting, Rossaak focuses on films whose stillness is computer-generated. In The Matrix, for instance, it is the bullet-time effect, which is entirely computer-generated. Ken Jacobs filmed the original Tom Tom and slowed it down, used freeze frames and other methods in order to stretch it to a feature-length film. Stillness is thus artificially created.
In short: Slow Cinema lives of the “co-experience” of different art forms, but its stillness is not created artificially. Slow films negotiate their mobility with static arts, but they do so in their own natural way (meaning without the help of technology or similar methods). They do not challenge static arts, they embrace them. Painting does appear to be an “object of desire” for slow films, but this does not explicitly mean that slow-film directors consciously construct their films in similar ways. It is accidental, rather than intentional.