Expanded Cinema Conference – St Andrews University – 3 April 2013
Slow Cinema – this phenomenon of increased slowness and minimalism on screen has been repeatedly discussed throughout the last decade. Nick James’ and Jonathan Romney’s articles in the Sight & Sound in 2010 are perhaps the most known recent examples of public debate on the issue. The focus usually lies on the use of long-takes in slow films, which often provoke a debate on boredom and suffering on the side of the viewer. There are, however, many more aspects that are worth highlighting and I want to illuminate one of them here today; the exhibition of slow films.
Tsai Ming-liang is one of the most prominent slow-film directors. His films The Hole (1998), Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), and I don’t want to sleep alone (2006) have propelled him into public awareness. His particular style – the striking opposition of lonely, slow-moving characters in bustling cities, combined with humoristic elements and musical interludes – has become a trademark that has attracted not only cinephiles. The French museum and gallery Le Louvre commissioned a film by Tsai Ming-liang as part of their Films by the Louvre project; a project that aims to showcase the museum’s audio-visual productions. Visage was the result of this collaboration; a slow film commissioned byand shot in a museum. Released in 2009, Visage is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
On the other side of the planet, the director of America’s Walker Arts Center commissioned a film from Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose popularity increased over night with the reception of the Golden Palm for his film Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives. Apichatpong had produced several films in the past, most notably Blissfully Yours (2003) and Syndromes of a Century (2006). His latest short, Mekong Hotel, was screened at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. His short film Cactus River for the Walker Arts Center was released in autumn 2012 and can be watched on the institution’s website. I would like to give you two more examples of these directors: Apichatpong produced the short film The Palace in 2007 for the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Tsai’s It’s a Dream, also made in 2007, had been acquired by the Taiwanese Fine Art Museum and was added to its permanent collection. In an interview with Noah Buchan from Taipei Times, Tsai points out that
“It’s the first time that I sold a video installation to a museum and this is the first time for a Taiwanese museum to buy a film as part of its collection. The Louvre was the first in the world to collect film. These events signal that we are now looking at film as a form of art.” (Tsai Ming-liang, quoted in Buchan 2010)
He goes on to say that “gradually, my movies find a home, and that is the museum.” (Tsai Ming-liang, quoted in Buchan 2010). There is a movement towards gallery spaces evident, in particular by Eastern slow-film directors. I propose that this is not a coincidence. Rather I suggest that it has, in fact, a plausible reason, namely the undeniable similarities between slow films and static art, which blur the line between moving and non-moving art, and therefore also question current exhibition practices. Let me elaborate on this point.
Slow Cinema and the Static Arts
Obviously, it needs to be stressed here that there are significant differences between moving images and static art, embodied by the aspect of rhythm as well as the exploration and representation of time. Slow Cinema is of interest in that several slow films merge the two forms of art, blurring the line between kinesis and stasis. I want to highlight three perspectives here:
First, although it had never been officially included in this category and therefore never really seen as such, film is a kinetic art form for two main reasons. By the sheer fact that film is made of moving images, kinesis is imperative. Without kinesis, we would not speak of moving images. In addition, film represents objects of movement, or objects suggesting movement. The representation of kinesis in art is not exclusive to film, however. Frank Popper (1968) traces the history of kinesis in art, with particular reference to the depiction of dynamism in static art forms, such as painting and sculpture. His study reveals that movement was a recurrent theme as early as the mid-19th century in the artworks of Impressionist painters. In part, this can be linked to the Industrial Revolution, when new means of transport, thus of movement, became major symbols of the time. Popper points out that Impressionists were keen on depicting kinetic objects such as railways, horses, water and dancers (Popper 1968: 11) The chosen motifs conveyed a sense of movement, and had been used time and again in later art movements. Especially in the early 20th century, Futurist artists picked up the aspect of movement and heightened its presence in their work. Speed-embodying objects such as cars or trains inhabited a special role in Futurist art.
Of interest to us in this context is the balance between kinetic and static objects in slow films. A close study of films directed by Lav Diaz from the Philippines, for instance, reveals that dynamism is largely absent. His films contain only few elements, which imply movement. One of those rare examples is an ox cart in Heremias Book I, but this one gets stolen early on, so that movement for the owner of the cart is greatly reduced and slowed down. If Diaz represents other objects of movement, such as cars or motorcycles, he does not make them visible to the eye. Interestingly, we can only ever hear them as off-screen sounds, but they are never in any way directly connected to the protagonists. The static camera as well as the little movement of characters within film frames further reinforce the sense of stasis.
With regards to this, I would like to point to a statement of experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Contrasting cinema and static art, she writes that cinema is
“a time-form, and [therefore] it is really rather more closely related to music and dance than it is to any of the spatial forms, the plastic forms. Now it’s been thought that because you see it on a two-dimensional surface which is approximately the size and shape of a canvas … that it is somehow in the area of plastic art. This is not true.” (Deren, quoted in Jackson 2001: 51-52)
The validity of Deren’s argument cannot be denied. Indeed, film is a time-based art form, just as music and dance are. They share the characteristic of evolving, of developing in time. All three are rhythmic art forms. The limit of Deren’s argument is reached when we try to apply this to Slow Cinema. Due to the common absence of dynamic objects, as we have seen, as well as the lack of camera and character movement, slow films appear surprisingly static, and therefore less time-based; an aspect, which distinguishes slow films clearly from music and choreographic dance.
A third aspect to consider is the use of sound in film. Michel Chion’s study Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1994) contains hints as to why slow films embody stasis. Chion argues that films, similar to human beings, are vococentric (Chion 1994: 5). Research has shown that humans tend to focus on speech first, before their attention switches to other sounds around them. Moreover, our ears are said to react faster to external stimuli than our eyes do. This suggests that the extent, to which speech is used, alters the pace of the film. Slow films contain only little dialogue and music is scarce, a fact that slows down the reading process of the film considerably, as the viewer is dependent on his or her eyes. Combined with little character and camera movement, the cinematic frame appears static and thus has to be read in similar ways to paintings or other forms of static art.
To recapitulate, then, slow films share characteristics with static art forms based on the almost complete absence of kinetic objects or kinesis in general, and the lack of rhythmic speech or music, which demands our eyes to view a film in similar ways we would view a painting.
Lav Diaz and the Art of Painting
To take this a little further even, I want to demonstrate briefly now just how pervasive the aesthetics of static art are in slow films.
In an interview, Lav Diaz made a case in point. He said:
“My films are just like paintings that are just there. Nothing changes. You can watch it for eight hours, and you can have a more fulfilling experience. Or you can leave the house, go to work, and when you come home, it is still there.” (Diaz, quoted in Baumgärtel 2007)
Diaz’s quote is evidence for my earlier proposition. He describes his films as paintings and reasons this by pointing to the almost static nature of his cinematic work. There is more to this, however, and this will facilitate an understanding of why slow-film directors such as Tsai Ming-liang are leading a renewed displacement of film; from the movie theatre to the gallery.
One major aspect to consider in the study of the relationship between slow films and paintings is the role of landscape and the treatment of nature. Bo Jeffares writes, “[a]s man’s urbanizing programme has increased and his control of his wild surrounding become more extreme, the kind of innocent interest in rustic life … has become an escapist obsession.” (Jeffares 1979: 6) Much similar to landscape painting, the focus in slow films lies on rural areas and nature. This is a key element of Slow Cinema, which only few filmmakers deliberately ignore. Elaborate shots of a landscape force the viewer to linger over what he sees, and thus slow down the narrative progression. The landscape is, what we could term the ‘argument’ in the language of art theorists. It inhabits a dominant role and becomes a character in its own right. It is an interesting point as landscape and character function as a mirror for one another.
A second link to painting is the way characters are framed. Photography popularised the close-up, especially of human faces. It was the key novel feature photography has introduced to the Arts. Nevertheless, painters remained generally keen on illustrating the whole picture, setting the character against his natural surrounding. You have to search really hard in order to find a close-up in a slow film. Filmmakers tend to approach their subjects in much similar ways to painters.
Overall, then, combined with earlier remarks on slow films as being similar to static art, the framing of characters in long-shots, shying away from close-ups, and the presence of landscape which acquired a special place in art in the, what Sherman Lee called, the ‘materialistic’ 19th century (Lee 1962: 3), Diaz’s films can, similar to a vast range of slow films, be read as static paintings.
Slow Cinema at the Museum
How does this affect the reception of slow films, then? Incorporating aesthetics of still art, such as painting, can Slow Cinema evoke a justified response in a movie theatre audience?
It is of interest here that Thomas Elsaesser has described Slow Cinema as the “musealization of the cinema” (Elsaesser 2011: 117). The screening of slow films in cinemas turn movie theatres into sites of contemplation, which has formerly been the case only of galleries and museums. Elsaesser’s point is crucial, yet I propose to read it in a different way. It is more intriguing to speak of slow films as exhibits, which demand a different venue. Reasons for this can be found in studies of video art.
Video artists have long combined aesthetics of static art with those of moving images. A good example is Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho in which he slowed down the original Hitchcock movie in order to extend the narrative over a period of twenty-four hours. It is so slow that movement is barely perceptible. So is 24 Hour Psycho a film, or is it still art?
Michael Newman argues that moving image art recontextualised cinema. It has introduced “a new dimension of reflexivity because of the frame provided by the institution of art and its history.” (Newman 2009: 88) In a nutshell: we associate galleries with contemplation, and cinemas with entertainment. The venue shapes expectations as films, or any other kind of art, are experienced in specific contexts. Therefore, Newman correctly stresses that “once the moving image is placed in the gallery it is implicitly experienced in relation to art that does not move: painting, sculpture, and photography.” (Newman 2009: 96) Having established to what degree slow films share characteristics with non-moving art, it appears evident that the gallery space, as Tsai Ming-liang pointed out in an interview, is the most appropriate venue.
In her study of gallery films, Catherine Fowler argues that “gallery films are different from cinema films, and that if shown in a cinema they would not achieve the vertical expansion that takes effect in the gallery.” (Fowler 2004: 338) Similar to Chinese art, which sees vertical expansion as a method of in-depth analysis, slow films put the same emphasis on depth. This is a prominent element in gallery installations. In fact, in a study of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, Jihoon Kim speaks of “cinemas of the gallery” (Kim 2012: 129). Although slow films are not gallery films per se, I argue that Slow Cinema can be described as a cinema of the gallery. One example from personal experience: The screening of Diaz’s eight-hour epic Melancholia (2008) in Newcastle in March last year took place in a cinema. This, however, was not experienced as such. Sitting on comfy sofas and leaving the auditorium from time to time in order to grab a coffee or give my eyes a break, made it feel as if I had been in a gallery or a museum, a venue which offers me to return to an artefact when needed, and taking a break when desired. Yet, this film was part of a festival at which slowness was celebrated. The movie theatre as a venue implies that the viewer sits down and stays seated until the end of the screening. But this widely accepted and adopted cinema-behaviour-code is not even something the filmmakers themselves imagine. As Diaz points out:
“I don’t believe in the concept that you have to sit in the cinema for two hours and watch a story that is compressed in this period of time. Cinema can be anything. My films are not purposely done for the cinema anymore.” (Diaz, quoted in Baumgärtel 2007)
Apart from the blurring line between moving image and static art, there is one additional intriguing factor. Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz – these slow-film directors talk openly about the link between slow film and gallery, or slow film and painting. It is remarkable that these directors are from the East, a region whose philosophy has traditionally seen time as irreversible and continuously flowing. This perception of time has influenced people’s artwork, and art tends to be contemplative, following Buddhist and Taoist teachings of a higher understanding. I believe there is a link between this and the push towards alternative screening venues. But further research needs to be done in order to explain this phenomenon fully.
[If you want to use parts of this paper for your own research, please reference it appropriately. Thanks!]