In one way of another, you may have heard of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s now rather famous book For a New Novel, which was published in its original French version in 1963. Robbe-Grillet worked with Alain Resnais on the film Last Year at Marienbad, the script of which was what he then called “a new novel”.
If you take Marienbad as an example, there appear to be little to no similarities between Resnais’ film and Slow Cinema. Marienbad is slow, but it is formally too complex to count as Slow Cinema. There is, however, more to the nouveau roman, which does make a link to Slow Cinema possible. In some ways, I’d even go as far as saying that Robbe-Grillet anticipated Slow Cinema in some ways. First of all, the majority of his book For a New Novel contains short essays, commentaries in fact, that are written by an angry author after the repeated rejection of his works. It is a defense, in a way, and while his arguments are valid for many arthouse filmmakers out there, some aspects are, I find, specifically relevant to Slow Cinema.
For instance, Slow Cinema is always and wherever you look compared to neo-realism. It sometimes seems as if Slow Cinema is neo-realist. This comes mainly from the repeated links to Italian films of the time and the writings of André Bazin. Indeed, the aesthetics of the film may be found in Italian neo-realism, but this doesn’t mean that the directors deliberately attempt to re-create what Italian directors have produced. Moreover, the focus on neo-realism whose aesthetics can be found in Slow Cinema does not acknowledge the directors’ own work; their background, their intentions, etc Robbe-Grillet pointed out that comparing a musician today with a famous composer from the 19th century was impossible. He rejects the term “like” in a comparison.
This “like” is used time and again in the context of Slow Cinema, which is supposedly like Italian neo-realism. An important point that is forgotten, however, and that Robbe-Grillet explains in more detail, is that something cannot be like another thing. If Slow Cinema was “like” neo-realism, it would have had to be made in post-war Italy. A 21st century slow film cannot be like a neo-realist film, because it was made under different circumstances. Therefore, the first important point we learn from Robbe-Grillet is that Slow Cinema isn’t like, it purely is. This partly explains my reluctance to use traditional theory, because they’re mainly used to create a likeness between one film and something that has already been there.
Anyway, when I now speak of the similarities between the aesthetics of the French nouveau roman and the aesthetics of Slow Cinema, I risk creating likeness. This is not my intention, but happens because of a lack of words really.
Robbe-Grillet’s book contains a chapter on Time and Description in Fiction today. There is a concern apparent about the speed with which the narrative is pushed forward. He does, in fact, make reference to the good old way of thinking that cinema is better because it can represent something in seconds that a book describes in dozens of pages. He rejects the impatience of the readers, who strive for a quick-fix of entertainment. Truth be told, I started reading one of Robbe-Grillet’s books, Jealousy. If there is something like Slow Cinema in book form, then this is it. It is terribly slow, and the narrative appears somewhat stagnant. The reason is his detailed description of the environment, of the mise-en-scène in cinematic terms, which slows down the narrative progression. Unless I have lost the plot, the characters are still doing the same thing on page 31 as they did on page 1. This is unusual for a novel. I like Russian novels, the classics, all of which contain elaborate descriptions and are fairly slow in their progression. But Robbe-Grillet puts it to an extreme.
Description of the mise-en-scène is the classmark of the nouveau roman. The result is slowness. As Robbe Grillet says, “But in the modern narrative, time seems to be cut off from its temporality. It no longer passes. It no longer completes anything.” If the term “description” is the wrong word for Slow Cinema, because nothing is described as such in words by a narrator, then it is the fact that slow films give time its temporality back that counts most. The films let time pass. They do this by lingering long-takes, by temps mort, and by long shots that allow for contemplation.
The curious thing that occurs with Slow Cinema, as opposed to the nouveau roman, is that nothing is explained in words. However, the long-takes provide the spectator with enough time to study the mise-en-scène in detail. The description of the mise-en-scène is visual, silent and occurs in the viewer’s head. If you were to read a book by Alain Robbe-Grillet, you would find it difficult to see a link to Slow Cinema. But once you remove the written descriptions and replace them with visuals in your head, you arrive at something that strongly resembles a slow film à la Béla Tarr or Lav Diaz. In effect, in Diaz’s Heremias Book I, for instance, the narrative is often halted by extensive visual “descriptions”, a detailed study of the landscape, of light, of nature. As a result, Heremias’ story progresses rather slowly.
No, Slow Cinema isn’t like the French nouveau roman. But Robbe-Grillet’s works are rather interesting in the context of slow films.