The Long Take – Art Cinema and the Wondrous (Lutz Koepnick, 2017)

Time for a new book review. It’s been comparatively quiet in academic publishing when it comes to Slow Cinema. I speak of experience when I say that it’s not easy to publish something on the subject in an academic context. Again and again, I have to point out that the best writing comes from outside academia. Just recently, the online film magazine Multiplot published a  special issue on Slow Cinema  with articles on Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra and Lav Diaz as well as thoughts on online platforms such as those by Experimental Film Society and tao films. Those articles are free of constraint and therefore fit to the subject.

During my PhD research, I have come across Lutz Koepnick’s magnificent book On Slowness, which I reviewed here on this blog. Koepnick impressed me with his non-confirmative, out-of-the-box thinking. The result was that I became sadly aware of the limits of writing up to that point. Koepnick’s work aligned itself with my own writing, trying to see things from a different perspective, introducing a new angle, a new sub-topic, a challenging way of thinking about slowness. At the time, the author looked at areas other than cinema. On Slowness was a necessary contribution in order to diversify the debate on what slowness can mean and stand for. Most importantly, Koepnick noted a link between slowness and memory, something that I was particularly happy to see because I had often thought I was the only one seeing (feeling) this. If you haven’t had a chance yet to read On Slowness, you should get yourself a copy because it is a refreshing take on slowness in various art forms.

Koepnick’s new book The Long Take – Art Cinema and the Wondrous (2017) differs in many ways from the author’s first piece in that it is more focused and therefore also more constrained. If you have read his previous work, The Long Take will feel less liberating. It’ll feel drier and more directed. The book isn’t a journey the way On Slowness was. Instead, it is a directed effort to come to a previously established result. It feels more academic, and here it needs to be said that academic literature just doesn’t feel Slow Cinema. It has always failed at it, and those articles that try to change this have a hard time getting published.

Contrary to On Slowness, Lutz Koepnick focuses in The Long Take much more on cinema, albeit only one chapter is dedicated to Slow Cinema. Koepnick remains faithful to his approach of broadening the subject matter, as he had done before. This isn’t a book about Slow Cinema, it is a book about the uses of long takes in (art) cinema in general. Once more, Koepnick asks us to think out of the box. It is true that the long take is more often than not discussed exclusively in the context of Slow Cinema. I have always had an issue with this and argued in my PhD thesis that this approach was wrong, given that even early cinema contained long takes, primarily because editing hadn’t been invented yet, so actions had to be filmed from beginning to end. Koepnick follows a similar line, writing about Andy Warhol, Ulrich Köhler, Michael Haneke, Francis Alys and Sophie Calle.

Something the author introduces to us, and to the field of cinematic slowness, is the idea of the “wondrous”. According to Koepnick, long takes challenge “what it means to be attentive today” (9). Indeed, the idea of attention, of being attentive, of our patience has emerged (and has been foregrounded) when technology began to speed up our lives. What has happened to our attention as a result of an increased use of technology? As a result of ever quicker cuts in Hollywood action movies? But there is also the wondrous, which, Koepnick argues, the long take confronts us with. One might think of the feeling of wonder coming as a surprise, as a quick sort-of lightbulb that enlightens us. And yes, this is what it does. Wonder comes as enlightenment, in particular when one realises that you have never actually seen something, but have only looked at it.

“Wonder happens suddenly. It ruptures the fabric of time, yet unlike the traumatic experiences of shock, the wondrous neither overwhelms nor petrifies the senses. It produces curiosity rather than fear, rapt attention instead of sensory edginess or mental shutdown.” (9)

It’s not only about wonder to me, albeit Koepnick makes a very good point here. In the end, what often happens if you’re following the idea of yes-boredom (i.e. you’re willing to engage with something that seems to be boring), then you begin to marvel over what you see. It is the extraordinary ordinariness that we keep neglecting, forgetting, ignoring because it doesn’t fit into the concept of progress. We don’t have time for it. But, Koepnick reminds us, the long take can be a way to instil this wonder in us. And it can achieve this through many different ways. The author notes that the long take is not necessarily a form of cinema only. Instead, “it travels across different platforms of moving image culture” (3). As he has done in On Slowness, Koepnick tickles my personal interest in the aesthetic of slow and its links to memory, in particular to trauma. Writing about Béla Tarr and his apocalyptic films, he suggests:

“Long takes like Tarr’s embrace the mechanical time of moving image projection to open a door for the unpredictable temporality of human experience. … their aim is to envisage futures where trauma, fear, and ever-alert self-management cease to have a hold on what we know, how we act, and what we sense.” (12-13)

In On Slowness already, Koepnick noted correctly (in line with Chinese belief) that there is not one temporality, but several temporalities. Lav Diaz has always been emblematic for me in this context. His lengthy films always combine monotony with shock, the slow and the fast. It’s not so much a rollercoaster. It is a smooth, but very affective/effective way of showing that life doesn’t run at the same speed all the time. On the contrary, it varies because of our personal experience. Traumatic experience, for instances, can make you feel as though what happens happens in slow motion. There are other events which may appear to have passed quicker than anything else you have ever experienced. It’s this mix of temporalities that Koepnick (and Diaz) foreground in their work.

Part of this, in Koepnick’s work, is the formation of a new term, which I liked and which made me think: the cinema of thresholds. In his writing on the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang, the author identifies a very specific camera in the oeuvre of Tsai, a form of long take which sits at the edge of movement and transformation. In his own words,

“(The) cinema of the threshold does not present the slow as a mere inversion of today’s speed but rather as a medium to develop fundamentally different notions of movement and spatiotemporal mapping.” (83)

The concept of a cinema of threshold deserves further reflection on what the long take can achieve, although I noticed while reading that despite those very good arguments, Koepnick often notes the long take’s opposition to modern speed, which, if you’re a bit pedantic about it, cancels out the very argument I have just quoted. Nevertheless, the threshold between movement and transformation is an interesting one, in particular in video art. From my work for tao films, I know that there is certainly something marvellous about video art’s use of slowness in order to transform something; a background, an image, our perception, our thinking, our experience. It is not about merely showing us that there is another idea to life, a side that is slower than what we believe is normal. It is instead about transforming something, actively, which becomes a core characteristic of Tsai’s Walker series.

“What we witness in these twenty-one shots is the birth of cinema from the spirit of photography – or conversely a film trying everything at its disposal to escape the demands of forward motion and return back to the photographic.” (78)

Tsai’s Walker is essentially about persistent transformation. I have long argued that Slow Cinema combines photography and cinema, and Koepnick picks up on this. There is a push-and-pull between static and moving images, between movement and stasis without ever being either one or the other exclusively. Tsai Ming-liang’s films, especially his Walker series, invite us to consider the constant flux that not only images, but also we ourselves are confronted with throughout our lives.

All of that said, however, there are downsides of the book, which disappointed me, because I know Koepnick’s earlier works. I loved his precise writing in On Slowness, liberating (liberated) but precise, to the point. His clear language. In The Long Take, you often find expressions such as “some critics think”, “it is often concluded”, “critics argue” without the author noting who exactly argues or thinks this way. His precise writing gives way to generalisations, which is problematic. If you find an argument somewhere, note the author behind it so that others can verify it…first thing you learn as a PhD student. This rather annoying point is combined with a clear lack of proof-reading. In the last five years or so, academic publishers have obviously cut their proof-reader staff, because the quality of books is just no longer the same. The Long Take is by far not as bad as Dirk de Bruyn’s The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art, which was a complete disaster and should have been shredded and republished right away. Nevertheless, it feels as though proof-reading was the least concern of both author and publisher. It’s part of a trend to cut, cut, cut and publish texts no matter in what state, just so that you can be first in a specific field. I don’t think it’s the right direction, but authors and publishers have to decide if they really want to continue going down this route.

As far as the book’s bibliography is concerned, I have to say that it’s rather thin. It should be said that Koepnick makes perhaps more references to women writers than other authors before him in this field. But he has unfortunately fallen into the same trap, every other published author has so far fallen into: one always reads the same names. Elsaesser, Marks, Adorno, Benjamin, Jaffe, Flanagan, Deleuze, Schlosser, Kracauer, Mulvey, Rancière. I would be delighted to find something by Elina Reitere (PhD, Narration in Slow Cinema), or Diana Poppa (PhD, Slowness in Romanian cinema), or seeing my own work. The excuse that one isn’t aware of those works just isn’t convincing and the longer they’re ignored the less convincing the excuse becomes. Books on the subject matter we’re speaking of don’t have to be based on the same authors over and over again. It is a choice that the author takes when sitting down at his/her desk. It is also for this reason that On Slowness felt much more refreshing and a real addition to the field. The Long Take, on the other hand, while containing several interesting points, doesn’t reach the previous book’s quality.

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