About three weeks ago, I started an introductory course in psychology. I felt the need to dive a little deeper into what I myself was going through in order to grow. From the beginning, my writing had been informed by my experience with depression and PTSD. My PhD thesis on the post-traumatic cinema of Lav Diaz is a good example, albeit my underlying personal experience is perhaps less evident in that piece as academia doesn’t like it if writing becomes too personal. I wrote a post a while ago about the link between trauma and Slow Cinema, and my book, Human Condition(s) – An aesthetic of cinematic slowness, includes several personal references, which I link to certain slow films.
The psychology course is a way for me to put terms and concepts to what I feel. This might sound counter-productive because what I have always advocated for in the context of Slow Cinema is experience, the idea of letting a film happening to you without trying to explain it. And, in fact, this remains true, even today. For me, it is more about understanding the mechanisms behind this experience. During my PhD already, I struggled to find adequate writing in Film Studies that could help me to make sense of Slow Cinema. I focused on Trauma Cinema and the writing that originated in this field instead, but I quickly realised that that, too, had its limits. It wasn’t about the want for frameworks. Rather, it was the realisation that every writer stayed in his/her comfort zone, in his/her field of study and no one tried to look beyond their own field.
Opening up is exactly what Slow Cinema demands. Leaving your comfort zone is what makes Slow Cinema such a rich experience. My reading – fiction or non-fiction – usually touches on subjects as widespread as philosophy, history, sociology, psychology and art. All of this goes into my writing. The psychology course I started is part of creating new thoughts, new ideas, new ways of looking at the films on the screen. It also provides my knowledge-hungry brain with input, which I’ve been dying for lately.
I don’t want to intellectualise Slow Cinema too much. Yet, I want to point to a few thoughts that I had during the first three lectures. Some of them were new to me, others were a confirmation of a belief I had held before I started the course. What follows may not be structured well. It might be confusing, all over the place, or maybe it won’t be as bad as I think it will be. On the other hand, writing – regardless of the structure – will help me to formulate and then contemplate my ideas, so please bare with me.
One thing that struck me from the beginning of my work on Slow Cinema is its experiential form. As soon as you try to rationalise or intellectualise the films, they close up on themselves. They no longer let you in. The intellect becomes a barrier to understanding. Whereas if you just go with what you see, if you let it happen to you, you’re rewarded with an experience unlike any other film. I don’t mean to say “good” or “bad” experience. It’s simply an experience which differs from that of other films. Once you experience a film, you can feel it as well, and from this feeling arises knowledge. In some ways, it’s a bit like learning by doing. Could we consider Slow Cinema as a cinematic form of empiricism, an idea in philosophy and physiology (at the beginning, at least) advanced by thinkers such as John Locke, which suggested that all knowledge came from experience? Are slow films moving evidence (moving in more than one sense) that experience, rather than intellect, is at the centre of life? Do the films not remind us that everything that our knowledge created is, in fact, only alienating us from ourselves and our surrounding, and inhibiting a true experience of life?
There are many people who consider slow films boring. Julian Jason Haladyn’s excellent book Boredom and Art triggered a revelation. When I speak about the aspect of boredom in the context of Slow Cinema, I always return to Haladyn’s distinction between “yes-boredom” and “no-boredom”, the former being based on the conscious decision to slip into an artwork and thereby allowing it to express itself, while the latter being an outright rejection to try engage with an artwork. Haladyn’s distinction is useful and easy to understand. The question he doesn’t answer in his book, however, is where the no-boredom, this rejection, comes from. It is widely known today that we need an ever greater number of shocking images in the news in order to be able to react to a violent event. Compassion fatigue, they call it. There are so many violent events taking place in the world that it becomes difficult for an individual to stay engaged emotionally.
Hollywood films, too, create a succession of bombastic scenes full of explosions, fights, chases and more to keep their viewers engaged. Even though these are different fields, both come down to one of three (classic, but revised and adapted in modern times) learning techniques, which, I believe, most of you know. We’re speaking of habituation here, which means that the more we are exposed to something, the less we respond to it. Habituation is what causes the remarkable surprises when nothing seems to happen on screen, until something does happen and you go like “oh wait, something’s changed!”. To me, habituation is strongly linked to our attention span. We get used to things very quickly, which explains the consumer society and many other elements, which characterise our lives today. The problem with art, I think, is that we think we have seen it all, so we no longer want to engage with, say, a painting or a film. We decide that we are habituated. The word “decide” is key, I believe, because this is a subjective habituation that has no objective grounds. It is not as though you can tell yourself “I saw this painting a million times already, I have seen everything, there’s no need to look at it again”. This isn’t what’s happening here. Instead of unconscious habituation, we’re looking at conscious habituation here: we decide that we’ve seen it all and we want to get bored, or doze off, or whatever.
Habituation used to be one of the main elements in learning models, but, as I said, science has evolved a lot since the late 19th century. What I always wondered was why most slow films left visual traces, or even more than traces, in my head. Why is it that I have so many detailed images or sequences from most films I’ve seen in my head? Why do I remember so many of them? One reason is the length of the scenes. I do believe that duration helps the brain in recording what it has in front of it. If you have a fast Hollywood blockbuster which cuts every two seconds, you simply don’t have the time to register what’s happening. After the film, you’ll be able to recall the main gist of the film, but it’ll soon disappear from your memory. I want to use two terms here only to help me through my own thinking process, not because I want to theorise things. I’m thinking of short term and long term memory. Short term memory is also called working memory and is often associated with consciousness.
Now, here is the thing. I wrote about Luke Hockley’s great book Somatic Cinema a while back, and I also made use of it in Human Condition(s). Slow Cinema is a form of cinema that tickles the subconscious. Many of you, I believe, would agree if I said that the films did something to us that we could not readily explain. Often it takes a while before we fully understand the films, if we ever can fully understand them. As I explain in my book, the films often seem to reopen wounds that we thought had healed. And, as I also explain, the films are quite complex despite their apparent simplicity. Most slow films demand engagement long after their end. We do not just leave the cinema and think about something else. Well, perhaps we do at first, but we keep going back to the film because we have questions, we have ideas, epiphanies. This is called “depth of processing”: the more you think about something, the more you add sense to it, the easier you’ll remember it later on. And because the films make us think deeply about the message they want to send, we end up moving the film images from our short term memory to our long term memory, where they stay just like an important event in your life which you’ll remember for a very, very long time. Key to the films is not only their duration, but also the time spent thinking about the films. Slow Cinema a slow process from beginning to end, and it has a great impact on how we remember the films.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m merely playing around with new ideas which I had during my first lectures in psychology. Whether they make sense or not is not up to me to decide. What is certain, tho, is that this course, as well as the others that will follow in future, will bring new and fresh directions to my slow writing. Really can’t wait!