Review: On Slowness – Lutz Koepnick (2014)

The contemporary hype around slowness in all its forms has filled shelves in bookstores for several years now. Most of these books are a kind of self-help strategy for stressed-out people, who wish to slow down their lives. I tend to flick through them only to return them to the shelf again. I don’t really believe in these books, because I think that a book alone cannot slow down your life. The only slow books I have read where written by the wonderful Carl Honoré, whose books are superb and not self-help manuals as such. On the contrary, they make you smile.

With recent (academic) books on Slow Movies and monologues on specific filmmakers, such as Béla Tarr, I thought Lutz Koepnick’s endeavour to write a book on slowness in contemporary art was daring. If you remember, I had a rather unpleasant experience with Ira Jaffe’s book, so I hoped that someone would finally do some valuable and serious work on slowness. For some reason it feels as if everyone wants and does write on slowness (in whatever field) without really bringing something new to the debate. Writing on slowness runs in circles, which is not helpful to its reputation as being ‘boring’.

Koepnick’s book is the refreshing work that the field needed. It’s a pleasure to read and this is mainly the case because it is unique in its approach. Current literature considers slowness isolated from speed. While writers all agree that slowness stands in opposition to speed, it is almost impossible to find a piece of work that argues along the line of slowness being a part of speed. Without speed there wouldn’t be slowness and vice versa. It feels as though Koepnick has put this at the heart of his work, and it is this that makes reading On Slowness so very refreshing.

Think of Futurism, for instance. Futurism was perhaps the beginning of our contemporary obsession with speed. Now we have Slow Art, Slow Cinema, Slow Education. Futurism introduced the complete opposite of everything. Futurist thinkers loved speed. It was an exciting thing to experience. This is how the story goes anyway. What I found remarkable, and this stands at the beginning of Koepnick’s book, is that the author approached Futurism from a slow angle, seeking instances of slowness in an age of high speed. Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus found its way into the book, the angel with the open wings standing amidst a speedy flow of progress and history. The angel is not slow, but the angel stands for stillness. In fact, throughout the book, Koepnick does not so much argue for the use of the word slow. More important to him is the fact that ‘slowness’ opens a complex relation of opposing temporalities, the result of which we can find in the artworks he focuses on in his book.

The idea is to see ‘slowness’ in speed. As already pointed out, we tend to forget that these aren’t entirely separate from each other. An example for this is Koepnick’s in-depth study of open shutter photography, which I personally found the best chapter of the entire book. In open photography, both speed and slowness come together. Koepnick approaches this form of photography from the angle of slowness. He refers to the work of Michael Weseley, for instance, who is known for his spooky photographs of train stations. Say, there is a train from Cologne to Berlin. He would set up the camera on the platform at Cologne train station and open the shutter when the train leaves. He would only close the shutter when the train had arrived in Berlin. The result is spooky, but stunning. Another example is the work of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. His photographs of cinema auditoriums are the result of a very similar approach. He opened the shutter when a film started to play on the screen, then closed the shutter at the end of the film.

Photography is known for its instantaneous nature. Then there is time-lapse photography, which brings home the idea of photography as being a ‘fast’ form of art. Where do we position open shutter photography? When I read through Koepnick’s arguments I was amazed by this. It made perfect sense to see this as slow photography. But then, is it really? You still capture speed, you capture movement over a long period of time, so in some ways Weseley and Sugimoto use slowness/time to capture speed/movement. Thus, Koepnick’s suggestion that different temporalities are connected in slow works becomes most explicit and obvious in his chapter on photography. He does not go into detail about the actual speed that is captured on the ‘slow’ photographs. Yet as a reader, you can go through the process in your head and you can see that open shutter photography, while being slow at first sight, is actually just one form of time. It is a complex construct of different temporalities. Using one word – slow or fast, regardless – is not entirely correct.

In another stunning analysis Koepnick combines speed with slowness. Tom Tykwer is known for his fast films, especially Run Lola Run (1998). How would you describe the film? I would describe it as a ‘film on speed’, in many ways. And yet, Koepnick makes it his task to see the corresponding slowness in the film, analysing the slow-motion scenes as well as the fact that Tykwer’s characters never have the latest technologies, which we would now regard as contributing to today’s speed. It is those small things that I never thought of. For me the film is fast and a perfect illustration (as far back as 1998) of the growing speed in and of society. But this isn’t what it is exclusively.

Koepnick sees the unseen/invisible in his book. He shows that there is no such thing as ‘just slow’. Slowness is rather one form of temporality which contributes to the complex, multiple layers of time we are confronted with every day. The funny thing is, I have argued a similar thing in my thesis in regards to Lav Diaz’s concentrationary universe, in which he shifts freely between ‘slowness’ and brief interludes of shocks that seem to speed up time. So we’re both on the same page. It’s just not as clear in my words as yet.

Not all chapters have the same quality, but Koepnick’s book is a real must-read if you want to learn more about slowness in contemporary art, or about temporality in art in general. It is an insightful study of how time is dealt with in several art forms – photography, cinema, video – so there’s something for everyone.

On Slowness, by Lutz Koepnick (2014) – now available on Amazon.

The films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation – Andrew Horton (1997)

When I was still in primary school, at the sweet age of nine, and had no idea that I would become a slow fanatic one day, someone wrote a book on contemplative cinema. That someone was Andrew Horton, and it appears rather strange to put the concept of contemplative cinema into the pre-2000 era. After all, the concept has largely been accredited to Harry Tuttle, and I wonder whether it’s again just one of those knee-jerk things, or whether someone has actually done a bit of work to see that Tuttle was not the person to come up with it. Even though this is by no means a competitive race about who’s first (it’s useless in a slow world anyway), it is important to put things straight before a proper debate on Slow Cinema can take place.

Horton’s book on the films of Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is one of those rare specimens on the market. I’m surprised to see so little work on Angelopoulos, and nothing substantial has come out of (especially!) academic film studies since Horton’s book in 1997. This is on the one hand surprising because Horton’s book is in no way complete. It is, rather, a nice introduction to the films of the Greek director, who, as I have figured while reading the book, shares quite a few similarities with Lav Diaz.

On the other hand, contemplative cinema – in whatever way, from whatever director – is not exactly a subject film scholars are fighting over. There is a comparatively big hype around Slow Cinema at the moment – since 2010, in fact, when Romney used the term ‘Slow Cinema’, which in fact he did as far back as 2004 but this is generally ignored – but I do not see this as a pointer to a persistent academic interest. It’ll be put aside pretty quickly again, and scholars will move on to something else.

As I said before, Horton’s book serves as an interesting medium to discover the films of Angelopoulos. It’s one of my big faults that I have so far only seen one film by him, but this shall change in future. I’m a bit behind with the ‘classics’. The first part of the book is almost excellent, I would say. Horton puts Angelopoulos’s films into the wider context of world cinema, starting with Greek cinema, then expanding to the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, cinema in the Balkans and East Europe, and he even points to similarities Angelopoulos’s aesthetics share with Japanese films of the early days. While this part is an interesting read, the in-depth analysis of similarities the Greek director shares with other filmmakers discredits his own achievements. It reads as though Angelopoulos’s films are an amalgamation of everything that has been before, which, in some ways, they are. But there is little emphasis on the director’s own approach to cinema.

This reminds me of what Lav Diaz told me when I asked him about influences. His work, as so many other slow films, are linked to Italian Neorealism, for instance. Diaz said he watched a lot of those films, but he would not consciously quote them. He’s not consciously influenced by, say, Rossellini. That means, to me, that I should focus on his films as what they are – his films. This is a major issue in the studies of Slow Cinema. One argument you will find pretty much everywhere is the influence of Italian Neorealism. I’m always surprised to read this. The use of long-takes, non-professional actors etc goes back to the very beginning of film history. Therefore, Slow Cinema is not similar to Italian Neorealism. It is simply cinema, a cinema that has always been there, long before neorealism.

What I particularly liked about Horton’s book is the dive into the similarities of Angelopoulos’s aesthetics and Byzantine art. It’s exactly what resonates with my own thoughts and experiences, namely that Slow Cinema is generally indebted to static art, mainly painting. Not so much the aesthetics, but the way the viewer has to approach the films or static art respectively. This becomes clear in Horton’s analysis. In this context, Horton also speaks about a “cinema of meditation”, which is a fitting description not only of Angelopoulos’s films. It could be applied to all slow films.

When I read through the book, I felt as if little new material has been generated in regards to Slow Cinema. The vast majority of arguments have been there before. It’s been 17 years since Horton’s book was published. Slow Cinema is “back in fashion”, but most of the things that are out there are recycled material. It is for this reason that I try to find niches, as I did in my paper on the concentrationary universe, in which I argued that there are similarities between the slowness in Lav Diaz’s films and the slowness as created through terror in concentration camps. Slow Cinema really needs some original research, and I’m hoping to contribute to this in one way or another.

Back to the book, though. The second part of the book is a rather boring piece, and a waste of paper in large parts. Horton discusses five films, but he spends so much time and space on elaborate in-depth synopses that there’s little space left for a decent argument about the actual film form, or whatever it was he wanted to focus on. It is not difficult to write a ten page synopses for a two or three hour film. Everyone can do it, so while I admired Horton’s work in the first half of the book, I felt that he lost the plot in the second half. He lost his decisiveness, his sharp eye. I don’t think that an almost shot by shot description of the film is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the films. A concise synopsis would do, with an in-depth analysis of the most important sequences. Endless synopses make the reading just so boring that the reader will most likely lose interest in the films, which shouldn’t be the result of a book on Slow Cinema. It’s pretty easy to put off your audience as it is, so you have to be clever. Long synopses are not a good strategy.

Overall, though, Horton’s book is decent, and a nice start on Slow Cinema. If you want an easy start into the matter, try this book. It’s cheap, too, compared to the book on Slow Cinema, which will be published next year (and which is, I think, a rip-off, as all academic books these days).

Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation (1997) – Andrew Horton, available on Amazon.

Slow Movies, Countering the Cinema of Action – Ira Jaffe (2014)

I reviewed Song Hwee Lim’s book on Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang earlier, and called Lim’s book the first appropriate book on Slow Cinema. Ira Jaffe’s Slow Movies is supposed to be a book about the phenomenon as such, which looks at several different directors to give a broad overview of what is out there. Sadly, I have to say that the book fails completely.

First of all, the title is misleading. It is true that the title “Slow Movies” may perhaps mean something other than Slow Cinema. But given that it was published at a time when Slow Cinema is receiving increased attention, you would expect that Jaffe has just used a different name. And somehow, I’m still not clear what he is actually talking about. In the introduction, he clearly sets out the characteristics of Slow Cinema. But then he gives examples that contradict his own approach, and uses film examples that are – I believe – in no way Slow Cinema.

Second, Jaffe brings very little to the field. Especially the first two chapters of the book are rather boring, and make slow films terribly unappealing. I’m thinking in particular about his section on Gus van Sant’s Elephant. We’ve seen it, lots has been written about, and everything he has mentioned has been there before. Reading this section is a waste of time, and of paper (and therefore of trees!).

There are also contradictions within his chapters. There are two examples I would like to point to. First is his use of Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch. I haven’t seen the film, but what he describes is not Slow Cinema. And true to the matter, he even says that Dead Man is an exception. He says that it is “not a slow movie in every respect.” Apart from the recurring on-screen (human) violence, which I judge as a no-go for Slow Cinema, he identifies shot/reverse shots, frequent cuts, close-ups and the use of gimmicks like flashbacks as elements that do not comply with the characteristics of what he faithfully calls ‘slow movies’. So what exactly is Dead Man then? Jaffe spends page after page on the film, and it becomes clearer and clearer that Dead Man shouldn’t be in the book at all.

Another irritating section was the one on 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu. On the one hand, he says that the characters “evince” a lot of emotion, but restraint of emotion is a key theme. So what exactly is the key theme? Again, he points out that the presence of emotion is not a key characteristic of slow movies. I have seen 4 Months and I know that it’s not Slow Cinema. It is slow, but it’s not Slow Cinema. This makes the entire book wholly confusing, because Jaffe appears to hop between Slow Movie and Slow Cinema. If all this is about slowness in films only, then this book is a useless piece because it has appeared in books on Antonioni, Gus van Sant, Sokurov etc before. In writing about exactly those directors, it is therefore a mere compilation of what has been there before. There was little point in bringing up the old topic again.

If it was an attempt at writing about Slow Cinema, the book has failed. Some film examples frankly don’t make sense, especially if the author himself says that they do not quite fit the trope. On top of it, I miss original analysis. Most of it is content description, with a few quotations – some of which return over and over again – thrown into it. Reading the book does not give me the feeling that Jaffe is an expert in slow movies. Nor does he seem to be totally immersed in it. Again, like Andras Balint Kovacs’s book on Béla Tarr, this one feels like a quick shot; the result of a race to be the first to publish on a new subject.

The hare and the turtle. I do have to say that for years I had wanted to be the first to publish on Béla Tarr. That one has obviously not materialised, but the first proper book is a failure, because it was a quick shot, exactly what I had in mind for myself. Then I wanted to be the first to publish a book on Slow Cinema. Jaffe’s book is a failure, a quick shot.

I’m really glad that I have become the turtle!

[Slow Movies – Countering the Cinema of Action, by Ira Jaffe, London: Wallflower Press, available on Amazon]

Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness – Song Hwee Lim (2014)

In 2003, Michel Ciment coined the term “a cinema of slowness.” A year later, Jonathan Romney coined the now popular term “Slow Cinema.” It’s quite remarkable that it took over a decade before the first book on the phenomenon was published. I would have expected literature on the subject much earlier than this, but as Song Hwee Lim – I suppose, correctly – points out, Slow Cinema has been somewhat brushed aside by academics. Lim’s book is therefore a premiere. And a good one.

I should make clear that it is, in fact, not really a book about Slow Cinema. Rather, it is an examination of Tsai Ming-liang’s films through which we get to know the aesthetics of slowness. I find the book a success for two reasons. First, Lim has succeeded to put Slow Cinema on paper, which is a real achievement, because it must be extremely difficult to convey the feeling of slowness with words. Yet, his book manages to create a wonderfully authentic image of slow films in general, in of Tsai’s films in particular.

And this is the second reason: the book is an intriguing study of Tsai’s films. Tsai’s oeuvre has attracted writers before, and I do have one book about him in my shelf, a review of which I can put up later. But although these books are interesting, they cannot quite grasp and convey the Tsai-ness of his films. Only Lim’s book does so adequately, and it was a joy to read it. It made me want to re-watch all of Tsai’s films, but unfortunately some other (slow) films have priority at the moment.

There is perhaps another important point I should make. While Cinema of Slowness had been written by an academic, it’s surprisingly open. There is always the risk (and I had many of them in my hands during my research) that films are so utterly theorised that no one apart from academic experts, or even just the author him/herself, understand it. It’s one reason why this blog is the way it is, because Slow Cinema is a phenomenon mainly carried by the audience, often people who have little to do with Film Studies at a university. I personally find that this very fact requires us to make everything that is written accessible to the wider public.

Now, Lim’s book manages the balance between academic analysis and lay film-watching superbly. It’s detailed, but not dry, boring or even off-putting (as is the case with András Balínt Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr). Nor is the book jam-packed. As the first book on Slow Cinema, it could have been a compilation of all thoughts on Slow Cinema out there, basically a roundup of everything that can be said (again, as is the case on Kovacs’s book).

Instead, as strange as it may sound, the book is slow. Lim compiles a lot of material on slow films. Yet, he does not overwhelm the reader with too much information. On the contrary, he manages a smooth integration into an analysis of Tsai’s films, which makes for a smooth and slow reading without being hastened by the author through something that is inherently slow. I also had the rather astonishing experience that I agreed to everything. Before the publication of this book, there were so many things about Slow Cinema that vexed me. This blog was used to argue against those points, and, funnily enough, a lot of the things I have had in mind, appear in Lim’s book. It feels as though I have found a slow (soul) mate.

If you are a keen follower of Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang, this book is perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give you for the time being. It works both as a nice introduction to the phenomenon, as well as a lively but not tiring analysis of one of the most prolific representatives of Slow Cinema.

(Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness, by Song Hwee Lim, University of Hawai’i Press, now available on Amazon)

Review: Béla Tarr, The Time After – Jacques Rancière

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed András Bálint Kovács’ book The Cinema of Béla Tarr (2013), which turned out to be a disappointment. Jacques Rancière’s book (original title: Béla Tarr, Le temps d’après) was published in 2011. The English translation hit the book market last year.

If I wanted to review the book in only one sentence, I would say that it’s much better than Kovács’ book. By miles. I read the French and the English version, the latter has been done well to come as close to the original as possible. The most outstanding fact of the book is that it conveys the atmosphere of Tarr’s movies to a greater extent. The book is at times rather poetic, which fits well to Tarr’s filmmaking. It’s a book that stays true to the subject it is studying. I missed this in Kovács’ book, in which Tarr’s films were quantified and dissected into a great many pieces. The over-analytical approach irritated me, and because of its approach the book wasn’t the greatest advertisement for Tarr’s cinema.

Rancière’s approach is different. I had the feeling that he doesn’t quantify the films. Rather, he focused on the quality of the films. His style of writing is very different from that of Kovács’. If you expect an academic study of Tarr’s films, you may not be happy with The Time After. Analysis takes over towards the end of the book, but until then it all feels like an experience. Tarr’s films, too, are experiences, as is the case with the vast majority of slow films. The main factor that distinguishes them from contemporary narrative (blockbuster) cinema is that it’s an experience, instead of an action-packed entertainment parcel.

I do have to admit that it was sometimes difficult to follow Rancière. At times it felt as if he drifted off, and didn’t care anymore whether the reader could follow him. It felt as if he was in his own world, and yes, sometimes it read as if he wasn’t writing, but speaking. This tone made the reading an entirely different affair. I had a much better image of Tarr’s films. I could feel the images, and this is so essential about his films.

With his poetic writing, I assume, Rancière manages to wake the interest of the reader who is not familiar with Tarr’s films. The book is an experiential piece without its ever giving away too much of the films themselves. When you’re done with Kovács’ book, you have pretty much seen all of Tarr’s films. His study is so detailed that you don’t have to see the films anymore. On the other hand, the tedious analysis might have put you off the films anyway. Rancière, in contrast, points to aspects of Tarr’s films, without making a detailed analysis out of it – just as Tarr would have liked it. He said several times that his films shouldn’t be analysed or interpreted. I always found this to be a somewhat arrogant statement of an auteur, but after I read Kovács’ book I could see the truth in Tarr’s point.

This is for me the biggest success of Rancière’s book: he does not put people off Tarr’s films. He makes them sound interesting. His writing remains true to the films and to Tarr’s filmmaking. There’s no attempt at analysing every scene of every film. The only 92 pages strong book covers Tarr’s entire oeuvre superbly. At times, it’s confusing, I have to admit, because Rancière jumps from one film to another. Overall, however, it feels as if he said everything that can realistically be said about Tarr’s films without making it a dry, distant and utterly boring affair. There may be more books on Tarr in the future, who knows. But The Time After is definitely the one to top for me.

[Béla Tarr, The Time After, by Jacques Rancière, Univocal, available on Amazon]

Review: The Cinema of Béla Tarr – András Bálint Kovács

Kovács’ book is not the first book on Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Jacques Rancière has equally published a book, though rather slim, about Tarr, titled Le temps d’après (2011). It’s been available in English since last summer, I believe. Rancière’s book felt a bit like a quick shot attempt at writing about Tarr after he had announced his retirement from filmmaking. The good thing about this book was that it came close to catching the atmosphere of his films. At least it felt this way in the French language version. I haven’t had the chance to flick through the English version.

András Bálint Kovács has published on Tarr before, mainly journal articles, which I was actually fond of, when I started my slow obsession. Kovács is a good friend of Tarr’s, and has, according to himself, shared the manuscript with the filmmaker before publication. When I read this, I thought that it must be a good piece of work, given that Tarr himself had a look over it. I was proven wrong.

Kovács’s book encompasses Tarr’s entire oeuvre, from his early social realist films such as Family Nest (1977) and The Prefab People (1982) to his last two films The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011). The book starts off well. It begins with a chapter on Tarr himself, which I found to be very interesting in parts. I’ve read extensively on him in the last couple of years, but there were still a few bits and pieces here and there that slipped through or that never came up in the stuff that I had read. Kovács then kind of chronologically moves from Style in the Early Years to style in his later works with a seemingly comprehensive study of characters, camera movement and everything you can think of.

And this is the problem – everything you can think of. Kovács has tried to put literally everything into a 175 page book on the director. His analysis becomes more and more crammed toward the end, which made it extremely difficult to finish the book. He’s analysing eleven (slow!) films in roughly 150 pages, in all their details, of course. It feels as if Kovács didn’t want leave anything left for other people to write about. It feels as if he wrote this book in panic, which completely ruined the impression of Tarr’s films, which are the complete opposite of what I think Kovács has created in his book.

I was always wary of writing about Tarr (and now, Lav Diaz), because I was worried that writing about him would take away the essence of his works. I wasn’t entirely wrong. Kovács’ book is a good example of how not to tackle Tarr’s oeuvre. If you read the book before having seen any of this films, it would probably put you off. This is mainly because of the extensive quantitative analysis Kovács has undertaken. In detail, he describes how often the girl in The Turin Horse takes up sewing, and how often her father takes a drink before seeing the dying horse. In detail, he describes how the shot length has steadily increased within Sátántángo (1994), making it a tedious read full of numbers and information that make Tarr’s films sound more boring than anything else.

The problem is that Kovács has quantified Tarr’s style. He hasn’t managed to bring his films as such on paper. Kovács has put crude numbers and readings on paper that lack insight, which is astonishing giving their friendship. The reader is confronted with diagrams illustrating the “Rate of Moving Camera” or the ASL. Somewhere in this mix of numbers and diagrams, Kovács forgot to make the films look human in a way. There’s very little on the atmosphere in the films and the actual contents. Or even just the photographic beauty of the cinematography. I would have loved to see more insights, less detachment, less scientific analysis. Film is art, and while scientific analysis can be helpful, it is not the best way to conquer an entire oeuvre by one of the most prolific directors in arthouse cinema.

If you tell someone that Lav Diaz’s films are six hours long or more, they laugh at you. Only if you tell them what the films are about, they become curious. If you read Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr, they would be just as uninterested. If I hadn’t been familiar with Tarr’s work, this book would have put me off on page 50 already.

[The Cinema of Béla Tarr – The Circle Closes, by András Bálint Kovács, Columbia University Press, available on Amazon]