Some (Futurist) Thoughts

Those who read this blog regularly, or those who know me personally, are aware of my hostility towards the opposition of Slow Cinema to Hollywood, or any form of popular cinema. There is just something that makes it too simple, too obvious. Here’s a better suggestion: Futurism.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was it who published the Futurist Manifesto in 1909, when cinema was still in its teens. In a nutshell, Futurist art involved speed, noise, the cityscape – everything that is not Slow Cinema. Marinetti writes that there’s a “dread of slowness, pettiness, analysis, and detailed explanations.” (Apollonio 1973: 97-98) Instead, the focus lied on quick pace. In the founding manifesto, Marinetti proposes that “the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed … Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” (Apollonio 1973: 21)

Futurism was about movement, about dynamism. Artists wanted to do away with contemplation, described the existence of museums as “vicious”, and banned everything that was “considered as objects of feeling” (Apollonio 1973: 125), i.e. landscapes, still-lifes, even the human body. Moreover, they wanted to do away with silence. In their view, the invention of machines has created noise, and this is what Futurist music, for instance, was expected to mirror. Exemplary is this argument by Luigi Russolo:

“For many years Beethoven and Wagner shook our nerves and hearts. Now we are satiated and  WE FIND FAR MORE ENJOYMENT IN THE COMBINATION OF THE NOISES OF TRAMS, BACKFIRING MOTORS, CARRIAGES AND BAWLING CROWDS THAN IN REHEARING, for example, THE ‘EROICA’ OR THE ‘PASTORAL’.” (emphasis original, there you can see just HOW important it was for them!) (Apollonio 1973: 27)

Futurism was to be found in all forms of art, from painting to music to dance. There was even a manifesto for Futurist Men’s Clothing! What about the cinema? Cinema was included in the Futurist movement fairly late, in 1916. From the original period, however, there aren’t any surviving films left. Film was the ideal medium for delivering speed and noise. It was seen as “killing” the book, and replacing drama. Just as was proposed in the manifesto for synthetic theatre, everything was supposed to be shown in brevity.

I’m not going to oppose Slow Cinema to Futurism in my work. Not as such. However, Futurism appears to be a good starting point for our discussion on tempo in the arts, or rather, the obsession with it. There is no slowness without speed. But saying popular cinema is fast and therefore represents the true opponent of slow film, implies a short cut, and, for me, an avoidance of some real work.

The spirit of plastic arts

Le cinéma incorpore le temps à l’espace. Mieux. Le temps, par lui, devient réellement une dimension de l’espace. (Cinema incorporates time to space. Through this, time really becomes a dimension of space.) [Elie Fauré – De la cineplastique]

Elie Fauré was a French art historian. A posthumously published collection of essays entitled Fonction du cinema: l’art de la société industrielle contains several thought-provoking opinions about cinema and its similarities to and its differences from other art forms. Having been an art historian, Fauré saw cinema in the light of painting, music, even architecture and dance, rather than as a form of art which is entirely separate from everything that had existed before. While it is true that Fauré had a strong admiration for cinema, and hence celebrated it as being unique, original, perhaps even better (in the 1920s!), he established a link to cinema’s past, to its predecessors. Something that is hardly ever done these days, neither on the side of film studies nor on the side of art history.

The reason I mention Fauré in the context of Slow Cinema is because I have joked in my last entry that I might align slow films with the plastic arts. I am already working on painting, a plastic art, and I cannot help but thinking that sculpture, too, could be a good form of art to study with regards to Slow Cinema. But this remains to be seen as I’m struggling at the moment to gather substantial findings to prove my theory.

Fauré coined the term cineplastics in order to put emphasis on the plastic specificity of cinema. In contrast to the 1920s, when his essay was published, cinema today is seen as a plastic art in the broader sense, though I do not fully agree to it. What I am interested in doing, however, is using Fauré’s more open term “the spirit of plastic arts” and apply it to Slow Cinema. Though not in the strict sense he had imagined.

Robert Rogers published an essay on Fauré’s foray in the 1950s. He himself appears to be more in favour of motion-painting, but this is, to my mind, too limiting. In his article, Rogers focuses primarily on experimental films, which would, perhaps, be termed structuralist today. Or perhaps everything but narrative. One example is Hans Richter’s Rhythm 21 (1921).

But I’m sure that once some adjustments have been done, cineplastics is what I was looking for. It would also simplify the discussion of slow films, or video art by slow-film directors in galleries and museums. Tsai Ming-liang once said in an interview after the release of Visage, which was commissioned by Le Lovure Museum, Paris, that “gradually my movies find a home, and that is the museum” (Bordeleau, 2012) We should keep this in mind.

No Slow, No Cinema

Slow films seem to be simple at first sight, but studying them is difficult. Given that you make a real attempt at it without falling into traps like “Slow Cinema is slow because Hollywood is fast”. Or “There is just nothing happening, there’s no action!”.

Perhaps, I’m too pedantic about terms. Perhaps, I’m making things too complicated. In any way, I always have been someone who asks questions. And my questions have already led me to believe that Slow Cinema is a hybrid of film and video. I still stick to it. In fact, after a lot of reading on video art, I’m ever more convinced that the term ‘film’, or ‘cinema’ might not give us the best research background.

Also, the term ‘slow’ is, despite a simplicity that everyone will understand no matter if he’s a cinephile or not, subjective, relative, and does not necessarily do the films justice. The films appear slow, but that doesn’t mean they are slow. As Harry Tuttle wonderfully pointed out: “Slow Cinema doesn’t modify time, it restores the perception of time we usually have in life.” Jessica Morgan writes: “it is not that the artists represent slow time, merely that they have us watch real time in real time with the resulting impression that the image has been slowed.” (Morgan 2004: 23) Perhaps, Slow Cinema is ‘normal’?

And as if this wasn’t enough, the term ‘cinema’ might be inappropriate, too. I only got this idea after I read an interesting article by Philip Dodd. He says, “cinema may be popular, but film not.” (Dodd 1996: 35) This statement is easy, but do ask yourself how often we have used the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘film’ without pondering if there was a difference. I’m aware that Dodd hints to only a possibility. Yet, is it not always mainstream cinema, entertainment cinema. And, surprise, arthouse film? Experimental film?

If (and I only say if) Slow Cinema wasn’t really slow, nor really ‘cinema’, and if it had more similarities to video than to film, what would it be? With the ideas that have shaped up lately, I’m tempted to put it on par with the plastic arts, and I might actually do it in three years, once I have found answers to my questions.

What is Slow Cinema?

No, I do not undertake a heroic attempt of defining it. Slow Cinema is based on too many relative factors that, in fact, defy a definition. More fundamentally, though, I ask myself whether or not we actually speak about the right thing. More to the point, are we really speaking about film here?

Yesterday, I spoke of an academic standstill, expressed by a kind of “negative growth” of output. Neither film critics nor film academics appear to demonstrate a drive for groundbreaking research. I’ve often wondered why this was the case and while I’m happy to be on the forefront of this research, I cursed academics at the same time for being blind, and seemingly ignorant.

The situation looks very different, though, if you consider that film might not be the most suitable framework, or concept to discuss in relation to Slow Cinema. The word ‘cinema’ alone implies that we are speaking of film. The films we’re speaking of are screened in cinemas. At festivals, yes. But nevertheless in a cinema. Although the cinema venue as such has changed, and we can watch even operas and theatre plays on screen, the main association we have with a cinema is film.

From the moment I started reading about exhibitions, which included all types of art forms, I had the feeling that slow films (?) are screened in the wrong venues. Technically, they are gallery exhibits, especially the films by Lav Diaz, which offer you, in theory, the luxury that you can come and go, take a break, return and the film as such would still be there. This may not be true for all slow films, but it is true for the specific slow films I’m studying.

Now, screening a film in a gallery – does it not come closer to a video? I have to admit that the thought of slow videos might sound absurd, but this very absurdity seems to hold the key to understanding the concept and the reception of this slow-moving time-based visual artefact.

“The difference between film and video are contingent rather than essential, certainly as far as the art world is concerned. The difference between them is rather like the difference between drawing with a pencil and with a pen or a stick of charcoal.” (Peter Wollen – Time in Video and Film Art)

Academic Standstill

“[W]hat has been peculiar about this recuperation of art’s relation to film is that, in terms of the ‘film’ or ‘cinema’ part of the equation, it has consistently sidelined the kinds of film that would on the face of it appear most relevant to late-modern and contemporary artistic practice – that is, the various forms of avant-garde, experimental, poetic, materialist and structuralist cinema that have eschewed the conventions of the narrative feature.” (Barry Schwabsky, Art, Film, Video – Separation or Synthesis?)

Schwabsky’s point illustrates the very obstacle I’m facing at this moment. There are several aspects to this.

Slow Cinema, no matter where you look for information, is repeatedly said to be part of arthouse cinema. Main reason being that the films don’t comply with anything that popular movies make us believe is “normal”. I’m not keen on using this age-old opposition, but it serves to make a point here. It is striking that the terms art filmarthouse film, etc haven’t triggered an academic interest in the very aspect that characterises these films: art. This is not only true for Slow Cinema, mind you. There is a general lack of research into the connection of (art) films with art forms, which essentially make up cinema as the Seventh Art. Instead, there is an abundance of literature on aspects that make art films not popular. All this is written from the POV of film critics, film academics. Their focus lies in film, and reading one piece of literature after the other makes me wonder why the term art film is used if we focus on film only, and not on art.

In 2003, Michel Ciment coined the term “cinema of slowness”, a year later Jonathan Romney surprised with the term “Slow Cinema”. It’s said that the 2000s have resulted in a renewed interest in slow films, perhaps, I would guess, because it coincided with the beginning of major digital expansion, ergo a major increase in speed via technology, which in turn made us more aware of the alternatives. It’s been a decade that the topic was picked up, but there has been no development in the area. If you gathered material on Slow Cinema written on blogs, for magazines, for conferences, and put all of them next to each other, you’d get a sense of how little has been done. Rather than exploring the phenomenon of Slow Cinema, it is treated shallowly according to its surface structure. The result is, ironically, that you don’t learn anything about Slow Cinema if you read on Slow Cinema. I get the feeling that everyone wants to jump on the slow train, no matter how, but people forget that they actually need to work for the train to move. It doesn’t move all by itself.

And while the world of film (critics, academics) attempts an explanation of the slow phenomenon, the real progress is made, and has been made for a long time already, in the arts sector. You have to trust me on this for a little while, as I have to hold my horses here. I don’t want to give too much away just yet, because I intend to include some of it in an article for publication in a few months.

Why painting?

In the previous blog entry, I mentioned my research direction with regards to a paper I will present in December. In my thesis, I will focus not only on the links between Slow Cinema and painting. I will also look at literature, for instance. But I don’t want to jump ahead at the moment.

So I leave you with: Why painting? It seems more straightforward to analyse the influence of photography on Slow Cinema. The issue with this is that it would be a) a short-cut, and b) inadequate.

It would be wrong to neglect photography in this research. However, photography is the successor of painting. Many aspects of composition we are now familiar with in photographs stem from the art of painting. True, the photo camera can record things painters would not be able to ‘record’ with their own eyes. It is also correct that photography introduced entirely new aspects, such as the close-up. But strikingly enough, neither of the two things I have just mentioned features greatly in slow films. In fact, you would have to look really hard to find close-ups, for instance. The way characters are framed (usually in long-shots, or at least medium-long shots) resembles the way painters treated their subjects. Even after the invention of photography and the emergence of the close-up, many painters shied away from using it. Their aim was to show Man in his surrounding. Also, thinking of landscape painting, slow films make a particular point in focusing on nature, its effects on Man and vice versa. So why is photography a short-cut? We would simply assume that because cinema is a photographic medium, it has its origin in photography. Which, in parts, is true. But film is The Seventh Art, a mix of all previous art forms. Hence we need to return to art forms which have existed prior to the arrival of film on screen.

A lot of ongoing research focuses on time in film, and how slow-film directors stretch time to an extreme. While I’m a bit reluctant to jump on the same train, because I’m convinced that there is more to Slow Cinema than its treatment of time, I need to explore time in the arts in general. One point I have come across is the invention of photography and its effects on painting. By the mid-19th century, the photo camera was hailed as a time-saver. Especially the art of portraiture became much faster. It took only a click on a button, and a portrait photograph was taken. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was a lengthy, time-consuming process. For big family portraits, in particular, dozens of sittings were needed before a painting could be finished. Jules Janin “praised the daguerreotype for its usefulness to the artist ‘who does not have time to draw’.” (Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, 1968, p26) In effect, photography has introduced speed to the arts, and thinking of the treatment of time in slow films it would be wrong to focus exclusively on an art form, which set off the drive towards speed.

Let me give quote from a fantastic journal for visual culture, published by the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, Scotland. It may make things a bit clearer:

“One of the features of paint as a medium…is its slowness. That seems increasingly important to the quality of the experience – the sense of the artist’s work, and thought, and consideration, which is unpacked by the viewer.” (Alan Woods in conversation with painter Howard Hodgkin, Transcript 03/02, p.11)