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)