Slow Cinema at the Museum!?

Slow Cinema is often, wrongly, seen in terms of boredom. For me, this has two reasons. The first one is the term itself. In an era of ever-increasing speed, ‘slow’ has negative connotations. It literally screams ‘boredom’. Second, no one has ever questioned why the films appear boring. Is it the long takes people can’t find the patience to endure? Is it the lack of dialogue that make people want to fall asleep? Or is it the emptiness of the frames that the audience interprets as not sparkling enough to keep their attention?

My view on it is this: Slow films are shown at the wrong venue. Cinemas have been an age-old venue for the entertainment of people. The films make you laugh, they make you cry. The cinema as an institution is capable of taking you out of this world and of leading you into a fictional one. The reasons for why people go to cinemas have been clear for decades; it ranges from entertainment to escape. Yet, what happens if you screen slow films, which have strong parallels to static art forms, in cinemas?

The expectations of the filmgoer are not, and cannot be fulfilled. Yes, compared to all films screened in cinemas (and I don’t mean popular films exclusively), slow films appear to be boring. But this is merely the case because the venue shapes the viewer’s expectations. We do not go to the cinema in order to contemplate a film. Contemplation is not part of the cinema-concept. Museums and galleries, however, have always been a place for exactly this.

Michael Newman writes that “once the moving image is placed in the gallery it is implicitly experienced in relation to art that does not move: painting, sculpture, and photography.” (Newman 2009: 96) Peter Osborne argues that the venue influences the temporalities of a video work (Osborne 2004). Does this mean that the temporality of slow films appears to be ‘slow’ only in cinemas, but as ‘normal’ in galleries? I suggest it does.

Interestingly, there is a movement towards adding films by slow-film directors to permanent museum collections, which should tell us something. The Louvre commissioned a film by Tsai Ming-liang, and added Visage (2009) to its permanent collection. Further, his short It’s a Dream (2007) was acquired by the Taiwanese Fine Art Museum in 2012. In 2007, Apichatpong Weerasethakul produced a short for the National Palace Museum in Taipei. And last year, the Walker Arts Centre commissioned a film by him; Cactus River.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Rather, I think that it gives us clues as to why the perception of slow films is distorted.

A matter of kinetics

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that I intend to draw parallels between Slow Cinema and the static arts. I also established a link between slow films and painting, and gave a reason for why this was possible. Apart from Michel Chion’s work on vococentrism in film, however, there is an additional aspect, which allows for my approach.

Kinetics, or Kinetic Art. The term “kinetics” implies motion, movement. Kinetic Art has become particularly prominent in the 1950s. Kinetic sculptures – sculptures with moving parts – were specially widespread. In his book Kinetic Art, Frank Popper (1968) explores the history and the development of kinetic art. He starts off with revealing how Impressionist painters had depicted movement by focusing on elements such as boats, horses, railways, etc.

What I find interesting in this context is the fact that film has apparently never been seen as a kinetic form of art, despite it’s being kinetic in itself, being comprised of moving images. Characters move on screen. So do objects. And if you think of video, the spectator moves, too. (Am I thinking things too easy here?)

Anyway, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren said that film was much closer to music and dance than to the plastic arts. In general, this cannot be denied. Film and music / dance are time-based art forms. Therefore, they have in common the characteristic feature of development in time. They’re rhythmic.

But what happens to film if you slow it down? Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho is a good example here. Gordon slowed down every frame of Hitchcock’s original, so that the film plays over 24h. The movement in the frames is barely perceptible. Slow films are not quite that extreme. However, most of them employ a static camera work, and characters move slowly or not at all (hence, they appear [almost] static).

Further, few of the films depict objects that convey the meaning of movement. I focus on the films by Lav Diaz at the moment, and movement (or kinetics) is almost non-existent. Say, you can hear cars and motorbikes, but you hardly ever see them. If I remember right, Heremias Book I has been the only film to date that featured cars and motorbikes. And an ox cart. But that one gets stolen.

Apart from this diversion, though, Lav Diaz’ films are more static than kinetic, more painting than moving image, therefore more related to the plastic arts than to the time-based art forms, like music and dance.

What is Slow Cinema 2.0

During my research I have come across a number of slow film festivals, which implied that Slow Cinema is not as marginal as sometimes thought. The most telling example is the Slow Film Fest in Hungary. Until last year, it had been an annual festival showcasing a wide range of slow film. The programme of 2010 indicates just how varied the submissions had been. Unfortunately, the festival was discontinued. I am currently in contact with the man behind the festival, and will publish (with his permission, of course) more details about the festival.

Slow Cinema, or slow film, is picked up regularly. Even the Design Week in Budapest had a specially curated Slow Cinema strand last year. But there’s still no coherent explanation of what SC really is. The attempts of describing it are incoherent, as they are based on a debate of (subjective) time, and the films’ technical aspects, which limits the view on SC as being simply a reaction of filmmakers to the high-speed screen entertainment in today’s world.

I propose something entirely different. Something that, if you take your time to see, makes all the difference.

Slow Cinema is a treatment of time not associated with Western cultures.

Too simple? But this is what it is. Slow Cinema is an expression of Eastern perceptions of time. Time is not reversible, as is technically the case in the West, as all it takes is reversing our clock. Philip Rawson (Art and Time, 2005) opposes our perception of time with that of Eastern cultures; the ancient water clocks implying that time is irreversible. Time keeps flowing, and cannot be chopped up, rearranged, etc. as is the case in contemporary popular film. Also, Slow Cinema is essentially a study of the present. It is an observation, a meditation.

More to the point, Amy Cappellazzo writes,

“Western philosophical discourse has a relationship to time that, in general, does not emphasise an awareness of the present moment … There is no religious or philosophical practice like Zen, for example, which frames what we would call ‘real time’ as an opportunity for deeper contemplation and, ideally, understanding of our human condition.” (2000, 16)

Think about it….

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.

Diary of a Young Boy

This is the title of Tsai Ming-liang’s new film. There isn’t a lot of information out there. What I could find was that the film is in post-production, and that the distribution rights are held by Urban Distribution International. So, we will have a chance to see it eventually!

A short synopsis from their website:

“A father and his two young kids are looking for a Noah’s Ark to survive in a society that madly over-consumes.”

It looks intriguing to me. There is a (slow) critique of society included again. I’ll keep my eyes open for possible screenings!

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.

Tsai Ming-Liang – Visage (2009)

Let us recall some of the characteristics that are usually associated with Slow Cinema; unknown actors / actresses, tendency to frame characters in medium or long shots, little dialogue, if any. Naturally, there are always exceptions to the rule, and Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage (2009, watch the trailer here) demonstrates that you can slightly alter these characteristics without compromising the actual nature of slow film.

As with every slow film, Visage is difficult to sum up. I could say, in brief, that it is about a Malay director shooting a film in France. It could even be an homage to Truffaut, whose films have greatly influenced Liang. But the real interest is not so much the story. The film’s strengths lie, as usual, in the cinematography, the banal, often ridiculous incidents, and in the scenes, which often cause a WTF in my head. Visage is by all means a typical Tsai Ming-liang film.

Yet, this films make me question if the characteristics we researchers have come up with, are necessary for a slow film. What’s different about Visage? As the name (Face) suggests the focus lies in faces, which are shown in close-up. It is rare that close-up shots are used in slow films (hence the idea of painting), but here it comes as natural as in any other film. Not surprisingly, it feels more intense, more intimate. We’re closer to the character and can decipher his or her facial expressions. I would call it a new dimension in the art of Slow Cinema.

Also, Liang makes use of famous French actors and personalities. Laetitia Casta plays the Star, Jean-Pierre Léaud the King (he played Antoine in The 400 Blows by Truffaut), Fanny Ardent plays both the producer and the Queen. And this is not the end of the list of French actors. All three, however, are ‘popular’ personalities, and yet, to my surprise, they did a wonderful job in this slow film.

True, they talk more than the Malaysian actors, hence the aspect of little dialogue is only partly valid here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nevertheless an almost silent film. But, proportionally, there’s more dialogue amongst the French actors than amongst the other half on set.

Despite diverting away from his usual concept, if only slightly, Liang, one of my favourites out there, demonstrates with Visage that it can be unhelpful to think too much in terms of definitions. There’s a lot more to the film, so updates might follow in the course of my research.

Tsai Ming-liang – Walker

After films such as I don’t want to sleep aloneThe Wayward Cloud, and What Time is it there? [I apologise for this trailer, it’s the only one I could find and it’s Hollywoodian advertising of a slow film…outch!], Malay filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang produced a beautiful short film, commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival. If I was to write a review for Walker (2012), I would write only one sentence: This short is a powerful reminder to slow down!

Tsai Ming-liang is the only slow-film director I’m aware of whose films are not set in rural areas; a characteristic that is predominant regarding the films I study at the moment. Instead, he juxtaposes the vast, bustling urban space with lonely, isolated, depressed, and empty characters. Just the type of character we often come across in slow films. What is different in Tsai Ming-liang’s films is that he makes a direct connection between the urban space and its knock-down effects on individuals.

Walker illustrates this dichotomy of fast vs slow in a striking way. Do take half an hour, and watch this beautiful film.