Mainstream Slow Cinema

Two terms that do not go together. I’m well aware of this. But a thought occurred to me last night, which, to be honest, has been in the back of my head for a while now.

Slow Cinema is not as invisible anymore as it had been. With the help of a large amount of bloggers, the phenomenon has been put into our awareness. Thanks to those writings, we are now aware of main players like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Albert Serra and others. If there’s anything I learned during the initial stage of my research then it’s the fact that these directors are Slow Cinema. That’s it. There is a set list of directors who have become incredibly famous over the last few years. If something does get written on Slow Cinema, then it’s on one of those directors. In the realm of Slow Cinema, they are big names. The biggest amongst the big names is perhaps Béla Tarr.

With Nick James’ comment that the era of Slow Cinema has come to an end, I have realised that there is little flexibility in the field. We anticipate and focus on new films by famous slow-film directors. I have quite a substantial, and actually incomplete list of work that has been done on the big names. Slowly but surely, they even attract book publication, as is the case with Tsai, Tarr, Apichatpong and now even Serra.

The flipside of all this is that we miss development in the field. I miss someone who goes beyond the usual. Don’t get me wrong, I love the films of the directors mentioned here. But I do wonder whether we do ourselves and Slow Cinema a favour by retaining the focus on those who are already famous in their own way. Have Tsai, Apichatpong, Tarr, Reygadas, and Serra not become extremely popular in the last few years? Can we not describe them as the mainstream of Slow Cinema?

Slow Cinema was kind of seen as a phenomenon of the first decade of the 2000s. I wonder whether there’s anyone trying to trace the next generation (apart from me). I have a problem with the term Slow Cinema and its recent developments, and we may want to branch it out into more specific kinds of Slow Cinema.

For once, directors begin to make use of special effects, which wasn’t in the original concept lay film critics have compiled. Slow films were simply “natural”, and not manipulated. Reygadas’ special effects in Post Tenebras Lux are exemplary here. I have also mentioned in an earlier post that Apichatpong’s Mekong Hotel questions a few characteristics as well by including more dialogue, and more music; elements that speed up the experienced pace of the film. In a clip from Tsai’s new film Stray Dogs, the surrounding looks pretty crowded to me. It still feels slow, but compared to his other films, the frames appear crowded, the action in the background seems hectic. There are certain developments in the films of known slow-film directors away from their usual type of filmmaking they became famous with, which isn’t bad. But it makes people believe that Slow Cinema is coming to an end.

Which, of course, it isn’t. Here’s a wonderful discovery of a new generation of Slow Cinema: Yulene Olaizola. Her two feature films are what Slow Cinema originally started off with. Her first feature, Artificial Paradise (2011), was funded by the Hubert Bals Fund. Hear next feature, Fogo (2012), was screened at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes last year. Fogo reminded me of The Nine Muses somehow. But anyway, there has basically been nothing written about her and her films. Despite her screening at Cannes. Do critics deliberately ignore new slow films? These two films are so obviously Slow Cinema that I’m surprised that no one has picked up on it. They’re slow, set in rural areas, use little dialogue, focus on only a handful of characters, they’re painterly (that’s for me!), they depict the mundane, the everyday, etc You can tick all the boxes, if you want to tick them.

But, you can achieve everything if you just want to. So if you want the era of Slow Cinema to come to an end, then it is possible by closing your eyes. By not showing an interest in a new generation. By not actively seeking alternatives to the already well-known big names of the phenomenon. And this, for that matter, is easier done than said (yes, I intend this to be the wrong way around).

Southcliffe is Slow

Is it really?

The new four-part drama on Channel 4 received substantial attention before the first episode went on air. This was not only due to the rather sensitive issues of trauma, loss and grief. It initially caught my attention because it had been described as “slow”. This was the case at least for the first episode, and I thought that the whole series was supposed to use a pace different to the one we’re used to see on television.

True, Southcliffe starts off slow. The takes are fairly long, the pans are slow. So are the zooms. It is set in a small village far off civilisation as it seemed to me. There were also quite a few scenes that began and ended with temps mort. Some of the shots reminded me strongly of slow films. Those shots taken from inside a car driving through the countryside, for example, can only evoke memories of Ben Rivers’ Two Years At Sea.

The first episode builds up towards the fatal shooting rampage in Southcliffe. The slow pace is therefore suitable because it supports the tension slowly creeping up on you. It creates an eerie feeling. It is idyllic and quiet. At the same time, however, it is creepy because you know that this idyllic landscape will be home to a shooting rampage. So, yes. The first episode got me. The takes could have been a tick longer, though, but this is personal preference, I suppose.

The big BUT happens in episode two. The series doesn’t stick to its pace, even though I think that if you really wanted to explore this topic properly, you needed slowness. The takes are shorter, and there is less in-depth exploration of the actual situation the characters are in. The jump between episode two and three was too big (too fast?), and I read that episode four will be set a year after the shooting. Now, if this is not a fast treatment of trauma…

What I’m trying to say is that it looked slow at the beginning, but the overall pace across the four episodes doesn’t match the pace required to create a powerful insight into what I think they wanted to explore: the harrowing aftermath of a shooting rampage.

For this to be a success you would need to spend more time with the characters. True, I did argue in my other blog that it may appear like standing on a motorway during rush hour after you’ve been hit by a traumatising event. However, this is not about showing the motorway. It is about a character study, which can only be done slowly.

TV producers can learn a lot from Slow Cinema in this respect. The time spent on character studies is exactly what always makes it seem so “boring”. But once you have spent six hours with a character in a slow film and feel as if you yourself have been through six hours of tormenting thoughts and violence, then you will spot the remarkable difference it makes if mental issues are not explored slowly and when you’re suddenly asked to jump one year ahead in the narrative from one episode to the next.

This is not to say that Southcliffe isn’t a good series. It’s one of the few TV dramas I would perhaps recommend. And I hate TV, so that’s something. I only wished they would have done it a bit slower.

Norte – A Verdict

I was in the privileged position to be able to watch Lav Diaz’s latest film Norte, which was nominated in the category Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes festival. The critics were amazed. Nick James and Kieron Corless celebrated Norte as the best film of the festival in the July issue of Sight&Sound. There were also rumours that distributors were keen on Diaz’s film. What a great success for him!

Now that I have seen the film, however, it puts the reviews and the hype around his nomination into perspective. This is not to say that Norte isn’t a good film. Not at all. It is a great modern exploration of Crime and Punishment, filled with Filipino struggles and philosophical discourses. The tension slowly creeps up on you, and when you least expect it, it hits you. I find it astonishing that Diaz manages to do this both within four and within nine hours. And after I have seen Butterflies Have No Memories, a short, it seems as if he manages this in any time length you provide him with.

I would like to point to a few other things that struck me while watching the film, keeping the reviews in mind. I don’t want to give all too much away of the film, because you should see it by yourself. So I will have to make it short here, so as to avoid too many spoilers.

As can be taken from the screenshots that were released prior to Cannes, we can see that the film was made in colour as opposed to his black-and-white filmmaking. With four hours, Norte is considerably shorter than Melancholia, Encantos, or even Florentina Hubaldo. We have less scenes that begin or end with temps mort. It contains more dialogue, which keeps you going throughout the four hours. Little is left unexplained. It is fairly easy to follow Norte. The film is less Filipino in that it uses an incident that can occur anytime anywhere. Yes, there are mentions of revolutionaries, and the struggle of normal Filipino people as opposed to the rich, but, generally, I find that Norte is a bit like Tarr’s The Man from London, which was based on a widely acclaimed French novel and therefore made it more accessible to the audience. There are a few cinematic techniques I don’t want to go into detail about because it would give away too much. But I can say that it’s not something we’re used to see in Diaz’s films.

Now, this is a perfectly objective take on his film, and I point out these facts not because I wished Diaz would not have done the film the way he had. He is obviously a free man, and as long as he, as the director, feels fine with his decisions, it is alright. However, I want you to go back to the paragraph above and then link it to the reviews. What is evident?

For the first time, Diaz’s film was hailed as a masterpiece. Plus, as already mentioned, distributors were suddenly interested in the film. Is this not a bit of a coincidence that his film is a “masterpiece” now that it is a bit more “Western”? Compared to the films he directed after Batang West Side, Norte contains everything a typical filmgoer is looking for in order not to get bored. It’s colourful, it has a lot of dialogue that explains it all, it’s got special effects, and it is based on an internationally acclaimed book. I felt as if there was little I had to do in the process of watching the film.

If you put this into the context of the sudden celebration of his work, the critics’ reviews after an Americanised festival become pathetic and very sad. Diaz’s work should have been celebrated beforehand, not now that Norte complies with a bit more of our expectations. His films should have been celebrated for their individuality, for their task of putting the Filipino history and the Filipino struggle on screen to an audience that possibly doesn’t even know the capital of the country. He should have been celebrated for making films for the pure reason of making films, and if this means that he cannot secure film distribution, then at least the films are his version of cinema.

It goes to show that we only like and celebrate something that fits into our framework. Something that is easy to grasp. Everything else is dismissed or neglected. It’s dualistic thinking, and I’ve never seen it so clearly as I do right now with the example of Norte.

More slow films for the world

Finally, some slow news appear in the thick of the world wide web.

First of all, Lav Diaz’s Norte was screened in Poland as part of the New Horizon’s International Film Festival. Tsai Ming-liang, whose new film wasn’t ready for a Cannes submission, can be happy about a nomination of Stray Dogs in the official competition of this year’s Venice Film Festival. I can’t wait for this one. It’s been four years since he made his last film, Visage (2009). Fellow slow-film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul gave this interesting comment on it:

I remember that the film had a different title, Diary of a Young Boy. We shall see what we learn about the film once it has been shown at Venice. I’m also anticipating a new Lisandro Alonso film, which so far doesn’t have a title. IMDB gives us this synopsis: “A father and daughter journey from Denmark to an unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization.”

This does sound like another very slow-moving travel film. I’m surprised that Alonso uses Danish actors and actresses for his film this time. I wonder where he got the idea from. Anyway, the film is currently in post-production and expected to be released in 2014. Keep an eye out for festival line-ups next year. There’s more slowness-on-screen to come. So much for Nick James’ argument that Slow Cinema has come to an end

I will soon write about a few more things that directly concern my thesis. I’m in the process of sharpening it, and of preparing the next chapter. I also have a submission deadline (1 October) for the MeCCSA Networking Knowledge Journal. I hope I can secure publication for this. If yes, I can finally use the joker I still have to be quiet about 🙂

I have created a new blog yesterday, which appears to have little to do with my research topic. But these two will eventually meet and merge. This is my plan anyway. It’s not an amusing piece of work, but it’s not going to be very depressive either. I try to make it more uplifting than it sounds.

Are you making slow films?

I went to the latest exhibition at the DCA, Dundee, today. There will be new rules next week is a display of illustration works by Sister Corita Kent, combined with artworks by Peter Davies, Ruth Ewan, Emily Floyd, Scott Myles and Ciara Phillips. They had three video works on display, too, in which Kent discussed her approach to art. Surprisingly to me, she also spoke about slowness in her work. I want to give you an extract from an interview that had been conducted with her:

GALM: Do you ever purposely slow down the viewer, so that they will actually read what you’ve chosen?

CORITA: Well, this has been one of the nice by-products, I think. I don’t think I intended it that way in the first place because I think when I’m writing the words, I am some- what conscious of the legibility. That is, if I know it really can’t be read, I’ll go back and change a word. But if it’s just slightly difficult, I think that’s okay — if it looks good. So that those things, I suppose, are of equal concern — that it look good, and that it be legible, at least with some work. But I don’t try to make it difficult.

You could pose the same question to a slow-film director. What would he answer, do you think?

Lav Diaz said in an interview:

In Ebolusyon [Evolution of a Filipino Family], I am capturing real time. I am trying to experience what these people are experiencing. They walk. I must experience their walk. I must experience their boredom and sorrows.

After the release of his last film, The Turin Horse, Béla Tarr said:

With “Damnation”, for example, if you’re a Hollywood studio professional, you could tell this story in 20 minutes. It’s simple. Why did I take so long? Because I didn’t want to show you the story. I wanted to show this man’s life.

And Apichatpong Weerasethakul said:

Time is very interesting to me. Because I’m really trying to capture time, mostly in the past, and work it out in the present. For example, when you have the scene in Blissfully Yours where they go to the picnic and it takes so long—the film was made in 2002, and when I watched it in 2005 or 2006, I thought, “Wow, my time back then, I was really patient.” Because I take the long duration for each gesture. And I realized my time has changed. The rhythm inside has changed. Because when I was younger, I didn’t feel that those shots were long, that’s why I put them in. But then recently, in 2012, I watched Blissfully Yours again and the cut is just right. It’s not long at all. So that means that our timings, it’s always changing.

Somehow I get the feeling that they’re all in the same boat. Just not exactly in a slow boat…

Slow Art Day 2014

This is only a short entry to inform you about next year’s Slow Art Day. Those who are not yet aware of this wonderful day of slow-looking should check out the group’s website for more details. Or maybe even become a host in your hometown. I’m in the (slow) process of posting invitations to museums and galleries in the UK. The first 40 invitations have been posted. And yes, I mean ‘posted’. I began reaching-out via emails until I received loads of Out Of Office replies. I thought that it’s too easy not to read the email. Besides, once museum directors return from their holiday, an email from something that contains ‘slow’ in the subject is probably the last thing they would open. Hence, traditional letters.

Slow Art Day aims at giving you a unique insight into art by asking you to look at artworks slowly. You will spend more time looking at a painting that you would have perhaps ever imagined. But this long look gives you a very different kind of access to the artwork, maybe even to the painter behind the artwork. You allow yourself time to see, to let the experience happen to you.

Last year’s Slow Art Day was a huge success. Even the Wall Street Journal picked it up. More and more museums and galleries around the world take part in it. Together we can help making it even bigger.

I for my part will host next year’s Slow Art Day at the University of Stirling. Similar to this year, I will choose from a range of artworks, from painting to sculpture. The advantage of Stirling is that I can slow down the process of looking even more by choosing artworks spread over the whole (beautiful!) campus, combining walks from A to B, watching squirrels and rabbits on your way to the next location. Obviously this depends on the weather. So does the lunch after the viewing. The vague plan is to have a BBQ, which would be a lovely thing to do at the end of the day. But I will only be able to confirm this closer to the day.

Until then, if you want to join me on the day, do register here for the event. I’d be happy to welcome you for a day of slow-looking.

Slow Cinema vs Slow Film

The MeCCSA conference was great in many ways. One of them was that I did not feel alone in questioning the term ‘Slow Cinema’. There is a reason why Harry Tuttle refers to it as ‘Contemplative Cinema’. It is a much more open term, which does not reduce the films to the apparent slowness. However, in the majority of writings, Slow Cinema is nevertheless very much in use. This makes it sometimes difficult for me to write my thesis, because I have to position my work somewhere (and it has to be SC as Lav Diaz is generally included in this category) while at the same time trying my best not to use the term all too much. Simply because it is inadequate, and I do not really want to become a Slow Cinema expert. I merely try to write a thesis on the aesthetics of Diaz’s films.

Anyway, I received very good feedback on my paper, which I’m glad about. And I’m even happier about one question I was asked after my presentation: “Can you explain the difference between Slow Cinema and slow film?”

If someone who has written on SC before reads this, I would like to direct this question to him or her. It’s one of the things that keep bugging me about the term. The question derived from my statement that there are a lot more ‘slow’ films out there, but there’s only a handful of films and filmmakers included in the category of Slow Cinema. This is not exactly an assumption. It is a fact. So why do Romney et al focus on these specific films and filmmakers?

The question is a good one, and I do not have an answer to this. It merely highlights the limits of the term. A friend of mine is writing a thesis on the effects of slowness in Romanian cinema. I’m familiar with a few films, and I can say for sure that they appear slow. The woman who asked me the question referred to a Spanish film from the 1990s, which she was sure about was slow, but was never ‘Slow Cinema’. You could argue that the film was made too early. The term was only coined in the early 2000s. However, there are nevertheless contemporary slow films out there which are never discussed in critical writings of Slow Cinema. Beyond the Hills is one of them.

I have two vague suggestions here. First, slow films which are not included in the Slow Cinema category were or are made in countries, which we see as ‘slower’ as our extremely capitalist countries, which are focused on profit and time-saving. We only need to shift our attention to Eastern Europe. It is not very fair, but we humans have the habit of comparing A and B in order to make sense of things. With respect to those countries, we predominantly see them as “backwards”, a horrible term, but I can’t come up with a more adequate one that conveys the same message. I guess what happens is that critics see this kind of film output as ‘normal’ for this region and don’t bother taking it further. They focus on those slow films that are produced predominantly in high-speed countries.

Second, critics may have attempted to narrow down the field of ‘slow film’ by focusing on specific aesthetics. I, for my part, would say that those films that are Slow Cinema are perhaps more arty. They’re highly photographic, even painterly. But then again, this does not apply to all Slow Cinema films. I wouldn’t include Lisandro Alonso in the arty Slow Cinema category. However, he is, apparently, a Slow Cinema filmmaker.

I guess that critics wanted to make it easier by grouping filmmakers into one category. Instead, they have made it more complicated and confusing. I do not have a straightforward answer to the question above, but I will keep thinking about it.

Sweeping Generalisations

I’m getting the last things ready for the 10th MeCCSA PGN conference at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. I will present a paper on my approach to Slow Cinema, and hope to gather feedback which would help me to further my research. If all goes well, I can publish an extended edition of the paper later in the MeCCSA PGN journal. I will also join the editorial board of Stirling University’s PG journal Stryvling, which should be a good experience. I’m hoping for a special Slow Cinema edition for 2014, but nothing is decided or clear yet. This is merely a proposal I made a few weeks ago. We shall see what comes out of it.

As summer looms over us, things become quiet in the news. As is the case with Slow Cinema. One of the few things that have appeared recently, is the editorial by Nick James in the latest edition of Sight & Sound. He writes

People do make sweeping generalisations after Cannes. I myself have remarked online that the absence of any film I saw there that fits the ‘slow cinema’ category – except Lav Diaz’s excellent Norte, The End of History – might signal the passing of that post-Tarkovskian approach to cinema. To which anyone might reply that one goose flying south does not make a winter.

No, one goose doesn’t make a winter. I find this indeed to be a sweeping generalisation. Cannes never has been a major platform for Slow Cinema. Béla Tarr’s The Man from London premiered in Cannes in 2007. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee won the Golden Palm in 2010. More than ten years earlier, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole played in Cannes. If you look through the screening lists of Cannes, it is evident that slow films are screened here and there. Yet, we can’t speak of a major focus on Slow Cinema.

This was little different from this year’s festival, at which Lav Diaz’s new film was the only slow film shown. That this was the case does not at all indicate that Slow Cinema is in retreat. It is simply business as usual. Besides, the film critics don’t exactly help to keep SC in the public either. Two critics gave their Top Ten of the festival. Both of them ranked Norte at the top. But only one critic actually wrote something on the film. However, a mere eight sentence lot on the top film of the festival is for me poor critical and journalistic work.

That said, Norte is screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic at the moment. Literally. They are one hour in 🙂

The Power of Time

People who prefer slowness in their lives argue that we’re all slaves of the clock. Those who can’t live without the constant rush of adrenaline argue that this is grossly exaggerated. However, the concept of being a slave of the clock has a history most of us may not at all be aware of. There are three aspects to it (I will do this only briefly here, more details in my actual thesis):

1) Christianity was the first religion that was focused heavily on doing religious services at the ‘correct time’. This was initially indicated by sun clocks, or water clocks, until the mechanical clock was invented. The pursuit of religious services became more rigorous and were a must for devoted and time-obedient Christians. In a way, then, it was from the beginning the clock that ruled when to pray (Aventi 1995; Landes 1983).

2) The mechanical clock was an ideal instrument to exercise power. Take Charles V of France, for instance. At the end of the 14th century, he had a clock installed in his palace, and requested that all other clocks be adjusted to his time. With that being the case, he also ruled when his inferiors were allowed to do certain things. They were thus enslaved by the clock (and by Charles V) (Scattergood 2003).

3) Finally, the power of time on a larger scale; colonialism. European powers introduced mechanical clocks to those countries they conquered. The technically advanced clocks were seen to be an ideal example to show the superiority of European cultures. I mentioned elsewhere that Lav Diaz explained that the Filipino’s perception of time had changed when the Spanish colonisers conquered the islands and introduced the mechanical clock. In a way you can apply my second point from above here; the ruling power introduces her ‘time’ and the colonised have to obey (Geißler 2012).

In general, the mechanical clock allowed it Man to detach time from Nature. This meant that he was in control, and what would prevent him from using this tool to exercise power on his fellows to secure his dominant position?

Part of the landscape

The invention and widespread use of the mechanical clock in the middle of the last millennium has not only changed our understanding of time. It also altered our perception of time and space as entities. In the 15th century the minute hand was added to the clock face, in the 1690s the second hand helped to measure time in even smaller intervals. The clock became a symbol of Western efficiency, of the hunt for profit and productivity. Nature, which had long been a satisfying time teller, was gradually replaced by technology. Karlheinz Geißler, having researched the history of time measurement and its effects on society, argues that while time had long belonged to God, Man seized this power with the invention of the mechanical clock.

With an artificially created time, the ‘mean time’ which consists of 24 equal hours as opposed to ‘temporal time’ which is based on nature and its seasons, we have also altered our perception of space. I think we can agree on the fact that the clock was a decisive factor in the Industrial Revolution, in the speeding up of Man’s activities. It is telling that David Landes stresses the term ‘watch’ for portable clock, emphasising that time is something we need to pay attention to at any moment.

In any case, let’s consider for a moment an argument by German writer Heinrich Heine, who, in 1843, was saddened by the locomotive “killing” space and leaving us with nothing but time. Geißler explains this in more detail. If we sit in a train, we travel through space, but we don’t stop at a place to rest. We merely rush forward in order to travel through even more space. We, the passengers, are therefore not part of the landscape anymore. We merely travel through it. We’re independent of space in a way. All that is left is time, and our view on the landscape, but we’re not part of it anymore.

This separation of time and space is more evident than ever before these days. In manipulating natural time, we have disconnected it from space. This is obvious in films, which use flashbacks and flash-forwards. Time is something we have control over, it’s something we can manipulate to our liking. With that, space changes, too. In Fergus Daly’s wonderful documentary “The Art of Time“, Russian director Alexandr Sokurov explains that he attempts to re-connect time and space. Sokurov is one of the many ‘slow-film’ directors. His film Russian Ark is perhaps a great illustration of this, a film made up of a single long-take, therefore ‘recording’ time as well as space in their natural appearance.

The very characteristic of slow films in general is a way to return to the pre-mechanical clock, pre-Industrial age era in that it is concerned with the natural way of time and space. It is about returning the control over time, and therefore over space, to nature. Just as in the era prior to the mechanical clock, we simply watch what is happening. We’re no longer sitting in a train speeding past the landscape. We’re part of it again.