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.

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.