Positioning my research

There are two pieces of writing which I currently use to position my own research. One of them is Angela Dalle Vacche’s Cinema and Painting – How art is used in film (1996). Vacche makes some important points in her work. She writes, for instance, that “painting for the cinema constitutes a forbidden object of desire.” (1) She goes on to say that “cinema has always had a tendency to challenge not just painting in isolation but rather the whole system of the arts.” (3, my emphasis, reason for this will be clear in a minute)

Vacche attempts to demonstrate how specific genres of painting were relevant to the style of certain films. In her book, she focuses on seven films by seven different directors. Amongst them are Murnau with his film Nosferatu, and Antonioni with Red Desert. While she tries to explore a wide range of films and directors, it poses the greatest limit of her study at the same time. Her focus lies on a well-known canon of films. In addition to Murnau and Antonioni, we see the work of Godard and Rohmer dissected and analysed.

There is no attempt to apply her research to more contemporary films. Rather, this study focuses on directors who have been discussed in relation, for example, to painting, previously. Tarkovsky serves as a good example. Choosing five (European) films from the immediate post-WW II era, Vacche feeds the idea that this way of filmmaking has played a particularly strong part in European modernist cinema, particularly in Italian neo-Realist cinema. (If this sounds familiar, then you’re an attentive reader of this blog. Matthew Flanagan was one of the people to argue the same about the origins of Slow Cinema.)

Also, my impression is that Vacche focuses on deliberate frame composition in order to achieve a painterly look of the films. Jean Renoir is not included in her study, but he’s one filmmaker, who’s work was influenced by his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the painter. His frame compositions were deliberate. I believe that this is the statement of her book: the directors she has chosen all make deliberate choices about frame composition, lighting, etc in order to imitate painting. This is not the case with Slow Cinema. I would be surprised if only one director said that he structured his films according to a famous painting he admired at the time of filmmaking. What I see in Slow Cinema – the painterly aesthetic – is, I assume, wholly accidental.

The second book I use is Eivind Rossaak’s great study The Still/Moving Image: Cinema and the Arts (2009). Rossaak’s work concerns the negotiation between mobility (cinema) and immobility (painting, photography, sculpture). Contrary to Vacche, he describes the interaction between the moving and the static image not as a challenge of one art form over the other. Instead, there appears to be a collaboration at work. In short, he focuses on “how a moving image artwork borrows and refashions an aspect or quality from other art or media forms” (10) from the perspective “of a potential co-existence or co-experience of the interrelationship between different art forms.” (18)

Compared to Vacche’s study, Rossaak applies his method to a wider range of films, despite using only three examples. But with The MatrixTom Tom The Piper’s Son and The Passions, he covers mainstream commercial cinema, American avant-garde and video art – from different periods. It’s a truly fascinating study, I can only recommend it. However, there is a downside of it all, too.

Again, the evocation of the still arts is deliberate. Yet, instead of deliberately composing the frames in such a way that it evokes the image of a painting, Rossaak focuses on films whose stillness is computer-generated. In The Matrix, for instance, it is the bullet-time effect, which is entirely computer-generated. Ken Jacobs filmed the original Tom Tom and slowed it down, used freeze frames and other methods in order to stretch it to a feature-length film. Stillness is thus artificially created.

In short: Slow Cinema lives of the “co-experience” of different art forms, but its stillness is not created artificially. Slow films negotiate their mobility with static arts, but they do so in their own natural way (meaning without the help of technology or similar methods). They do not challenge static arts, they embrace them. Painting does appear to be an “object of desire” for slow films, but this does not explicitly mean that slow-film directors consciously construct their films in similar ways. It is accidental, rather than intentional.

The Effects of Music and Dialogue

Yesterday’s screening of Apichatpong’s Mekong Hotel in Glasgow made it obvious to me how problematic the term Slow Cinema is.

The name Apichatpong Weerasethakul appears almost everywhere you look for something written on Slow Cinema. His work is a trademark. Mekong Hotel, however, makes me wonder to what extent films are slow, and whether it wouldn’t be appropriate to narrow the term Slow Cinema to a more specific, cohesive and conclusive part of slow film (and I suggest here, for instance, the slow films that bear similarities to paintings).

Mekong Hotel is slow. Yet, compared to other films by Weerasethakul, and to other slow films in general, his latest short is fairly quick. The reason for this is his slightly different style.

Remember, remember – Michel Chion, and his vococentrism of film. Just like human beings, films are vococentric, that means their focus lies on speech as our ears react faster to external stimuli than our eyes do. I have argued that his point is a clue as to why slow films appear to be slow. They lack dialogue. Our ears are deprived of information, and have to pass on the command to our eyes. We need to read the film with our eyes, which is a much slower process.

Mekong Hotel features a lot of dialogue. There are lengthy passages, which feature two or three characters in conversation. In addition, the film contains a guitar tune which accompanies almost every scene. The ongoing tune in the background keeps feeding our ears with information. Our eyes don’t have to do much. Our ears do the job. I actually blocked my ears for a little while during the screening. The film appeared so much slower!

Both dialogue and music make films appear more time-based, more rhythmic. As soon as this is the case, the effect and perception of slowness is greatly reduced. My avenue towards (the Fine Art of) Slow Cinema as being similar to static arts in terms of their lack of kinetic objects, their framing, their frame composition, and their lack of dialogue and music, is going to address this problem in a bit more detail. But I would like to stress once again that the perception of slowness stems from more than only long-takes and the depiction of mundane every-day activities of characters. Hence the term needs adjustment. And Mekong Hotel serves as a great example for doing exactly this.

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.