Slow Movies, Countering the Cinema of Action – Ira Jaffe (2014)

I reviewed Song Hwee Lim’s book on Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang earlier, and called Lim’s book the first appropriate book on Slow Cinema. Ira Jaffe’s Slow Movies is supposed to be a book about the phenomenon as such, which looks at several different directors to give a broad overview of what is out there. Sadly, I have to say that the book fails completely.

First of all, the title is misleading. It is true that the title “Slow Movies” may perhaps mean something other than Slow Cinema. But given that it was published at a time when Slow Cinema is receiving increased attention, you would expect that Jaffe has just used a different name. And somehow, I’m still not clear what he is actually talking about. In the introduction, he clearly sets out the characteristics of Slow Cinema. But then he gives examples that contradict his own approach, and uses film examples that are – I believe – in no way Slow Cinema.

Second, Jaffe brings very little to the field. Especially the first two chapters of the book are rather boring, and make slow films terribly unappealing. I’m thinking in particular about his section on Gus van Sant’s Elephant. We’ve seen it, lots has been written about, and everything he has mentioned has been there before. Reading this section is a waste of time, and of paper (and therefore of trees!).

There are also contradictions within his chapters. There are two examples I would like to point to. First is his use of Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch. I haven’t seen the film, but what he describes is not Slow Cinema. And true to the matter, he even says that Dead Man is an exception. He says that it is “not a slow movie in every respect.” Apart from the recurring on-screen (human) violence, which I judge as a no-go for Slow Cinema, he identifies shot/reverse shots, frequent cuts, close-ups and the use of gimmicks like flashbacks as elements that do not comply with the characteristics of what he faithfully calls ‘slow movies’. So what exactly is Dead Man then? Jaffe spends page after page on the film, and it becomes clearer and clearer that Dead Man shouldn’t be in the book at all.

Another irritating section was the one on 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu. On the one hand, he says that the characters “evince” a lot of emotion, but restraint of emotion is a key theme. So what exactly is the key theme? Again, he points out that the presence of emotion is not a key characteristic of slow movies. I have seen 4 Months and I know that it’s not Slow Cinema. It is slow, but it’s not Slow Cinema. This makes the entire book wholly confusing, because Jaffe appears to hop between Slow Movie and Slow Cinema. If all this is about slowness in films only, then this book is a useless piece because it has appeared in books on Antonioni, Gus van Sant, Sokurov etc before. In writing about exactly those directors, it is therefore a mere compilation of what has been there before. There was little point in bringing up the old topic again.

If it was an attempt at writing about Slow Cinema, the book has failed. Some film examples frankly don’t make sense, especially if the author himself says that they do not quite fit the trope. On top of it, I miss original analysis. Most of it is content description, with a few quotations – some of which return over and over again – thrown into it. Reading the book does not give me the feeling that Jaffe is an expert in slow movies. Nor does he seem to be totally immersed in it. Again, like Andras Balint Kovacs’s book on Béla Tarr, this one feels like a quick shot; the result of a race to be the first to publish on a new subject.

The hare and the turtle. I do have to say that for years I had wanted to be the first to publish on Béla Tarr. That one has obviously not materialised, but the first proper book is a failure, because it was a quick shot, exactly what I had in mind for myself. Then I wanted to be the first to publish a book on Slow Cinema. Jaffe’s book is a failure, a quick shot.

I’m really glad that I have become the turtle!

[Slow Movies – Countering the Cinema of Action, by Ira Jaffe, London: Wallflower Press, available on Amazon]

Mourning Cinema

For parts of my work on Lav Diaz’s Melancholia, I read Richard Armstrong’s Mourning Films (2012). It wasn’t quite as helpful as I thought for the actual content of my chapter, but there was something else that popped up while reading the conclusion of the book, namely the question whether Slow Cinema is Mourning Cinema. At least in part. I’m aware that not all slow films are rather depressing. Albert Serra, for instance, is the comedian amongst slow-film directors, so he wouldn’t fit into this “new” category I have in mind.

What initially put me onto a track of Mourning Cinema was Armstrong’s suggestion that “the mourning film is defined by the obscure play of the seen, the withheld and the opaque” (184). Nowhere is this clearer than in Lav Diaz’s films. This is exactly what I’m interested in and it comes up in pretty much all my chapters; absence. The use of absence and emptiness is a means in Diaz’s films to convey meanings of loss, grief and melancholy. The unseen is as important as the seen in his films. You cannot read his films by looking only at the visible. It is the invisible that brings to the fore the characters’ inner turmoils. Interestingly enough, in mourning films, according to Armstrong, geography plays a role. Mourning as an interior feeling happens against the exterior of the environment. This is perhaps most visible and most accomplished in Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos.

Anyway, this was only the beginning of my thought process. The eureka effect came with the following: “These are slow contemplative works that are dedicated to a narrative progression tied not to active agendas but to a passive process of psychological healing” (186). Now, the psychological healing is relative. Not all slow films that involve some kind of loss depict the following healing process. But the main thing is the deliberate pace of the films and the focus on characters’ psychological development. This is, to me, the main characteristic of Slow Cinema, combined with the aesthetic of the environment mirroring the characters’ state of mind.

Again, not all slow films can be, but a great many films should be seen in this context. In addition to the films of Lav Diaz, there’s, for instance, Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo, an impressive study of loss and the coping mechanisms of people who do not want to give up their livelihood on a small island that decays more and more. There’s Semih Kaplanoglu’s Bal, in which a young boy tries to cope with the loss of his father, the only person that actually made him speak, a person he looked up to. There is, of course, Alexandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son, which I don’t have to describe in detail here as it is such a well-known film. All of Tsai Ming-liang’s films are based on some kind of loss, some kind of grieving for something that is not there. Even Béla Tarr’s films feel eerily empty about loss.

Loss – no matter what kind – is naturally leading to mourning. It does not always entail the death of a person. Death is rather metaphorical and concerns any kind of loss, or sudden absence of something. I would go as far as suggesting that it even concerns the threat of an absence, the threat of loss. This alone can put someone into a state of mourning.

So can Slow Cinema also be termed Mourning Cinema? In some ways, yes. There are more and more types of film that have the exact kind of characteristics as Slow Cinema, without being termed like it. Again, Slow Cinema is just a – sorry to say this – stupid novel description of something that we have seen all the way through film history. So I reckon that all of these slow films fit into other, way more known types of film, which have already received wide attention.

Day 24 – Surprise (me)

I finish this year’s advent calendar with a self-experiment in slow-filmmaking. It’s one thing to watch slow films all the time. But as I was to find out, it’s an entirely different matter to sit behind the camera and keep quiet for only five minutes just so that you don’t ruin the sound. It was fun to do, though, and I enjoyed it. You can find the video at the bottom of today’s entry.

The last 23 days have taken me to many countries. I was in Argentina with Lisandro Alonso, and in Mexico with Nicolas Pereda. I was in imaginative, historical spaces with Albert Serra, and in dark and evils spaces with Béla Tarr. I found myself in cramped apartments in China, in vast spaces of Turkish forests. I was in Japan, Iran and Sweden. Oh, and not to forget, I joined a couple of monks in France. The films I watched were a glimpse of suffering in the Philippines, of longing in Taiwan, of past memories in Thailand.

Over 37 hours of slow film. I cannot deny that it became difficult towards the end to find words for the films. Watching a slow film is, I find, an entirely different experience. Slow films really take you on a journey. You spend so much time with the characters that you feel as though you have been through what they have been through in two hours.

It was a great idea, though. It is one thing to watch a slow film here and there. It is a wholly different matter if you watch 23 films in a row. It gave me a real grasp of what Slow Cinema is about, how many nuances there are, what themes they actually tackle, and how similar and yet different the filmmakers are in their approaches.

I hope you enjoyed the excursion into slowness. This blog will now return to the usual weekly or fortnightly posts, and film comments whenever I’m lucky enough to find a diamond somewhere.

Merry Christmas!

Day 13 – Mother and Son (Sokurov)

Another one of my favourites. And a classic, I suppose. Russian director Sokurov is more than just a slow-film director, though. In fact, I don’t find all of his films very slow. When I watched Faust (2011), I wasn’t drawn to the film because it was slow. It felt slightly faster than his other films, but it didn’t make a huge difference. It was actually a “normal” film speed, appropriate for the subject.

The one piece everyone can perhaps name when the name Sokurov comes up is The Russian Ark (2002), an entire film shot in one single long-take. It was a hugely interesting experiment, and fed in well later on with my engagement with Slow Art Day.

Let’s come to Mother and Son (1997)Apparently, it was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy, which was complemented with Sokurov’s later work Father and Son (2003). I’m not sure whether the trilogy will ever be completed. I truly hope so. Mother tells the story of a dying mother and her absolutely devoted son. The film is for me an exploration of love between a parent and his/her child. It also, perhaps, speaks of sacrifice and grief. But the main thing remains the dedication of the son towards the care of his mother.

Mother and Son (1997), Sokurov

I seem to like the number “two”, so yes, there are (once again) two things that strike me in this film. Both of them are linked to visual aesthetics, and are kind of interconnected.

I’m not sure whether I have mentioned it in earlier blog entires about the theme of painting in slow films. Sokurov’s Mother and Son is, for me, the most evident example of this. I cannot say with certainty that Sokurov intended the film frames to look like paintings, but they do. This was one of the slow films that triggered the idea. There are several issues to this.

First, the dominance of landscape and therefore the use of long, or extreme long shots. In some scenes, characters are only minuscule. This makes perfect sense if one considers where the film is set: in a remote area, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, in and around a cabin. This makes also sense if one considers the underlying theme of the film: evanescence, death. Man is only a small part in the universe. He’s mortal, he’s not permanent. Even though the landscape is impermanent, too, it will remain once man dies. Putting the landscape at the forefront of the film is thus plausible.

The second feature I would like to mention feeds directly into this; the way the film frames look. They do not only look painterly (I should say that for me the whole film looks like an oil painting to me). They also look pretty obscured. I found this to be the most stunning aesthetic achievement of Sokurov. If I remember right, he used those aesthetics in Father and Son as well, though not quite to the same extent.

Mother and Son (1997), Sokurov

Sokurov distorted the film image by filming through mirrors or very specific lenses. Apparently, he also filmed through painted glass panes (maybe this is where my feeling of “this is a painting!” comes from!?). The result is a film which, among other features, defies every logic of visual perception. Everything seems wobbly somehow. I sometimes wondered how to position my head to make sense of what I’m meant to see. Images are not always clear. Instead, the viewer is confronted with blurriness (dyssebeia has written a nice article on this). I don’t think that there is a fully “normal” film frame in the entire film. But then, I could be wrong. I got used to this distorted viewing that I’m not so sure anymore what a “normal” film frame looks like.

The startling aesthetics bring up one problem: they have the potential to divert the viewer’s attention from the actual content. I did focus on the content, but what did I write my blog post about? The aesthetics. Actually, the content of the film is just as interesting, Maybe I will write about this some other time.