Happy 10th Slow Cinema anniversary

This year marks a special anniversary for me. Ten years ago in summer, I watched my first slow film. It was Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), a stunning feast, which blew my mind. I kept looking at my watch not because I was bored, but because I wanted to see just how long this first take would last. Quite remarkable that it has been a decade already. Since The Man from London, which, I later found out, was based on a book by Georges Simenon, I have seen hundreds of slow films. Not all of them have made it onto my blog, for lack of time, or frankly for a lack of space because I started my blog only three years after my first slow-film experience.

Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang – these were the big names when I started. I came comparatively late to the oeuvre of Pedro Costa, and I still need to catch up with all of his films. But overall, those four directors used to be the core of what was considered to be Slow Cinema at the time. There were others, of course. Abbas Kiarostami, or Theo Angelopoulos. Chantal Akerman was always a bit on the side, because she was the only woman director talked about. Slow Cinema certainly was a male field. The term was coined by a man, the directors were almost exclusively male, and whenever I did see a slow film in cinema or went to a conference, I felt rather strange as being one of only a handful of women. In fact, my work on Slow Cinema has made me become utterly aware of my being a woman, especially when my book proposal was rejected with the reason of the subject not fitting into the publisher’s portfolio, only for them to accept a book on the same subject by a man.

But apart from having me made aware of who I am and where I come from, Slow Cinema had for me something exciting about it. Why? Because it was a sort of genre, or movement, that I more or less grew into. Slow films, or slower-than-the-usual films have always existed, yet it became “a thing” only in the 2010s, once Jonathan Romney published his Sight & Sound piece about the increase of cinematic slowness in films. It felt as though I was witnessing something in-the-making. I still remember the first festival dedicated to slow films. The AV festival in the UK dedicated a whole weekend to Slow Cinema, with a mini retrospective of Lav Diaz’s films. This was where I saw my first ultra-long film, which much later became my main interest because the length not only created an entirely new film experience for me. It also allowed me to see films in a different way, not just as a purely horizontal narrative, but as something that can take its time to get to the bottom of things.

When I did my Phd from 2012 to 2015, debates about and around Slow Cinema tended to become heated. On the one hand, you had devoted followers. On the other, there were people who hated Slow Cinema and they were the ones who advocated the idea of boredom in the context of slowness. “I’m not going to the cinema to get bored.” The debate on Slow Cinema highlighted what most people expect of cinema to be: a form of entertainment that is used to numb problems, pain, concerns – if only for two hours. I believe that the rejection of slow films not only stems from its rejection as a form of entertainment. It is the rejection to see, a rejection of our human condition.

Slow Cinema also showed the nasty business of film criticism, with certain critics leaving the auditorium early and then ripped a film into pieces (which you can’t do with slow films until you have seen the whole film), and with critics who haven’t even seen a certain film they were reviewing. There were books hastily published, which didn’t even try to understand the movement as something that goes beyond a rejection of modernity’s speed. All of a sudden, those who never bothered with the field had a chapter published. If you wanted to be on top of things as a film scholar, you had to join the band waggon.

I believe that Slow Cinema has given me an insight into more than I had bargained for. In the end, the heated discussion died down as quickly as it had begun. Paul Schrader announced the death of Slow Cinema not so long ago. This shows nothing else than his lack of understanding of the genre. It may well look as though Slow Cinema is in decline. Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang have retired. Chantal Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami have died. The written output is decreasing.

If one wasn’t actively involved with it almost daily, one could easily agree with Schrader. But this would be a mistake. With the rush over slowness coming to an end (yes, this joke is totally intentional), Slow Cinema can finally be. Maybe directors can soon even do Q&As without being asked the age-old question as to why their films are so slow. They can just talk about the content of their films. Now is the time when some quality writing, some quality analysis can emerge from the silence and the stillness that is slowly beginning to wrap around slow films. It’s no longer about making a quick comment on something that is at odds with our modern times. It is about feeling it, and putting it into perspective.

And we will have ample time to do this, as Slow Cinema is everything but dead. Wang Bing has become one of the most prolific directors in recent years. Nikolaus Geyrhalter continues to investigate the world. Shengze Zhu has just won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam. Jacqueline Zünd seems to become a new female force in Slow Cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is treading new grounds in Colombia. Aleksandra Niemczyk is probably one of the most promising new talents. Michela Occhipinti has premiered her new film at the Berlinale. Bi Gan is making himself a name in the field.

The future couldn’t be brighter, precisely because the public debate has died down. While others declare Slow Cinema dead, I personally am convinced that we are entering a new promising phase, which could even become a sort of golden age for slow films. Let’s see what there is to write for me in 2029!

Review: Béla Tarr, The Time After – Jacques Rancière

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed András Bálint Kovács’ book The Cinema of Béla Tarr (2013), which turned out to be a disappointment. Jacques Rancière’s book (original title: Béla Tarr, Le temps d’après) was published in 2011. The English translation hit the book market last year.

If I wanted to review the book in only one sentence, I would say that it’s much better than Kovács’ book. By miles. I read the French and the English version, the latter has been done well to come as close to the original as possible. The most outstanding fact of the book is that it conveys the atmosphere of Tarr’s movies to a greater extent. The book is at times rather poetic, which fits well to Tarr’s filmmaking. It’s a book that stays true to the subject it is studying. I missed this in Kovács’ book, in which Tarr’s films were quantified and dissected into a great many pieces. The over-analytical approach irritated me, and because of its approach the book wasn’t the greatest advertisement for Tarr’s cinema.

Rancière’s approach is different. I had the feeling that he doesn’t quantify the films. Rather, he focused on the quality of the films. His style of writing is very different from that of Kovács’. If you expect an academic study of Tarr’s films, you may not be happy with The Time After. Analysis takes over towards the end of the book, but until then it all feels like an experience. Tarr’s films, too, are experiences, as is the case with the vast majority of slow films. The main factor that distinguishes them from contemporary narrative (blockbuster) cinema is that it’s an experience, instead of an action-packed entertainment parcel.

I do have to admit that it was sometimes difficult to follow Rancière. At times it felt as if he drifted off, and didn’t care anymore whether the reader could follow him. It felt as if he was in his own world, and yes, sometimes it read as if he wasn’t writing, but speaking. This tone made the reading an entirely different affair. I had a much better image of Tarr’s films. I could feel the images, and this is so essential about his films.

With his poetic writing, I assume, Rancière manages to wake the interest of the reader who is not familiar with Tarr’s films. The book is an experiential piece without its ever giving away too much of the films themselves. When you’re done with Kovács’ book, you have pretty much seen all of Tarr’s films. His study is so detailed that you don’t have to see the films anymore. On the other hand, the tedious analysis might have put you off the films anyway. Rancière, in contrast, points to aspects of Tarr’s films, without making a detailed analysis out of it – just as Tarr would have liked it. He said several times that his films shouldn’t be analysed or interpreted. I always found this to be a somewhat arrogant statement of an auteur, but after I read Kovács’ book I could see the truth in Tarr’s point.

This is for me the biggest success of Rancière’s book: he does not put people off Tarr’s films. He makes them sound interesting. His writing remains true to the films and to Tarr’s filmmaking. There’s no attempt at analysing every scene of every film. The only 92 pages strong book covers Tarr’s entire oeuvre superbly. At times, it’s confusing, I have to admit, because Rancière jumps from one film to another. Overall, however, it feels as if he said everything that can realistically be said about Tarr’s films without making it a dry, distant and utterly boring affair. There may be more books on Tarr in the future, who knows. But The Time After is definitely the one to top for me.

[Béla Tarr, The Time After, by Jacques Rancière, Univocal, available on Amazon]