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.

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.