The slow long-take?

If you have been following this blog from the beginning, you may have noticed that I regularly return to the issue of the long-take and its importance for Slow Cinema. I have often argued that the long-take is not in and by itself a guarantee for a slow film. Other factors need to be in place, too. Towards the end of my research, I have come across the latest doctoral thesis on Slow Cinema, in which the long-take was described as the “sine qua non” of Slow Cinema. I have an issue with that. Previous researchers, like Matthew Flanagan, or even Harry Tuttle (Contemplative Cinema) have at least linked the long-take with the content of respective film frames. Even though the long-take is and remains the main focus in Slow Cinema studies, which is not bringing the research forward at all, I would like to point to a film which I have recently seen.

Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (2015) has been shot in a single-take. The film is in fact a very long two-hour and twenty minute take. For those who have not yet seen it (and you should!), the film is everything but slow. It does take its time to build up tension. Yet in the end it’s nevertheless a heist movie. It’s fast. It’s about speed, about anxiety, about adrenaline. Victoria is anything but slow. So if the long-take is the sine qua non of Slow Cinema, where would we position films such as Victoria? If the long-take slows down the narrative, how exactly can we continue to speak of it as THE Slow Cinema characteristic if it can easily be used for a complete opposite effect?

I think, my main issue with this “sine qua non” is that it’s taken out of context. Again, the long-take has rarely been mentioned in the context of a film’s respective content. Analyses are often mere descriptions because researchers have difficulties to approach slow films in the usual scholarly fashion of applying previously successful frameworks to those films. I had a very similar problem and it took me a while (thank God, I had three years for this!) to get a hang of it.

The long-take is not the main characteristic of Slow Cinema. It seems to be at first sight, but I would like to suggest a different approach: the long-take is essential for a cinematic exploration of character psychology. Whether this happens in a slow, or in a fast film is of little interest. It is true that very often it is slow films which deal with character psychology. My own work on Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma is a good example for this, because Diaz uses slow time in order to give the viewer a sense of depletion of resources, trauma’s latency period, and other debilitating factors of post-trauma. In the films of Béla Tarr, too, you can see a depiction of character psychology. It has often been said that characters in slow films show no emotion, that it is difficult to read them. Ira Jaffe has been a supporter of this argument. But as I have argued in an earlier post, we merely expect characters to go through all possible emotions in 90 minutes. If this isn’t the case, the character lacks emotional engagement.

This is simply wrong, and shows that we are still reading slow films through the lens of approved of, age-old frameworks. What becomes important, and I hope that my doctoral thesis makes a first step into this direction, is that Slow Cinema studies has to be connected to other fields of academic research. If one sees Slow Cinema entirely in the context of Film Studies, one is bound to reach the conclusion that the long-take is the sine qua non of it. It looks like it, and I was also one of those supporters. If someone asked me what Slow Cinema was, I always mentioned the long-take first, and I still do, because it’s easy and people know what I’m talking about.

But no, it is not typical of Slow Cinema as such. It is necessary for character psychology. In a way, it’s similar, because, again, Slow Cinema often focuses on character psychology. Yet one needs to be more precise and put the significance and role of the long-take into a correct context. Otherwise, you will always come across films like Victoria which prove you wrong.

The films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation – Andrew Horton (1997)

When I was still in primary school, at the sweet age of nine, and had no idea that I would become a slow fanatic one day, someone wrote a book on contemplative cinema. That someone was Andrew Horton, and it appears rather strange to put the concept of contemplative cinema into the pre-2000 era. After all, the concept has largely been accredited to Harry Tuttle, and I wonder whether it’s again just one of those knee-jerk things, or whether someone has actually done a bit of work to see that Tuttle was not the person to come up with it. Even though this is by no means a competitive race about who’s first (it’s useless in a slow world anyway), it is important to put things straight before a proper debate on Slow Cinema can take place.

Horton’s book on the films of Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is one of those rare specimens on the market. I’m surprised to see so little work on Angelopoulos, and nothing substantial has come out of (especially!) academic film studies since Horton’s book in 1997. This is on the one hand surprising because Horton’s book is in no way complete. It is, rather, a nice introduction to the films of the Greek director, who, as I have figured while reading the book, shares quite a few similarities with Lav Diaz.

On the other hand, contemplative cinema – in whatever way, from whatever director – is not exactly a subject film scholars are fighting over. There is a comparatively big hype around Slow Cinema at the moment – since 2010, in fact, when Romney used the term ‘Slow Cinema’, which in fact he did as far back as 2004 but this is generally ignored – but I do not see this as a pointer to a persistent academic interest. It’ll be put aside pretty quickly again, and scholars will move on to something else.

As I said before, Horton’s book serves as an interesting medium to discover the films of Angelopoulos. It’s one of my big faults that I have so far only seen one film by him, but this shall change in future. I’m a bit behind with the ‘classics’. The first part of the book is almost excellent, I would say. Horton puts Angelopoulos’s films into the wider context of world cinema, starting with Greek cinema, then expanding to the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, cinema in the Balkans and East Europe, and he even points to similarities Angelopoulos’s aesthetics share with Japanese films of the early days. While this part is an interesting read, the in-depth analysis of similarities the Greek director shares with other filmmakers discredits his own achievements. It reads as though Angelopoulos’s films are an amalgamation of everything that has been before, which, in some ways, they are. But there is little emphasis on the director’s own approach to cinema.

This reminds me of what Lav Diaz told me when I asked him about influences. His work, as so many other slow films, are linked to Italian Neorealism, for instance. Diaz said he watched a lot of those films, but he would not consciously quote them. He’s not consciously influenced by, say, Rossellini. That means, to me, that I should focus on his films as what they are – his films. This is a major issue in the studies of Slow Cinema. One argument you will find pretty much everywhere is the influence of Italian Neorealism. I’m always surprised to read this. The use of long-takes, non-professional actors etc goes back to the very beginning of film history. Therefore, Slow Cinema is not similar to Italian Neorealism. It is simply cinema, a cinema that has always been there, long before neorealism.

What I particularly liked about Horton’s book is the dive into the similarities of Angelopoulos’s aesthetics and Byzantine art. It’s exactly what resonates with my own thoughts and experiences, namely that Slow Cinema is generally indebted to static art, mainly painting. Not so much the aesthetics, but the way the viewer has to approach the films or static art respectively. This becomes clear in Horton’s analysis. In this context, Horton also speaks about a “cinema of meditation”, which is a fitting description not only of Angelopoulos’s films. It could be applied to all slow films.

When I read through the book, I felt as if little new material has been generated in regards to Slow Cinema. The vast majority of arguments have been there before. It’s been 17 years since Horton’s book was published. Slow Cinema is “back in fashion”, but most of the things that are out there are recycled material. It is for this reason that I try to find niches, as I did in my paper on the concentrationary universe, in which I argued that there are similarities between the slowness in Lav Diaz’s films and the slowness as created through terror in concentration camps. Slow Cinema really needs some original research, and I’m hoping to contribute to this in one way or another.

Back to the book, though. The second part of the book is a rather boring piece, and a waste of paper in large parts. Horton discusses five films, but he spends so much time and space on elaborate in-depth synopses that there’s little space left for a decent argument about the actual film form, or whatever it was he wanted to focus on. It is not difficult to write a ten page synopses for a two or three hour film. Everyone can do it, so while I admired Horton’s work in the first half of the book, I felt that he lost the plot in the second half. He lost his decisiveness, his sharp eye. I don’t think that an almost shot by shot description of the film is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the films. A concise synopsis would do, with an in-depth analysis of the most important sequences. Endless synopses make the reading just so boring that the reader will most likely lose interest in the films, which shouldn’t be the result of a book on Slow Cinema. It’s pretty easy to put off your audience as it is, so you have to be clever. Long synopses are not a good strategy.

Overall, though, Horton’s book is decent, and a nice start on Slow Cinema. If you want an easy start into the matter, try this book. It’s cheap, too, compared to the book on Slow Cinema, which will be published next year (and which is, I think, a rip-off, as all academic books these days).

Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation (1997) – Andrew Horton, available on Amazon.

Slow Cinema vs Slow Film

The MeCCSA conference was great in many ways. One of them was that I did not feel alone in questioning the term ‘Slow Cinema’. There is a reason why Harry Tuttle refers to it as ‘Contemplative Cinema’. It is a much more open term, which does not reduce the films to the apparent slowness. However, in the majority of writings, Slow Cinema is nevertheless very much in use. This makes it sometimes difficult for me to write my thesis, because I have to position my work somewhere (and it has to be SC as Lav Diaz is generally included in this category) while at the same time trying my best not to use the term all too much. Simply because it is inadequate, and I do not really want to become a Slow Cinema expert. I merely try to write a thesis on the aesthetics of Diaz’s films.

Anyway, I received very good feedback on my paper, which I’m glad about. And I’m even happier about one question I was asked after my presentation: “Can you explain the difference between Slow Cinema and slow film?”

If someone who has written on SC before reads this, I would like to direct this question to him or her. It’s one of the things that keep bugging me about the term. The question derived from my statement that there are a lot more ‘slow’ films out there, but there’s only a handful of films and filmmakers included in the category of Slow Cinema. This is not exactly an assumption. It is a fact. So why do Romney et al focus on these specific films and filmmakers?

The question is a good one, and I do not have an answer to this. It merely highlights the limits of the term. A friend of mine is writing a thesis on the effects of slowness in Romanian cinema. I’m familiar with a few films, and I can say for sure that they appear slow. The woman who asked me the question referred to a Spanish film from the 1990s, which she was sure about was slow, but was never ‘Slow Cinema’. You could argue that the film was made too early. The term was only coined in the early 2000s. However, there are nevertheless contemporary slow films out there which are never discussed in critical writings of Slow Cinema. Beyond the Hills is one of them.

I have two vague suggestions here. First, slow films which are not included in the Slow Cinema category were or are made in countries, which we see as ‘slower’ as our extremely capitalist countries, which are focused on profit and time-saving. We only need to shift our attention to Eastern Europe. It is not very fair, but we humans have the habit of comparing A and B in order to make sense of things. With respect to those countries, we predominantly see them as “backwards”, a horrible term, but I can’t come up with a more adequate one that conveys the same message. I guess what happens is that critics see this kind of film output as ‘normal’ for this region and don’t bother taking it further. They focus on those slow films that are produced predominantly in high-speed countries.

Second, critics may have attempted to narrow down the field of ‘slow film’ by focusing on specific aesthetics. I, for my part, would say that those films that are Slow Cinema are perhaps more arty. They’re highly photographic, even painterly. But then again, this does not apply to all Slow Cinema films. I wouldn’t include Lisandro Alonso in the arty Slow Cinema category. However, he is, apparently, a Slow Cinema filmmaker.

I guess that critics wanted to make it easier by grouping filmmakers into one category. Instead, they have made it more complicated and confusing. I do not have a straightforward answer to the question above, but I will keep thinking about it.

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.