Expanded Cinema at St Andrews University

I’ll be presenting a paper at the postgraduate study day at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. The conference takes place on 3 April and lasts the whole day. The programme can be found here.

My paper will address the increased visibility of slow-film director’s work in museums and galleries. I’ve posted an entry on the issue here on this blog already. I argue that this is not a coincidence. Rather, it suggests that slow films are perhaps screened in the wrong venue (the cinema) at the moment. The paper reasons this by linking slow films to static arts, which, in itself, require contemplation on the side of the viewer. The cinema, however, is not a site of contemplation, even though Thomas Elsaesser argues that Slow Cinema has changed this considerably. I don’t agree with this. It’s more the fact that we try to make the equation slow film + cinema work, without actively looking or accepting alternatives.

Following my work on the static arts, I will then give detailed examples to what extent certain slow films can be seen as incorporating elements of painting. Clearly pointing out that there is a definite link between stasis and Slow Cinema, I then go on to argue that the home of slow film should be the gallery or the museum, as this environment of (static) art would trigger larger acceptances of the movies. This is mainly due to the fact that the films would be seen as part of (static) art. The movie theatre symbolises entertainment, and slow films cannot fulfil the viewers’ expectations with regards to this. If placed in a gallery, however, the films are specifically received in the context of art and contemplation, and especially the latter is of utmost importance when watching a slow film.

It’s a 15min paper, and I hope to get sufficient feedback on it for further development. If you are around on this day, do drop by.

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.

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.

Why painting?

In the previous blog entry, I mentioned my research direction with regards to a paper I will present in December. In my thesis, I will focus not only on the links between Slow Cinema and painting. I will also look at literature, for instance. But I don’t want to jump ahead at the moment.

So I leave you with: Why painting? It seems more straightforward to analyse the influence of photography on Slow Cinema. The issue with this is that it would be a) a short-cut, and b) inadequate.

It would be wrong to neglect photography in this research. However, photography is the successor of painting. Many aspects of composition we are now familiar with in photographs stem from the art of painting. True, the photo camera can record things painters would not be able to ‘record’ with their own eyes. It is also correct that photography introduced entirely new aspects, such as the close-up. But strikingly enough, neither of the two things I have just mentioned features greatly in slow films. In fact, you would have to look really hard to find close-ups, for instance. The way characters are framed (usually in long-shots, or at least medium-long shots) resembles the way painters treated their subjects. Even after the invention of photography and the emergence of the close-up, many painters shied away from using it. Their aim was to show Man in his surrounding. Also, thinking of landscape painting, slow films make a particular point in focusing on nature, its effects on Man and vice versa. So why is photography a short-cut? We would simply assume that because cinema is a photographic medium, it has its origin in photography. Which, in parts, is true. But film is The Seventh Art, a mix of all previous art forms. Hence we need to return to art forms which have existed prior to the arrival of film on screen.

A lot of ongoing research focuses on time in film, and how slow-film directors stretch time to an extreme. While I’m a bit reluctant to jump on the same train, because I’m convinced that there is more to Slow Cinema than its treatment of time, I need to explore time in the arts in general. One point I have come across is the invention of photography and its effects on painting. By the mid-19th century, the photo camera was hailed as a time-saver. Especially the art of portraiture became much faster. It took only a click on a button, and a portrait photograph was taken. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was a lengthy, time-consuming process. For big family portraits, in particular, dozens of sittings were needed before a painting could be finished. Jules Janin “praised the daguerreotype for its usefulness to the artist ‘who does not have time to draw’.” (Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, 1968, p26) In effect, photography has introduced speed to the arts, and thinking of the treatment of time in slow films it would be wrong to focus exclusively on an art form, which set off the drive towards speed.

Let me give quote from a fantastic journal for visual culture, published by the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, Scotland. It may make things a bit clearer:

“One of the features of paint as a medium…is its slowness. That seems increasingly important to the quality of the experience – the sense of the artist’s work, and thought, and consideration, which is unpacked by the viewer.” (Alan Woods in conversation with painter Howard Hodgkin, Transcript 03/02, p.11)

CMC RPG Conference, University of Stirling, 4 December 2012

The department of Communications, Media, and Culture (School of Arts and Humanities) holds a conference for postgraduate research students on 4 December 2012. I will present a paper, which establishes the existing theories on Slow Cinema and in what ways I (dis)agree with them. Then, I will give a brief outline of an approach which I will expand further in my thesis. Film examples will show that slow-film directors borrow from the art of painting. This concerns both the importance of nature and the framing of characters.

More on this soon in the section Research.