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May 13, 2010

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Joe A.

Hi, first-time commenter here. I just wanted to say I agree that the "slow cinema" directors listed are all very different, and that lumping them together for polemical purposes obscures more than it illuminates.

I haven't read the "Sight and Sound" piece, but I've heard this kind of thing before and I wonder, is Nick James really such a fragile flower that he's intimidated by a (dumb) potential critique of his writing? Or is he just passive-aggressively saying "I don't like these movies and I resent being told that I ought to"? Either way it's just kind of wavery and bland to write about potential criticism of your opinions, rather than just going ahead and stating them. Did Manny Farber ever say, "Well, Bosley Crowther might think I'm kind of nutty for liking this genre picture, gee whiz what am I to do," etc.

Fabian W.

...and also speaking of Arto Lindsay, I almost got to shake hands with him. But only almost. Which makes bringing it up here even more pathetic.

preston

As one who eats 'slow cinema' for breakfast, I realize it's not to everyone's taste. I regularly read Nick James in S&S and he seems a generally well appointed editor to fantastic film magazine. It seems these 'challenging' films may no longer be to his taste. I do not get to attend many film festivals to see the imitators of the 'premiere practitioners', but I would bet an overwhelming majority of the readers don't either. Hence, this sense of burn-out could be perceived as a bit whiney, but that's OK, yer paid to give your opinion.

Also there doesn't seem to be (except maybe for Warhol) a tradition of 'slow cinema' in English language films. To call this aesthetic 'foreign', 'exotic', 'out-of-touch', etc. is because it hasn't been part of our (USA) cinema culture. I enjoy slow cinema precisely because of that. Not only is the shooting style different, but I generally get to see city/landscapes, fashion, etc. that I don't get to see at the multiplex. Incidentally, this is why I am such a fan of S&S, I enjoy the British perspective because it varies from ours.

But to me 'slow cinema' has a myriad of characteristics. Is it pacing, rhythm, static long takes, ambiguous narrative line, lack of music cues, lack of dialogue, etc. that makes one man's ceiling another man's floor, as it were? I will agree with some commenters that perceived pace or 'slowness', is achieved by a different cocktail of factors by each filmmaker. One example that hasn't been mentioned is "Rope" and I don't see many folks equating Hitchcock's style and aesthetic to Bela Tarr.

To me it comes down to how the screen is used, like a window or a piece of hanging art, to illuminate the story, feeling or whatever is intended to come across. Ultimately its the subjective view that the artist imposes upon the audience is what's at issue. But with longer takes the viewer has more opportunity to create connections with the material within the frame. Its up to the viewer if they want to take advantage. If they don't, they don't.

Anyhow, back to my Sight & Sounds. I'm up to the Jan '10 issue. I read real slow...

Chuck Stephens

"...Karina Longworth (who, I have to say, has been doing a brisk and efficient job of laying out exactly everything she doesn't know in her otherwise uninspired/uninspiring tenure as the LA Weekly's film editor)..."

God bless you, GK: that line made my day.

Bryce Wilson

Damn Glenn, can I have whatever it is you've been putting in your Cornflakes? One could never accuse you of being a shrinking violet but the past week or so you've been down right feisty.

And I think I kind of like it.

Jeff McMahon

Ouch for Karina, I guess there'll be no banter segment on the video release of Synecdoche, NY 2: The Pirandelloing.

The Swede

Plenty of directors have used a slow approach -- Antonioni and Kubrick and Tarkovsky come to mind. The problem is when directors stretch thin material where nothing much is happening -- then, it becomes slow for the sake of slow. I gave up on Hou after dozing off to 2 of his movies at the NYFF. (There is simply no functional reason, and no intellectual justification, to hold on a shot 10 times longer than the action it's depicting requires. It's amateurish.)

So, slow cinema isn't a problem in and of itself. It's just a very easy aesthetic to do very poorly and make the audience miserable. It isn't any more intellectual that fast-cutting montage filmmaking. It's just a different style. And the idea that filmmaking has to be "pure art" without any entertainment value is pure fraud. All great art should be entertaining in its own way. God forbid a movie actually has something funny in it. Or an exciting sequence. Please.

The real trend I hate right now is when movies negate all forms of music entirely. Even diegetic. I want to punch those directors in the head.

d.a.

It's a shame it's a punishable offense to come out and say you think a "slow cinema" director like Dumont is full of shit. It's obvious not all mainstream directors are Howard Hawks, but neither is every "slow cinema" director, to use that blanket term, automatically an untouchable auteur. This is a problem in the art world at large right now, this fear of calling out the highbrow. It's easy to pile on the Michael Bays of the world, and some critics put a lot of effort into castigating them, as if it weren't clear to anyone who reads film reviews that a Transformers is junk. A more insidious threat to artistic cinema is the threat from within, so to speak, the films that are given credit by virtue of their austerity, their slowness, of all things, and are thereafter criticism-proof, are thereafter only built up and buttressed by criticism. God bless the nameless critic for at least having an opinion. Too bad it's dangerous, suicidal to express it.

Zach

Without having explored the relevant links, I can only say so much for now; indeed, it's dumb to lump together those directors into some kind of movement, however loosely defined. But there does exist a certain tendency, and it's been gestating for quite some time now, and I think it's very interesting for formal and political reasons. It has everything to do, of course, with what these directors *do* with "long takes," which is radically different in almost every case - Alonso is a far cry from Tarr, who is a far cry from Hou, who is a far cry from Apichatpong (who, to be fair, is a far cry from pretty much everybody else making movies) From this post, it sounds as if people are sounding off in rather simplistic ways, but come on, Glenn - take the reins and suss this out. You say you "get what [your critic friend] is saying" about Dumont "[not knowing] how to make a movie." Can we get some elaboration? Cause I don't have the foggiest idea about what that's supposed to mean, and out of context, it sounds like a quip from a shallow, snarky, well - philistine.

d.a.

Zach. It's maybe not the right place for a long explanation, I know, and you could probably go into it if you were called upon to - just as Glenn's mystery friend might be able to elaborate on what he meant, but I don't think putting "do" in quotation marks and leaving it at that adds much to the discussion that isn't also "simplistic" "sounding off." What untold depths of understanding those quotation marks suggest! Nobody could ever accuse you of being a philistine.

Glenn Kenny

@ Zach—well, I suppose I kind of dug my own hole in a sense, because if I assure you my Dumont sceptic is anything BUT a shallow, snarky philistine, that only will lead to a request to "prove it." I suppose it won't do to throw out such an observation and merely mark it as a subject for further discussion, and then not discuss it. By the same token, I'm not my friend and I don't feel the same way about Dumont. I'm not sure, either (to consider the other hand), that making a case against Dumont is necessarily going to be suicidal for anyone. I should also point out that my friend hasn't yet seen "Hadewijch," which I myself consider to be Dumont's most controlled, finely calibrated, works. And in those two descriptive adjectives, I think we may speculate, are the keys to what it is my friend may be objecting to. "La vie de Jesus" impressed in a way that debut films frequently can; there was quite a bit about it that was highly distinctive in a way that would become identifiable with Dumont's work—the casting, the depiction of sexuality,the quietude, the quietude of the horror, as it were, and so on. But "L'humanité" and "Twenty-nine Palms," the simplicity of their respective scenarios aside, are both huge, shambling beasts that arguably (and the key word here, for me, is "arguably;" remember, I'm trying to put myself inside someone else's head here) don't NEED to sprawl, as it were, as much as they do. The problem, then, would not be that they are "poorly" constructed in the conventional sense of the idea, but that they are not constructed AT ALL. Whereas "Flandres" might then seem indifferently tossed-off by comparison.

As I said, this is all speculative, and it's entirely possible that my Dumont-objecting confrere will choose to weigh in himself. But again, I wasn't looking to start a Dumont debate per se (not that I'm complaining that one might emerge here; I'm ready for anything).

bstrong

Glenn--You are ever so totally correct about critics wanting to understand Robin Hood politically, in a way that is just not insightful let alone possible. I declined to name names (but yeah, Longworth was one of the chief offenders, along with La Dargis) but I tried to make this point precisely in my own review.

Michael Adams

I walked out of Twenty-nine Palms halfway through not because of the style but because Dumont's view of humanity is too bleak. Don't get me wrong. I like depressing. My favorite director after Hitchcock is Bergman. But something more than looking at the meaninglessness of existence has to be going on, as with Mamet's Homicide, which I find bracingly downbeat. On the other hand, John Waters was sitting in front of me, and he seemed enthralled.

Sal C

Dear The Swede,
Regarding you comment ("There is simply no functional reason, and no intellectual justification, to hold on a shot 10 times longer than the action it's depicting requires. It's amateurish."), I have a question - when you visit a museum, do you only look at the paintings long enough to figure out what's "going on" in them and then move on? Cuz sometimes works of art need to be contemplated for awhile.

Andrew Wyatt

I'm with Glenn on this. I think it's sort of misguided to talk about "Slow Cinema" as a genre or a form that represents anything in and of itself. It's a technique, and it's used for all kinds of purposes by all kinds of directors to say all kinds of things.

I don't think it's an accident that I find some directors who work in this mode very exciting--Zhang Ke Jia, Rodrigo Moreno, Fernando Eimbcke, Aditya Assarat, Corneliu Porumboiu, So Yong Kim, Charles Burnett, Hou Hsiao-hsien, heck, I'd even throw in Cassvetes, Haneke, Jarmusch, Soderbergh, Reichardt, and Van Sant, depending on the film--while others just don't connect with me, or even bore me to tears. I'm thinking especially of Weerasethakul, Tsai, and Alonso, whose work doesn't do anything for me. I'm less interested in the technique for its own sake than in what a director is trying to do with that technique. What do all the directors on my first list above have in common? Nothing really, other than the fact that they make good films.

Glenn Kenny

Mr. Strong is to polite, or too modest, to link to his excellent review in his comments; I'm happy to do it for him:
http://www.thelmagazine.com/gyrobase/rob-from-the-rich-boycott-robin-hood/Content?oid=1627788&showFullText=true

It is very much worth everybody's time. As for other reviews treating "Hood"'s ostensible politics,I can't find the Dargis notice Strong refers to; perhaps he's confused it with A.O. Scott's review today, which I found pretty inoffensive, as Scott considers the contested aspect of the film with wry humor rather than silly soapbox pronouncements.

bill

I feel pretty confident in saying that I have nothing much to add to this conversation about "slow cinema", other than that I like it when I like it. Of the original group of filmmakers listed, I've only seen one Tarr, which did not hypnotize me, and one Weerasethakul, which I found stunning.

Jarmusch absolutely falls into this category, and I love him, but there's something more "palatable" about him. I put the word in quotes because I hardly think he's preaching to anyone but the choir, but for myself, I think the strain of absurdist humor in all his films makes the slow style go down easier. But then, as everyone notes, the slow style isn't some kind of art commune house style, and can vary in effect and even, well, style, pretty wildly.

See? Nothing to add. Just like I said.

Zach

Glenn: I appreciate the elaboration. I also haven't seen Hadewijch, and I'm eagerly looking forward to it. Vie de Jesus was indeed an amazing debut film, but my feeling is that l'Humanite was even better - an improvement in form, tone - slightly different in terms of the project, but more elegant overall. I can't imagine someone considering it lacking in design - the way Dumont subtly grounds the world somewhere between hard-bitten realism and religious parable (the don't blink-or-you'll-miss-it levitation, the ending, which I thought was wonderfully ambiguous and powerful, although I can see how it might drive some people up a wall). And that's not even getting into the performances. Dumont practically earned his prestige just from casting alone. (If d.a. were to prefer, I could go on a bit more about why I think Dumont is totally worth the patience and nerves his films demand...)


Michael Adams - dude, if you walked out halfway through 29 Palms because you thought his view of humanity was bleak, you should catch the rest of the film sometime. Believe me, it gets way, way bleaker.

*(which is part of the paradox, and which makes PALMS a kind of aberration and cheat in his body of work, since Dumont's project is much more than a lamentation on humanity's brutality - he's at least as interested in the possibility of redemption, or grace, or some secular/metaphysical version of said concepts. My own take is that PALMS is a kind of bad-boy, super dark provocation. It's him having some rather twisted fun with American cultural stereotypes and horror-film conventions, like a punked-out version of Haneke's FUNNY GAMES remake.

Also re. Bill's comment: my first experience with the "slow" aesthetic was watching Jarmusch's MYSTERY TRAIN. If nothing else, he showed me that lingering on a shot (say, the tracking shot of the Japanese couple walking through Memphis at night) could do things for mood and atmosphere that I'd never thought possible. And of course, Jarmusch has said that he learned about this kind of thing from Hou Hsaio Hsien. Everything is connected...

Andrew Wyatt

I had no idea early Hope was so much fun until a friend sat me down and showed me "The Paleface". Great stuff. Then my wife introduced me to "Road to Morocco," and now I love the guy's stuff. Who cares if he turned into a hippie-bashing reactionary grump? We might as well have the Dread Polanski Debate again...

Is there a contemporary comedic actor (or even stand-up comedian) who approaches the odd blend of cowardice and spitfire wit that characterizes Hope's persona? I can't think of one. It seems like a fairly unique creature.

Noah

I haven't been following the "Slow Cinema" debate, but your post made me think of an excerpt from a piece of film criticism by Godard that I happened to read today. I don't have a copy of the article in English, so here's my admittedly mediocre attempt at a translation:

"a film is neither good nor bad because it's fast or slow paced. The quality of "Two Cents Worth of Hope" doesn't come from it's fast pace (evidence: it's a film in which nothing happens), but from the appropriateness [justesse] of it's pace. Nor does the quality of "Ordet" come from it's slow pace (evidence: it's a film in which thousands of things are happening), but of the appropriateness of this slow pace."

From the article "Chacun son Tours" (Cahiers du cinéma, Feb. 1959)

The Swede

Sal-

With a painting, the painter isn't forcing you to stand there. You can contemplate it, move on, do whatever you want.

With a movie, if a director is holding on a shot for a minute or two after the action has completed, he's forcing you to sit there. And if you're not into it, you can't just move on to what's next.

That is the difference.

d.a.

Zach (if you're still here). I'm not saying there is nothing in the films (and I've only seen two), but you still didn't give any particulars as to "what these directors "do" with "long takes," which is radically different." You said a few things about his style and his work with actors, but you didn't say what is being "done." I'm not trying to be obstinate - and I appologize for the snarkiness of my last comment - but I think it's obscutantist to say the slowness is "doing" something and take it as writ that some worthy formal purpose is of course being served by slowness and that all true film buffs will surely see that. That kind of clubhouse mentality - where you say things without actually saying them - just reinforces a lot of pretentious filmmaking conventions and also puts it out of reach of anyone not in the club. As for the politics of "slow cinema," I'm not sure there's anything politically worthy about forgoing entertainment value altogether. (Whether you get a lot of pleasure from it or not only you could know). So, partly to call your bluff and partly because I'd like to have it explained to me, since I don't see anything novel in it, could you tell me what is radically different about Dumont's particular long takes. Pretend you're telling your mother about it. I don't mean you should de-intellectualize it, just that you should be able to be clear about it if you're going to say it at all.

Zach

D.a. - well, okay, sure, but only because the mom analogy is so irresistible. See, there are these things called takes, Ma, and usually they begin when the director yells "action"...okay, for real.

My own sense is that Dumont's long(ish) takes (i.e. in the case of l'Humanite) serve to bring the world of the film more alive, make the subtle motions and events more palpable, and make the sudden and violent events more jarring. Dumont is keenly interested in surfaces, and what those surfaces suggest about what is underneath them: so the lingering on Pharoan's face begins to take on a certain significance, implying (when juxtaposed with other shots of the landscape and of scenes of violence, or sexuality) the coexistence of peace and violence, love and fear, emptiness, and all the big conundrums of human experience. Given time, these resonances can develop in ways that a more narrative-driven work wouldn't allow. Pharoan's psychology, or the narrative question of what-will-happen-next aren't the priority - in fact, they're deliberately frustrated. Dumont's use of cinema provides a more plastic space, if you will, to really "consider" what we're seeing, and to bring us closer to the world he's created with his lens.

There's a political side to this as well - by using the genre of the "policier" as a jumping-off point, he's (I think) trying to say something about human constructs like guilt, resolution, and order. A police investigation, rendered so familiar through genre conventions, is propulsive and unidirectional. It moves from the murder, through the possible suspects, to the inevitable catching of the culprit. It's efficient, it's brisk, it's tension comes from the expectation of resolution. Dumont defies all of that. He gives us a detective who is a bumbler - almost a simpleton, totally lacking in heroic stature. He gives us long scenes involving the quotidian details of the detective's life, rather than quick scenes of pursuing the suspect, working on "the case." You're reminded of the fact that most murders go unsolved, that the wheels of justice are indeed "slow" - and what's more, sometimes hopelessly inefficient and arbitrary - that justice is a human invention in a world whose complexity would overwhelm us if we didn't create structures of order or meaning.

There's also the very concept of "watching" - Pharoan is a watcher, and we're given, through the construction of the film, a pretty intimate experience of what that is like - the tendency to linger and stare rather than simply scan, as we habitually do, and sometimes do specifically to avoid pain or confusion. So the use of long takes also emerges organically from the focus on a character that is, in more ways than one, "slow" - but besides all the things that are lost, we're given to consider what might be gained; the ability to really "see" the world, to not turn (or cut) away from the chaos, confusion, and darkness - or the beauty, the grace, or what have you. Sometimes, that takes time.

This is different from say, Hou, who is working in a mode that focuses more explicitly on history, who is more interested in the passage of time in interior and urban spaces, who has more of a sensual touch with light, color and movement. Hou's movies rarely try my patience, I find them fascinating and enjoyable as well as enigmatic and challenging. Tarr does try my patience, since I think his perspective is a bit too dark and deterministic, but I have to admire his commitment.

Jefflatham

"humorless prig"...Benoit Rouilly (aka HarryTuttle) certainly is that!

colinr

The problem I identified with the Nick James's article was that it signifies a worrying move to provocative pieces written to create an impassioned response (very Armond White-ish). Sometimes that can be refreshing but often it can seem as if the person writing about their subject does not really understand it and acts dismissively in order to get responses which somehow explain the appeal (and worth) of the film or genre in question to them.

It also suggests a move to more internet styled back and forths with commentators - the film blogs of the UK's Guardian newspaper, to cite another example of this, have been quite notorious for posts titled "Are All Art Movies Long & Boring?" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2007/oct/03/areallartmovieslongandbo) that are often little more than argument starters questioning the reader for information rather than providing any insight of their own.

There has been some debate recently on criterionforum.org about another article in the same issue of Sight and Sound relating to a review of Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching which suggested: "Perhaps the real question is not so much whether Nightwatching represents a return to form for Greenaway, but rather whether such form has any place in today's cinemas. Nostalgic fans of the director are likely to get exactly what they want from Nightwatching - but for all its experimentation, intellectualism and intricacy, it has little to offer that's new. Perhaps, though, this is an unfair criticism of a film that in fact invites us to look again, with unblinkered eyes, at the old"

Now the review in question is interesting in the way it links this new and old theme in with both Greenaway's wider career and recent slip from distribution (this review was for the very brief cinema release of Nightwatching, with the DVD being released only a month later. It had been undistributed in the UK for years up to that point, despite even receiving a US DVD release last year. And The Tulse Luper Suitcases remain undistributed in the US or UK), so it has a bit more journalistic legitimacy than the James editorial on 'slow cinema'. However it does bring up a difficult question about just who decides what is old ground, covering the same territory only for 'nostalgic' (presumably implied to be fan-boy) audiences and why a director such as Mike Leigh or Ken Loach is allowed to cover and re-cover similar territory without the same approbation. The big debate at the moment is less 'slow versus fast' cinema, but of 'old versus new' cinema, what exactly those labels mean, and who is controlling the perception of what fits into one category or another.

James Keepnews

As usual in such circumstances, the subsequent meta-commentary on the original argument becomes more interesting and enlightening than the original. Yay, Internet!

This use of "slow" seems to be a misnomer, and Glenn nailed it in his use of the modifier "restive" -- it's not so much the slowness that bugs the 21st century schizoid ADD sensibility, it's the length of takes/narratives/non-expository "privileged moments," and our increasing inability to sit still and deal with things as they unfold in, ahem, real time (Boo, Internet!). I also think Glenn touched on a potentially interesting wrinkle -- like him, I was slow to warm to Hou but freaking "got" Tarr, Reygadas, the Dumont of Life of Jesus and Humanity (even with the single unlikeliest, momma's-boy homicide detective, ever) straightaway, but still don't quite "get" (read: sat through) Tsai. Different strokes, but as we all agree, just because a director likes his takes long ("editing by Kodak", read: reel length, is I think roughly how JLG has put it in the past) doesn't make them any kinda movement that, what, honors Michael Snow or some damn thing? (Admittedly, I do want the sequel rights to Wavelength: "Wavelength: With a Vengeance -- One word....BACKWARDS!!!")?

Anyway, bless your heart from mentioning the late, great, increasingly neglected Robert Quine -- would Lou have Cult Career Pt. II without him? I hardly think so. I adore his two solo albums, esp. the never-freaking-released-on-CD collab with Fred Maher, Basic: "Summer Storm" is an unforgettably lovely, inscrutable bit of guitar texture-osity...

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