I really think I need to jump in on this one. In the April 2010 Sight and Sound, the journal’s editor, Nick James, wrote as follows:
Part of the critical orthodoxy I have complained about has been the dominance of Slow Cinema, that â€œvaried strain of austere minimalist cinema that has thrived internationally over the past ten yearsâ€, as Jonathan Romney put it. â€œWhatâ€™s at stake,â€ he wrote, â€œis a certain rarefied intensity in the artistic gaze . . . a cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality.â€
I admire and enjoy a good many of the best films of this kind, but I have begun to wonder if maybe some of them now offer an easy life for critics and programmers. After all, the festivals themselves commission many of these productions, and such films are easy to remember and discuss in detail because details are few. The bargain the newer variety of slow films seem to impose on the viewer is simple: itâ€™s up to you to draw on your stoic patience and the fascination in your gaze, in case you miss a masterpiece.
Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey (â€Balâ€ Semih Kaplanoglu, 2010) â€“ a beautifully crafted work that, for me suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu â€“ there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit youâ€™re bored and youâ€™re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes itâ€™s worth it, sometimes not. Slow Cinema has been the clear alternative to Hollywood for some time, but from now on, with Hollywood in trouble, Iâ€™ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion.
This passage is cited, and then heavily criticized, by Harry Tuttle in Unspoken Cinema, the blog devoted to what it prefers to call CCC (Contemporary Contemplative Cinema), as exemplified in the work of such directors as “Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, Bruno Dumont, Weerasethakul, Sharunas Bartas, Kore-eda, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sokurov, Lisandro Alonso, Carlos Reygadas, Pedro Costa” (list appears here). For Tuttle, James’ criticism is “anti-intellectual banter”, “typical of the anti-intellectual, pro-entertainment inclination that plagues today’s film culture,” andÂ offering a “reductive and superficial” account that perpetrates a “mischaracterisation” of recent art films “that induces contempt and caricature.” Tuttle says that “critics need to learn how to name (and list) things that are not obvious, to learn to find the content behind the appearance of emptiness, to learn to understand the depth and complexity in the intervals between the apparent (and nominal) details” — he accuses James of failing to do this, and instead merely remaining on the surface of things.
Will it get me expelled forever from the ranks of Film Bloggers Who Can Be Taken Seriously if I state that I am more in agreement with James than with Tuttle here? [I should declare in advance that I am unwilling to be drawn into lengthy polemics on this issue. I’m making my sentiments clear in the present blog post; this posting may well just be totally ignored by the film blogosphere and the larger world; but if Â anyone does pay attention to it, I feel sure that it will garner substantial criticism. I am stating here and now, in advance, that I will not respond to criticisms with counter-arguments. I’ve had my say, and that’s that].
Anyway. Like Nick James, I am not insensitive to the greatness and power of many of these recent “slow” or “contemplative” films. Tsai Ming-Liang is a great director by any accounting; Tarr, Kore-eda, and Sokurov have in my opinion made some important and powerful films (though in both cases, I find their work uneven). And friends of mine, whose aesthetic sensibilities I respect, have had sublime experiences with films by Reygadas, Weerasethakul, and Alonso — and I can see what it is in the films by these directors that appeal to them, even though I do not quite share their admiration.
And yet, and yet… There seems to be something lacking to me in nearly all the recent exercises in contemplative (or slow) cinema, when you compare them with such older “contemplative” works as Antonioni’s films of the 1960s, Chantal Akerman’s early films from the 1970s, Miklos JancsÃ³’s films of the 1960s and early 1970s, and Tarkovsky’s films before he left Russia. There was something daring and provocative about Antonioni’s portrayals of fatigue and ennui, and his precise contemplations of the positive emptiness of both natural and human-made landscapes; about Akerman’s digging into the horrors of women’s everydayness; of JancsÃ³’s icy priouettes around the clashes of armies on vast plains; about Tarkovsky’s patience and sense of duration. All these directors were extremists in their own singular ways: by which I mean they were pushing cinema to its extreme limits, as well as exploring the extreme aspects of human possibility and impossibility (and not just human ones — some of these directors may well be credited with pioneering a potential posthuman and object-oriented cinema).
In today’s contemplative cinema, in contrast, the daringness and provocation are missing.Â I never get the sense that Dumont, or Reygadas, for instance, are ever taking risks or pushing boundaries. There’s an oppressive sense in which the long-take, long-shot, slow-camera-movement, sparse-dialogue style has become entirely routinized; it’s become a sort of default international style that signifies “serious art cinema” without having to display any sort of originality or insight. “Contemplative cinema” has become a cliche; it has outlived the time in which it was refreshing or inventive.
I’d even say that the most inspired works of “difficult” international cinema are characterized by the ways that they depart from slow-cinema norms. Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, for instance, cannot be classified as slow or contemplative cinema: its narrative is oblique, as is its presentation of that narrative, but it is too intimate, or too interested in the feelings and everyday shifts of attention and mood of its protagonists, to fit the “slow” paradigm. The late (and still woefully underappreciated) Edward Yang abandoned the Antonioniesque stylings and slownesses of his earlier films for something more like a Renoiresque social realism with ensemble casts (I still think that Confucian Confusion and Mahjong are two of the greatest films of the 1990s, together constituting the postmodern equivalent of Rules of the Game). Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life is utterly inspired, with its peculiar, more-than-Gondryesque take on mortality and memory, while Still Walking seems to me to be just standard-issue CCC, with a deep-emotions-displayed-through-restraint portrayal that is strictly by the numbers, more “moving” than actually moving. Similarly, the handheld-camera Â rawness of Jia Zhang-ke’s earlier films (like the intensely disillusioning Xiao Wu) seem to me to be far superior to his “slower” recent works. The crazy excesses of the best Korean directors (Bong Joon-ho, park Chan-wook, and Kim Ki-Duk) all evidence, in their utterly different ways, a hunger for all the dimensions of life (from corporeal to spiritual to social) that contemplative cinema systematically omits. In his best films, Takeshi Kitano pushes slow cinema to the point of buffoonery and absurdity. And Takashi Miike has shown more formal invention, and rethinking of what cinema is, what it can be, Â and what it means, in each year of his career than all the CCC directors combined have shown over their entire careers. (And I could go on; Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, and Mladen Djordjevic are all important contemporary directors who have nothing whatsoever to do with Contemplative Cinema).
So my overall sense is that the Contemplative Cinema Canon doesn’t even give us a very good sense of what’s most interesting and most powerful in contemporary international art cinema today. But I think there’s more. Great works of art can be created in profoundly retrograde styles, and almost completely detached from contemporary concerns. And I think the best works of the Contemplative Cinema Canon may in fact be described in such a way. But I still think that, even at its best, Slow-Cinema-As-Default-International-Style is profoundly nostalgic and regressive — and I think that this is a bad thing. It’s a way of simulating older cinematic styles, and giving them a new appearance of Â life (or more precisely, a new zombified life-in-death), as a way of flattering classicist cinephiles, and of simply ignoring everything that has happened, socially, politically, and technologically, in the last 30 years. It’s a way of saying No to mainstream Hollywood’s current fast-edit, post-continuity, highly digital style, simply by pretending that it doesn’t even exist. And I agree with Nick James that this simply isn’t enough.
When I say that CCC is regressive, I don’t mean that all change automatically constitutes “progress,” or that such “progress” is somehow automatically good. But in a world that has been so profoundly changed over the past 30 or 40 years by globalization, financialization, and technological innovation, it’s simply an evasive cop-out to make movies as if none of this had happened. And in a film industry whose production processes have been entirely upended by digitalization, and where film itself has increasingly been displaced by newer media, and refashioned to find its place within the landscape of those newer media, it is a profound failure of imagination to continue to make films in the old way, or that continue to signify in the old way, when this “old way” has itself become nothing more than a nostalgic clichÃ©.
In other words: it’s very consoling and self-congratulatory for old-line cinephiles (a group in which I fully include myself) to tell ourselves the story that the current cultural landscape’s insistence on rapidity and speed and instantaneous gratification is a monstrous aberration, and that we are maintaining truer values when we strive to slow everything down. But this is a lie. You cannot change a situation if you are unwilling to have anything to do with it, if you are so concerned with keeping your hands clean and avoiding complicity that you simply retreat into fantasies of the good old days. To my mind, this is what Slow Cinema is doing; and Nick James is entirely right to find it unsatisfactory, and to look instead for new, “more active forms of rebellion.” And we are likely to find these as often in exploitation cinema as in art cinema; but in any case, in movies that engage with the new media landscape, and the new socio-economic landscape, rather than fleeing them in dreams of “learn[ing] in to find the content behind the appearance of emptiness.”