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Slow, Fast, and Inbetween

by Dan Fox

As director Apichatpong Weerasethakul takes the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives it seems like an apt moment to mention a recent spat that has had certain film critics lobbing handfuls of organic flapjack at each other across the auditoriums of their local art-house uniplexes.
This critical storm-in-a-teacup began with the April edition of the UK film magazine Sight and Sound, when editor Nick James took issue with the ‘critical orthodoxy’ of what is called by some ‘Slow Cinema’. It’s a term that has been applied the work of directors such as Pedro Costa, Jia Zhang-ke, Carlos Reygadas, Aleksandr Sokurov, Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, and, of course, Weerasethakul; a form of cinema which critic Jonathan Romney has described as a ‘varied strain of austere minimalist cinema that has thrived internationally over the past ten years […] a cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality’.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010

With the cab driver-esque ‘now, don’t get me wrong or nuffink…’ caveat that he admires and enjoys ‘a good many’ films of this kind, James goes on to wonder whether such films ‘are easy to remember and discuss in detail because the details are so few.’ He writes: ‘the bargain the newer variety of slow films seem to impose on the viewer is simple: it’s up to you to draw on your stoic patience and the fascination in your gaze, in case you miss a masterpiece.’ James makes the argument that in the case of films such as Semi Kaplanoglu’s Honey (which won the Golden Bear in Berlin this year), ‘there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine.’ He contends that ‘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’ and tails off with a somewhat non-committal ‘sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not.’

James’ editorial has particularly upset Harry Tuttle [1], who runs the blog Unspoken Cinema. Tuttle prefers the working term ‘Contemporary Contemplative Cinema’ (CCC) to ‘Slow Cinema’, and outlines what he considers its salient features to be here and here. In short, he identifies the trademarks to be ‘plotlessness’, ‘wordlessness’, ‘slowness’ and ‘alienation’.

Tuttle is a fervent fan and vociferous defender of this cinematic aesthetic. ‘Typical. Misunderstanding CCC. Looking down on art cinema’ begins his heated rebuttle of James – the first of many, as he gamely takes on other writers who also picked up on the Sight and Sound editorial (notably, Steven Shaviro and Vadim Rizov). He lambasts James’ use of the term ‘Slow Cinema’ since it ‘is a mischaracterisation that induces contempt and caricature. Limiting this cinema to “slowness” is reductive and superficial. This is precisely because unhappy viewers remain on the surface of these films that they are unable to obtain any substance from them. [sic]’ Tuttle hits back at James’ assertion that ‘details are few in these films’: ‘“Details are few” says he! It’s not because you can hardly fill a half-page with plot points and characters arc [sic], or because the list of notable features appearing on the screen is short, that there isn’t anything else there to see. 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 (nominal) details.’ At one point Tuttle argues that ‘It’s like dismissing Kasimir Malevich or Yves Klein because there isn’t enough [sic] “details” on the canvas… sometimes Art is not about WHAT is represented, but about what is NOT represented, or an abstract reflection on the effect of representational minimalism’. ‘I thought critics assimilated this breakthrough of non-figurative art long time ago!’ he scalds. Tuttle sees James’ editorial as a betrayal: ‘Real film critics giving up on art … Who is going to defend real culture then?’ he asks, ignoring the question here of who gets to say what ‘real culture’ is.

Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break, 2008

If we’re talking about that which is not represented, Tuttle’s spat with James, Rizov, Shaviro et al is an interesting one partly because of another area of filmmaking that the row itself ignores. Ideas of duration, non-representation, anti-narrative, and such like, have been in circulation in film and video art and shown in galleries and museums since at least the 1960s. Much as I admire Tuttle’s spirited engagement with his favoured genre of contemporary cinema, nowhere on his timeline of CCC/Slow Cinema is there anything that represents, for instance, the achievements of Structural cinema. This is curious, for if ‘plotlessness’, ‘wordlessness’, ‘slowness’ and ‘alienation’ are what he is trying to chronicle, where are Andy Warhol’s Empire, from 1964, or Michael Snow’s 1967 film Wavelength for example? Nor is there any acknowledgement of how these multiple strands of experimental cinema history have fed into the work of artists today. Here are a few examples off the top of my head. Take Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break (2008), a lengthy, single-take tracking shot of workers at lunch in an ironworks. Lunch Break has been screened at a number of film festivals, but has not sprung from the ‘default international style’ (as Shaviro puts it, or as Tuttle prefers, an ‘unorganized transnational aesthetic convergence’) of CCC/Slow Cinema but has developed by and large with the support of art galleries and institutions rather than conventional sources of ‘art film’ funding and circuits of distribution. Or look at the films of Tacita Dean: unabashedly langorous and ‘contemplative’, and exhibited widely across the world, though, for whatever reasons, relatively unfamiliar on the repertory ‘art house’ cinema circuit. And how about Matthew Barney’s ‘Cremaster’ cycle (1994–2002), which is currently enjoying a high-profile re-run at the IFC cinema in New York? The ‘Cremaster’ films are extremely long, extremely slow and feature next to no dialogue whatsoever, but, whether you like their dense symbolism or not, you could hardly say they lack details, unless you consider vintage cars destroying the lobby of the Chrysler building and a Victorian satyr burrowing under the Isle of Man to be minor visual asides. Barney, Dean and Lockhart have all been making work since the early- to mid-1990s; far longer than the ten years Romney puts on CCC/Slow Cinema.

Tacita Dean, Craneway Event, 2009

The CCC/Slow Cinema disagreement reveals an interesting myopia, one that is exacerbated by the differing modes of cinema distribution and art exhibitions, and the beaten paths along which film critics and art critics ply their trades. It suggests a state of affairs in which you might be familiar with Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and Jacques Rivette’s 12 hour-long Out 1 (1971), but for some reason can’t accommodate the different contexts they come from in the same stream of critical discussion. James’ fear of being called a philistine, of admitting that a film that falls into the CCC/Slow Cinema genre is boring, suggests that he’s new to ideas of duration or silence in filmmaking – something I find pretty hard to believe. (This cuts both ways: I’ve lost count of the number of artist’s films [2] I’ve seen that have been lauded for their high quality production values and the fact they use – gasp! – actors and scripts, as if no one had ever done this before.) It reminds me of anxieties one hears people voicing about contemporary art: the fear – instilled in them for whatever reasons of education, background or personal insecurity – that if they say they don’t like something, they’ll be thought of as culturally ignorant. The flipside of this is, of course, the fear of being branded pretentious.

In The Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the CCC/Slow Cinema dispute, Danny Leigh asks ‘is it OK to be a film philistine?’ Framing the discussion along this axis of philistinism and pretension is frustratingly unhelpful, as it keeps discussion mired in very basic terms of class and taste, and elitism versus populism, pushing into the background any other possible forms of analysis of why you think the way a director has put images and sound together is engaging or not. It foregrounds insecurity; the critic or viewer’s anxieties over what other people will think of them and their opinion. Yet Tuttle’s approach doesn’t help either. It interesting to note how at least two of his definitions of CCC/Slow Cinema are formed in opposition to conventional formulations of cinema – ‘plotlessness’ as opposed to plot, ‘wordlessness’ as opposed to dialogue. Why not ‘silence’ rather than ‘wordlessness’ – that is to say, why not foreground what does exist rather than what it lacks? The danger with binaries formulated around the absence of something is that, just like the philistine/pretentious axis, they can hobble the terms of discussion. In this case such absence pits these CCC/Slow Cinema films against a normative model of filmmaking, namely ‘Hollywood’, and all that word is conventionally taken to represent in terms of money, power and cultural hegemony. This can be disempowering in that not only does it slow the development of a critical vocabulary specific to the films in question, but it also situates the discussion within just the same basic elitist-versus-populist framework as philistinism and pretentiousness. (The reductive term ‘Slow Cinema’ does something similar in that the word ‘slow’ implies that it exists in a kind of ideological opposition to a ‘normal’ or ‘fast’ speed of cinema – an effect emphasized by its echoes of ‘slow food’ and that movement’s focus on localism and anti-big business – although the solemn mouthful ‘Contemporary Contemplative Cinema’ is hardly preferable.)

‘Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not’: banal though James’ statement may be, I don’t think his admission that he finds certain aspects of CCC/Slow Cinema to be frustrating is that troubling. What can be inferred from his editorial is that a certain approach to filmmaking has its mannerist practitioners; I can’t quite see how one might leap from that to the conviction that Sight and Sound will from now on be giving over their pages exclusively to Clash of the Titans and the Iron Man franchise. The idea that if you criticize some of these CCC/Slow Cinema films you must therefore be craving all-action blockbuster movies is a little like saying just because you don’t like pasta you must therefore love dim sum; personally, I love both, but I wouldn’t want to eat either every day of the week.

1 An homage to this work of genius?
2 In conversation the other night, a friend made an observation about the use of the prefix ‘artists’’ – as in ‘artists’ film’, ‘artists’ book’, ‘artists’ band’ or ‘artists’ cupcake recipe’. He pointed out that it acts either as a label denoting exemplary status – ‘this thing is special and doesn’t follow the usual rules of whatever genre it is working in’ – or an excuse –  ‘this thing is actually pretty shonky and uninteresting apart from the fact an artist made it, but that’s OK because it doesn’t follow the usual rules of whatever genre it is working in, and because the artist must surely have intended it to be this way, you should accept it.’

About the author

  • Dan Fox's photo

    Dan Fox is co-editor of frieze and is based in New York.

    His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK in February 2016, and by Coffee House Books in the US in April 2016. In 2015 he appeared on the album ‘Cave Moderne’ by The God in Hackney and the debut LP by Big Legs, both on Junior Aspirin Records