Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Passive Resistance in Slow Cinema

In his 2010 article published in Sight and Sound, Nick James offered a critical analysis and contemplation of what was commonly referred to as a discussion within slow cinema. Within this context, he delineated two forms of passive resistance against the prevailing dominance of Hollywood in the film industry: slow cinema and the slow criticism movement. Slow cinema, in this context, pertains to a collection of international cinematic works renowned for their minimalist aesthetics and deliberate, unhurried pacing. Conversely, as defined by Dana Linssen, slow criticism constitutes a response to the burgeoning trend of consumer reviews that often lack depth when evaluating a film. James posited that both these endeavors, on the surface, appear to rebel against mainstream media, but they ultimately represent forms of passive resistance. In simpler terms, he contended that recent shifts in film critique and production are influenced by a specific issue—the gradual transformation of slow films into clichés. Consequently, these pursuits facilitate an uncomplicated path for programmers and critics, as they lend themselves to detailed discussions and recollection, albeit with limited substance.

James also introduced a conspiracy theory suggesting that films that oppose mainstream capitalist ideologies are deliberately commissioned by professional film festivals, superficially critiqued by film reviewers, and mass-produced by directors within art cinema. As a result, many of these films are commissioned by the same festivals that distribute and showcase them. Drawing from examples such as Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Honey, James argued that there are instances when viewers observe a character laboriously traversing a forest path, and they discern an implicit sense of threat. It often leads to viewer boredom, and they perceive such films as passive-aggressive due to their demand for a substantial investment of the viewer’s valuable time to deliver thin yet fleeting political effects and aesthetics. Consequently, James cast doubt upon the minimalist aesthetics prevalent in these films and hesitated to assign political significance to them due to their passive nature.

James’s standpoint was swiftly met with criticism from Harry Tuttle, who characterized James’s critique as an “insult” and accused him of misunderstanding the true nature of contemporary contemplative cinema—a label used for slow cinema. Tuttle argued that the abundance of details within a film does not necessarily impact its aesthetic value. Ultimately, Tuttle urged James to confront the issue directly, explaining why certain slow films can be masterpieces while others fall short. Despite Tuttle’s critique bordering on personal disdain for James, his response shed light on often overlooked facets of slow cinema. Furthermore, it highlighted that a slow cinematic pace does not automatically equate to heightened cultural, artistic, or aesthetic value despite its potential to accommodate productive and positive aesthetic functions. Viewers cannot assess it impartially, as their judgments are often influenced by their subjective mainstream biases.

Contributions from Film Critics

The debate surrounding slow cinema’s artistic and cultural worth has extended into various other platforms. According to Steven Shaviro, contemporary slow cinema merely rehashes experiments by art cinema directors in the 1960s, lacking their ability to provoke political bravery. Conversely, Vadim Rizov adopts a similar standpoint, asserting that many contemporary slow cinema directors are stuck in their self-righteous slowness.

Numerous film critics contribute to this discussion by summarizing key positions and providing additional arguments to defend slow cinema, often without delving into the aesthetic, theoretical, and historical aspects that should be considered. James, however, sticks to his position by reiterating his argument, stating that this loose cultural trend runs the risk of becoming a commonplace behavior. James also underscores the connection between boredom and contemporary culture and cinema. He highlights how proponents of art cinema view the term “slow cinema” with disdain.

A comparable debate centered on boredom re-emerges in The New York Times in an article by Dan Kois. He acknowledges his own naïve belief in perceiving slowness as a symbol of sophistication and ultimately characterizes the consumption of slow-moving films as cultural “vegetable-eating.” Kois also points to a broader idea where slow cinema embodies the peculiar notion that viewers watch films they do not genuinely enjoy but feel compelled to do so. In essence, they believe that consuming high-quality products like these enhances their social status, cultural standing, and overall quality of life.

Despite much of this discourse being disseminated online, the backdrop of the slow cinema debate has shifted from film blogs to a more journalistic context, involving professional critics and a broader readership.

The Rapid Resurfacing of the Debate

The debate surrounding slow cinema raises several questions, including whether these films engage primarily on aesthetic or political grounds or are essentially artworks tailored to meet the demands of cultural elites. This ongoing debate rapidly resurfaces across various online platforms such as discussion boards, forums, blogs, and social media. This phenomenon highlights how new media and digital technology swiftly intersect with issues of intellectual significance and cultural creation. Additionally, the debate suggests that many of these films transcend cultural and national boundaries, appealing to diverse groups who share a mutual appreciation for cinema and its roles in politics, culture, and aesthetics.

Conversely, the slow cinema debate delves into critical discussions concerning the challenges of writing about art cinema in an era dominated by mainstream blockbuster films. In such contexts, slow cinema occupies a unique intersection where fundamental questions in cultural research find a suitable home. In summary, slow cinema and its associated debates present a rich source with substantial potential for cultural research. However, defining the essence of slow cinema, identifying the circumstances in which it emerges, and understanding the artistic techniques and styles employed by filmmakers and how audiences interpret these films remain areas of scholarly exploration. Despite receiving significant attention in cinema publications, slow cinema has only gradually gained recognition in academic circles.

Ultimately, boredom becomes a central narrative concern in both the content of slow cinema and the act of viewing it. While these films explore modernist themes like restlessness, boredom, and alienation within the context of contemporary life and its historical conditions, they convey these emotions to their audience by emphasizing boredom and lethargy as states of mind that are both receptive and conducive to productivity.

Defining Contemporary Art Cinema

The concept of “slow cinema” remains a point of contention for many film enthusiasts and experts. Jonathan Romney initially introduced this term in his critique of the emerging trend of art cinema in the early 2000s. Slow cinema encompasses a diverse spectrum of minimalist films that have gained international recognition over the past decade. According to Romney, its primary objective is to convey a specific intensity in artistic expression, prioritizing mood over plot events and evoking an enhanced sense of temporal awareness. Drawing inspiration from contemporary filmmakers such as Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr, and Lisandro Alonso, Romney perceives slow cinema as a distinct branch of cinematic art, nearly synonymous with cinema, as mainstream production increasingly recedes and recycles.

In contrast, James Quandt characterizes slow cinema as a formula prevalent in international art-house cinema. He likens the experience of watching slow cinema to listening to silence, evoking an inexplicable melancholic aura. These films often feature extended shots of uninhabited landscapes, accompanied by materialistic sounds and captivating Tarkovskian imagery. Slowness, in many respects, becomes a defining characteristic, signifying how art cinema challenges, rejects or intentionally rebels against the domination of fast-paced mainstream cinema production.

Among the pioneers, Matthew Flanagan emphasizes the emergence of slowness in contemporary art cinema. He interprets slow cinema as a deliberate and non-naturalistic storytelling approach, with an emphasis on depicting everyday life and tranquility. However, the emphasis on slowness transcends mere aesthetic evolution, drawing attention to a prevailing element of modern style. Flanagan contends that the existence of slow cinema prompts a reevaluation of our fast-paced culture. It reshapes our expectations regarding film narratives and acclimates us to a more deliberate tempo. Despite initial reservations about the term “slow,” Flanagan continues to employ it due to the subtle resurgence of temporality and subjective perspectives about the world.

It leads to the extent to which a deliberate approach to aesthetics and temporality defines contemporary art cinema. While the answer is nuanced, these debated terms resonate with the history of art cinema. In other words, the aesthetics of slowness have evolved from a specific lineage in film history, which has recently gained prominence due to external factors such as changes in the industry, technological advancements, and shifts in artistic and cultural paradigms. Similarly, the extended duration frequently encountered in slow cinema represents an amplified revision of practices consistently employed in modern art cinema since the 1960s. Art cinema often occupies the far end of the temporal-spatial narrative spectrum, challenging the boundaries between constructing aesthetic foregrounds, engaging the viewer, and maintaining narrative clarity.

Even though experiments with temporality in cinema led to fast editing techniques like jump cuts (frequently used by Jean-Luc Godard and other French New Wave filmmakers), audiences at the 1960s Cannes Film Festival found Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura excessively tedious and slow. They expressed their disapproval of the film’s unhurried pace by shouting and whistling during scenes where time appeared to stand still and silence dominated the proceedings. In many respects, Antonioni’s works in the early 1960s epitomized the primary archetype of slow cinema, characterized by its deliberate pacing, consistent use of moments of inactivity, and visually composed foregrounds.

Conversely, James Agee acclaimed Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath as a tranquil masterpiece. Italian neorealism frequently produced films with a slower tempo, featuring characters who seemed to float through their lives while contemplating everyday existence in contrast to the extraordinary escapades of Hollywood heroes. From Yasujirô Ozu and Robert Bresson to Andrei Tarkovsky, the annals of cinematic art abound with figures who employed similar aesthetics. Consequently, they laid the foundation for the tradition of slow cinema.

Art Cinema’s Dual Perspective

Besides being a part of the ongoing realm of art cinema, which often navigates between two interrelated perspectives—one functioning as an establishment akin to the commercial strategies of the Hollywood industry and the other serving as a mode of film practice steeped in the dialectics of realism and authorship—art cinema stands in contrast to the classical narrative cinema paradigm. The latter prioritizes narrative clarity and coherence, marked by formal traits like standardized film aesthetics, goal-driven characters, and a reliance on cause-and-effect storytelling. In contrast, art cinema challenges these conventions and operates under the guidance of two distinct principles: authorial expressiveness and realism.

Furthermore, art cinema has a penchant for psychologically intricate characters, exploration of real-life themes, and authentic settings. It frequently employs non-professional actors, contributing to its performances’ raw and genuine quality. These films also manifest authorial expressiveness, where the director formally shapes our interpretation of the film. While not exclusively a product of auteur film criticism, art cinema also serves as a cultural discourse centered around this core concept. Art cinema’s audience is expected to engage with films in consideration of the respective directors, posing a challenge for viewers accustomed to the classical cinematic paradigm.

In the art cinema domain, ambiguity in narrative elements serves to reconcile the tension between artistic expression and realism. Art cinema establishes itself as a distinctive cinematic mode by permitting viewers to grapple with ambiguity within the film, characterized by a specific set of generic traits, audience expectations, narrative conventions, and formal principles. This mode often showcases controlled storytelling, temporal manipulation, deep-focus cinematography, and protracted scenes. With an emphasis on the innovative use of ambiguity and style, slow cinema explores the attributes intrinsic to art cinema. According to David Bordwell, the interplay between modernist cinema and art cinema involves viewing conventions and formal characteristics that disentangle narrative structure from cinematic style, leading to an overlap between two distinct modes and making it challenging to categorize a film as belonging to the classical or art cinema tradition.

Art Cinema as a Counterforce to Hollywood Dominance

Steve Neale posits that art cinema, primarily emerging in developed European nations, serves as an institution to counter Hollywood’s dominance in their respective film markets. Neale’s examination focuses on Italy, Germany, and France. To demonstrate how art cinema takes shape within diverse social, economic, and cultural contexts, he contends that it does not merely define itself in opposition to Hollywood and mainstream cinema but also seeks to attain higher cultural significance. In the post-World War II period, Neale’s research challenges the common assumption that Italian neorealism laid the groundwork for art cinema. Instead, he illustrates that the fundamental characteristics of art cinema discourse were present as early as the 1910s when nations aimed to establish their indigenous film cultures to resist external influence.

Moreover, in the 1960s, when it emerged, art cinema was not only seen as a politically rebellious movement; it was also recognized as a crucial force in revitalizing culture and shaping the identity of a nation. Neale’s analysis of three distinct national cinemas underscores the significant role of state involvement in developing their respective art cinemas. Governments functioned as official funding sources for art cinema institutions and played a role in regulating the distribution and exhibition networks for these films. Notably, art cinema has evolved, giving rise to unofficial national entities like art cinema circles, influential film magazines that nurtured domestic film markets, film journals, and film clubs. State incentives promoted the existence of film clubs that supported the reception, exhibition, and production of art films. Additionally, critics from publications like Cahiers du Cinéma in France contributed critical figures to the French New Wave.

Indeed, art cinema occupies a niche within the international film market, which Hollywood somewhat dominates. With high art frequently showcased in international film festivals, changes in audience demographics signify a shift from lowbrow to highbrow art appreciation. This context enables audiences to engage with diverse cultures and comprehend cultural distinctions. Consequently, directors emerge as influential figures whose names carry immediate expectations for potential viewers and create opportunities for future collaborations with other labels.

In their Global Art Cinema essay, Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt redefine art cinema through various critical methodologies and practices. They contextualize it on a global scale to rectify its prior Eurocentric characterization. Furthermore, they propose a comprehensive approach that considers geopolitical factors, economics, historical contexts, style, and form. Thus, impurity within art cinema can be understood in multiple ways, including diverse and multifaceted audiences, challenging genre definitions, complex relationships with authorship and fame, and its international and transnational nature. This impurity instigates discussions and debates concerning categorization. It opens up a space between industrial or formal debates, historical or theoretical perspectives, local or cosmopolitan viewpoints, and mainstream or avant-garde cinema scholarship.

Béla Tarr’s Role in Slow Cinema

When delving into slow cinema, Béla Tarr emerges as a prominent advocate, offering a distinct voice within European art cinema. Films like Sátántangó have garnered acclaim for their enigmatic and artistically challenging auteur qualities and notably extended durations. However, Tarr’s filmmaking journey dates back to the late 1970s, marked by significant variations in aesthetics and stylistic approaches. Prior to Sátántangó, his earlier works, including Family Nest, The Outsider, and Prefab People, were shaped by the cinéma vérité style, drawing inspiration from John Cassavetes’ films and characterized by improvised performances predominantly delivered by non-professional actors.

In 1988, Tarr initiated a collaborative effort with novelist and screenwriter László Krasznahorkai, composer Mihály Víg, and editor Ágnes Hranitzky, a partnership that commenced with the production of Damnation. Tarr’s cinematic oeuvre delves deep into the darker facets of human nature and exhibits recurring motifs and narrative styles that are distinctly recognizable. The extended duration of shots becomes a prominent and recurrent aesthetic element in his works, drawing from a rich lineage in cinema history.

Slow cinema, at its core, takes André Bazin’s concept of aesthetic realism to an extreme level. According to Bazin, slow cinema endeavors to separate narrative impetus from its visual representation, aiming to create substantial moments of inactivity that underscore de-dramatization. Furthermore, Bazin asserts that long takes constitute one of the primary formal elements characterizing the prevailing style in slow cinema, often characterized by exceptionally prolonged shot durations.

In broad strokes, slow cinema, with Tarr as a notable exemplar, starkly contrasts the conventions of intensive continuity filmmaking, particularly in editing pace. For instance, Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies boasts an average shot length of well over 200 seconds, significantly surpassing the most extended shot durations observed in previous cinematic eras.

The advent of the Steadicam, introduced by cinematographer Garrett Brown, revolutionized the ability of filmmakers to smoothly track and capture character movements within various spaces, eliminating the need for cumbersome tracks or the jarring handheld camera movements of the past. Consequently, the rise of digital recording technology has made the execution of extended single takes more cost-effective and feasible, allowing films to achieve significantly protracted shot durations compared to traditional analog filmmaking. This technological progression has given rise to productions such as Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, famously composed entirely of a single unbroken shot.

Moreover, digital tools are harnessed for aesthetic purposes in films like Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth. Nevertheless, many practitioners of slow cinema continue to employ celluloid and only adopt digital advancements during post-production stages.

Notably, technological advancements in cinematography profoundly influence the rhythm of editing, offering filmmakers an array of tools and techniques. Within slow cinema, the prolonged duration of shots takes precedence over technical specifications or technological novelties. It is a fundamental component of the cinematic aesthetic and a critical aspect influencing audiences and critics’ reception.

However, it is essential to note that the mere aesthetics of extended shot duration do not guarantee a heightened sense of reality. With its brisk pacing, mainstream cinema allows narrative progression in its portrayal of the fabric of reality. In contrast, slow cinema relies on alternative aesthetic strategies, such as moments of inactivity and de-dramatization. These strategies are essential for maintaining spatial cohesion and emphasizing the relationship between foreground and background elements within the cinematic frame.

Immersion in the Surrounding Environment

Béla Tarr consistently focuses on duration and framing in his films, effectively transforming the camera into an independent observer. He immerses himself in the world, paying meticulous attention to the details of the surrounding environment, resulting in meticulously choreographed scenes. Consequently, the camera often fixates on objects that may seem unrelated to the narrative causality. This approach starkly contrasts most of Yasujirō Ozu’s films, which employ an unconventional emphasis on objects in space, disrupting the traditional chain of cause and effect and spatial continuity. Moreover, Tarr frequently manipulates narrative causality, consistently bewildering the audience by utilizing prolonged periods that restrict the viewer’s understanding of the spatial dimensions within the film. This technique resembles how Michelangelo Antonioni uses settings and landscapes, consistently representing the characters’ mental states by employing them as objective correlatives.

However, Tarr takes a distinct approach to his settings. He collects impressions from the locations before filming, significantly influencing his stylistic choices. Whether depicting muddy streets, dilapidated buildings, or remote landscapes, the natural environment assumes a pivotal role in conveying the emotional tone of his films. In Werckmeister Harmonies, the town square is a notable example of how Tarr employs objective correlatives to craft an atmosphere meticulously. It is depicted multiple times, gradually evolving with each instance, arousing curiosity and intensifying uncertainty. Placing the nonsensical giant whale carcass in the center of the square sets the stage for a highly ambiguous conclusion.

Additionally, Tarr employs interior environments and prolific space to reflect the characters’ inner worlds and utilizes the camera as an active agent, framing actions through corridors and doorways, a stylistic choice reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Deliberately, the objects arranged by Tarr act as barriers to the typical way of seeing, encouraging viewers to scrutinize cinematic images more closely. The voyeuristic perspective achieved through framing is accentuated by the camera’s movements, which occur at a walking pace and remain unseen by the audience. Consequently, the impact of the imagery on the audience becomes predominantly contemplative as the camera assumes the role of a flâneur.

In essence, Werckmeister Harmonies explores a dynamic interplay between space and the audience through the composition and framing of images. Moments of silence and tracking movements persist for extended periods, resembling descriptive pauses, momentarily diverting the film from its narrative concerns through monotonous motion.

Tarr’s Use of Stillness in Contrast to Artistic Cinema

Much like the films of Antonioni, Béla Tarr’s use of moments of stillness sets his work apart from other artistic cinema pieces, which often employ such pauses to contemplate depictions of architectural forms or empty spaces. For instance, in Werckmeister Harmonies, characters walking in tandem with only their heads filling the frame against a backdrop of walls and barely noticeable alternating windows exemplify this technique. Tarr’s deliberate use of duration and framing in these scenes accentuates the physical attributes and expressions of the characters. However, they maintain an enigmatic, hazy quality and lack expressiveness, leaving viewers bewildered amidst other repetitive yet vacant sequences. Multiple layers of stylistic elements come into play in numerous scenes, including Tarr’s camera imitating walking paths and the characters’ meandering, involving subtle glances between them. It creates an interrogative process where the audience dramatically questions the scene’s significance. These sequences replace traditional walking scenes with patterns of sound, imagery, rhythm, and movement, crafting an aesthetic experience that requires little interpretation but somehow stirs a latent sense of intrigue akin to boredom.

The contemplative ambiance in slow cinema hinges on using the long take as an experiential event, where the passage of time becomes evident through the camera’s fixation on monotony rather than narrative progression. According to Steven Marchant, cinematography becomes an event, challenging conventional narrative expectations and providing opportunities to ponder the flow of time and recognize the numerous stylistic manipulations within cinema. The Deleuzian idea of temporal imagery allows viewers to recognize the completeness of the depicted reality in the images. In Werckmeister Harmonies, cinematography is not merely a display but an event, rejecting the potential for redemption inherent in the neorealist tradition. Through these stylistic elements, Werckmeister Harmonies encourages its audience to contemplate various aspects as a cohesive whole, captivating viewers invested in the details of audio-visual images that fleetingly and swiftly pass by, leaving them puzzled. These sequences offer an extended aesthetic experience that underscores their evocative power.

The role of these scenes in the context of film history and cinema is explored through two concepts: Paul Willemen’s moments of cinephilia and Christian Keathley’s perception of panoramas. Willemen suggests that cinematic moments are revelations independent of narrative causality rooted in our subjective and contingent emotions. Keathley’s panorama perception posits that cinemas have specific perceptual postures or types of viewers that facilitate the experience of these moments. This perspective aligns with Bazin’s cinematic ontology and the celebration of fleeting moments of memory. However, Tarr’s films are meticulously and intentionally staged, featuring precise choreography and camera movements, leaving little room for improvisation. Descriptive pauses in slow cinema create cinematic moments by prolonging the temporal continuity of the film. It is achieved through imagery that, while monotonous, is evocative, often unrelated to the narrative but indicative of stylistic sophistication. Scenes from Werckmeister Harmonies encourage contemplative viewing, emphasizing the structure of observing, scanning, and examining images, ultimately leading to cinematic moments.

Theoretical Framework

Slow cinema serves as a resistance to the forces of globalization and digitalization, focusing on its unique aesthetic qualities. This form of cinema delves into the fundamental concepts of nostalgia, absurd humor, and boredom, providing insights into the aesthetics, history, and critical analysis of slow cinema discourse. It prompts an examination of whether slow cinema qualifies as an art cinema movement and the criteria for evaluating it in terms of aesthetics, economics, or culture. This exploration sheds light on how slow cinema becomes a complex phenomenon in a global context, where local cultural expressions are traded and consumed by sophisticated international elites. Digital technology plays a pivotal role in enabling the production of these films and shaping modern distribution and exhibition practices. While some of these films may exclusively address local issues, they find a global audience, often disregarding the specificity of indigenous societies. International film festivals are crucial in understanding slow cinema within a transnational framework.

However, even the most comprehensive conceptual framework of transnational cinema needs to help fully encompass slow cinema within its categories. Mette Hjort’s taxonomy of cinematic transnationalism proposes two types of transnational activities: auteurist transnationalism and modernization transnationalism. To comprehend Slow Cinema’s relationship with its audience, we turn to the neologism “optique,” introduced by Dudley Andrew in his study of French poetic realism in the 1930s. Optique encompasses more than mere style or genre; it encapsulates the historical and cultural context behind creating cultural productions and the specific experiences offered to the public through a series of films. Revisiting the concept of optique in contemporary cinema, focusing on slow cinema as a form of optique akin to French poetic realism, allows us to explore stylistic elements contributing to aesthetic sensitivity, influenced by cinematic temporality and ambiguity.

The notions of nostalgia, absurd humor, and boredom point towards a pronounced modernist tendency in slow cinema in which this aesthetic sensitivity reflects nostalgia, an appreciation of the absurd, melancholic revelations, meditative boredom, and aesthetic pleasure for the audience. Furthermore, slow cinema functions as a historical and critical discourse, symbolizing the resurgence of a modernist art cinema movement rich in nostalgia in which film productions are distributed through various film festivals and new media platforms, with critical reception taking place at these festivals, online discussion forums, blogs, and cinema publications. The theoretical framework for understanding the aesthetic experience of slow cinema revolves around three central concepts: nostalgia, absurd humor, and boredom, offering a profound re-evaluation of our emotional connection and intellectual engagement with moving images.


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