Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pinocchio Theory: Slow Cinema vs Fast Films

(Important statement on the problematic critical celebration of contemplative cinema as the pinnacle of filmmaking--if this piece interests you, definitely check out the comments ...)

Slow Cinema Vs Fast Films
by Steven Shaviro
Pinocchio Theory


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 Jancsó’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 Jancsó’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. 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 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, 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).

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