'Slow cinema' fights back against Bourne's supremacy
by Sukhdev Sandhu
The average length of shot in The Bourne Ultimatum is two seconds. But a new festival argues for 'slow cinema' – an act of cultural resistance, but also a gateway to beauty and delight
Certainly, for much of its early history, the movies appeared to be an engine to speed up the collective social pulse. As much as cars, telegraphs, telephones, photography, or department stores, they represented a technology of change. Cinema didn't merely chronicle the transformations of early 20th-century urban consciousness; like jazz, it embodied them. Its techniques of dissolves, cutting and montage mirrored the rhythms – at once alienating and exhilarating – of modern life.
By the 60s, however, the manufacture of speed no longer seemed quite the radical project it once did. An affluent America was flooded by fastness – cars, food, jukeboxes, multi-channel TV – and speed, rather than being thought of as a way to jolt a flaccid society into a boldly futurist direction, was more and more regarded as a mechanism to cretinise society, to deform citizens into consumers.
Film-makers from Antonioni (about whose L'Avventura Dyer claims "every second lasted a minute, every minute lasted an hour") to Andy Warhol (whose 485-minute Empire depicted nothing but slow-motion footage of New York's Empire State Building) increasingly saw slowness as a zone of avant-garde possibility.
Today, in the age of the fibre-optic cable, the velocity of the moving image – like that of all data – is even quicker. YouTube kittens, TMZ titillation, mobile phone footage of racist outbursts on tube trains: not only do we upload pixellated pictures as never before, we guzzle them up, click-trancing the hours away in search of new thrills and memes and "rofl" fare.
Meanwhile, the average length of shot in films such as Batman Begins (2005) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) is less than two seconds. To watch many multiplex movies, especially if you're no longer a teenager, is like being a lab rat into whose eyes are squirted noxious liquids, or a captive at a black-ops centre whose military personnel jab and jolt you in steady waves of sensory torture.
In this context, the cinema that Romney describes in terms of austerity can also be seen as a form of cultural resistance. What links otherwise distinct films such as Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (2006), Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light (2007), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme D'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) is the extent to which they opt for ambient noises or field recordings rather than bombastic sound design, embrace subdued visual schemes that require the viewer's eye to do more work, and evoke a sense of mystery that springs from the landscapes and local customs they depict more than it does from generic convention.
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