It was inevitable that someone would get around to complaining that the dominant mode of the arthouse film had become super-languorous master takes. Over at “Sight & Sound,” Nick James has periodically used his front-of-the-magazine editorials to rail against what he sees as the excesses of “Slow Cinema.” Now the debate has shifted to passionate unpaid online writers: Harry Tuttle was peeved, and then Steven Shaviro did a frankly better job of articulating the anti-slow cinema case than James did. His argument is simple but eloquent: if contemporary slow cinema is descended from Antonioni, Akerman and so on, their rigorous long takes were adventurous provocations created by extremists. In the modern slow cinema, boundaries aren’t getting pushed: people are operating within a recognized, default artistic idiom. That suggests people are missing out on the chance to push the medium forward (wherever “forward” might be located).
Here’s the problem: there are masters, and then there are imitators. The problem isn’t “slow cinema” per se, any more than the problem with purely narrative, story-oriented film is that it can be practiced by both, say, David Mamet and Steven Spielberg as well as Steve “Paul Blart” Carr. That doesn’t mean narrative is dead; that means some people do it better than others. But with narrative movies, your average viewer can draw upon a wider sample selection of the effectual and ineffectual. The rigors of arthouse films require more cunning and self-motivation to track down.
So when you get a small sample size of more rigorous-type films, you can get disillusioned a lot faster. But the names being brought up with monotonous regularity as premiere disciples of slow cinema — Bela Tarr, Carlos Reygadas, Tsai Ming-Liang — are pretty much indisputably the very best at what they do. You may not care for a five-minute sunrise, nor long tracking shots of the back of someone’s head. And that’s totally understandable. But these filmmakers are almost objectively the premiere practitioners.
The problem isn’t the masters. It’s the second-tier wave of films that premiere at Berlin and smaller festivals, rarely get picked up for distribution, and simply stagnate in their own self-righteous slowness. Outside the festival circuit few will ever see them. But those that do instantly understand why someone would wish a pox upon the whole movement. Earlier this year, a few American cities were treated to one such specimen: Jessica Hausner’s “Lourdes.” This is a movie that really does feel like it’s slow because it doesn’t know any better: shots go on but they’re not particularly complicated. There are no visual riches worth taking in slowly and the drama fails to rise. The whole thing just feels dull. I have no idea how this got distribution; the sheer star power of Sylvie Testud?
That’s really what James is objecting to: movies that show up expecting to be hailed for their high seriousness without earning it first. And that’s fair, because it complies with the golden rule of art: 99% of everything is garbage. The problem isn’t the mode, it’s the average product. The exceptions are always what matter.
[Photos: “Red Desert,” The Criterion Collection, 1964; “Lourdes,” Palisades Tartan, 2009.]