AV Festival: Slow Cinema Weekend, Part 1 – Panel Discussion

This is the first in a series of five editorials on the AV Festival’s Slow Cinema Weekend, which ran March 8-11, 2012. For coverage of the festival’s film programme as a whole, click here.

On the morning of Friday, March 9, Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema hosted a panel discussion on the concept of “slow cinema”, kickstarting Slow Cinema Weekend, the centrepiece of the AV Festival 12‘s film programme.

Chaired by festival director Rebecca Shatwell, the panel consisted of film critic Jonathan Romney, whose offshoot to an article in the February 2010 issue of Sight & Sound first brought ideas of slowness in contemporary film to a wider readership; filmmakers Ben Rivers (of the UK) and Lav Diaz (of the Philippines), both of whom had films screening over the weekend; George Clark, who curated the programme of Diaz’s films at the festival; and Matthew Flanagan, who predated Romney’s piece with a considered contribution to the Danish film journal, 16:9, in 2008.

Contextualising the event with reference to the festival’s overall theme – covered by Front Row Reviews in our festival preview – Rebecca Shatwell reiterated that its aim was to provide a space for a more contemplative style of filmmaking. As a starting point, she probed Jonathan Romney for some of its core characteristics.

Romney stressed that “slow cinema” is not a phenomenon particular to the last ten years. Rather, we’ve become aware of it at this point because of quickening average shot lengths in dominant cinema. Speaking for himself and with brief reference to The Terminator and John Dahl, Romney lamented that he no longer feels the same pleasures in mainstream cinema as he did, say, in the 1980s, when a sense of excitement was felt.

Particular to the last ten years or not, Romney hinted even so towards the idea of “slow cinema” as a method of working that is consciously opposed to dominant trends. As such, it might be an acquired taste, for which someone needs practice. As an idea, “slow cinema” might for Romney also be analagous to Slow Food, the movement founded in the 1980s in opposition to the idea of fast food, and the subsequent increase in people’s disinterest in what they eat.

With pace the key to both production and consumption, Slow Food’s politics were and are still clear: “to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world”, as its own website tells us.

If Slow Food’s anti-globalisation and pro-economic regulation policies are implicit, an artistic trend analagous to it would presumably be opposed to a cinema built around quick thrills for quicker bucks (or pounds, or Euros). But that might not necessarily be the case, and Romney admitted to a certain scepticism from the outset. “A style can become mannered and atrophied,” he said, and said certain mannerisms had become clichés.

Lisandro Alonso's 'Liverpool' (2008)

As an example, Aleksandr Sokurov – whose Russian Ark (2002) had screened at the beginning of the week – was mentioned; in terms of actual films, Romney feels that with works like Albert Serra‘s Birdsong and Lisandro Alonso‘s Liverpool (both 2008) that, “okay, I’m familiar with this terrain now” (Alonso was a last minute pull-out from the panel). Romney humorously described a scene from Birdsong in particular that for him tests its audience to little end – Flanagan describes it more fully in his 16:9 article.

“That’s the dangers of speaking of individual films as representative of a genre or movement,” Shatwell intervened, opening it up to Ben Rivers, who began by saying that he didn’t regard his own films as slow. “There are longueurs in Two Years at Sea, sure, but there’s always an expectation of incident for me.”

If “slow cinema” exists, does a “fast cinema” too? If so, Rivers said that in the latter, details are “explanatory”. Slowness, on the other hand, requires a certain imagination and engagement. For him as a filmmaker, the cinema he wants to create – and, by extension, enjoy himself – is a cinema that has space to engage. For Rivers, this spatiality is key: “it’s about formally responding to content – what is necessary to express something. Not the other way around – it’s not about getting ten minutes and then deciding what to fill it with.”

Returning to Romney’s suggestion that slowness might be something requiring practice, Rivers mentioned Carl Theodor Dreyer as one of his key influences. Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Gertrud (1964) were both major stepping stones for him in acquiring an endurance for works markedly slower than those within dominant cinema (parts of Vampyr‘s score are employed in his 2010 film, Slow Action.)

Process and agency are key words here. To what extent is a film’s aesthetic firstly determined by its production process – historically and socially conditioned, no doubt; secondly, who holds creative authorship of a work? For curator George Clark, the concept of a “feature length” – at or around 90 minutes, for the sake of argument – is determined by exhibitors and their need to “package a film for consumption”. This, in turn, trains film audiences into certain viewing habits. The implication presumably follows that training – or to use Romney’s term, practice – for a slower aesthetic is also a kind of re-education process. Clark championed the significance of institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and its eduative intentions in film culture.

For Lav Diaz, whose films Clark curated for the AV Festival, it was the discovery of filmmakers such as Michelangelo Antonioni that led to the realisation “that there are other ways of making films”. “Because I’m from ‘the end of the world’,” Diaz remarked, “my cinema and life are governed by space – our concept of time is given by space.” Antonioni’s style showed him that cinema can elevate space; it doesn’t have to be tied in praxis to ideas of duration.

Diaz’s 2004 film, Evolution of a Filipino Family, took over ten years to make. Determined by material circumstances, its production was linked to space as much as to time. Diaz was working in New York City, saving up to purchase stock as he went, when he began shooting the film in 1994. Because of limited resources, filming occurred only when stock, performers and technicians were available. In 1997, Diaz began filming flashback scenes in Manila, which grew and became an organic entity in themselves. The film is eleven hours long. During the ten or so years it took to make, two members of the crew died.

Is this “slow cinema”, or is it “long cinema”? Are filmmakers like Serra and Alonso just continuing trends set by Dreyer and Antonioni?

Michael Snow's 'Wavelength' (1967)

Matthew Flanagan, who is completing a PhD on “slow cinema” at Exeter University, would stress its aesthetic is contemporary. To historicise it in the broadest possible terms, Flanagan sees “slow cinema” as “the convergence of two major historical traditions – post-World War 2 art cinema and ’60s American structural film”. To the former belong trends such as Italian neo-realism and to the latter belong filmmakers such as Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow.

Within this convergence, Flanagan posits three very crude ways of defining “slow cinema” itself: 1) an undramatic narrative, or a renunciation of what Raul Ruiz called “central conflict”; 2) an emphasis on the unbroken “non-event”, most often embodied by the long, unedited take; 3) stillness – in the camera’s set-up or within the frame itself, so that certain details that might otherwise escape one’s attention can be emphasised.

A politics of contemplation

“The big thing,” said George Clark, “is the absence of politics. There’s a problem with historicising [‘slow cinema’] as an apolitical aesthetic.” Looking to other filmmaking traditions that looked to ideas of duration as an anti-illusional device – something, that is, which might draw viewers’ attention to the ways in which the film they were watching was constructed – Clark made mention of Third Cinema and the Dziga Vertov Group.

The former emerged from Latin America in the 1960s, as a means of making a manifesto out of the material limitations available to filmmakers in the colonised or formerly colonised “third world”; the latter comprised a brief ensemble of French filmmakers, among them Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Both trends were consciously opposed to the mainstream cinema of imperialist countries, and employed Brechtian methods and distancing effects to make film itself, or filmic discourse, the subject matter of their works.

Clark warned against “the corrosive element of festivals”. Inevitably tied to funding procedures and exhibition policies governed by transglobal capitalism, festivals are becoming, perhaps, internationally divorced from political challenge. The politics of representation seem to have replaced genuine politicised ideologies.

Romney agreed: “There’s a danger of levelling things out, which takes the sting out of these kinds of films by describing them as ‘quasi-spiritualist experiences’. It’s dangerous to define ‘slow cinema’ proponents as 19th century dandies revelling in their own superior conception of duration.”

That’s the reason, perhaps, why “slow cinema” might, in the right contexts, pose a legitimate political challenge to entrenched habits of viewing. With, Romney said, “the idea of going to the cinema is a commitment, in giving yourself up to a direct dialogue with a film.” There’s also the question of a more contemplative viewing experience. Seen as a kind of physical retreat, cinema-going might be a political action in itself, if it’s seen as a withdrawal from more commercial cinemas. “That is,” said Romney, “in a small, abstract way, political.”

It’s also political because there are bureaucracies in place committed against people doing certain things in consumption terms. “That’s certainly been the politics of production in the UK film industry,” Romney continued. “Managing to fall through this politics of production provides the opportunity for a dissident act.”

Andy Warhol's 'Empire' (1964)

That’s why there’s a crucial need for diversity, Clark replied. “That’s why it needs to be historicised. We need to ask what cinema as a mode of practice and consumption is. And cinema is a very young medium. Why are people so sure of what it is or should or can be?”

Returning to his earlier attempt to historicise “slow cinema”, Flanagan said that a crucial part of its political potential is its absorption of structuralist cinema. This allows “slow cinema” to resist the kinds of commodification Clark and Romney both argued against through temporality alone. Flanagan looked to Andy Warhol as a key figure in this resistance. With films such as Sleep (1962) and Empire (1964), Warhol foresaw the emergence of neo-liberalist capitalism in the late-1960s, and the temporal shifts that would affect people’s working lives and, by extension, their consumption of art and other intellectual activity. “That’s not to say ‘slow cinema’ is inherently radical,” Flanagan stressed. “But it has a radical potential.”

At this point, the question of target audiences was opened up to the two filmmakers present on the panel. Diaz said that he does not think of a market because, for him, there is no market; “I make films for fellow filmmakers.” Rivers agreed. For him, the personal and the political go hand in hand. “I don’t like talking about politics in my films. I like to retain a sense of ambiguity and let critics talk of their political content. That way, I resist becoming dogmatic.”

For Rivers as much as for Diaz, the filmmaking process is determined by how one is situated within the industry. Rivers said his films are “removed from ‘industrial cinema’ because my life and production are combined. You don’t take six weeks off to shoot a film like industrial cinema does, because you can’t afford to.” This is true: Rivers hand-processes his films in, literally, his own kitchen sink. His latest film, Two Years at Sea, we were told, would be screening over the weekend on Blu-ray because of the difficulty – a long story in itself – he’s had in getting it printed.

It’s why he’s so open to gallery spaces, and to a more fluid conception in general of the space in which a film is exhibited. “There’s a lack of opportunity in the exhibition of the kinds of films we make,” he said. “You know, we know we’re not reaching the multiplexes, though it would be nice if we were. But the communal discipline of the actual cinema space is crucial.”

Towards a slow criticism?

Linked to this idea of communal discipline – which was certainly a crucial part of the festival’s opening weekend screening of James Benning‘s Nightfall – is the idea of Romney’s suggestion that cinema-going is a means by which one gives oneself up to a dialogue with the artwork. With this in mind, Rivers is happy for his audience to sleep during his films, because they are in some way still immersed in its world. “But I wish people would turn their phones off!”

The virtual world intrudes upon the cinematic. It’s why, perhaps, Jonathan Romney was keen to link “slow cinema” to the idea of “slow criticism“. “I’m an advocate of ‘slow criticism’. We live now in a saturated world where the critical response to a film is required to be immediate.” The festival culture – internationally divorced from political challenge, as Clark had suggested earlier – has no doubt assisted this. Romney remembered aloud having to file two responses a day for the duration of a festival he attended recently; it’s not difficult to see the limitations of that.

Of course, film journalism is a profession of compromise. Critics are writing for a readership often given them, on behalf of a publication by which they are employed. Romney himself reminded us he’s a film critic for the Independent on Sunday, which has its own, specific target readership. He’s also a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, which gets its funding from the British Film Institute, and whose monthly reviews section appraises all the new releases; its features section, which provides lengthier coverage, is usually linked to the BFI’s exhibition programme (for example, a critical piece on a filmmaker or actress for whom the BFI is holding a retrospective).

Chantal Akerman's 'Jeanne Dielman' (1975)

“I like the idea of someone appraising a film or phenomena two or three months later,” Romney said, drawing attention to the influential French journal Cahiers du cinéma and its decision to returning, over several issues, to Avatar (2009) and the many different discourses that emerged in the months following its release. “It’s a good way of breaking the endless addiction to novelty.”

“The interesting subtext to ‘slow cinema’,” Clark chimed in, “is its historical re-evaluation.” Cinephilia, Clark went on, exists in different ways now through the Internet and blogging culture, and is assisted and indicated by Criterion’s release in 2009 of Chantal Akerman‘s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a film that might otherwise be inaccessible.

On the flipside, of course, the process by which films are made “more accessible” might hinder the idea of the cinema space being crucial to the communal discipline – and with it, potentially politicised element – of exhibition. Shatwell referenced, in this regard, Fred Kelemen, who insists – like Béla Tarr, for whom he is a regular cinematographer – on his films being projected on 16mm or 35mm. Rivers sympathised, saying Two Years at Sea was, for him, noticeably brighter on Blu-ray than when projected on 16mm.

This treats the text as an object again. As Romney notes, “It’s not about rarity. There’s a concrete materiality about having or seeing an object. It’s like opening a well-thumbed book and seeing writing in the margins.” But Lav Diaz was more pragmatic: “I embrace everything as cinema, you can’t  be a purist. The production and the process is the important thing.”

To what extent is the production process, as opposed to the final product, key to a “slow cinema” aesthetic? While for Diaz making a film can take decades long, for Rivers it’s a matter of getting to grips with the production and printing to the extent that it obtains an element of self-sustainability. Both, in their way, provide a means of surviving outside of an industry committed to profitability.

But there’s also need to consider the final products themselves, so that definitions of “slow cinema” don’t lie too much with the audience’s relative exposure to slow aesthetics. What, on a participatory level, is such an aesthetic doing or attempting to do? “Slow cinema” allows one to intensify “the present”, to draw attention to the durational element as well as the spatial element of the film world. In doing so in the way that it does, however, “slow cinema” makes us aware of there having been a present, so that a scene is retroactively changing the significance and meaning of those preceding it. That might be true of narrative cinema as a whole, of course, but the slower the pace, the more it facilitates an active contemplation of the process as it is unfolding.

Romney mentioned here the previous night’s screening of Kelemen’s Frost (1997), and how he thought at one point of a previous scene, and couldn’t believe how long ago it had seemed. It’s an observation for which one needs time to make, and Frost is full of longueurs that allow one’s eyes to probe the frame and one’s mind to ruminate on the narrative as a whole.

Progress as an imperceivable phenomena; stasis as the illusional distraction. That’s the paradox on which the AV Festival’s theme rests, and it seems to be the most productive starting point of any objective definition of “slow cinema”.

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