Slow Movies. Countering the Cinema of Action

By Diana Popa

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By Ira Jaffe

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2014

Reviewed by Diana Popa

As the title suggests, Ira Jaffe’s book Slow Movies. Countering the Cinema of Action rests on a central dichotomy between slowness at one end and action at the other end. It is thus not surprising that the book starts from an observation cited by Jaffe that “many times the word ‘slow’ is used as a synonym for dull or boring […] but we want to make a case for movies that work without speeding from one plot point to another” (1), an observation that speaks to the intention of the book itself. Therefore, the book aims “to examine elements beside the plot that make certain movies both slow and compelling” (1). Slow Movies is also one of the first attempts at looking at “significant slow movies and their directors as a group” (2) instead of looking at slowness through the cinematic oeuvre of one filmmaker, for example Tsai Ming-liang (see Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness).

As the second part of the book’s title suggests, the focus is not necessarily on what makes these films slow, especially not in a prescriptive way, but more on what sets these films apart from a “cinema of action” in order to explore how these slow movies can potentially be interesting for a larger audience.

The book’s remarkable achievement is twofold: on one hand, its premise is that slowness is not something new or limited to a stylistic trend that emerged in contemporary filmmaking and is particularly successful at film festivals. This attitude transpires from the choice of films to be discussed, some of which were released decades apart.

On the other hand, I particularly enjoyed the way in which the modernist origin of the contemporary tendency towards the “slow” is not only stated in a matter of fact way, but analysed in terms of both similarities and differences with contemporary slow movies. Notable is the way in which Jaffe points out how “a recent slow movie like Distant may alter our perception of older slow films such as those of Antonioni” (68). Jaffe argues that by looking at the similarities and differences between slowness now and slowness then may “illuminate […] the distinctiveness of recent slow movies compared to their predecessors” (69). This implicitly suggests not only that our perception of what constitutes slow may differ but also, and perhaps more importantly, inscribes this book as an attempt to add variety to slowness and challenge assumptions of what slowness can be and how it can work in different films and over a longer period of time.

For example, the chapter entitled “Long Shot” suggests Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962) as potential antecedents for slowness in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films. Antonioni’s films are widely regarded as antecedents for this contemporary tendency in filmmaking starting from Matthew Flanagan’s seminal article “Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema” (2008). But Jaffe does more than that: he shows the aesthetic distinctiveness of Ceylan’s films, the way in which they depart from Antonioni’s “in their deployment of the camera, editing and sound, for instance, and in their rendering of emotion” (11). This view is consistent with the book’s overall concern with contemporary slowness as distinctive from its earlier and often mentioned antecedents, such as Yasujirô Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer.

The three filmmakers are the subject of Paul Schrader’s study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972) and Jaffe points out that the stylistic and aesthetic characteristics as discussed by Schrader are also cinematic traits of slowness (3), particularly as rehearsed in Slow Cinema debates. Illuminating is the way in which Jaffe draws to its final conclusion the observation that “Schrader often discerns in his transcendental films successful quests for spiritual grace, holiness and redemption” pointing out that such quests “rarely occur in contemporary slow movies, which tilt to a more secular and bleak direction” (3). This turn to a “more secular and bleak direction” might not be characteristic of all slow movies but it nevertheless raises the stakes in showing in what other ways than transcendental (or contemplative, for that matter) slowness can work. Here is the novelty of the approach and also where I think a discussion on “a cinema of contemplation”, shorthand for Slow Cinema, could have enriched the book.

Furthermore, the selection of films included can be considered potentially controversial especially in the absence of a discussion on Slow Cinema. Todd Haynes is not a usual suspect on the list of filmmakers who make regular appearances in discourses on a cinema of slowness (cf Lim 2014: 14), while Cristian Mungiu’s and Cristi Puiu’s films don’t altogether conform to the standard view of what Slow Cinema is. Perhaps not accidentally the three filmmakers are grouped in one chapter entitled “Wait Time”.

A criticism to be made is the occasionally unbalanced treatment of the various films included in the book. For example, the author devotes considerably more space (thirteen pages) to discussing slowness in Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002) and Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) compared with 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006), the discussion of which barely occupies a page and a half in the book. Somewhat disturbing is the fact that the film’s title in Chapter 7 becomes 12:08 East of Budapest (168) which only confirms the impression that less effort has been devoted to the discussion of this particular film.

My personal interest in Romanian films turned my attention to Jaffe’s discussion of them. He mentions the Theatre of the Absurd as an influence on directors of slow movies (4). This is not a novel idea in itself. The connection is also made in Song Hwee Lim’s Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness (2014: 122). In Slow Movies I find particularly insightful the way in which the chapter entitled “Wait Time”, which discusses two of the most well-known Romanian films Moartea Domnului Lăzărescu / The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005) and 4 luni 3 săptămâni și 2 zile / 4 months 3 weeks and 2 days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) draws inspiration from the Theatre of the Absurd and specifically, from “Martin Esslin’s statement in The Theatre of Absurd that the subject of Beckett’s Waiting from Godot ‘is not Godot but waiting’” (11).

The absurdist sense of humour is something of a national trait that Romanians pride themselves with. Moreover, Eugène Ionesco, one of the representative playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd was born in Romania. The Ionescian brand of absurdist humour is considered by Dominique Nasta (2013: 164, 169) as an influence behind the deadpan humour of celebrated Romanian films such as The Death of Mr Lazarescu and, especially, in A fost sau n-a fost? / 12:08 East of Bucharest and by Doru Pop (2014: 167) a constitutive element of Romanian humour, albeit not the only one. Given that Nasta’s Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle was published in October 2013 and Doru Pop’s Romanian New Wave Cinema: An Introduction came out only in 2014, it is perhaps not surprising that these references and connections are missing from Slow Movies.

Slow Movies. Countering the Cinema of Action is a welcome addition to the growing number of books discussing slowness as a stylistic and aesthetic preoccupation in films coming from a variety of cultural and historical contexts.


Bibliography

Flanagan, Matthew. “Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema.” 16:9, November, 2008. Accessed October 27, 2015. http://www.16-9.dk/2008-11/side11_inenglish.htm

Lim, Song Hwee. Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014.

Nasta, Dominique. Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle. New York: Wallflower Press, 2013.

Pop, Doru. Romanian New Wave Cinema: An Introduction. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1972.

Filmography

4 luni 3 săptămâni și 2 zile / 4 months 3 weeks and 2 days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

A fost sau n-a fost?/12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006)

L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

Moartea Domnului Lăzărescu /The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)

L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002)

La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)