Yesterday I went to see “Meek’s Cutoff,” thus ending my fortnight long period of new cinema releases cold turkey. It was an engrossing, offsetting and complex experience: Kelly Reichardt’s bleak and ambiguous western focuses on the plight of three sets of pioneers lost on an Oregon wagon trail, telling events very much from the perspective of the female characters. Their problems begin when their guide, the enigmatic and grizzled Meek, loses track of where they are in the barren wilderness of the frontier, and when he captures a Native American the troupe are forced to follow the prisoner: but is he leading them to water and the promised land, or into a trap. Frustratingly, and brilliantly, the film ends before we find out.

I’ve banged on about the Old West in cinema before, so I’m going to stay away from that area of discussion. I’m also going to stay away from Reichardt’s fascinating presentation of the female characters in this piece: as a woman filmmaker it stands to reason that the women in her film will be insightful and richly detailed creations offering a new perspective on this period of historical and personal struggle. When portrayed by actresses such as Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams, probably the finest American actress currently working in film, this amount of depth and subtlety only increases.

What I in fact wanted to use the film as a springboard to discuss is slow cinema. By slow cinema, I mean films which feature slow pacing, shots which last longer than the typical amount of time, and which usually place a greater emphasis on an almost painterly attention to visual composition and photography, heavily symbolic dialogue and restrained, subtle performances. It’s a style which “Meek’s Cutoff” oozes out of every pore: Reichardt pays great attention to the telling physical business and behaviour of her characters in their struggle and plight, uses dialogue sparingly and to great metaphorical effect, and the visual power of her film is both understated and immensely involving.

Reichardt’s film is an example of slow cinema done well, since the film uses its ponderous pace as a visual and dramatic aid, and is achieved with such attention to detail and precision that we are involved even more in the action than we normally would be. The audience is almost hypnotised by the style of the film, and is hence drawn deeper into the drama of the story. It reaches almost elegiac resonance at the conclusion, and you actually don’t mind that the deliberate anti-climax staunchly refuses to answer our questions: the slow cinema employed to get us to this point has attuned us to the ambivalence and complexity of the presented situation and characters, and we know that like the pioneers the experience is not arriving at journey’s end, but is in fact the journey itself.

However, slow cinema is not always a successful means of engrossing an audience in a given cinematic narrative, or of drawing our attention to the subtleties of the film by heightening our perception of the events on screen, or of crafting a piece which has greater symbolic weight than most films, or of enhancing our reception of a film’s visual and aural beauty. Sometimes it’s really boring. It’s dull as hell. It’s ponderous, irritating, and tests our patience to breaking point. Sometimes it’s pretentiousness masquerading as intellectualism. Most crucially, a lot of the time it is employed for the very reason that it’s arty and gives off the impression that a film has more levels than it actually has. There is a difference between genuine artistry in cinema and the flattery of deception, and the employment of slow cinema in a film often tends to be the best way of blurring the line between the two.

This is especially the case in contemporary cinema, since we live in a time where the actual techniques of creating a piece of slow cinema have been tried and tested by revered, intelligent and relentlessly creative masters of the craft, who I’ll move on to in a minute. However, for now let’s compare two relatively recent films that received immense critical acclaim: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme D’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” I regard the former as one of the most daring and spellbinding and complex films of modern times, a masterpiece on pretty much every level. Anderson’s direction is astonishingly assured and his screenplay works as strongly dramatically as it does allegorically, the photography is strikingly bleak yet hauntingly beautiful, the exact same adjectives do the best justice to Johnny Greenwood’s sublimely evocative music, and Daniel Day Lewis gives perhaps the most frighteningly intense and psychologically disturbed performance of his career, which when you look at his resume is really saying something. The Weerasethakul film is one of the stupidest films I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I just don’t get how people can praise the way slow cinema creates a palpable atmosphere of magic realism in the film when this atmosphere doesn’t actually say or do anything in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t make you feel for the universal human tragedy of death besetting the characters, nor does it create a cohesive sense of the spirits of the afterlife permeating the world of the living: it just uses slow cinema as a smoke and mirrors technique of making red-eyed monkeys, inexplicable doppelgangers and randy-for-royals catfish somehow suggestive of a great central metaphor. If it did, I missed it.

Some of you will no doubt read this and say that all I’m doing is giving my opinion on two films which employ similar visual styles to completely different ends, and herein lies the problem: you’re absolutely right. It is just my opinion: I should have liked “Uncle Boonmee” because in general I think slow cinema, when done really well by a hugely talented creative team, can be absolutely exceptional. My all-time favourite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick, and once he gained total control over his output he became one of the greatest slow cinema practitioners in the world, consistently utilising a style which heightens the visual, dramatic and metaphorical impact of his films. The exact same thing is true of Andrei Tarkovsky. I think his films are stunningly hypnotic, breath-taking and genuinely moving pieces which demonstrate a wealth of ideas and richness you just don’t encounter that often in cinema. But some people would rather watch paint dry than watch his films, in the same way that I would rather watch paint dry than sit through anything by Michelangelo Antonioni or Alexander Sokurov. There’s nothing inherently contrasting in the visual styles of these directors, and they are all taking on complicated ideas in the films they make, but I find one Russian slow cinema director magnetic and the other maddening. Is there a reason for this difference which justifies my point that slow cinema is sometimes about the flattery of art-house deception?

Ultimately no: that would mean accusing some directors of filming in a certain way to make their films look better than they are, which is pretty presumptuous and exceptionally pessimistic. But I do think there are incidences when slow cinema is justified and others when it is used in a misguided fashion, and actually it has nothing to do with the visual or metaphorical aspirations of a particular cinematic narrative. In the cases of Kubrick and Tarkovsky, their films are pretty much uniformly visually stunning, aurally distinctive and boast numerous layers of meaning: but they tell a damn good story. Describe in words what happens in “A Clockwork Orange” or “Solaris” and the dramatic premises of the narrative strike you as particularly engaging and engrossing. Now describe the plots of “La Notte” and “Mother and Son.” Does the mere story sound anywhere near as exciting?

Slow cinema can be the most effective way of telling a story through filmic means, but here’s the rub: it only works if you’re telling a strong enough story in the first place.

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4 Responses

  1. David Brook

    I agree – there is a subtle, ‘difficult to put your finger on’ reason for slow films working for me. I’m not sure it’s always just the story that pushes me though. Ozu’s films on paper for instance have incredibly simple narratives that in essence sound pretty uninteresting, but his films have a captivating beauty to them that causes his day to day human dramas to become incredibly powerful.

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  2. Jandy Stone

    You obliquely suggest as much, but some of this may simply be taste. I haven’t seen Uncle Boonmee yet, but I’ve read as many impassioned defenses of it as I have dismissals. I’m curious to see it as soon as I can. There Will Be Blood, on the other hand, I hated for being obvious and bombastic. I liked the opening dialogue-free scene on the oil derrick, but after Daniel Plainview started talking, I just wanted to be out of his presence as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I’ve only seen a couple of Antonioni films (L’Avventura and Blow-up), but I loved them both. Yes, not much happens – there’s not much STORY to hang the slow pace on, but there’s a wealth of theme. L’Avventura isn’t about what happens, it’s about what DOESN’T happen, it’s about alienation and the failure of connection. I found it intensely moving.

    On the other hand, I too loved Meek’s Cutoff, and Kubrick can do no wrong. I haven’t delved into Tarkovsky yet (though he’s very high on my to-see list), but I’m pretty sure I’ll be high on him as well. So yeah, some of these filmmakers are more interested in story than others, but I’m not sure that eschewing story for other things necessarily makes them bad. Narrative isn’t always the primary objective in filmmaking.

    Curious what you think of Terrence Malick, especially The Tree of Life, if you’ve had a chance to see it yet?

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  3. Adam Hollingworth

    Not sure I was exactly oblique about it being a matter of personal taste: I thought that I’d stated clearly that subjectivity was the only means of separating the “good” from the “Bad” on this theme, which obviously doesn’t make me much of a critic but unfortunately is the only way I can think to do it.

    In any case, let me clarify my thoughts by saying that it is solely my personal tastes which are determining my praise and criticisms of the mentioned films and directors, and that there seems to be a correlation between pieces of slow cinema I love and the way these films are more focussed upon narrative than the films and directors I have difficulties in admiring. It’s interesting that you talk about Antonioni in terms of “alienation” and “failure of connection.” I agree that when these ideas are communicated strongly enough within the diegesis of the films it can be incredibly provocative: unfortunately with Antonioni it is me, the viewer, who is left feeling alienated, and that the films themselves have failed to communicate to me.

    Definitely check out Tarkovsky: he’s the director I’d point film fans to above any other: you tend to have to discover him and have a lot of patience but he’s worth the effort.

    Interesting, Jandy, that you enquire about Malick…I’m rather torn on the subject. Badlands and Thin Red Line are masterpieces in my view, but Days of Heaven left me cold and I have yet to see either Tree of Life or The New World. I really rate the two aforementioned Malick films, but I wouldn’t class them as slow cinema. They are visually much faster: it’s just that Malick’s philosophical background is highly prevalent in his films and this lends the kind of intellectual gravitas to his films usually manifested in slow cinema. Ultimately I haven’t read enough Heidegger to truly appreciate Malick, but he’s certainly immensely fascinating, individual and provocative: which are qualities which make a director someone to be taken seriously even if you don’t like their films.

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  4. Jandy Stone

    My bad, I thought you were trying to make an objective case for one style of slow cinema over another, privileging story, despite your earlier mention of subjective taste. Maybe I misread.

    I think you’re right, though, in your reaction to Antonioni, but that it is the reaction he wanted you to have. You’re left alienated because that’s what the film is about – he makes you feel what he’s presenting on screen. I tend to like distancing narratives in general (Godard, Antonioni, etc.), so it works for me, especially on multiple viewings.

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