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.