I wasn't going to write a blog post in response to Steven Shaviro's post about 'slow cinema'. I felt too intimidated. I felt like, well, I've only seen a handful of the films he's talking about, and only a handful of the historical antecedents to which he refers - surely I'm not qualified to write a proper essay on the subject. I'll just moan about it on Twitter instead. That'll do, wont it? Well, apparently not. (Not for a certain bowel-damaged 'parasite on architecture' of my acquaintance anyway.) But then it struck me that, really, it wasn't necessary. The initial argument is sufficiently problematic that, in a way, it isn't necessary to have seen any of the films in question in order to critique it.
The argument goes something like: the slow contemplative nature of films by directors such as Bruno Dumont, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bela Tarr, Pedro Costa and others has formed a kind of cultural hegemony, a "default international style" in modern arthouse cinema that is in some way obscuring or displacing the far more innovative work of other directors such as Claire Denis, David Lynch, Wong Kar Wai, Takeshi Kitano, and Guy Maddin, and that anyway making slow films has already been done by Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Jancso and Akerman so this whole slow thing is just retrograde and pointless anyway.
To start off with, I'm not entirely comfortable with any generic category that includes three such different directors as Bruno Dumont, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Bela Tarr, least of all one that goes by the name of 'slow'. Sometimes things happen very quickly, alarmingly and confusingly quickly, in films by all three of these directors. Perhaps you could say that all three directors are interested in time, and the manipulation of cinematic tempo, but this is one of the fundamental aspects of cinema. There are very long, slow moments in Welles, in Hitchcock, is that slow covered then? To suggest we need make no more slow films because Antonioni has already done it is rather like saying - in fact almost precisely like saying - that we need no more slow music because Mozart - or Morton Feldman - has already written some very nice slow pieces.
If Mr Shaviro's horror story had come true, and the world's second run cinemas were filled with nothing but these very slow films in which nothing really happens, then undoubtedly we would have a problem on our hands. But this very possibility is negated by the enormous success of those directors in his second list, almost all of whom seem to me rather better exposed than those supposedly hegemonic slowcoaches. If any director is the acceptable face of contemporary arthouse auteur cinema then it is Claire Denis, if any director a popular byword for 'weird' cinema it is David Lynch. Yes, they make good films but I don't see why that should stop Dumont, Tarr and Weerasethakul from also making their own very good films. What light does saying that Takashi Miike makes very good films really shed on the issue at hand?
What is nice about those films in which sometimes thing happen very slowly and shots sometimes last a very long time, what is nice, at least, about that aspect of some films, is that you can tell that they have thought about it. Digital technology has done some wonderful things for cinema but it has also encouraged an attitude in some that one can just film anything, film as much stuff as possible, then sort it out later, in post-production. This, if anything, is becoming a sort of 'default international style' particularly amongst directors of adverts, pop videos, and television shows, many of whom might become the film makers of tomorrow. In the face of this, it is always gratifying to see a very long sequence that has clearly been very well thought out, of the sort that Tarr's seven and half hour epic, Satantango is absolutely full of.