Thursday, January 28, 2010

s | l | o | w | d | o | w | n

"Godard, through his experience with A Woman Is a Woman, seemed to learn that if color was to function thematically, he would have to extend the length of single shots and slow down his camera movements to allow the viewer adequate time for concentrating on the composition of colors."

—Paul Sharits, "Red, Blue, Godard" (Film Quarterly, '66)

"The "techniques" of such films are so apparent, so obtrusive, that they may easily be assumed to be "advanced," "modern," "new." It's perfectly true you don't come out of an older movie like Renoir's La Grande Illusion, or Flaherty's Man of Aran, or Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night saying, "What technique!" Nor do you come out of a concert by Serkin exclaiming about his technique—you're thinking of the music. But those who adore Jose Iturbi always say, "What technique!"; what else is there to respond to? And the comment—which means how fast he can play or how ostentatiously—is not so very far from the admiration for Antonioni or Torre Nilsson or Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc (though they are generally admired for how slow they can play)."

—Pauline Kael, "Are Movies Going to Pieces?" (The Atlantic, '64, here)

"[M]y second response is to ask what we mean when we call a film slow—an adjective that's frequently pejorative, even when it's used in relation to films by Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, F.W. Murnau, Ozu, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Jacques Tati, among others."

—Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Is Ozu Slow?" (here)

Efficient narrative in film is commonly tied to a thriving industry: 1930s-40s Hollywood, 1980s Hong Kong. But there are different registers of speed even in commercial film: popular Indian cinema had its own rules that it learned to operate through, but single films may not seem "efficient" to those who aren't used to a three-hour masala movie. And with old Japanese films, like a Shimizu whose breeze you might underestimate, you've got the occasional weird object that seems short and slight, simultaneously leisured, looming, overpowering. Not just efficient, but economical—getting the most out of the fewest means. And not solely narratively.

There are films that exude a certain grace, and these oftentimes take more time than they may seem like they should: the noodlings of (in Hollywood) The Strawberry Blonde or Donovan's Reef, films whose "central conflicts" eventually dissolve like cotton candy, triumphant moments for anyone who just gets bored by relentless focus on dramatic efficiency above all else. (It'd be more tenable if there weren't the same handful of stories just wafting!) Or there's reliable Béla Tarr, who (like Tarkovsky or Rohmer) is willing to wait ... not for a conflict to fade away, but for something else to appear.

Slow? Slooooooooow. Well, I can understand Pauline Kael's crankiness (quoted above), understand it much better now than say 10 years ago when I was not even a young turk (just aspirant), and The Modernism Was the Message (man). Whatever merits we can ascribe to Kael, I don't think, though, that she ever really knew what to do with cinema. Consistently she reinforced certain conventions about quality; her only real innovation, if we can call it that, was to ease the minds of her middle-class readers that it was OK to like all the trash, the movies, the movie-movies, the sheer wondrous Technicolor movieness and razzmatazz. You could love it, cherish it, but don't take it too seriously.

(And, abstracted like this, it really isn't bad conclusion. Just all in how it flows. Popular-critical discourse has taken its liberated shamelessness from Kael, but not her old-fashioned foundations. Not really.)

So what's in a slow film? Well, in a context it might be ineptitude: the (bad) film that put the producer's butt to sleep. This is so in an industrial system whose overall vigor, we've proposed, tends toward efficiency. (Not to say the ruthlessly efficient, nor the solely efficient.) Unavoidable slowness crops up in cross-cultural exchange, too: pacing issues that may not smoothly translate. This is often tied to deliberate slowness as a strategy: critical, countercultural, estimable (prestigious), privileged, and so on among a number of possible reasons. The slowness of the more austere 1960s art films, particularly as compared to the slowness of predecessors in the art film (Renoir, Carné, earlier Bergman, earlier Fellini); the slowness of certain North American avant-garde films; the slowness of so much international festival cinema today. These films assume the privilege of slowness because they can: they are produced and circulated in contexts that will not necessarily punish their slowness as ineptitude. Yet, when they come onto the marketplace to compete—the very turf of the industry!—they are weighed and judged lacking. It's this tension that makes deliberate slowness and issue at all, a form of confrontational tastes. To the eyes of John Doe, replaceable movie reviewer of whatever entertainment shill website got shafted with a screener of The Man from London, the pace of Tarr is very possibly a provocation. (And it can be a wall that prevents further penetration into the work.) To the eyes of Jane Doe, upmarket festival-hopper and dedicated cinephile, the pace of Tarr can be a privilege, a refuge. (And it can be a portal that invites her to stop thinking about "the pacing" as "the pacing," but rather as what else it could be, do, or mean.)

It takes a gift to appreciate the range of registers that I've represented here as a crude polarity. It takes a greater gift still to understand them as something more complex than a dialectic. It takes zero effort to internalize the mindset of the film industry's products as one's core criteria for value. It takes only barely more effort to displace those criteria with Criterion Collection-sanctioned modernism.

"Judging by David Bordwell's quantitative analysis of Ozu's films, which appears as an appendix to his Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 377), Tokyo Story is probably not Ozu's slowest film. We learn from this chart that there are 1371 shots in I Was Born, But... and 786 shots in Tokyo Story, whereas There Was a Father (1942), which I'm less familiar with, is the surviving Ozu feature with the smallest number of shots, 353. Moreover, whereas the average shot length of I Was Born, But... is four seconds and the average shot length of Tokyo Story is more than two and half times longer, 10.2 seconds, the average shot length of There Was a Father is 14.8 seconds. I'm somewhat skeptical of how many generalizations can be reached through this kind of quantitative analysis, especially when it encompasses silent as well as sound films and when the presence of intertitles alters our sense of what a shot consists of. But one could at least surmise from Bordwell's figures that Tokyo Story is typical of Ozu's late manner without necessarily representing an extreme."

—Rosenbaum, ibid.

"More remarkable is the number of dialogue titles, which make up between 24% and 44% of all shots. This would be exceptional for an American film of the 1920s. Other Japanese films, particularly Mizoguchi’s, are heavy with intertitles, but Shimizu took the trend somewhat farther. The preponderance of dialogue titles may owe something to the presence of both American and a few Japanese talking pictures at the time, which justified more spoken lines."

—David Bordwell, "Pierced by Poetry" (here)

Talking, talking, talking. There are certain perversions that are nevertheless understandable. Watching silent films (pre-1927 narrative movies I mean) silently, for instance. Kael, who disdained what she perceived as a slowing down, a paring away of material in these new "art films," failed to do what she was presumably best at, i.e., put her finger on the root of pleasure. All she could surmise was that it was a kind of pretentious or immature status anxiety, at root, that caused one to enjoy bad and come up with ways to call it good (or boring --> interesting). Sure, status enters into it. It always does, even with the most "popular" expressions of our modern culture. But I think that the very real pleasure of the leisure afforded by slowness, and all the modernist difficulties (or fetishizations of foreignness) are different: a repose, or a welcome challenge, or simply a bit of variety.

Additionally, the impulse to slow things down is built into the apparatus of cinema to begin with: to still, and to make visible, what has gone by too fast; to give ourselves time to look over something. Rather than a pompous undermining of "the movies," it is, at least in part, a very honest exploitation of one of the oldest and most compelling problems of this thing cinema.

Don't ever listen to someone who tells you what the movies are "for," what they're "good at," because they're lying, and they're probably trying to sell you something without concern for whether you need or want it.

"Some days, uncertain about what to do, Shimizu would shut down the shoot and take people swimming."

—Bordwell, ibid.


Matthew Flanagan said...

There's about 101 things that could be added to this (great) post, but something from Durgnat's Films + Feelings sprung to mind:

" is quite possible to speak of an overall Hollywood 'style' - in that, whether the narrative is fast (La Cava's Stage Door is surely a contender for some sort of world record) or slow (Henry King's Snows of Kilimanjaro), there is a certain tautness, a spareness of intention, a lack of distraction from the principal story points. There are none of the asides one finds in, say, Renoir or Becker, and which European directors generally are more inclined to entertain. Hollywood would never have invented such 'European' ideas as the temps-mort, or the stylistic potpourri of Truffaut. American films seem to be enclosed by their subjects, and the dramatic tensions are calculated with a Protestant rigour" etc. (p.79)

Might sound a little bald taken out of context, though. At some other point, iirc, RD refers to Woman in the Window and La tête contre les murs as "lente ponderoso", and wonders who the hell would bother to count shots (looking at you, no doubt, D.B. & Barry Salt)...

It's always worth calling bullshit on this Ozu=slow business, but watching Tokyo Chorus recently really brought it home - that thing moves, no question about it, the rhythm of a breeze...

Joel Bocko said...

Wonderful post. I disagree slightly with the above post in that I often find Hollywood films to have more wiggle room than, say, pre-New Wave French films: they are less spare, they are more imaginiatively ruminative, and their narrative focus actually enables the dreaminess and associative qualities to grow around the story like a fungus.

Great point about Kael too - so many today celebrate her defense of trash, without noting her incessent underlying belief in quality, in art which was superior to most entertainment. I don't necessarily agree with her view on the subject, but it's certainly a more compelling view than the pomo "anything goes if it feels good" justifications which sprouted up in her wake.

Jon Hastings said...

Very good post (you're on a roll).

What I find interesting is the way that "John Doe"-types often respond to the choice to slow things down as a provocation or even an attack. During the Q&A after the Police, Adjective screening at the NYFF, a man asked Porumboiu, in a friendly but still confrontational tone, "Why did you feel the need to put the audience through all those scenes with nothing happening?" Porumboiu's reply was that, actually, lots of stuff was happening in those scenes and, besides, it was a more realistic portrayl of police work than what you usually see in movies.

re: Kael. One of my problems with her "art/trash" apporach is that it assumes that the critic can, a priori, make a distinction between what is art and what is trash, so they can then go on and enjoy the movie in the "right way".

ZC said...

Matthew, thanks for the Durgnat quote! I think there's something to it - 1930s Hollywood did have certain liberties, particularly in the use of actors, that somehow got lost (labeled extraneous?) even as clean, economical narrative efficiency eventually went out the door.

Movieman - yes, Kael defended good honest trashy fun because, in her estimation, there were so few great Renoirs, or Satyajit Rays - or rather, so few films worth taking as seriously as she took those pinnacles.

Jon, yes - the defensiveness is an interesting response. One of my more amorphously overriding intellectual projects, I guess, is to better understand forms of pleasure around art cinemas or other "elite" coterie tastes. I think too often this is either reduced to nothing but the issue of status - or, the issue of status is completely wiped clean, as though it never matters, never operates. No such thing as cultural capital, only "good taste."

Take the cine-civilian, who sees a movie in the evening because he's looking to forget the workaday world (a cliched image, true, but one that even minimal real world experience proves exists in numbers). To this person, certain modes of slowness or other perceived difficulties really can be a kind of affront. And this comes down to how the viewer structures and categorizes leisure. It doesn't correspond to intelligence, and only has some things to do with cultivating taste.

I have no problems with this Average Joe or with this approach to movies: they don't step on my toes. When I was 16 or 20, however, I would have protested against this type of approach to movies with evangelical zeal! Nowadays I'm more interested in cultivating richer coexistence of varying spectatorial postures ... which I suppose is a fancy way of saying 'live and let live.' But it means, practically, that since I'm usually the 'movie person' of any group of non-cinephile friends, or family, that I'm with, I want to learn to connect more quickly with the variations of taste that exist among all sorts of people - not lump "the masses" into a form whose taste is either the moblike anathema or the populist bedrock of my own cinephilia ...

Re: art/trash, I think the difficult temptation is that commentary-minded observers do want to be open to experiences that are not "enriching," but it's not always easy to recognize sophisticated, or rich, or fascinatingly mobilized uses of broad comedy, bawdiness, physicality, kitsch, all the low stuff - so if it had any of these elements, it was either pretty (and naive) trash [Sternberg], or superficially less naive trash [Sirk], or powerful but simultaneously just slickly exploitative [Franju]. The only respectable option was almost to quote it with kid gloves, but humanistically--not invest it with the kind of earnest critical distance someone like Sirk may have--like fart jokes in Ozu's Ohayo, say.

Jon Hastings said...

Lots more to mull over. I'm in agreement with you regarding the importance of "cultivating richer coexistence of varying spectatorial postures".

Your remark on the affronted cine-civillian, brought to mind this comment by Kent Jones from a discussion on movie violence on Dave Kehr's blog last week (the important stuff is in the second paragraph):

"It’s obvious that the depiction of bloodshed and carnage in movies and on television and in video games has become far more forensically accurate and prevalent than it was before the late 60s... It’s equally obvious that there are more people churning out such product at the level of Eli Roth than there are at the level of Kathryn Bigelow or John Carpenter. But what does this mean? People used to use the term “de-sensitization” a lot. But de-sensitization to what? To movie violence or to real violence? Is the world any more or less violent now than it was 60 years ago as a consequence?

"Movies don’t just influence the culture in which they’re produced and consumed, they reflect it as well. If you ask me, what is being reflected is speed, fantasies about quick solutions, retribution, and ultimate truth in the face of fears (real, imagined and inflated) of unforeseen catastrophes and large scale ruin. In my opinion, it’s the fantasy of speed that’s the dominant factor, the idea that everything can happen fast. The link to violence isn’t hard to see. I guess I think it isn’t so productive to get excited about movie violence. What worries me more is the locked-in, institutionalized urge away from long-term thinking."

I'm also reminded of Farber and Poster on Sturges: the idea that his primary target of satire was speed.

ZC said...

Thanks for that quote, Jon. I agree with Kent Jones that we're not necessarily "desensitized" to violence, particularly not because of too much violence in movies/media ...