Time for space

31 March 2012

MP here

As the AV Festival finishes today, I thought I'd post a piece I wrote for its website's blog, on which, for whatever reason, it never appeared. In it, I argue that "slow cinema", the focus of the festival's film programme and especially its Slow Cinema Weekend, has as much to do with the spatial as it does the temporal, using two examples from the festival as illustration. It's by no means exhaustive, and there's certainly room to explore these initial assertions further. More important, I think, are the suggestions toward the end of the piece that if "slow cinema" is to be meaningfully discussed, it can't be championed as inherently more qualified to treat life seriously as its "faster" counterparts. We should treat the term with a healthy scepticism and in constant re-evaluation, because artistic seriousness is not precluded or better facilitated by any particular style. As I wrote here, too much film criticism is overwhelmed by formal considerations - often at the expense of meatier ends of discussion...

Two very different films screened three nights apart in AV Festival’s film programme: The Turin Horse and Once upon a Time in Anatolia.

The former (reviewed by Srini here and myself here) extends its director Béla Tarr’s inimitable aesthetic, paring down his already sparse mise-en-scène to an unprecedented minimalism, magnified by the narrative’s repetitions, as we watch a farmer and his daughter head wordlessly into doom.

Anatolia, meanwhile, shows its director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, branching away from more autobiographical work by combining respective elements that marked his previous three films: the humour and sensitivity of Distant (2002), the emotional abstraction of Climates (2006) and the introduction of genre conventions in Three Monkeys (2008). Ostensibly a relatively talky police procedural, Anatolia seems to suggest more between its characters’ dialogue. As such, Ceylan’s film (reviewed in more detail here) is an ambitious project that achieves a delicate balance between an arthouse sensibility and dramatic authenticity. It’s the director’s best film yet.

The Turin Horse, on the other hand, is troublesome: engrossing in its rhythms and beautiful to look at, it’s also ceaselessly grim. Apparently Tarr’s final film, it lacks the allegorical nuance that gave Satan’s Tango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) an implicit hope. Here, the purity Tarr seeks in narrative presentation lends a simplicity to the thematic fabric: we’re heading towards the end of the world and there’s nothing we can do about it. With the abandonment of previously held political beliefs, such unfortunate, discomforting conclusions seem unavoidable.

What binds these films is their inclusion in a film programme dedicated to the idea of slowness. In the panel discussion that began AV’s Slow Cinema Weekend on Friday, March 9, Matthew Flanagan - whose piece in the Danish journal 16:9, "Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema", remains the most lucid appraisal of the "slow cinema" tradition over three years after it was published - posited three broad, interdependent features that characterise “slow cinema”: 1) an undramatic narrative, or the renunciation of what Raul Ruiz referred to as “central conflict”; 2) an emphasis on unedited, unbroken incident, as embodied in the long take; 3) stillness – not only in the camera’s set-up, but within the composition itself, so that the viewer has both the time and space to probe the image.

The first characteristic stirred some criticism on the panel. An audience member, with the backing of Jonathan Romney, took exception to the description of an undramatic narrative – for both, a film’s pace was no determinant of its dramatic tension. While this might be true, Flanagan’s initial meaning was probably misconstrued. Those quoting him did so selectively; his reference to Ruiz’s “central conflict” went ignored.

If the confusion is semantic, the gist was clear enough: “slow cinema” might contain drama, of course, but its narrative presentation is undramatic. Incidents integral to the story are often left to suggestion; the narrative as a whole unfolds in ellipsis. As a result, the causal framework by which “slow cinema” develops appears less accounted for in psychological terms. The cosmos has its own rules: as the police commissioner Naci laments in Once upon a Time in Anatolia, for instance, the causes for murders these days are less psychological than astrological.

As a continuation of its director’s style, The Turin Horse fits into Flanagan’s framework more obviously than Ceylan’s film. Primed by another critic who’d seen the latter, I went into it expecting a film too full of incident to be considered “slow cinema”. But there are elements present that befit the categorisation.

Flanagan’s second and third prerequisites point, I think, to something related to, but also distinct from, temporal considerations. In order to emphasise the durational element of an action – say, by watching someone labour to and from a well to fetch water – it is captured in one take, so that we perceive it as unmanipulated. But something that takes place over time is also a physical phenomenon; the human labour involved in a daily collection of water, for instance, happens spatially.

The unedited take provides real-time action, but it also stresses its physicality, precluding as it does the opportunity to intervene through trickery. Long takes find their most obvious complement in long shots – those in which performers are afforded the space to act with more than just facial gestures.

With the long shot, as the subject is further from the camera, viewers’ digestion of information must be ensured; stillness is, then, to some degree, a given. But it’s this stillness that facilitates, on a physical level, eye movement within the frame; on a concurrent, more mental level, viewers are able and invited to utilise the space given them to notice objects whose function goes beyond the mere explanatory. With a freer allowance of thinking space and time, a film’s causal motivations become interpretable, perhaps allegorical.

We should strive against totalising prognoses, however. The camera is rarely still, for instance, in The Turin Horse. It is, in fact, pre-planned in its choreography and very considered in its actual movement. Perhaps more than if it were static, its movement draws attention to the fact that the world it portrays spatially exists.

Trained by the mainstream into “keeping up with the story”, we find ourselves unaccustomed to a slower method of working. It’s the concentration of a plot into the minutiae of its existence that allows for a less rigidly defined window in which the accumulation of narrative information can occur. This is the key way in which “slow cinema” is participatory.

But “slow cinema” is no more participatory than a cinema that isn’t “slow”. Nothing in it inherently requires or provides more intellectual engagement than the mainstream. That’s because its defining characteristics are all aesthetic, with no concrete idea necessarily given as to its subject matter. As Flanagan himself stressed on the discussion panel, a “slow cinema” isn’t inherently radical, though it has the potential to be so.

This is why we ought to be wary of elevating it over a more dominant aesthetic, as somehow intrinsically more qualified to give a serious appraisal of life.

In returning to the Tarr and Ceylan, these observations find illustration. Both films might qualify equally as “slow cinema”. The Turin Horse lasts two and a half hours and comprises only 30 shots; Once upon a Time in Anatolia, meanwhile, unfolds unconventionally, condensing less than 24 hours of story-time into less than three hours of narrative-time, in such a way that we still feel the passing of time even though its narrative:story ratio isn’t quite 1:1.

But both films also create a space that their subjects can physically embody. For The Turin Horse, its house, adjoining stable and well were all built for the sole purpose of filming, giving the film a self-reflexive element of laboured care.

Once upon a Time in Anatolia – which, by the way, is still screening at Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema – meanwhile, constructs with deft skill not only a material spatiality, in the way its camera slowly zooms in on a murder suspect’s face while police exchange banalities around him, but a space of metaphysical understanding, in the glances and unsaid emotions shared by its ensemble of flawed, ordinary men.

Image: Once upon a Time in Anatolia