A slow film can be just as gripping as a big-budget, crash-bang blockbuster—as long as you are prepared to meet it halfwayby Mark Cousins / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist makes a virtue of restraint
A skirmish has broken out among film lovers. In February this year, Jonathan Romney, film critic of the -Independent, wrote an article in the magazine Sight & Sound about the type of “slow cinema” that is the staple of film festivals these days. This is “varied strain of austere minimalist cinema” that, Romney argued, “downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality.” It’s an approach embodied by the work of the new Romanians, of the Mexican Carlos -Reygadas, of Tsai Ming-liang in Taiwan, Hungary’s Béla Tarr, Alexander Sokurov in Russia, and many others.
Then Nick James, the editor of Sight & Sound, broke cover to say that some slow cinema might be—hush his mouth—boring. The bloggers and websites—Contemporary Contemplative Cinema, the Pinocchio Theory, Comment is free at the Guardian, the Slow Bicycle Movement, Hope Lies, and so on—took up cudgels. James (who does a mean show-tune) was called a philistine. The slowness of art cinema was seen as an abstentionist response to the speed of capitalism, commercialism and so on.
A glance at the films of the moment suggests that many fall into a fast-slow dichotomy. Among the best films at Cannes this year were Dan Muntean’s leisurely Tuesday, After Christmas and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s magical, stately Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. In cinemas this summer we have the oozy third film in the Twilight saga, versus the bish-bash-bosh of Toy Story 3, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, The A-Team and the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz action flick Knight & Day.
Slow cinema has always been with us, as anyone who has seen the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andy Warhol, Chantal Akerman or Theo Angelopoulos knows. Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver as well as a book on Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson (which talked not of slowness but of transcendence), recently told me that he likes slow films because they seem so contrary—they reject movement and empathy, generally the twin appeals of the movies. Certainly they run a mile from what has been called “the cinema of attractions”—roller-coaster cinema. But his second point, about empathy, is more fertile.
In June, I went to the opening night screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival—The Illusionist, a luminous and numinous new animation by Sylvain Chomet, based on a script by Jacques Tati.…