The Slow Filmsby Brandon Edmonds / 27.07.2012
I remember how Michael Jackson’s glove with the cut-off fingers, that look, spread through my primary school in the 1980s. The early adopter was a guy called Kenny (we should have killed him). He got music magazines from overseas thanks to a loving aunt in Tottenham who sent them to him religiously. A tactical advantage the equivalent of uncapped broadband today. Kenny was way ahead of the rest of us and showed up at a school disco with the glove. He’d massacred a mitten and looked edgy, dangerous and otherworldly. Adorned in the disarming power of a whole new look. Girls circled him and he pretended not to care. At one point he moonwalked and we actually gasped. By the next school disco a few of us had gloves and by the one after that it looked like a Dickensian grave-diggers convention.
Now consider this from the editor of Sight & Sound, the bible of serious movie lovers, on the “slow cinema” tendency (endless takes, minimal dialogue, unsexy subjects, disinterest in pandering to our attention with violence or car chases) characterising a lot of contemporary art house film-making: “if contemporary slow cinema is descended from Antonioni, Ackerman and so on, their rigorous long takes were adventurous provocations created by extremists. In the modern slow cinema, boundaries aren’t getting pushed: people are operating within a recognized, default artistic idiom.”
By the third school disco, the power of Kenny’s Michael Jackson glove had waned via wide adoption and repetition into a ‘default artistic idiom’ without the power to surprise. Like Kenny, the great early adopters/masters of slow film, Antonioni’s patient camera obsessed with the textures of urban Italy and the beguiling vacuity of the bourgeoisie, Chantal Akerman content to have us watch a housewife make meat loaf in real time, and later, Bela Tarr, Carlos Reygadas and Tsai Ming-Liang, each exploring the possibilities of duration for meditative, political and straight up playful reasons, have given way to lesser copycats. They make films that mistake slowness for integrity, fetishizing slowness as an end in itself without helping the story along.
As the Guardian puts it, we are awash in a “second-tier wave of films that premiere at Berlin and smaller festivals, rarely get picked up for distribution, and simply stagnate in their own self-righteous slowness.”
Now this ‘small festival’, the biggest in Africa, has an interesting clutch of films that show the difficulty of getting out from under the weight of an overbearing global style. They happen at different speeds as if changing gears hoping to get a tempo that works for the narrative. They are anxious, transitional films away from slow cinema back to something more saleable, marketable and, let’s be honest, watchable after a long day.
The Hunter is an Australian film with Willem Defoe, looking as gaunt and Christ-like as ever, in rural Tasmania tracking down the last Tasmanian tiger on earth for a biotech company that wants to harvest it’s DNA for bunion cream or whatever. The director has a TV background so entertaining things happen fairly regularly – great use of Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’, a tense action sequence and Deliverance-style small town intolerance leads to smashed windows and barroom meltdowns – but there are too many aimless sequences and slow set ups and a so what pondering of nature adding little beyond dutiful genuflection to slow cinema. The CGI tiger is so laughably done you long for Andy Serkis. The director told me an awesome Defoe story from Wild at Heart though, so I feel bad.
The Dardenne brothers’ new film, The Kid with a Bike may zip along but it suffers from the slow cinema tendency to stay in the present and honour the moment with a worthily sombre documentary veracity rather than zigzag and flip back and comment on itself, something 90s film, the formative film era for me, did so well. So we get a linear tale of a boy with a bike abandoned by his father. No tricks, no flourishes, no complexity without even the emotional payoff many of the brother’s better previous films have managed to deliver. It may as well be a regional news item.
The Spanish film, Las Acacias is even more po-faced and in thrall to realism for realism’s sake. We basically watch a surly truck-driver drive to Buenos Aires with a woman and a baby. It feels like this happens in real time. And guess what, the presence of the woman and the baby soften him up and he is touched by them and in the end he asks the woman out on a date. That’s it. It made me want to scrawl MEH into the director’s forehead.
Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet is worse. Gael Garcia Bernal and his vapid child-like redhead girlfriend are walking through hilly Georgia in Eastern Europe. Under the cover of slow cinema, Loktev just stares at them as the couple walk up hills then down hills and closes with us watching a tent pulled down and packed up in real time. A fucking tent. Why? Despite several wars on and a financial crisis and a planet heaving with fascinating turmoil, a film-maker, under the influence of slow cinema, thinks whatever I point my camera at, as long I don’t add anything or editorialise or dare express an opinion, I’m golden. I’ll keep getting invited to film-festivals and feel like an artist.
Things improve with Leila Kilani’s intermittently brilliant updated film-noir On the Edge set around the old Port of Tangiers in Morocco. She was fiercely intelligent in the Q&A after the movie but her film never finds an optimum rhythm. It gets stuck fatally between stretches of worthy realist slowness and more entertaining genre kicks. Badia is one of the great new heroines in movies. She is ambitious but uneducated and without the kind of family background that opens doors. One of a billion young women toiling in the global warrens of production, dreaming and scheming her way clear of drudgery. Badia and her friend are hookers by night and the film is good at detailing the practical complexity of living so dangerously in a Muslim society. The girls must pack separate clothes in lavender in Tupperware so they don’t get the smell of sex on themselves. Men decide everything. But they meet two other richer girls on the game and eventually form a kind of girl gang stealing from their customers. A big haul of I-phones tests their loyalty.
The film drifts too much. It isn’t taut enough to be a satisfying thriller and never really nails down its own possibilities. It will disappear without a trace unfortunately. As will Fable of the Fish from the Phillippines which is just weird enough to get onto the Festival circuit but not nearly weird enough to rub shoulders with convincing gonzo films like Visitor Q or Oldboy or Itchi the Killer. It is terminally hampered by the same fumbling of genre expectations as the previous film. A woman gives birth to a fish on a dump in Manilla during a monsoon. A fish! You‘d think here is a chance for biting political allegory but no. What we get is yet more slow cinema with the absurdist premise run through a documentary grinder mincing out most of the offbeat comedic potential of the premise. The setting is the star. The spectacular poverty of the dump. The absence of social services. The reality of life on the edge of big cities. It is a confused and confusing experience crying out for the self-assured glide of Kenny’s moonwalk.