Slow Wars

Is this how cinema transcends itself?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, still from Tropical Malady. 2004. Courtesy Kick the Machine Films.

film by Tsai Ming-liang can feel like a test. More specifically, a staring contest. How long can you look? Somewhere into the eleven-minute sequence in Stray Dogs (2013), where the protagonist hugs, kisses, and then devours a cabbage with a human face painted on it, I blinked.

Tsai has been developing his glacially slow aesthetic for nearly a quarter century. Born in Kuching, Malaysia, in 1957, to Chinese parents, he moved to Taipei at the age of 20 to attend university — and, the openly gay director has joked, to escape the reputation as a “gigolo” that he was developing in his hometown. He has worked in Taiwan ever since.

Praising his first films, critics immediately identified Tsai as part of the “Taiwanese New Wave” that took off in the late 1980s. Hou Hsiao-hsien, its elder statesman, had become internationally renowned for contemplative portraits of the provincial life set in the past. Tsai, by contrast, has always focused on the contemporary. His setting is usually Taipei, particularly the corners inhabited by its working class — taxi drivers, supermarket cashiers, sidewalk vendors, janitors, construction workers.

Many of his early films take place in parts of the city that have since been developed out of existence. In his first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), a trio of teenagers roam the arcades and love hotels of Ximending, the then seedy entertainment district. What Time Is It There? (2001) pivots on a chance encounter on a skywalk that was demolished soon after filming. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) unfolds during the final screening at a historic movie theater. The camera lingers on these spaces with a mesmeric intensity.

The actor Lee Kang-sheng always plays the lead. Lee incarnates a slightly different character in each film, but all are named Hsiao-kang (小康) — a nickname playing on his real-life first name, but also the expression “little wealth” or “well-being.” The phrase signifies modest aspiration; Chinese speakers use it the way Americans used to talk about becoming “middle class.” In the glum surroundings in which Tsai sets Hsiao-kang, his name sounds ironic. An elongated sense of time corresponds to stymied upward mobility; Hsiao-kang never gets anywhere.

Stray Dogs epitomizes the deliberate, dilated style that has become Tsai’s signature. For two hours, the film follows four characters: a shiftless, alcoholic father (played by Lee); two small children, whom he shepherds through Taipei; and a woman (or trio of women) who also cares for them. The woman is played by three Tsai regulars, decades apart in age: Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching, and Chen Shiang-chyi. The scenes themselves are not chronologically continuous.

Shot in static long takes using digital cameras, they’re set in a handful of spaces: an abandoned building, roamed by the stray dogs of the title; a shanty that the father has set up for himself and the children to sleep in; a park; a skywalk; a public bathroom where one of the women washes the girl’s long hair in the sink and wrings it out under a roaring hand dryer. Not everywhere in this Taipei appears abject. Luminous crane shots show the sand banks of the Tamsui River, gilded by sunset. The father strides as the children scamper along it. The tangled roots of the tropical trees in the park, which the children scramble over, have the Jurassic magnitude of a dreamscape.

The penultimate shot of Stray Dogs is both beautiful and punishing. For nearly fourteen minutes, the camera remains motionless, watching the faces of Lee and Chen, the youngest of the three lead actresses, from below. They are bathed in blue light. Around minute eleven, a single tear rolls down her cheek. Thirty seconds later, Lee’s character notices, leans forward, and buries his face in her shoulder. They hold that pose until she abruptly switches off the flashlight she had trained on whatever they were staring at and walks off screen.

At last we get the complementary shot: not an eyeline match, from Lee’s perspective, but an overhead view, from behind, of the room he has remained in. We are looking from where a projection booth would be, if this room were a movie theater. It is not. It is the foyer of the abandoned building where we previously saw the stray dogs circling. The floor is littered with trash and rubble, which appears to be chipping off the rain-soaked ceiling.

What have we been watching them watch? On the front wall there is, inexplicably, a mural. It resembles shan shui painting, swift black brushstrokes depicting mountains and rivers. The aspect ratio, however, suggests a screen. The rural landscape is like an establishing shot, a postcard from a film that we don’t get to see. It’s an emblem of the end of cinema: with the image stilled, the theater lies in ruins. The audience assumes its place among the last stray dogs.

Tsai himself has said that he has taken his aesthetic to an extreme that he cannot pursue any further. Presenting Stray Dogs at the Venice Film Festival, he announced that this feature would be his last. The statement could be interpreted as bold, canny, or both: the Grand Jury gave Tsai the top prize, the Golden Lion. Tsai reiterated that he was finished making movies at the US premiere at the New York Film Festival. Did he mean it? an interviewer for Film Comment asked, on the occasion of the Museum of the Moving Image retrospective of his work seven months later. Tsai equivocated. “If someone invites me, I will consider it.” But he said participating in the film market made him feel “powerless.”

“I am the kind of person who is afraid of being restrained,” Tsai mused. “I feel like my film is always about self-exploration.” For now, he does not see how he could take his sensibility further in the cinema. It is easy to see why. With Stray Dogs, Tsai seems to have brought the slowness characteristic of contemporary festival films to its limit: stasis.

Since the turn of the millennium, there have been few if any coherent national film movements. But internationally, a “slow wave” has swept the festival circuit. Many of the features taking prizes at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Toronto fit a profile. Their narratives are nondramatic or nonexistent. The scripts are minimal and repetitive, with little dialogue. They unfold in long takes, captured by still or nearly still cameras. Often the figures in the frame stay still themselves.

These films are not only slow in the sense that some people use that adjective to disparage art cinema out of hand. They are not only plotted and paced differently from Hollywood blockbusters. Festival cinema has been that for some time. In a film like Stray Dogs it is possible to leave the theater, buy a coffee, check your email, and return to find the actors posed exactly as you left them. This is slowness on a different scale.

Tsai has predecessors in both the film and art worlds. Critics often cite Michelangelo Antonioni as a formative influence. The final scene of Stray Dogs echoes the famous final shot of L’Avventura (1960). In the film, a wealthy Italian, played by Gabriele Ferzetti, loses his fiancée on a rocky Mediterranean island. With her friend, played by Monica Vitti, he searches for her on the island and then the mainland. The movie unspools into plotlessness, as the two seem to forget why they were looking and fall into a diffident, bitter romance of their own — until Ferzetti has a tryst with a hotel housekeeper. In their final encounter, on the terrace of the hotel, Vitti stands behind Ferzetti, dwarfed by the vertical block of a wall to their right. We watch from behind as she strokes his hair. Her hand falls still on the nape of his neck and stays for nearly half a minute. Critics and filmmakers alike saw this tense, extended gesture as a major innovation, and Antonioni attracted many acolytes.

During the same period, avant-gardists also played with extending time. The “expanded cinema” being made in London and New York during the 1960s experimented with more extreme forms of duration. Andy Warhol called his movie projects “anti-film,” because they were essentially unwatchable — “better talked about than seen,” he put it. Empire (1964) showed eight hours and five minutes of continuous footage of the Empire State Building, projected at sixteen, rather than the standard twenty-four, frames per second. According to legend, Warhol went to great lengths to avoid watching his own anti-films. At the first screening of Empire, he got so bored that he snuck out.

The late Chantal Akerman drew together the European New Wave and American experimental film traditions. Having dropped out of film school in Belgium, Akerman traveled to New York in 1970. There she discovered Warhol and other downtown figures like Yvonne Rainer and Michael Snow. Akerman incorporated their techniques into her features, using extremely long takes and fixed cameras to render dead time on-screen. In her most famous film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the title character is a mother who occasionally does sex work to support herself and her son but spends most of her days on household chores. Akerman sets the camera in front of Jeanne as she chops potatoes, prepares meat, dusts and wipes down chintzy surfaces. The pace is an argument. The nothing we are made to watch happen is this woman’s world.

These filmmakers were not the only game in town. Antonioni’s chief rival in the international art cinema of the 1960s was Jean-Luc Godard, whose films often involved slapstick comedy and madcap punning; quick, jarring camera movement; and abrupt interruptions on the sound track. The star directors of the New Hollywood of the ’70s used rapid editing and violent shifts in tone. Consider Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese’s talky, bloody thriller was both a commercial and a festival success; it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1976. Over the past two decades, however, “art” cinema and “slow” cinema have become increasingly synonymous.

From the mid-’90s on, festivals began to consecrate exceptionally slow films. In 1994, Tsai won the Golden Lion at Venice for Vive L’Amour, about an empty apartment where the three main characters spend time, alone and with lovers. Tsai intersperses long takes of their interactions inside the apartment with minutes-long shots following them through desolate city spaces. From then on, Tsai became a favorite of the festival circuit. In the same year, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr released his magnum opus, Sátántangó, to almost universal critical acclaim. The seven-hour film contains only 150 shots, meaning that the average take lasts nearly three minutes. Many last longer. For five, ten minutes, Tarr lets us watch cows lowing as they leave a barn, or two men walking along a road, whipped by wind and leaves and trash. We see drunken neighbors dance for so long that the eye of the camera itself starts to feel tipsy. Susan Sontag raved about the length and pace, saying she would gladly watch Sátántangó once a year for the rest of her life.

Two years later, her New York Times Magazine essay “The Decay of Cinema” explained why. Sontag argued that, under assault from Hollywood, the “erotic, ruminative” rituals of filmgoing were dying out. “The reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to make them more attention-grabbing, has produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention,” Sontag wrote. She joined many of her contemporaries, who fondly recalled the halcyon days of Antonioni and Godard, in lamenting the death of cinema, or at least the dispersal of movies across video and new digital platforms. “Images now appear in any size and on a variety of surfaces: on a screen in a theater, on disco walls and on megascreens hanging above sports arenas,” she wrote. “The sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined the standards people once had both for cinema as art and for cinema as popular entertainment.” Figures like Tarr, whose films demanded to be watched on big screens, fulfilled the raison d’être for the cinema: total experience.

There was another, political reason for the enthusiasm for these movies: many of the stars of the slow cinema emerged in the late ’90s from countries that, like Tarr’s Hungary, had a history of authoritarianism. Watching the films offered “access” — at extravagant length, no less — to otherwise hidden foreign realities. In 1997, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami took the Palme d’Or for Taste of Cherry. Much of it consists of conversations captured by a stationary camera in an automobile. The switch from film stock to digital cameras made it possible for directors to experiment with pace in daring ways. Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) won the Visions Award at the Toronto Film Festival. Shot with a Steadicam, it consists of a single ninety-six-minute take. Sokurov (another Sontag favorite) guides our eyes into and out of rooms populated by hundreds of elaborately costumed cast members. The camera ascends above them, hovering like a ghost; it cants, keels, descends, and finally floats out a door that opens impossibly out onto an ocean.

In an oppressively materialist (and violent) world, slow cinema offered respite, even transcendence.


At this pace, story slips away. While Russian Ark is fictional, it is above all a record of a real feat. Can you believe all those people in those costumes did all those things exactly when they were supposed to? Jia Zhangke, often called the greatest Chinese director of his generation, also dilated his films with dreamlike long takes that carry fiction to the verge of documentary. Still Life won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2006. It opens with a boat voyage down the Yangtze into the town of Fengjie, which will soon be inundated by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In scene after wordless scene, a migrant laborer who has returned home to find his estranged wife takes in the doomed landscape. He is played by Jia’s cousin, the coal miner Han Sanming. The camera pans, trailing Han’s gaze. This act of witness has a moral dimension. Through Jia and his proxy, we take in a world that the contemporary Communist Party has forsaken in the name of progress. But the tone is one of melancholy resignation, not protest.

The difference becomes clear immediately if you watch Still Life alongside a more explicitly political documentary made around the same time: Before the Flood (2005). Directed by Li Yifan and Yan Yu, Before the Flood documents how Fengjie citizens resisted being evicted from their riverfront homes and shops. Through many chaotic scenes, the camera follows citizens making demands at government offices, shrieking in rage, and even physically attacking local officials. Though the film is viscerally disturbing in its own right, the politics on display requires some knowledge of Chinese history and society. The contrast between Before the Flood and Still Life suggests one of the major reasons why slow cinema plays so well on the international festival circuit. The intense mode of attentiveness it demands can move you, even if you know very little about the particular place you are looking at.

With so many of these films winning awards, critics, scholars, and lay cinephiles began to identify a trend. Terms like “slow cinema,” “cinema of slowness,” and “contemporary contemplative cinema” started circulating at academic film-studies conferences, in journals and festival program notes. Film blogs talked about contemporary contemplative cinema so much that they gave it the shorthand “CCC.” Speaking on the “State of Film” at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2003, the French critic and curator Michel Ciment argued that slowness was the dominant tendency in contemporary art cinema. The reason why, he said, was simple: Hollywood was speeding up.

Ciment contrasted the average shot length in a series of classical versus contemporary Hollywood films to prove his point: “Where it lasted 7.85 seconds in Spartacus, it was only 3.36 seconds long in Gladiator, 8.72 seconds in The Fall of the Roman Empire, and 2.07 seconds in Armageddon.” A Bourne movie moved literally twice as fast as a classic James Bond. “Facing this lack of patience and themselves made impatient by the bombardment of sound and image to which they are submitted as TV or cinema spectators,” Ciment concluded, “a number of directors have reacted by a cinema of slowness, of contemplation, as if they wanted to live again the sensuous experience of a moment revealed in its authenticity.”

A chorus joined Ciment in praising slow cinema as a moral as well as aesthetic triumph. In Britain, a group of young cinephiles started Unspoken Cinema, a blog dedicated to CCC, in 2006; in 2009, a graduate student named Matthew Flanagan published a manifesto in the Danish film journal 16:9 announcing that the “Aesthetic of Slow” had arrived. “In defiant opposition to the quickening of pace in mainstream American cinema, a distinctive narrative form devoted to stillness and contemplation has emerged,” he wrote. In the pages of Sight and Sound, the British critic Jonathan Romney agreed, suggesting that “the current Slow Cinema might be seen as a response to a bruisingly pragmatic decade in which, post-9/11, the oppressive everyday awareness of life as overwhelmingly political, economic, and ecological would seem to preclude (in the West, at least) any spiritual dimension in art.” In an oppressively materialist (and violent) world, slow cinema offered respite, even transcendence.

On festival screens, the slow wave continued to gain mass and momentum. Directors from all over the world were experimenting with languorous pacing and winning recognition for it. In 2010, the Turkish filmmaker Semih Kaplanoglu won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Honey, which follows a child searching for his father through the forest at such a slow pace that one critic described it as “a landscape film.” That same year, the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul received the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Like Weerasethakul’s previous films, Uncle Boonmee takes place in northeastern Thailand, against the backdrop of the forest whose dark whispers cast a spell; the scenes pass seamlessly between one time and another as the title character is visited by ghosts of loved ones and his own previous incarnations.

There was some backlash. Sight and Sound ran an editorial attacking the dominance of slow cinema in its April 2010 issue. “I admire and enjoy a good many of the best films of this kind,” the author Nick James allowed, “but I have begun to wonder if maybe some of them now offer an easy life for critics and programmers.” The American academic Steven Shaviro followed, charging “old-line cinéphiles” who gushed over CCC with “self-congratulatory” nostalgia. The Slow Wars even spilled over into higher-circulation publications. In April, Dan Kois published a long Riff in the New York Times Magazine, complaining that Kelly Reichardt’s movies bored him and that watching Andrei Tarkovsky felt like “eating [his] cultural vegetables.” In June, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott responded with a joint manifesto: “In Defense of the Slow and Boring.”

The debate itself was boring. At least, its framing was predictable, pitting the homme moyen sensuel versus the last guardians of culture. Meanwhile, slow cinema continued to crawl along. The aesthetic reached American audiences through Terrence Malick, the philosopher turned filmmaker who had returned from a twenty-year hiatus with The Thin Red Line (1998). In 2011, Malick won the Palme D’Or for The Tree of Life. Like Uncle Boonmee, the film moves fluidly between different times and even epochs. In a sign that slowness might even one day capture, rather than simply reject, Hollywood, the film was nominated for several Academy Awards.

Those who praised slow cinema as the antidote to Hollywood sounded convincing because they were drawing on such familiar oppositions: contemplation versus distraction, sensuous experience versus technologically driven simulation, grueling authenticity versus facile spectacle, cinema versus “the movies.” It was not an accident that enthusiasm for slow film took off at the same time as the Slow Food movement. Both discourses praised slowness as a form of resistance to “globalization” or “Americanization.”

The breakneck styles of American-made blockbusters like the Transformers and Fast and the Furious series provided an objective correlative for the exhilarating disorientation of an era when Starbucks started opening hundreds of new stores every year in China, and supply-chain software tracked rare-earth minerals all the way from mines in Congo to iPhones in Shenzhen. With amphetamine-riddled jitteriness, these films cut so fast it was often difficult to tell what was happening. Turn off the sound in a Transformers fight sequence and it looks like an avant-garde experiment in abstract montage. The Bourne franchise presents its global audience with an allegory of their situation. Jason Bourne moves so quickly from one hub of finance to another that the cities collapse into a single kaleidoscope of glass and steel. Often Bourne has no idea whom he is killing or why. He does not even know who he is.

But CCC is not the opposite of Bourne cinema. It is its obverse, the flip side of a single coin. The rise of the slow movement reflected the mutations of old cinematic institutions under the same pressures that were driving Hollywood studios to churn out fast-paced action franchises. It was the festival system that first gave birth to the slow movement. As the festival system has changed, so has the nature and meaning of cinematic slowness.

Historically, festivals have provided institutional space and support — a refuge — for non-Hollywood filmmaking. The European culture ministers who started Venice and Cannes in the 1930s wanted a forum to protect the European film industries from the studios aggressively expanding their distribution networks and conquering foreign audiences. World War II halted their efforts. But after the war, festival organizers set about their purpose with a new zeal — and a new template in geopolitical organizations like the United Nations. Like the UN, the festivals were internationalist in structure, with directors competing as representatives of their home countries. It was through these festivals that a “world cinema” came into being.

In the past, as international cinema culture traveled to new places in search of images, slowness functioned as a kind of delivery mechanism. The festivals served as vehicles for European soft power, exporting Western aesthetic values — including the idea of the “aesthetic” itself, or the belief that art is only art when it inspires disinterested contemplation. The neorealist style pioneered by postwar Italian filmmakers inspired directors around the world.

One of the primary examples of how neorealism could help a filmmaker escape national boundaries is the career of Satyajit Ray. Ray, the most celebrated figure of the “Parallel Cinema” movement that took off in Calcutta in the 1950s and ’60s, became a devotee of neorealism after a transformative encounter with the work of Vittorio de Sica. Ray saw de Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves on a business trip to London. (At the time, Ray was working as a graphic designer.) “All through my stay in London, the lessons of Bicycle Thieves and Neorealist cinema stayed with me,” he recalled. “Bicycle Thieves is a triumphant discovery of the fundamentals of cinema.” Ray completed the treatment for Pather Panchali (1955) on his return voyage. The first film in his famed “Apu Trilogy,” it used foreign protocols to give shape to local material. Like de Sica and his countryman Roberto Rossellini, Ray shot on location using amateur actors and foregrounded scenes of poverty and struggle. Like them, and like the Bengali modernist authors he mined for source material, Ray prized moments of epiphany, acute perceptions, and memories, letting chance occurrences rather than plotted actions drive his films. Based on the great serialized novel of the same title by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali takes place in rural West Bengal. It meanders gorgeously, following the daily life of a young boy, Apu, and his sister, Durga. The camera tracks them as they play in their family’s courtyard; steal through the forest to snag mangos from a wealthier cousin’s yard; watch their stooped and ancient aunt, whose face dissolves into a thousand pleats when she smiles; trail a man who comes through selling candy.

The release of Pather Panchali caused confusion in the US. “The most the camera shows us in a rambling and random tour of an Indian village is a baffling mosaic of candid and crude domestic scenes,” the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote. “Any picture as loose in structure or as listless in tempo as this one is would barely pass as a ‘rough cut’ with the editors in Hollywood.” But this was the point. Festival audiences were enraptured by Ray’s portrait of daily life in a remote setting. Ray won the Palme d’Or in 1955 for the sequel, Aparajito, and countless other awards, including an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1992.

The first success of “world cinema,” Pather Panchali demonstrated how flexible neorealism could be in conveying “reality” across the world. The “world” in “world cinema” came to signify this style of beautifying semidocumentary slowness, rather than any geographic location. Bollywood and Nollywood productions were watched by millions, if not billions, of people worldwide. But judging by the international festival circuit, they did not count as “world cinema.” Their modes of filmmaking were too idiosyncratic, tied too closely to their nations or even cities of origin. Neorealism was better suited for export.

Neorealism was also well suited to a subtle kind of nationalism — or, at least, to telling national stories to an international audience. Many of the greatest “world” films in this style are understated epics. In Bandyopadhyay’s bildungsroman, Apu becomes a metonym for modernizing India; adapting the novel in the 1950s, Ray turned the boy into a stand-in for the experiences of the newly independent nation-state. Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) also fit this bill. Shot by Zhang Yimou, Chen’s Beijing Film Academy classmate who would go on to become the most famous director in China, Yellow Earth takes place during the Civil War of the 1940s. It follows a Communist Party soldier on a long trek through the barren hills of Shaanxi Province to the home of a poor rural family, where he stays while collecting and rewriting local folk songs. Long takes suggest equivalences between the screen, the land, and the body of the young daughter, whose parents are in the process of selling her off. These terse characters become embodiments of history.

Across the straits, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s classic film A City of Sadness (1989) used slowness to similar effect. The film portrays the painful saga of a large family between 1945 and 1949, chronicling the violence between Communists and Nationalists that preceded the founding of modern Taiwan. Punctuated with long shots of seascapes and lush mountainsides, A City of Sadness incarnates the troubled young nation, giving it a wholeness and presence on-screen and inscribing the struggles of the characters within it. In Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, the long takes of the Iranian countryside, seen by car, and brief interviews with representative characters perform a similar function. The tableau they create displays the internal differences of contemporary Iran. These understated histories served a particular function within a festival circuit organized along national lines: they delivered exotic images to metropolitan centers. They edified self-identified intellectual audiences who wanted more than entertainment and were curious about news from abroad.

The slow wave may be what international cinema looks like when it has nowhere new left to go. Slow cinema extends or exaggerates many of the properties of neorealism, enlarging and extending the observational style that allows the landscapes of Ray, Chen, and Hou to come to life on-screen. Yet slow cinema pushes neorealism to the point where its scales tip into something different, a mode that many critics describe as “hyperreal” or “surreal.” At the same time, the spaces it takes interest in do not necessarily belong to the nation-state. Its stories do not operate as national histories, and its characters are not representative types.

The great auteurs of slow cinema no longer seem to represent their countries. Many of them belong to more than one. Tsai is a Malaysian living in Taiwan. Like Kiarostami, he gets much of his funding from France. Weerasethakul has raised money for his films in France, the UK, Germany, and the United States, as well as Thailand. Many European directors themselves rely on a mix of transnational film funds. This, too, reflects the vicissitudes of capital, the increasing ease with which it crosses borders. In earlier eras, the funding for “world” films was dispensed at a national level, through culture ministries or government-subsidized TV channels. Today, neoliberal reforms have cut the budgets of such funding bodies. As a result, art filmmakers piece together resources through whatever networks they can.

More and more of them are moving toward alternative institutions that, with looser ties to government and stronger ties to finance capital, are better poised to support them: museums and galleries. In 2006, the Centre Pompidou dedicated a show to Jean-Luc Godard (he had relented after resisting the idea for decades). In the same year, the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona opened an installation created by Kiarostami and the Spanish auteur Victor Erice: Correspondences consisted of a series of opposing screens featuring images of and by each director, and culminated with ten “video letters” that they made and sent each other for the purposes of the exhibition, which traveled on to Madrid and Paris. Uncle Boonmee was in fact the final installment of a series of installations called Primitive that Weerasethakul made in the Isan region. It includes a video installation — commissioned by Haus der Kunst, Munich, with FACT, Liverpool, and Animate Projects, London — and a short film called Phantoms of Nabua, which showed at the BFI Gallery in London.

Tsai, whose feature Face (2009) was the first film ever acquired by the Louvre, has continued to make work for museum settings, too. He told Film Comment that this was his plan now that he has given up making features. “The movie theater has all kinds of limits, and I think the museum can liberate film,” he said. “I hope I can view Taiwan as a starting point to cultivate an audience, by showing films in the museum, making an exhibition, or even making films for the museum.” It is no longer Taiwan that supports cinema like Tsai’s, or even the international festival, but the non-place of the white box, where the new global super-elite buy up artworks as investments. The kind of intense slowness that becomes unbearable in Stray Dogs works well on a loop that a museum spectator can walk by, watch, leave, and return to at will.

In Sontag’s and Ciment’s critiques of Hollywood, it is the rise of digital filmmaking that has compromised cinema. Yet the aesthetic of slow cinema is digital: Sokurov, Tsai, Jia, and others all use digital cameras. Dissident filmmakers in particular cannot rely on the UN model of the festival to promote their work abroad. They turn to digital distribution platforms. The underground Chinese documentary movement, for instance, has reached a “world” audience through online networks like dGenerate Films. dGenerate, based in Brooklyn, distributes some of Jia’s films, and also the celebrated abstract autobiographies of Liu Jiayin, Oxhide (2005) and Oxhide II (2009), and Wang Jiuliang’s slow documentary, Beijing Besieged by Waste (2011).

Digital filmmaking, and storing and streaming capabilities, all conspire to disturb the long-standing binary where slow equals art and speed equals commerce; where slow images are aesthetically valuable because they call for contemplation that commercial films do not demand. Slow is a property of many kinds of images. There are many “low” digital objects that Ciment would never claim for art cinema, but that require the same kind of behavior he describes as typical of the “cinema of slowness” he admires. Consider the explosion of found-footage horror films shot with digital cameras, like the Paranormal Activity franchise. These revolve around long swaths of dead time, which require the viewer to actively scan the image, searching for signs of or clues to what is amiss. Consider Euro Truck Simulator, the hugely popular video game in which players simulate the driving of a truck in real time. It’s like a Kiarostami movie as a video game. Yet it’s hard to imagine that Ciment would credit it as an act of resistance.

If slow cinema does not, in fact, stand apart from the global economy of digitized images, what does it do? Perhaps it captivates us because it captures a sense of time peculiar to this moment in history — time that grinds on relentlessly while remaining curiously unmoored.

At the turn of the last century, Henri Bergson criticized what he called the “cinematographical” illusion. It was an error, he wrote in Creative Evolution, to think of all units of time as equivalent and interchangeable. Instants could not be synthesized mechanically into experience; memory could not be made to move as regularly as the images frozen in the frames of a filmstrip do, once the projector spins them on. In our era of images and information constantly available to be accessed and activated, no one would make the mistake of thinking that it could. Time leaps from place to place. Every moment is pregnant with potential productivity or serendipity; a text message sent from Beijing and received in New York interrupts the here and now. But as a result, the unstructured time that remains   seems longer and emptier. For so many of us the future is unknown; the stability of work and the idea of a career belong to the past.

Cinema as a medium came of age under a particular arrangement of leisure and labor. The Fordist economy divided time and space into work and not-work. Whether as mindless entertainment or as high art, movies belonged to the latter. Slow cinema emerged as the industrial economy, and its ways of arranging time and space, began breaking down. Antonioni, so often cited as the first master of CCC, expanded time beyond what narrative required in order to convey the alienation seeping through the cracks of industrial modernity. Antonioni’s final film with Monica Vitti, Red Desert (1964), shows her coming undone against a Technicolor backdrop of pounding pistons and petrochemical smoke.

Warhol saw still more clearly that the Fordist economy could not hold — that it was giving way to an economy of spectacle. Empire turned the duration of the Fordist workday into content for a film. Ninety minutes to two hours had become the standard length for movies, because it was the right amount of time for an audience to spend between punching out and getting to bed in time to rise for work the next morning. By elevating the deadening rhythms and mindless automatisms of factory work into creative principles, Warhol blurred distinctions between process and product, work and play. The visuals not only exceeded the needs of plot. They surpassed or replaced it. At the same time, the leisure the anti-films offered was grueling. They made your body ache with the effort of sitting and watching, just as you might ache after hours on an assembly line.

Like Warhol, Chantal Akerman focused on forms of work the Fordist economy did not account for. Akerman always refused to call herself a feminist filmmaker, but in retrospect it is impossible not to read the interminable scenes of housework in Jeanne Dielman as being in conversation with the Wages for Housework movement. Jeanne Dielman demands that the work its protagonist does be recognized as such. Akerman also resembled Warhol in that she foregrounded the relationship between her life and her art — between the forms of female labor that her films depicted and her own creative process. It is as if she were following a late-capitalist variation on Flaubert’s famous dictum, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Her later films like Là-bas (2006) and even her final film, No Home Movie (2015), reveals the methodical, repetitive, even obsessive elements of her process. She alludes to her own compulsion to shut herself indoors, in private spaces, to get her work done.

Warhol emphasized that in the economy where everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, producing and consuming spectacle, and above all producing oneself as a spectacle, could become a full-time job. (“I suppose I have a really loose interpretation of ‘work,’ ” he quipped in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, “because I think that just being alive is so much work at something you don’t always want to do.”) Akerman drew attention to work that had long gone unseen or unrecognized. Both used a grinding kind of temporality to convey their insights: that days did not divide so cleanly as classical cinema had supposed. Time in their films opens into one often-deadening continuum, which rarely leads to the development of anything like story. Perhaps it is no accident that both of these filmmakers were queer — as is Weerasthakul, as is Tsai. The sexual energies that their films exude can be intoxicating, but they do not culminate in long-term couplings the way Hollywood romances do. From the perspective of a bourgeois economy, their eroticism is not productive.

Today the Fordist paradigms whose fraying edges the slow cinema of the 1960s and ’70s pointed to have definitively broken down. The slow cinema of the 2010s excels at depicting the dead time that dominates so many lives under neoliberalism, when occasional and precarious labor is increasingly the norm. In 2003, Ciment spoke of the difference between Hollywood’s cinema of “distraction” versus an art cinema of “contemplation.” Yet if CCC demonstrates anything, it is that distraction and contemplation, or attentiveness, produce each other. Shots that last a quarter-hour force their viewers to cycle between attention and distraction, in a negative feedback loop that reverses itself several times over.

In interviews, Béla Tarr described his final film, The Turin Horse, as aiming to depict “the heaviness of human existence.” “We didn’t want to talk about mortality or any such general thing,” Tarr told Cineuropa in 2011. “We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you have to go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter. . . . All the time.” The long takes showing the horse capture the heaviness of its body and the strain of the work it does. The camera fixes on its plodding, sinewy limbs and on the tensed and hunched back of its owner, his cold-chapped hands clenching the reins, the wind whipping the horse’s mane and kicking up dust we can almost feel stinging our eyes. Sometimes a misstep by the animal tugs his arms, making him lurch forward. The weight of all this life wasted doing grunt work accumulates as the film wears on.

Jia, too, is an expert in depicting how the days of many of his characters dissipate. We see miners and migrant laborers sleeping on a boat en route to Fengjie, playing cards and lounging long after they have docked. But we see the epiphanies that such dead time can produce, too. A wandering glance can open up a spectacular vista of the river. The migrant workers in his film The World (2004) spend their downtime fiddling with their cell phones; Jia periodically lets animations based on their messages take over the screen, as if the drabness of their lives could suddenly be overcome by the force of their imagination and desires. In one surreal scene in Still Life, a brutalist tower alongside the Yangtze suddenly shakes free of its foundations. In a stunning moment of metamorphosis, it turns into a rocket and takes off.

Perhaps more than any other director, Tsai foregrounds the highly irregular rhythms that shape the lives of those who work on the low end of the Bourne economy. All the different versions of Hsiao-kang whom Lee Kang-sheng has incarnated over the decades have shit jobs that involve endless waiting. They drive taxis or hawk knockoff watches on overpasses. Though they peruse stalls of bootlegged DVDs or jangling electronic malls aimlessly, their dead time also has its upsides. In many films, characters spend long stretches of time cruising; aimlessness becomes electrified with a diffuse sexual energy. In many shots in Goodbye Dragon Inn, we follow a female cleaner with a lame leg lugging buckets of water up the stairs of the dilapidated movie theater, water sloshing onto the grubby floor. But we also see men taking advantage of the nearly empty screening to flirt. Tsai can puncture a dreary scene with a deadpan sense of humor. In What Time Is It There?, a corpulent man trails Hsiao-kang through a dingy electronics mall where he is shopping for a new watch. When Hsiao-kang goes to a public bathroom, the stranger springs out of one of the stalls. Pants down, he holds a large clock over his groin. The jammed second hand bounces back and forth, between the 5 and the 10, beckoning. Neither of them says a word.

Stray Dogs constantly returns to scenes of Hsiao-kang doing occasional work, or waiting to work, or gobbling down street food in between. His main gig seems to be standing in a poncho under pelting rain, holding a sign that advertises a sunny new real estate development. Despite the weather, and the rush and splatter of the passing cars, he remains frozen, the support for an image, a human advertisement for a drier, warmer place. In one of these scenes, Hsiao-kang bursts into song; he sings of a 13th-century hero as tears stream down his cheeks. The tune is at once plaintive and ironic; against the monotony of the passing cars, it feels uplifting because it at least gives us something to pay attention to. In another scene, Hsiao-kang suddenly throws the sign to the ground and stamps on it in blind rage. It is the accumulation of time that gives both bursts of emotion their force.

Tsai has made one feature-length film since Stray Dogs. Journey to the West is a documentary of a performance project that comments on the state of world cinema. The title refers to the classic Buddhist epic but also ironically alludes to Tsai’s status as an Asian world filmmaker, who must constantly make work to appeal to juries and audiences abroad. In Journey to the West, Lee Kang-sheng appears in the saffron robes of a monk. He is on a street in Marseille. He performs a ritual, walking as slowly as he can, so slowly that his movement is almost imperceptible. In ninety minutes, he may cross a block or two. His gaze remains fixed steadfastly on the ground. Some passersby stare; some pass, without casting a glance his way. Though I have tried many times, I have never managed to watch all of it.

Is this how cinema transcends itself? In the age of online streaming, the spectator can move and the image stays fixed; if this surfeit creates a kind of monotony, it means that monotony is also always there to be summoned. In the end, Journey to the West turns boredom into a kind of meditation. The mise en abyme, as we watch strangers watch Lee watch nothing, suggests that digital images have become the grounds of our mobile existence. Seen or unseen, they are the stream we move on.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

More from Issue 25

More by this Author