Episode 29: Slow Wars

On this episode of the n+1 podcast, Moira Weigel joins us to discuss her essay “Slow Wars,” about the slow cinema movement in foreign art films, the impact changes in filmmaking and film viewing technology have on the art form, and the nebulous terms of debate in the criticism of slow cinema.

Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Dinosaur L, Bill Evans Trio, Ravi Shankar

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Episode Transcript


Eric Wen: Welcome to the n+1 podcast. I’m your host, Eric Wen, and our guest for this episode is Moira Weigel. She has written for n+1 several times and is the author of the new book Labor of Love, which was released in May. Moira was also previously a guest on episode 9 of the n+1 podcast to discuss her essay “Sadomodernism,” about the aesthetics of violence in the films of European directors Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. In this episode, we talk about Moira’s essay “Slow Wars” in Issue 25 about the slow cinema movement in foreign art films. First, I asked Moira to describe slow cinema.

SEGMENT: Interview with Moira Weigel

Moira Weigel: The phrase “Slow Cinema,” or “cinema of slowness,” is a phrase that seemed to come into circulation—it’s hard to say who exactly used it first, and there’s some debate about that, but it came into circulation around 2003–2004 among curators and film academics. And it was described as this trend where it seemed like more and more films were being made that were not just slow in the sense that they didn’t have action-driven plots, because I think that had been true of art films for some time. Think of Antonioni, think of Chantal Akerman.

But these films seemed to be taking it to new extremes, like Belá Tarr’s Sátántangó, the more-than-seven-hour-long film with these many long takes—not all static takes, but these long, long takes. Tsai-Ming-liang would be another example. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a more recent example. It seemed like more and more filmmakers were favoring this aesthetic that was extremely dilated and extended. So that was a term that came into circulation around 2003. I’d say around 2010 in film nerd communities this became more and more a subject of debate, and my piece was about trying to explore the terms of that debate and what they might say about why these changes happened when they did, what they had to do with changes in the material basis of the medium and in the institutions of filmgoing and film watching.

EW: So “slow cinema” is basically what it sounds like: it describes films that usually play at foreign film festivals that take slowness to an extreme. In our conversation, we discuss slow cinema in the context of Hollywood and international film festivals, the impact of changes that our filmmaking and film viewing technology have had on the art form, and the nebulous terms of debate in the criticism of slow cinema. We begin by talking about the Jason Bourne film franchise. Here’s Moira.

MW: For me the Bourne movies epitomize this mode of filmmaking, and I think for a lot of critics, they’re almost a touchstone or a shorthand for a mode of filmmaking that’s so fast it’s almost unintelligible. I’ve also used the Transformers movies in film class—if you turn off the sound in some of the sequences, and maybe even with sound, it’s almost impossible to tell what is happening. It looks like an abstract art film, and that really interests me because I think—and we can get into this when we talk about the old antitheses or oppositions between low and high art, or what’s easy to comprehend and what demands contemplation—we still usually think of something like the Bourne movies of Transformers 4 on the first side, as mass culture that’s easy, but actually digital editing can get so fast that it’s almost incomprehensible. So that weird blurry boundary is actually really interesting to me. It seems like it’s undoing the distinction or sort of undoing the opposition, which is what I was interested in exploring in this piece.

EW: I’m not—I don’t mean to be anti-Hollywood cinema because there’s a lot of Hollywood cinema that I like. But people in the articles and the critics of slow cinema often say that these movies are very slow-paced and boring, but I actually find movies like Jurassic World to be really boring. There are never any real stakes, and you never get any emotional connection with the characters, and you just see these big CGI action pieces happening on screen, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Whereas when I watched, like, A Taste of Cherry, it is this very slow movie—it’s two hours of someone mostly sitting in a car and talking to people in the car. But I actually found that a lot more engaging because there was this real emotional arc to it and . . . I don’t really know if I have a follow-up question.

MW: No, I think that’s exactly right. Manohla Dargis is a critic I don’t always agree with, but in her article with A. O. Scott, “In Defense of the Slow and the Boring,” she says, you know, I don’t think Tarkovsky is boring. I think The Hangover Part II is boring. There’s no stakes, it’s just this very predictable dialogue. So again, part of what interests me in these debates around slow cinema is precisely this question of what actually is boring and does it actually map onto slow and fast in the way that we’re used to thinking of it?

EW: Right.

MW: I think it doesn’t.

EW: Well, that was something that I thought about when I was reading some of the criticism. In her article in the New York Times Magazine, Susan Sontag called commercial cinema “lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention.” But I guess that kind of implies that a good film demands one’s full attention. Do you think that’s true? And what do you think good films ask of their audiences?

MW: Well these are big questions. I think I think a good work of art demands our attention. I think that’s what you were just saying; you find Bourne boring because we don’t care and we’re not affected. I think I’m a little bit of an old-fashioned aesthete in the way Sontag is. I think that—again, this is really old-fashioned in a way, but I think good work is moving and it can move you in different ways. It could be that it’s funny, it could be that it’s infuriating, it could be that it’s upsetting, but I think what Sontag is talking about there—and I think I agree with her—is that there’s a certain intensity of experience that is required for a work of art to be art—and definitely to be engaging. I don’t have a lot at stake in flying the flag of art or whether we call things art or not, but I think that intensity that she’s talking about is precisely what you are missing in the Bourne movies that you find boring. You just sort of don’t care.

EW: I guess people who go to movies have different expectations of what they hope to get out of moviegoing. So aside from the technology of making a film—capturing moving images on a camera and then presenting them on some kind of screen—do you think that commercial cinema and slow cinema have much in common as art forms?

MW: I think there are almost two questions embedded in that question. One is about audience and reception, and one is about production—if anything in the aesthetics of the film are similar. I’m on this book tour for this book about dating, and I’ve been getting asked about dates a lot, and a boy whom I ended up dating for years once took me on a first date to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Do you remember that film?

EW: I don’t, no.

MW: It’s this extremely bleak neorealist film about someone getting an illegal abortion in communist Romania. The abortionist demands that this woman and her friend both have sex with him in this gross hotel room to get this abortion. It’s horrifying. That was the movie about which my sweet economist boyfriend was like, “Oh, I want to impress her! She’s into film! I’ll take her to this art film!” My point is that movies can serve all sorts of functions. It is no way a romantic movie—you would never associate the content of that movie with romance. But socially the function of that movie was that this person who is not a film person was showing his curiosity about film, and I went, so . . . why am I saying all this? In terms of how different audiences go to different movies for different reasons, I think it’s often hard to map that in a one-to-one way onto what the aesthetics of the film are actually like.

And in terms of content, I was thinking less about movies and more about video games, which I’ve been thinking about more. I make this joke in the piece, about how my husband—who I threw under the bus with this—got really obsessed with this video game called Euro Truck Simulator, which is literally this real-time game of pretending to drive a truck around Europe. And I was thinking that there is something so perverse in the contemporary economy that upper-middle class people would want to pay money to impersonate a manual laborer doing this really boring job and would find it therapeutic. But it was funny to me because he just happened to be playing this game obsessively while I was writing this piece, so I was like, “How is A Taste of Cherry different from Euro Truck Simulator 2?” A Taste of Cherry wasn’t shot in digital, so let’s take Kiarostami’s movie Ten, which is more recent. These are slow things that use digital imagery, and again the storage medium is really important because part of the thing with these long, long, long-take films is that it becomes a lot easier with a digital camera, and they move incredibly slowly. But one of them we would never consider high art and with one of them, we think its slowness makes it high art.

There’s a reality show where it’s like real-time footage of the Mexican border, and they encourage people to watch it as vigilantes and then call if they see anyone. I think Maggie Nelson talks about this in The Art of Cruelty. Béla Tarr might put a camera on a road and watch people walk down it for like hours—not hours, but for a long time. How is that different—and of course it is different, I’m not saying it’s not—but what is it that makes one kind of slow object different from another kind of slow object? Is that interesting?

EW: Yeah! Well . . .

MW: You look sort of alarmed!

EW: I look alarmed because I guess that’s what I look like when I’m curious?

MW: Okay, good!

EW: What do you think is the distinction between those different kinds of slowness?

MW: I don’t know. On one hand, from a truly vulgarly materialist perspective, I would be like, “There is no distinction!” In both cases digital storage and high-speed internet give us the ability to store this huge amount of imagery and transmit it in a way that wouldn’t have been possible earlier. The other part of me, the aesthete part of me that agrees with Sontag about lots of things, would say that what’s different again is the mode of engagement. I’m not a connoisseuse of Euro Truck Simulator 2 myself, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I’d imagine someone playing that game is not attending to it or experiencing it with the same kind of emotion that someone might feel watching A Taste of Cherry. You talked about how that film moved you. I imagine that’s a bit different.

EW: Right.

MW: I think a lot of this has to do with where you watch the film and who you watch it with, and a streamed video game is usually something we do on our computer alone. Although this is changing: I’m very interested in Chinese underground documentary and certain film cultures that have emerged more and more through digital online streaming—I’m thinking about dGenerate Films in terms of the China example. But we still think of festival films as things we watch on big screens, seated in a theater from start to finish, not pausing, watching Lee Kang-sheng standing still for ten minutes.

EW: Now that we consume so much film digitally, like through streaming services on the internet, does that change film? Because if you’re watching something on Hulu or Netlix, you could just pause it, and you don’t really feel the experience of sitting there for ten minutes and watching someone stand still.

MW: I think about this with horror movies. I’m such a wuss—I can only watch streaming because I just can’t watch it if I’m not able to stop if I get too scared. I mostly say this as a joke, but horror films also give you an intense body experience. Like, when you think about how we jump with a horror movie, or how our heart rate rises. So yes—definitely. The fact that we now watch more and more films through streaming makes a big difference. The fact that I might be watching a Tsai Ming-liang film on my computer and my sister might Gchat me, and maybe I’ll respond to it while this long shot is going on—that’s definitely a different mode of perception and aesthetic experience than I would have if I were sitting at the Taipei Film Festival watching it. That’s for sure.

EW: Right. Going back to something you said earlier about the person who took you to see 4 Months . . . and however many—

MW: 3 Weeks and 2 Days! A lot of days after which to have an abortion! It was very upsetting. I was like, “That’s cool. You’re lovely, you have good taste in cinema. I’m never having sex again, but it was nice to meet you!”

EW: The way you told that anecdote made me think of Dan Kois. In his New York Times Magazine article, he said that watching these types of movies was, as he called it, “eating your cultural vegetables.” He called it “aspirational watching.” And I don’t want to assume anything about the person who took you on this date, but it sounded like it was aspirational to some extent. Do you think there is this sort of cultural divide in the way we experience films? Like people who look at them on the more academic side and consider them more seriously, versus people who like to go out and watch Transformers. And I don’t mean to disparage Transformers or anything—

MW: I disparage Transformers.

EW: Yeah, I mean, I don’t like Transformers, but my point, I guess—

MW: You don’t want to disparage people who like Transformers, I think that’s what you’re saying.

EW: Right. And also, for people who are kind of defenders of the Hollywood entertainment side, their experience of cinema is probably because they grew up and they saw Star Wars as kids, and it was like, “I love Star Wars because it’s this really entertaining and fun movie.”

MW: I love a lot of commercial cinema. I love a lot of television, although it streams on our computers, so I don’t know why we still call it that. I hold the extremely banal opinion that everyone holds that The Wire is one of the most amazing cultural artifacts of the past decades. I love Orange is the New Black. I love all kinds of things that other people like that aren’t controversial to love. So I think whether we call that Hollywood is another question. I think the studios and those institutions are changing.

EW: But do you think that slow cinema is maybe just a different kind of ballgame, where the intent is different and their cultural influencers are less, like, Steven Spielberg and more Andy Warhol?

MW: I think it’s a parallel market, a protected market. It’s another kind of sphere, and it’s certainly possible for people to enjoy both kinds of things. You don’t have to choose. Andy Warhol famously said that he liked everything. But yeah, it’s just a different film circuit with totally unique institutions. The way art film and festival film works is very different from how studio film works and, by the way, the former are moving more and more toward gallery spaces and museum spaces. That’s another thing I was interested in with this piece. But it just belongs to a distinct set of institutions and a distinct set of viewing practices, which I think are different from vegging out and watching three episodes of Orange is the New Black or going to see the big new Star Wars movie with your friends.

EW: Do you think that the people who take a strong stance on either side project their expectations of what they want from cinema onto the side that they kind of oppose?

MW: Hmm . . .

EW: I know that’s a hard question to answer.

MW: I set up a debate in the piece with Dan Kois versus A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis—“This is boring” versus “in defense of the boring.” And part of me wants to blow up the categories as we were talking about in the beginning, because it’s like, “what’s boring?” There are actually all these projections and presuppositions coming in on either side. To again answer at a slant, what’s interesting is that the whole conversation has so many presuppositions about what art is and what it’s for. So when Dan Kois is like, “Oh, it’s like eating your vegetables, you should do it,” what does that mean? “Should” according to whom? Think about this again with video games. We’re seeing more and more conversations about games like That Dragon, Cancer or Depression Quest. People who play games are very excited about other people saying, “Well that’s art.” And I’m like, “Well what’s at stake for you in saying whether it’s art or not?” Do you know what I mean?

EW: Yeah, absolutely.

MW: So people who want to claim a certain space for art cinema versus commercial cinema certainly project onto one another. We inherit this whole history of oppositions, and they get sort of Russian-dolled into each other, where it’s like, “Slow is contemplative, is boring, is the aesthetic, is culturally respectable. Fast is commercial, is lower middlebrow, or entertaining.” And the terms of all of those oppositions are changing, and it’s sort of in flux, and that’s what I think we were talking about earlier with how Transformers 4 looks like a Soviet montage experiment a hundred years later.

EW: Based on the article, it did seem to me that a lot of people defending slow cinema saw slowness itself as an inherent virtue.

MW: And that’s a great humanist tradition, and I respect that tradition. I believe that in the article I talk about Satyajit Ray and Pather Panchali. I so don’t want to be, like, an old-fashioned bourgeois person, but there is a virtue in dwelling in other lives and in other places. To someone who is not a film nerd, the idea that a long take would be more ethical than a short take is just crazy. They don’t know what I’m talking about. But there is a value to imaginatively dwelling in another life, to trying to imagine the inner life or social experience of people who are different from you. And I think at the end of the day that’s a commitment to humanism or empathy or the aesthetic. We could tear apart and criticize and think about these categories more complex ways, but I think they’re valuable. The experience of imagining the life of a construction worker in Taipei circa now, through a Tsai Ming-liang movie, does do something for someone who lives in New York. It expands this sphere of experience and empathy. At a materialist level I could say, “Well, look: that’s because I’m a college-educated middle class/upper-middle class person, with this kind of taste.” But on the other hand, I do believe a little bit in the idea that good art or good works can help us transcend our personal experience.

And we can learn a lot about other places, too! In so many of these world films, you do learn a lot. Critically, I could say that the reason they’re so slow is that you can watch a film by Alexander Sokurov without knowing very much about Russian politics and history and you can follow it. Though with Jia Zhangke, who is a huge darling of the international festival circuit, there are certain filmmakers, more activist filmmakers, who are quite critical of his work because they say it’s not politically engaged, not daring enough. There are virtues on both sides of that equation, but I still do believe in that sort of humane aesthetic power of the cinema, too.

EW: So you mentioned that it was kind of a response against Hollywood—

MW: That’s what pro–slow cinema people always say.

EW: Or as a corollary. I think that’s how you put it. Not necessarily in opposition, but on the same side?

MW: Yeah, I think I say it’s like the obverse, or like two sides of a coin.

EW: So what do you think were the conditions? You mention festivals, like international film festivals, and Hollywood. What do you think were the conditions?

MW: Well one that really interests me is this migration of serious art film into museum spaces and gallery spaces instead of just festival spaces and theaters. I had a screenwriting teacher in college who once said that when people would ask him about the difference between writing for TV and writing for film, he’d say, “In one they’re bigger than you are, and in one you’re bigger than they are.” And I was thinking about this while I was writing the piece. What’s the difference between moving images in the gallery versus moving images in a theater? Well, in one you sit still while they move and in the other it’s so slowed down that it often seems like they sit still and you could walk around. I played with that while I was writing the piece, and it may sound frivolous, but I really think it gets at something about how we consume images today. I often can’t get my undergrads to watch films in a theater. Instead of thinking of the cinema as this experience where we go to a special space and sit still—one of my advisors at Yale, Francesco Casetti, calls this “attendance,” like we’re attending a church service, this other experience of time—we now carry images around on these devices that are mobile, that are on us all the time.

And you’ll see people watching things—well, probably not a Tarkovsky film, but watching stuff on the train. So this idea that in, let’s call it digitally networked techno-capitalism, that we are always mobile and actually images are permanently stored and we can carry them around with us, that was interesting to me. You also have to think about the financial support for the filmmaking. If we think of the great new waves, like the New German Cinema, for instance, the funding for those films all came from government agencies, like ministries of culture. Those funding sources changed when the EU came together, and now there’s a lot more money available from museums, from galleries. There’s more money in the art world. Victor Erice, who made Spirit of the Beehive—he did this show with Kiarostami where they sent each other video letters and then they were all exhibited together. It was funny because I remember reading an interview with him where they were saying, like, “Why did you do this? Why aren’t you making a feature film?” And he was like, “Well I’m just trying to make money to make my feature film.” Film is an expensive art form, and those concerns are inseparable from the aesthetic choices that filmmakers make.

EW: I was thinking about something you said in the essay about how a lot of slow cinema comes from world cinema. Some of the examples you gave were A Taste of Cherry, from Iran, and some of the Chinese and Taiwanese directors. But you also wrote:

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.

So you mention that Satyajit Ray was influenced by de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and I was wondering if now that so much of this world cinema is financed by government arts agencies and film agencies, is there a risk of this kind of cultural imperialism?

MW: Certainly. When you call it “cultural imperialism,” that’s a political or moral stance that I agree with. But in a less morally loaded way, there’s also just a risk of homogenization where all these things start to look the same. I had a professor who quoted someone else calling it “Euro Pudding.” He was like, all these films look kind of the same, they’re kind of slow. So I think that that’s definitely a risk. In a way, what we call world cinema is defined by a certain set of values that are ultimately European values; the very idea that art is as something that should be disinterested and contemplative, that’s an idea that comes from Immanuel Kant, and we could trace the origins of that idea in European culture. Theoretically and also materially, a lot of the support for this kind of filmmaking has always come from Europe, and it’s inextricably tied to both the values and the real institutions of filmmaking that exist there.

EW: A couple years ago you were on the podcast talking about “Sadomodernism.” Do you think that the deliberately slow paced—and possibly intentionally boring—effect of slow cinema is a form of sadomodernism?

MW: It’s funny, that had never occurred to me until I was deep in the piece, and then I was like, “Am I just rewriting the same piece again?” But yes, definitely. I think they are both these trends in filmmaking that the two pieces describe as legacies of modernism and legacies of both a certain oppositional attitude toward commercial or dominant culture. And also a certain set of aesthetic practices associated with defamiliarization or making new—this idea of, like, the world needs to be seen anew—is an idea that I think refers back to modernist aesthetics of different kinds. And in a Haneke film, maybe that means doing some terrible kind of violence. Haneke estranges or changes the plot of a love story and makes it seem like something with no closure. I’m thinking about The Piano Teacher, with the student and the teacher in this horribly painful scene. In the case of the slow film, I think it’s probably that there’s more emphasis on visual perception than on narrative, but there’s also this idea that we haven’t seen the road until we’ve watched it for fifteen minutes. And there’s a way that those formal devices can force us to see the world anew. So I think both pieces are thinking about the legacy of modernism, the persistence of modernism, even though we’ve been calling ourselves postmodern for a long time—and ways in which filmmakers are negotiating those values or working out their positions relative to those legacies.


EW: That’s all for this episode. The n+1 podcast is produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen. We’d like to thank Dayna Tortorici, Mark Krotov, and of course Moira Weigel. We thank all of our guests at the end of each episode because we are genuinely grateful that they take the time to come on our show. But I’d like to quickly point out that we recorded this episode in late May when Moira was in the middle of a very busy book tour. It would’ve been very reasonable for her to decline doing our show, but she was incredibly accommodating and made a sincere effort to come on. So I’d like to say thank you once again to Moira for being very kind and generous with her time in the middle of her book tour to talk about something that had nothing to do with it. Her book Labor of Love is out now, so you can purchase that wherever you buy books. For more from the n+1 podcast, you can subscribe on iTunes or you can find a full archive of previous episodes at nplusonemag.com. Thanks for listening!

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