It was seven years ago that I first heard the argument that the so-called 'slow' films of contemporary cinema were following a newly minted art-house fashion. The idea was proposed by the eminent scholar of Asian cinema, Aaron Gerow, and was delivered in an academic setting, with no rancour or polemical provocation intended. Gerow was merely noting a trend: more and more films (in his example, within Japanese independent and experimental production) seemed to be tending towards a certain definite template: long takes (up to ten minutes), static camera, big distance between the camera its human subjects, and a lot of the banality of daily life, such as walking, eating, or just plain mooching around. The style we have come to know very well from Kiarostami, Jia Zhang-ke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Lisandro Alonso, Béla Tarr, etc etc.
Gerow suggested on that day in 2003 — again, without any cynicism or grand-slam critique — that one motivation (beyond the purely aesthetic or cultural) for the widespread adoption of such a template was pragmatic: this is the kind of film that, increasingly, has come to be known as 'quality Film Festival fare', the kind that signals itself for serious critical attention and international programming. With the space of the 'commercial art-house' in mainstream cinemas forever shrinking and tightening up in its definition, the Film Festival circuit has come to be viewed — perhaps especially by filmmakers themselves, desperate for any screening that will cause them to be noticed on the world stage — as an alternative exhibition, distribution, and even production circuit. And that is demonstrably the Way of the World in cinema today.
The argument was entirely reasonable, but nonetheless I bristled and grumbled about it. How dare the art of Hou-Jia-etc be reduced to a grubby market calculation! How dare the subtle differences between all these world-wide filmmakers be flattened into a five-step 'slow film' formula! How dare we take what is most radical and 'cutting edge' in the new cinema and categorise it as something immediately familiar, and therefore instantly old-hat and predictable? Of course, I was in the grip of an emotion dear to every cinephile: defensiveness. I could not bear to see my beloved object of Slow Cinema — whose position seemed so fragile and precarious on the world stage, forever being denounced by rearguard conservatives and mediocre cultural gatekeepers — in any way criticised and hence endangered. So I signed up as a loyal warrior of the Slow Cinema team, that United Red Army ready to fight to the death for the cause of progressiveness in film?
Today, in 2010, we are fighting the epic, thin red line-battle over Slow Cinema (not to be confused with the Slow Criticism pioneered by de Filmkrant!). A rolling, in-depth series by Frédéric Sabouraud in Trafic magazine outlines and champions the cinéma a minima of Hong Sang-soo and others. Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound, responds testily in print to an avalanche of recent pieces on the Internet, where the Defence Force is led, a little territorially, by Harry Tuttle (screenville.blogspot.com/). Matthew Flanagan (16-9.dk), Steven Shaviro (shaviro.com) and Zach Campbell (elusivelucidity.blogspot.com), amongst many others, are having their say on the matter: what is slow cinema, what are its borders, its limits, its possibilities, its social-industrial context, its problems?
But whoever comes out of this struggle alive or dead, wounded or victorious, let's try not to be too defensive. Of course there are badly realised, poorly conceived — and even completely opportunistic — slow films. A siege mentality puts up an impenetrable wall around a mode of cinema that is naturally going to evolve, mutate, crossbreed. Remember the wise words of Jean-Pierre Gorin: 'The cinema has always been fucked by everybody... it's lying there in the ring of the circus, being fucked over by the clowns, by the acrobats, by the performing seals.' And you can't ever defend yourself from that glorious fate.