Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Attack on "Slow Cinema"!

In the past few weeks, a handful of critics (Steven Shaviro, Dan Fox, Glenn Kenny, Danny Leigh, Vadim Rizov) have begun passive-aggressively attacking Harry Tuttle, founder of the blog Unspoken Cinema, for a thesis he himself did not materialize. Unspoken Cinema is singlehandedly devoted to the presence of a trend in today’s film culture deemed Contemporary Contemplative Cinema, or CCC. He did not insist that CCC was an exclusive genre acknowledged by the filmmakers themselves, nor did he state that it was necessarily an oppositional form to Hollywood. His is a study of a particular inclination towards silence and plotlessness that has undeniably manifested itself most saliently in recent years (check out his thorough timeline), and has existed in the works of many directors – Bela Tarr, Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz, Chantal Akerman, Tsai Ming-Liang, Carlos Reygades, James Benning, Jia Zhang-ke, Sharunas Bartas, among others - regardless of cultural background. Of course the filmmakers are after different effects (just watch Liverpool and Silent Light and experience a vast gap in motives), but there is often a deep symmetry in their approaches that suggests a more universal artistic kinship, a desire to revitalize cinema’s fundamental ability for pure visual and aural immersion.

His methodical and multi-layered definition of CCC – so sensitively sorted out that it has taken a long-running series of posts – is careful to recognize the tendency as distinct from the otherwise superficially similar facades of Modern Cinema or Structural Cinema, movements that either contained an intellectual analysis behind their aesthetic efforts (witness the deeply expressive films of Antonioni or Angelopoulos) or a concrete statement on the limits and capabilities of the medium in question (evidenced by Andy Warhol and Michael Snow’s groundbreaking experiments). Neither concern, Tuttle explains, appears to be at the heart of CCC’s aesthetic interests – extensive visual scrutiny, suppression of outwardly emotional expression and dramatic trajectory – but rather a heightened involvement in the physical and sensory world, removed from any analytical editorializing. Such films encourage a sense of contemplation in the audience, a willingness to abandon conventional modes of movie-watching, of digesting and interpreting films, to instead revel in the seeming emptiness of the natural or synthetic world, which, as verified by the greatest films of the bunch, can uncover an unexpected wealth of rewards that are difficult to put into words.

Tuttle’s exploring and open-ended defining of CCC is not something that should be frowned upon or painstakingly mined for faults, for it is one of the few, if perhaps only, substantial efforts towards contextualizing this cinematic trend that is as worthy of examination as any of the other arguably nebulous trends in film history (Experimental/Avant-Garde Cinema, Cinema Verite, Neorealism). Sure, it’s not something that can be quantified or completely rationalized, but Tuttle will be the first to acknowledge that: “The study of aesthetic movements (productively or in vain) is what Film Theory is all about. You never know beforehand if it was worth your time... Or else past critics would have never discounted in their times the great masterpieces that we acknowledge now.” He can occasionally get rather hostile and reactionary in his impassioned defenses, blithely proclaiming CCC as “the greatest today!” or reducing a storm of opposing viewpoints to “anti-intellectual banter”, but what comes across most potently is a serious apprehension about CCC becoming so marginalized among cinephiles that it would cease to be taken seriously as a formal preoccupation. There’s also a very coherent and very true warning regarding the now-pejorative use of the term “slow”, as well as the uncritical, subjective term “boring”, and how they have polluted a large portion of the film criticism that aims to discuss this current trend. The unregulated backlash against Tuttle’s enthusiasm, spawned by a Nick James editorial in Sight and Sound that denounced CCC for the fact that “sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes not”, as if variability in quality is something new and unacceptable in cinematic tradition, is surely needlessly combative, proof of a competitiveness and antagonism that should not exist in scholarly discussion of movies. As far as I’m concerned, I will remain a passionate defender of great films, regardless of trend associations, and will not blindly gang up against well-informed critical theories.


LEAVES said...

It's easy to dismiss his efforts because he doesn't take the time and effort to analyze his critics with the same fervor he analyzes the films, at which point you would dismiss him for dismissing others' dismissal, which is a long way removed from actually forming an opinion on his stance. What I do know for certain is that many people approach this sort of cinema in a way that, while it may be rewarding for some people, is often hilariously incongruous with the original author's intentions. I find fewer things funnier than watching or reading Bela Tarr respond directly to people talking about his work. They use the word 'outsider', he says, "Outside of what? They're just people, no different from you and I." They reference an endless string of films as influences, he says, "I don't watch films." The important thing in all of this is to realize that each writer is coming from his own point of view, not the author's, and to keep it in such context. Take what you can from them, don't ever take them as speaking for the authors themselves, and extol the work of those you find most interesting, no different from the films themselves, as you emphasize in the bit about 'sometimes worth it sometimes not'. In some cases we may focus on the cultural effects, like if Tuttle became Glenn Beck, but I hardly think that's the case. The more different approaches the better, even if some fail to interest some. In this whole 'art' business the one rule I can hold firm to is that you can only speak for yourself, but you can speak to anyone.

Carson said...

I'd argue that Tuttle actually does take great pains to dissect the critics who misinterpret both him and the cinema he champions. Just read through his painstaking evaluations, which usually name and list each individual point he takes objection to. If anything, Vadim Rizov and Steven Shaviro's rebuttals are very slim in logical, objective reasoning (Shaviro even adds a disclaimer that he will not entertain opposing viewpoints, quite lazy if you ask me.)

As for the popular approach towards contemplative cinema, I think it's unfair to say that there is a uniform falseness in critics' presumptions about authorial intent. Of course, critics never really know what a filmmaker is getting at, or where they are getting their influences, but their willingness to try does not stop at contemplative cinema. Probably very little of what critics actually predict lines up with truth, but if we knew in the first place, the study of film culture would be futile. I don't think it's that disingenuous to infer that Bela Tarr has watched some Tarkovsky in his lifetime.

I wouldn't say that just because there exists an attempt to congregate these so-called "contemplative films" (which is not a term I disagree with) that there is a threat of shoehorning them into one voice, one manner of approach. Godard made very different films than Truffaut, but the two were still allowed to be joined under the same umbrella.

LEAVES said...

He may be a great rebutter, but I'm not really interested in criticism of criticism. It's a bit too Charlie Kaufman for me. I should have phrased it in the hypothetical. Whether he defends them sufficiently is irrelevant, to me. I'd prefer he did less. It can be arduous and unproductive.

I think it's futile to try and guess what the author is thinking, and totally unnecessary. Reading back on what I wrote I seem to have failed to establish the proper context again, but I was thinking about how the people phrased things as in, "This is how Bela does things" instead of "This is how I see things". When Bela says, "Uh, no" to the former, it's just plain poor reporting. When he says it to the latter, it's just differing viewpoints, which I think all sensible people will respect. We have museums full of pieces that we will never be able to glean an ounce of information from the author. This doesn't really prevent any useful or meaningful engagement, I don't think. You already have all you need right in front of you. If you falsely ascribe something to the author instead of to your own feelings, probably purely speculative, it really doesn't matter whether it's true or not. It's an idea, a possibility. Even if it happens to not be the author's intent I find these things to be just as valid. This is why found art works. It's all in the eye of the beholder, not the 'loser'.

I agree that the grouping of films together isn't necessarily restrictive. On the contrary, I was meaning that dismissing Tuttle merely because he groups films, or for any of his other individual viewpoints, seems silly.

I do agree in part with Nick James' assessment that there are fewer details in slower cinema, at least in one sense, which is why I am wholly in favor of 7 hour films (Satantango). 2 hours is often far too little to really develop everything to its fullest extent (this is not limited to slow cinema, either - even 'fast' cinema could benefit from more length if constructed properly. More is more). Instead of 'too slow', however, the problem is 'too little'. His attitude is silly, though, and I don't think we need to expand on that.

HarryTuttle said...

Beautiful post, Carson. Thanks for the support. I hope you will write for Unspoken Cinema again soon.

reporting whatever an author wants you to report is one thing. Which very very interesting in itself. And film theory is another thing, which is the point of view on his Ĺ“uvre by an external eye, with critical tools, with theoretical frameworks.
The influences, direct or indirect, are not limited to what the author watched, or is willing to admit having watched.

It's with readers who "don't care about the rebuttals" that writers can get away with writing bullshit in the press.

Carson said...

"It's with readers who "don't care about the rebuttals" that writers can get away with writing bullshit in the press."

I agree. I don't see how it's unproductive to criticize other critical work. If there was no such thing, there would be no critical discourse, and the best theories we have today would probably not exist because of an overabundance of opinions, informed and uninformed. It's unfair and unhealthy for culture to be done justice to by haphazard writing.

I agree that it's unnecessary to get too caught up on intent in art, because the actual work is more important than what the author would say about it, but I don't really see how this argument lines up with CCC debate. I don't think critics do any more prejudging with CCC films than they do with any other kind of film, Hollywood or otherwise. If anything, on the whole I've noticed a very careful attempt on the part of serious critics to not assume too much about a particular "slow-take" director, Bela Tarr for instance. People caught on to how noncommittal he is.

LEAVES said...

It's one thing to read and assess criticisms of one's own writing, it's another thing to actively write a response, let alone an endless stream from an near limitless supply of sources.

'It's with readers who "don't care about the rebuttals" that writers can get away with writing bullshit in the press.'

I don't see how this is true in any way. Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly are among the most active rebutters you will find in any form of media. It doesn't stop them from putting their bullshit out, it increases their audience of people who believe every word they say, and they're not accountable for anything they do. The illusion that outside opinion has some sort of policing effect on the behavior on an unreasonable figure does not hold up to the evidence, from my point of view. A reasonable person with an interest in portraying an accurate point of view need not actively rebut every or any attacks on his work, especially if they are as specious as some of those that you have pointed out. If this is a need then it creates a bizarre 'filibuster by spamming criticism'. An author who is conscientious of his own work will surely attempt to look at his own work with a critical eye, both his own and from the response of others, but the notion that the work is some sort of castle that must be defended from long range projectiles of all sorts seems absurd, to me. To me an author who, instead of 'not caring about rebuttals', doesn't care about the quality of the work is the one who allows the bullshit to stand. To conflate the rebuttal with the conscientious approach to the work seems to be counterproductive. If the rebuttals are frequent and the 'police' pacified, even through specious arguments, then this to me seems to be a poor system of checks and balances, let alone quality assessment. A rebuttal should only be taken as seriously as its content merits. These complaints seem slight.