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.