Slow Cinema

The story of cinema is the story of excitement. One of the first movies projected was of a train pulling into a station. The directors placed the camera on the edge of the platform, making it look like the train was coming right for the audience. It worked and viewers dove out of their chairs to avoid being run over.

Ever since, filmmakers have been hurtling cameras up, down, and across every possible directional axis in an attempt to recreate that primal reaction. 

Slow cinema does the exact opposite—it subverts expectations by withholding dramatics and embracing stasis. 

Sátántangó is one of the exemplary work of slow cinema (if not the exemplary work.) It’s 450 minutes of long takes and repetitive action. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? It is, but by design. When you watch a dynamic image bursting with energy and excitement, you think about that image, and only that image. But what do you think about when you watch an image with nothing happening? Does your attention remain on the screen, or does it turn inward—searching the nooks and crannies of your consciousness? 

Maybe a better word would be “meditative.” Twenty-first-century viewers have been so accustomed to images that they gobble them up in fractions of a second. Slow cinema retards that consumption, expands it and forces viewers to reconsider what they are seeing and the speed they see it. It’s like reciting a mantra: The words take on a different meaning after you’ve uttered them 100 times.

These movies require patience, but they also reward it. If the world seems too chaotic and hectic, even while your sitting still, give one of these a watch and see if they don’t slow things down.

Twin Peaks: The Return The first two seasons of Twin Peaks were the oddest things on network television. But, as time passed, oddity became quirk, deadpan humor became meme, and FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s unflappable honesty became comforting. Twenty-five years after the show was canceled, David Lynch and Mark Frost reteamed for a third season, and the result was less a TV show and more an 18-hour movie. Using stillness, repetition, and experimental techniques, Twin Peaks: The Return is about as commercial as slow cinema gets.

Solaris (Солярис) Critic and filmmaker Paul Schrader calls Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky “the tipping point in the movement toward slow cinema.” His nearly three-hour psychological science fiction film Solaris is among the greatest movies ever made, and changes every time you see it. What appears to be hubris to an 18-year-old viewer’s eyes fossilizes into understandable loneliness 30 years later. It’s as if the film is a living, thinking thing: A reflection of what you want when you need it.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da) A prosecutor, a police commissioner, a doctor, and a murderer are searching for a body. The murderer is trying to cooperate, but he can’t remember where he dug the grave. Car headlights carve away the darkness surrounding the Anatolian town of Keskin while seconds turn into minutes, minutes into hours. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time is as meditative as it is methodical, stunningly photographed, and as existentially provocative as anything Albert Camus ever wrote.

Manakamana Running a (relatively) brisk 118 minutes, Manakamana documents worshipers on the gondola ride up the Nepalese mountains to the Manakamana temple. As the people go up, the camera goes with them. When the people go down, so does the camera. And in a twist of beautiful contradiction, the camera stays perfectly still inside a moving vehicle. Slow cinema doesn’t get much slower than this.


The above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 27, No. 37, “What to do when there’s ‘nothing’ to do…

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