by Ashley Naftule
“It’s so slow.” That’s one of the most common and damning critiques you can hear about a movie – that it’s slow. Slow is often used as a synonym for boring. Telling someone that a film is slow is probably the quickest and most effective way to convince them NOT to see it.
That aversion makes sense: slowness is in short supply in our culture. We watch cartoons growing up, which are all about rapid movement. Hollywood films likewise eschew slowness as often as possible; the story templates that screenwriters treat as gospel from tomes like Save The Cat and Robert McKee’s Story don’t leave a lot of dead air in films. It’s all about moving the pieces on to the next plot beat, the next destination in the Hero’s Journey. There’s no time to settle into one place for a spell and stretch things out.
To some degree, slowness has become less of dirty word lately. You can see it in the growing popularity of slow cooking and Slow Art Day – the whole notion of deliberate living, disconnected from 24-7 digital connectivity. Prestige TV has also made the case for slowing down: shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and the Twin Peaks revival (more on that later) have used long, drawn-out scenes to striking effect.
And yet the stigma of slow cinema persists. What is it about a “slow” film that upsets people?
Back in April, Exploded View Microcinema in Tucson hosted a screening of Andy Warhol’s “Empire”, an eight-hour long film composed entirely of a POV shot on the Empire State building. I interviewed David Sherman, one of the folks who runs Exploded View, about how & why they were doing the screening. While talking about the film, he likened it to having a “visual drone experience”, how the sustained repetition of the imagery could put you in an interesting head-space.
Drone is normally a concept we apply to music. Whether it’s the exotic drones of a sitar medley or the eternal music sawed out on string instruments by Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young, the idea of a handful of notes being stretched out to flirt with infinity has been an enduring one in modern music.
Slowness isn’t as much a liability for music as it is for film. Entire genres of music have focused on slowing things down, from the warped syrupy beats of chopped & screwed music to the glacial guitar picking of slowcore. Perhaps the most powerful expression of slowness in music is in the noise/metal scenes, where groups like Thou and Sunn O))) create heavy music that seems to reverberate and brutalize without end. It’s in the intense drones of their music that the thing about slowness that scares us is revealed: slowness is INTENSITY.
A slow doom metal song gains its power, its overwhelming sense of size and aggression, from its intensely slow tempo. It’s the musical equivalent of watching an avalanche growing in size as it sweeps down a mountainside. It’s also what makes slowcore and other contemplative musical styles so entrancing: the slowness encourages scrutiny, demands that you pay attention to whatever minuscule elements are in play. There’s nothing to ignore, no excesses to gloss over. It forces an engagement with you in ways that a faster piece can’t – you can breathe in time with a slow piece of work.
Visual drones work on a similar level: slow scenes are calculated, deliberately crafted to elicit responses out of the viewer. Consider the way Godard uses “boring” scenes in his film (like the pontificating garbage men and the piano break in Weekend). Even in his more “pop” films, Godard occasionally inserts long, didactic scenes that seem to be going out of their way to bore you. They’re more than just Brechtian alienation devices – they’re an integral part of the rhythm of his films.
I used to resent those scenes when I first started watching his movies, but I came to appreciate them for the same reason that I appreciate a DJ at a dance night dropping slower songs into the mix: it gives you a moment to pause, reflect on the night, and gives you time to catch your breath.
One of the masters of this kind of visual droning is Tarkovsky. In Solaris and Stalker, the Russian director interrupts both of his sci-fi narratives with looooong travel sequences. In the former, it’s the long car ride that climaxes with a trip into the depths of space; in the latter, it’s the long journey out of our world into the seclusion of The Zone.
What makes these sequences standout is how long and dull they are. The driving scene in Solaris seems like it’ll never end. There isn’t much in the way of variation in what’s transpiring onscreen; it mirrors perfectly the tedium and repetition of travel. It’s the kind of traveling you DON’T see in movies. Movie travel is full of mishaps and quips and interesting layovers. Travel in real life is what we see in Tarkovsky’s film: it’s often lonely, boring, and features scenery that seems to recycle itself. It can make you feel like you’re a record needle trapped in an infinite groove, waiting for a blessed skip to put you on a different track.
Watching these travel scenes creates an interesting effect in that they evoke a feeling of exhaustion in the viewer that is almost exactly like the feeling you get at the end of a flight or long road trip. The sudden weird lurch in your stomach when you realize that after a long journey through nothing you’re now somewhere else, and how that awareness can be profoundly disorienting. The actors onscreen don’t need to work at showing how arduous and tiring it was to get to space, to sneak inside The Zone: we can FEEL their weariness in our bones.
The slowness of the travel scenes gives the space station and The Zone weight, authority, authenticity. They feel like genuinely “other” spaces because of how long it took us to get to them. The slow travel scenes also act as bifurcations, separating both films into two sections: Earth & Elsewhere.
Pedro Costa uses slowness as a kind of quicksand in his movies. Consider his beautiful and glacially paced Colossal Youth. The slowness of the film creates a sense of desperation and oppression. The film doesn’t just show you poverty and struggle – it makes you feel what it’s like to live like that. The way time slows down to cruel dimensions when you have nowhere to go, nothing to eat, no momentum to pull you out of the hole you’re wallowing in. The slowness of his film matches the slowness of the community, the culture, his camera is documenting. His film is their inertia.
Slowness is also a horror master’s secret weapon. Look at the work of David Lynch. His films are full of languorous, slow moments. The slowness is where dread seeps into the frame, where tension builds up. We hate slowness because it disturbs us in the same way that dark rooms and silence bother us: it’s the feeling that at any moment something terrible can inhabit those spaces. When Lynch goes slow on the big or small screen, it creates the feeling that ANYTHING can happen.
And lest we think of visual droning and slowness as solely the province of Big Serious Movies, it’s also something that can be used to masterful effect in comedy – the good old Duration Gag. Speaking of Lynch – look at how he uses his slow style to hilarious effect in the new Twin Peaks. He shoots a five minute scene with Michael Cera as “Wally Brando” that goes on and on. As the scene crawls on, it gets funnier and funnier. Not just from Cera’s commitment to playing such a goofy character, but from the occasional reaction shots of Robert Forster as the poor bastard forced to endure Brando’s monologue. Without that long length, Forster’s resigned face wouldn’t be as hilarious.
This is a principle that Jacques Tati often used in his films. In Playtime, his camera would linger on long takes, watching different characters and mishaps interact to create a Rube Goldberg chain of chaotic comedy. The restaurant scene towards the end of the film is a masterclass in patient comedy, as Tati takes his slow, sweet time populating the restaurant with characters and letting them wreck the place. Like Godard and Lynch, Tati would let things go on for so long that your ass would start to itch and you’d start to think about your dinner plans – and then, WHAM! The punchline hits. The avalanche rolls over you. The visual drone lulls you into a serene, passive state, and then the comedy/scare jolts you back to life.
Don’t be afraid of slow movies. They’re not all trying to bore you; most of them are trying to fuck you up.