Revisiting Slow Cinema

In anticipation of the A Nos Amours screening of Frost on Thursday, filmmaker and A Nos Amours co-founder Adam Roberts explains what slow cinema has to offer.

Adam Roberts

24 May 2013

In anticipation of the A Nos Amours screening of Frost on Thursday, filmmaker and A Nos Amours co-founder Adam Roberts explains what slow cinema has to offer.

Slow cinema has been much discussed, not least by Matthew Flanagan in his 2008 paper Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema and by Jonathan Romney in Sight & Sound in 2010. Slow cinema is typically characterised by use of long shots (long in time), by scenes that are single shots, and by a tendency to sideline narrative purpose. Fred Kelemen’s Frost, to be screened by A Nos Amours at the ICA Cinema on 30 May is all that.

A few questions and thoughts:

How to think of 'a scene'? Most cinema films mark out a change of scene in terms of change of location or a shift to a new temporal zone. Fades, dissolves and the like may be used to accentuate the change if needed. One scene is ending and another beginning. It would seem odd were one scene to end and another begin without any of that. And yet, place and location, time and moment, cannot be taken for granted. We know that several locations can be used to construct a single film place. The ‘cheat’ is common practice. On the other hand, even if two shots match, and were taken in the same location, the cut from one to other can nevertheless signify a change of scene. And of course, an edit suggesting strict continuity can be quite the opposite. Kubrick’s bone can become a space craft.

What of that which lies outside the frame? We may hear something suggesting a world beyond the frame. We may be able to see something in the frame that a character on screen should be able to see but cannot. We can know things that we should not.

What is it that the camera sees? A scene? A location? A place? A moment? A point of view? – whose point of view?

What of a viewer’s imagination, memory and desire? – these surely colour scenes, moments, shots, perhaps in ways not anticipated by the film-maker.

If cinema typically offers rapid change, strong contrast, busy narrative requiring effort by the audience to unpick and comprehend, then the risk of a viewer’s imagination, memory and desire complicating the intended effect is presumably minimised. Indeed, the audience might well complain if not give enough to do so that they don’t feel anything much else is required of them. Contemporary cinema is very generous on this count.

But if the cinema is a slow cinema, as characterised above, then surely there is an invitation to viewer: imagination, memory and desire are welcome. If so, the concept of the ‘scene’ must alter.

‘Scene’ surely is about exchange and interplay. That is to say that it is about inclusion/exclusion, about before and after, about building a sense of belonging, of a building with walls, of the making of a refuge. ‘Scene’ consolidates a sense of contrast with the open place beyond itself - outside, outdoors, unmapped regions, and the the risk of infinity. A scene presumably derives from work done, of process, of encirclement and domestication. A sense, in short, of place.

If the scene is explored slowly, that is by proposing a physical exploration by exhaustive looking or moving about, then presumably we might feel that we know the facts of place. Thinking of the slow dolly shot in Antonioni’s The Passenger (an early example of ‘slow’), the camera slips through the bars of a window, then turns to reveal the bars still in place, with no sign of how such a thing could be.  The facts we apprehend in this way are that there is a man asleep on a bed in a room, with bars on its window, with open space beyond, and that the man inside is vulnerable to inevitable fate that even bars cannot stave off (indeed an assassin arrives and presumably does his work). A quick sequence of shots would deny us that complex revelation. Fate is slow.

To look at things in a different way: if film is fast, then there are many cuts, and the shots will tend to be very short (and are getting shorter all the time). Narrative and story move by rapid beats. This to suggest that work is being done - which we approved of, assuming we believe that work is all to the good. Is the impression of structured thought, of a carefully orchestrated unveiling, essential for the experience of comfortable time? If no such comfort is readily available, will a viewer feel abandoned, increasingly anxious? After all, I have invested time, spent my time on the film. I expect a return on my investment.  If I spend my time needlessly, and suspect that I being asked to donate my time, my thought, my memory, my imagination, for free, without a sense of transaction and value for money, is such a film a cheat? An empty or redundant gesture? Is it worthless?

To crave a place to have been made is a simple human need; we don’t want to find placelessness.

Slow cinema has a special relationship to the human frame and to its movement in a landscape. In ‘fast cinema’ editing and framing typically cuts up movements and bodies into what are taken to be significant components. Sequences are constructed to draw attention to ‘essentials’, what counts in a moment or action. The body and its articulations are cut up, dissected; the task is to accent and emphasise. Even if the purpose is to build suspense, like Zeno’s Arrow, never to achieve the goal, the essence of the situation must be all that is revealed. To fail in this fundamental respect will draw criticism: the audience is at risk of becoming bored.

In slow cinema on the other hand, human movement is often ponderously observed. There is a significant move away from accent or emphasis. The rate of change, the speed for example of men walking, often determines the activity or inactivity of the camera. The framing is often wide (a necessity perhaps of keeping images steady and in focus when moving the camera, as so often it must to keep pace). The frame takes in whole bodies, following their explorations doggedly. To put it one way, what is encapsulated is endlessness - open ended spans of time, with deliberate action or inaction given deliberate, inexhaustible attention, eroding any sense of urgency, or of a threat beyond the frame. The physical fact of a locality is what we notice. The filmmaker's traditional imperative, that he/she select and choose is eroded. So too the priority of inclusion over exclusion, and of the essential boundedness of a film. In place of the fortress that is the shot and the scene, we are cast out into a perilous infinite. Slow cinema offers no destination. We are already there - or we are nowhere. We are not offered an easy sense of getting anywhere.

Interaction in slow cinema can be witnessed without invoking a sense of transaction or of conflict. Opposing tendencies can co-exist. There is time and space to do so. The Darwinian imperative of fast cinema (who will prevail? how will the obstacle be overcome?) is redundant. This is of course a kind of romanticism, where contrasted pairs may complement one another, parts balance beautifully, opposites attract, harmony prevail. Plausibility and legibility - those constant demands made of ‘fast cinema’ – are replaced by a simple authenticity that is given because the constant physical fact of a place or location is justification in itself. In slow cinema, place abides.

For me, slow cinema opens up unforeseeable vistas, even when the situation is a familiar one. I can rediscover the strangeness of the familiar. The need for structures to be built is replaced by a sense of scale. I find the limit of the concept of ‘scene’ when slow cinema explores (unlimited) space. Fast cinema, with its necessary engagement with the locus of action and moment, and its constant need to build, necessarily blocks this other awareness. Fast cinema is necessarily about limitation, exclusion, fortification.

To conclude: the potential of the slow, the durational, is undeniable. It invokes a fresh sense of the act of making, of coming into being, and is a proper response to the challenge of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. ‘Slow’ resists commodification, because it resists the idea of work being done. Slow can be good.

Adam Roberts

Filmmaker and co-founder of A Nos Amours


Frost screens on Thursday 30 May at 7pm.

This article is posted in: Articles, Blog, Film