Monday, 18 January 2010

In Praise of Slow

In the latest issue of Sight & Sound (Volume 20, Issue 2), Jonathan Romney 'examines the appeal' of so-called 'Slow Cinema'. In his piece In Search of Lost Time, Romney posits that the 'founding texts of current Slow Cinema' are seen by some as being Béla Tarr's seminal Sátántangó (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, and my film of the last decade). Although I am never one to dispute any praise of Tarr (who is, in my opinion, the greatest living filmmaker), I believe that it's possible to see if not a 'founding' text then at least a forerunner of the current wave of Slow Cinema as early as the 1960s. I am, of course, talking about Carl Th. Dreyer's Gertrud. So many of the tenets that Romney describes for Slow Cinema began with, and were at the time heavily criticised in, Gertrud. For instance, when Romney writes 'poetic, contemplative – cinema that downplays event in favour of mood...[in which] you become acutely aware of every minute, every second spent watching', he could very well be talking about Gertrud, and when he states that these films 'make cinema akin to statuary', it is as if he is using language purposely designed for Gertrud.

I suppose my point in saying all this is not that Gertrud was the spark that lit the flame of Slow Cinema, but merely that Dreyer can once again be seen as being years ahead of his time (perhaps unsurprising for the finest artist the cinema has ever produced).

While I'm on the subject of Dreyer and Slow Cinema, I must admit to still being surprised by the amount of praise repeatedly being heaped on
Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, a film which I struggle to see as more than, at best, a mediocre art film, and at worst, an insult to Dreyer. Whereas Ordet spends almost two hours devoted to creating the atmosphere and tone necessary to make its miracle truly miraculous in every way, Reygadas simply transposes that film's ending with seemingly little understanding, and certainly without any power or effect. With Gerry, Gus Van Sant showed that it was possible to channel a master filmmaker (in that case Tarr) and still come up with an original, inspiring piece of work. But not so with Silent Light. It's not even the fact that Reygadas borrowed the ending of Ordet wholesale that I find so offensive: it's the fact that he made the ending so out of place and drained it of its power.

I was once told on good authority that, after Silent Light's premiere at Cannes, Reygadas denied even knowing what Ordet was (though I do have to admit I haven't verified this, trusting as I do the authority who told it to me). However, by the time I saw the film at the London Film Festival, Reygadas had changed his story to something along the lines of 'I had a story that I didn't know how to end and I've always liked the ending of Ordet'. Whether this is in fact the case of a filmmaker downplaying his own process and refusing to admit self-awareness for his creative decisions is hard to say, but it's also very hard to swallow. Whatever the real reason for Reygadas' lifting of Ordet's ending (and even his admirers have to admit it is a straight-out lift and not a reference), the fact remains that without the steady hand of Dreyer driving the feature-length build up to the shattering conclusion, it simply doesn't work. When I saw Silent Light at London, I so desperately wanted to like it, to love it, yet I found nothing except an empty shell.

Thankfully, I had my DVD of Ordet waiting at home to restore my faith in the power of cinema.

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