Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Why You Should Know Slow ‘Joe’

By  · Published on July 13th, 2010

There has been a heated debate happening in the world of art cinema criticism, from the printed words of Sight and Sound to the blogspots of grad students, about the status and function of a continually dominating aesthetic known as slow cinema. The discussion basically goes like this: on one hand, slow cinema is a rare, unique and truly challenging methodological approach to film that exists to push the boundaries and expectations of plot and pacing to an extreme antithetical to expectations conditioned by mainstream filmmaking, disrupting the norm by presenting a cinema that focuses on details and mood – in a way that only cinema can – rather than narrative; on the other hand, slow cinema has become such an established and familiar formal approach witnessed in art houses and (especially) film festivals (like Cannes, where such films are repeatedly lauded and rewarded) that they have devolved into a paint-by-numbers approach to get an “in” into such venues rather than a sincere exploration of the potentialities of cinematic expression, and furthermore the repeated celebration of slow cinema devalues the medium’s equal potential to manipulate time by condensing it or speeding it up (‘fast’ cinema).

As I expressed in my discussion about Syndechdoche, New York with Dr. Cole Abaius on Sunday’s Reject Radio, cinema is unique in its ability to control time both ways: elongation and reduction. In interest of full disclosure, I for one am – for the most part – a fan of slow cinema, as I’ve expressed in two articles last fall, so it should be no surprise that I fall in the former category in this debate. As pervasive as slow cinema may be within the international import of select arthouse subcultures, its aesthetic remains continually challenging to the status quo of filmic expression (it’s just as shocking, potentially alienating, and unconventional now as it was during the life of Andrei Tarkovsky), and it represents, more importantly, a means for the camera to fixate expressionistically on details previously overlooked as well as engage in cinema’s ability to miraculously stop time altogether. Also, a celebration of slow cinema does not inherently bring with it a denunciation of those artists who engage in the medium’s opposite capability to manipulate time: the kinetic energy of Goodfellas or The Bourne Supremacy are just as uniquely cinematic as the stillness of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman or Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.

And if it’s true (and it very well may be) that slow cinema represents an open gate into the cultural currency of the arthouse world, then it is, in turn, a way for international audiences to get access to films from countries who previously had no presence on the world market. For filmmakers from countries like Iran or Thailand, to get a film into any Western cinematheque is something of a breakthrough (albeit within the supposed confined rules of the established gates of artistic legitimacy).

Complicating the slow cinema debate, however, is the elusive definition of what a slow film is and what it does. Adrian Martin gives a refreshingly straightforward definition of the term: “long takes (up to ten minutes), static camera, big distance between the camera its human subjects, and a lot of the banality of daily life, such as walking, eating, or just plain mooching around.” But what formal properties identify slow cinema is very different from what it accomplishes. There are many characteristic traces within arthouses of slow cinema’s signifying traits (the extreme long takes of Steve McQueen’s Hunger or in the films of Michael Haneke, films by Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick), but other aspects of these films’ respective aesthetic approaches prevent them from being adequately defined as uniformly ‘slow.’

There is also the argument that slow cinema lends itself to a type of social realism, as such films often concern themselves with the banality of the everyday as well and with characters residing in those cinematically underrepresented margins of society, but even this argument feels like the resurrection of Andre Bazin’s antiquated ghost championing the “pure” long-take cinema of Italian Neo-Realism or French Poetic Realism, an argument only selectively applicable in the contemporary slow cinema landscape to, say, the socially conscious 90s cinema of Zhang Yimou or cutesy manipulative “realism” of Iran’s Majid Majidi. There is nothing about slow cinema that inherently reflects how we experience reality. In fact, it often works alternatively, as slow cinema occasionally achieves a hypnotic, even surreal aesthetic (and life itself often seems more fast-paced than, say, the events of a Bela Tarr or Alexsandr Sokurov movie). Furthermore, the argument regarding an alleged push towards social realism (implying, in turn, a push towards ‘national cinema’) or the utilization of slow cinema as a means to enter the art market encounters contradiction with the fact that many celebrated ‘slow’ filmmakers are, in fact, rejected by their home countries (Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami).

Filmmakers who have been discussed under this rubric include Philippe Garrel, Chantal Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos, Pedro Costa, Kiarostami, Tarr, Sokurov, Carlos Reygadas, Jia Zhang-ke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Kim Ki-duk, and Lisandro Alonso. With every ‘slow’ filmmaker comes a different brand of slow cinema, so if there can be any fruitful discussion of the merits of this formal approach, it can only occur on a case-by-case basis. Which brings me to Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (often nicknamed with the more accessible moniker “Joe”), who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in May for his film Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall His Past Lives. Joe is one of the international arthouse scene’s most celebrated contemporary slow filmmakers, and one whose name pops up frequently in this debate. While I haven’t seen Uncle Boonmee yet, I did delve into his three other narrative features to examine and experience his unique aesthetic with respect to the larger slow cinema discussion.

Blissfully Yours (2002)

Blissfully Yours establishes Joe’s approach to slow-filmmaking as deliberately anti-realist without being overtly bizarre or abstract. The strangeness of Joe’s approach through the slow meticulous of images (and, along the way, semblances of story and character derived only from the juxtaposition of these images) comes about with appropriate subtlety as we are often veiled – as is the case in this story of a young and attractive Burmese immigrant (Roong) with a rare skin rash being taken care of by his Thai girlfriend (Min) and troubled maternal stand-in (Orn) – from fully or immediately understanding who these characters are or what motivates their seemingly unmotivated decisions (Orn’s prolonged wearing of a surgical mask that she found on the ground, for instance). The explicit sexual nature of the film, the decision to put the beginning credit sequence right in the middle of the film, and the placement of Roong’s drawings and writings onscreen are odd and unconventional formal decisions, but none disrupt the serene and reflective pace of a film that so thoroughly establishes its lugubrious tone that it exists only through the odd logic established within its alien cinematic microcosm. Blissfully Yours establishes Joe as a filmmaker who sees the strict attention to detail and mood needed to make a good slow film as not antithetical to an experimental and even whimsical playfulness with form.

Tropical Malady (2004)

Tropical Malady sees Joe’s signature ‘split-narrative’ approach to slow cinema hard at work. A film whose first half is occupied by the story of a homosexual romance between a young soldier named Keng and a farmhand named Tong abruptly shifts at the film’s halfway mark to an adaptation of Thai folklore which finds the same actors playing completely different roles – the actor who played Keng portraying a lone soldier who is hunting down the mysterious, haunting spirit of a tiger shaman played by the same actor who portrayed Tong. It’s a strange and unexpected tonal shift, but one preserved by Joe’s careful handling of the material, and it’s fascinating to see slow cinema (an approach to form previously thought to have been inherently tied to social realism) engage in the supernatural and the surreal, and Joe’s control of mood and subtlety with this odd and challenging material presents a perfect transition point between his first (a mood-based trip through the woods) and third (structured similarly in two acts) features. Like the fact that a given shot (no matter how long) isn’t as meaningful without the shot that came before or after, Joe’s experimental split-narrative approach allows what seem like two completely separate stories to reflect upon and converse with each other. Joe’s films truly represent an inimitable brand of controlled experimentation.

Syndromes and a Century (2007)

Syndromes and a Century is Joe’s masterpiece as far as my experience of his filmography thus far goes. His experimentation, masterful control over pace, preoccupation with intriguing and occasionally bizarre details, and beautiful photography all coalesce here into an astonishing, brilliant, and complete cinematic vision. For Joe, slow cinema operates on a logic all its own, free from the constraints of mainstream narrative filmmaking, and likewise Syndromes takes joy in a deliberate dream logic, being the story of a doctor’s relationship with those around her that finds different results within two alternative settings: a military camp in rural Thailand, and the uber-modern metropolis of Bangkok. The film is an exploration of how our circumstances and the settings in which we live determine the human connections we make and miss in every day life, using a two-act structure to manifest two alternative universes not bound by typical cinematic logic of time and continuity, a reflection of an atypical cinematic logic that is potentially explored in all slow cinema. Syndromes also thankfully doesn’t juxtapose its rural/urban setting in terms of the tired thematic cliché of metropolitan alienation, showing that genuine human connections can be made and missed in either location, instead simply substituting the beautiful greens of the Thai countryside for the intriguing angles of modern architecture. Syndromes and a Century is slow cinema at its most immersive and compelling.

Final Thoughts

Slow cinema should be approached on a case-by-case basis, assessing how each filmmaker uses this aesthetic choice to achieve their particular artistic or thematic ends. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is simply one of many contemporary filmmakers who use the deliberate pace to achieve something unique and challenging. For whatever its motivation or outcome, slow cinema is still one of many formal choices that challenge cinematic convention, and films like Joe’s stand as evidence of the potential achievement slow cinema can encounter. For further reading on the subject, check out articles on slow cinema by Zach Campbell, Matthew Flanagan, Steven Shaviro, and Harry Tuttle.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

Related Topics: