Wastrels of Time: Slow Cinema's Laboring Body, the Political Spectator, and the Queer

By Schoonover, Karl | Framework, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Wastrels of Time: Slow Cinema's Laboring Body, the Political Spectator, and the Queer


Schoonover, Karl, Framework


Across a sixty- year trajectory, many art films have stubbornly confronted viewers with slowness. From the perspective of classical Hollywood, these chunks of fallow film time "overspend," upset, or even foreclose on the continuity system's prized narrative economy, replacing eventfulness with an unproductive episodic meandering. From Antonioni to Apichatpong, these art films also encourage us to consider how watching wasted screen time differs from wasting time in real life. In doing so, this slower kind of film proposes the possibility that cinema can capture excess as a temporality. Although not all art house fare can be labeled slow, I speculate here that valorizing slowness characterizes one crucial sociopo liti cal pa ram e ter of art cinema's consumption. In the idea of a spectator who recognizes the value of slowness, I believe we can discover something of the art film's historicity.1 The slow art film anticipates a spectator not only eager to clarify the value of wasted time and uneco nom ical temporalities but also curious about the impact of broadening what counts as productive human labor. This fact makes any slow film pertinent to the question of queer repre sen ta tion, and it asks us to consider what it might mean to be productively queer.

Last year, however, Sight and Sound editor Nick James took aim at the contemporary art house trend toward "slow cinema."2 In a short but scathing editorial, James interrogates what he sees as a critical bias undermining the rigor of film criticism and the very basis of film aesthetics. He offers a blistering set of accusations motivated by a fear that slow films hinder our ability to appreciate Hollywood narrative, dulling our capacity for attention and diminishing our mental acumen. Unlike the noble "slow food" movement, in which aesthetic authenticity arises from patient and sustainable modes of preparation, slow filmmaking is a "passive aggressive" crusade that lulls its viewers into complacency by asking them to dwell excessively in image and squandering "great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and po liti cal effects." According to James, the indulgent wastefulness of films like those by Pedro Costa or Tsai Ming- Liang makes for lazy viewers. He is making a dig here at many of the world's most visible and institutionally positioned film critics, for whom slower is better, more profound, artier. He reflects, "I have begun to wonder if maybe some of [today's slow films] now offer an easy life for critics and programmers. After all, the festivals themselves commission many of these productions, and such films are easy to remember and discuss in detail because details are few." While these statements infuriated many scholars, critics, and filmmakers, there is also a productive conceptual terrain mapped by this description. James imagines a mutually beneficial equation: a conspiracy between filmmakers and critics, and a broader collaboration of the slow filmic image with its viewer. Like a counterpart to Linda Williams's "body genre," the slow film's wallowing image invokes an indulgent temporality in this viewer.

Not only James but also slow cinema's other detractors invert the classic formulation of the art cinema criticism that began with neorealism and its most vocal supporter, André Bazin.3 For Bazin and many of his followers, the slower the shot and the greater the sense of unfettered, living duration, or durée, the greater the effort required of the spectator. This dilation of time encourages a more active and po liti cally present viewing practice- an enagement commended for the intensity of its perception. Seeing becomes a form of labor. The critical campaign against current slow cinema denies the po litical potential of this Bazinian mode of spectating and calls into question whether watching slow films "is worth it." James's editorial thus ends with an admission that sounds like a call to arms: "I'll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion.

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