Learning to Love Slow Cinema

Manohla Dargis recently wrote a wonderful piece in The New York Times that explores the notion that some people will reject movies of a slow, difficult nature simply because they lack a certain level of experience with these types of films.  Indeed, these films are told in a cinematic language that differs greatly from the narrative-driven language to which most people are accustomed.  Dargis writes:

Maybe some moviegoers who reject difficult films don’t […] have the necessary expertise and database patterns to understand (or stick with) these movies. When they watch them, they’re effectively (frustrated) beginners and don’t like that feeling.

In preparation for her essay, Dargis emailed the great film theorist and historian David Bordwell, who suggests to her in his response that when a shot in a film is “distant or prolonged–we can’t so easily apply our narrative schemas.”

He continues:

If you don’t have other schemas in your mental kit, your perception is just lost. As you suggest, the viewer has to retune her perception.

Once you do, if the filmmaker is skillful, all kinds of stuff open up. To me Bela Tarr movies have tremendous suspense! It’s like learning to enjoy brushwork in an abstract painting.

Bordwell, on his own blog, reads Dargis’s piece as another response to Dan Kois’s infamous “Cultural Vegetables” essay:

She suggests that Kois’ response isn’t wholly based on taste. It may stem from literally not knowing how to look at certain kinds of movies.

Of course, in my own response to Kois’s essay, I give Kois the benefit of the doubt:

So it’s not that he dislikes all slow films; perhaps it’s just that the subjects he most enjoys and finds most interesting are more commonly explored through films that happen to utilize a faster cinematic language.  It’s difficult to say with certainty, but it makes a certain amount of sense.

I stand by my conclusion that it might really just be a matter of taste for Kois.  However, as I concede, it’s difficult to say with certainty.  But whether or not Dargis’s and Bordwell’s ideas are applicable to Kois, they are surely applicable to a vast majority of cinemagoers.

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the philosopher David Hume writes: “Custom, then, is the great guide to human life.”  In other words, we learn only through our recurrent experiences.  Thus, only by repeatedly experiencing films that utilize a slow, austere cinematic language will we be able to learn how to appreciate them and, as Dargis writes, “find pleasure in unlocking their meanings.”

Bordwell summarizes it this way:

Not all austere movies are good, but viewers who want to expand their cinematic horizons should consider the possibility of learning to look at certain movies differently. Kois can’t see that; he thinks that people who like the movies that bore him are usually phonies. But I believe that some of those admirers have developed a repertory of viewing habits that adjust to different cinematic traditions. If you can like both Stravinsky and rock and roll, why can’t you like Hou and Spielberg?

In conclusion, for those of you who want to learn to appreciate slow movies but tend to avoid them, not so much as a matter of taste but because you are unfamiliar with them and unsure how to read them, don’t give up.  Learning to understand these films, as Bordwell points out, “takes more practice, and perhaps some instruction from critics,” but in the end, it will certainly be worth your effort.

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One thought on “Learning to Love Slow Cinema

  1. i took up creative writing in college, and a considerable part of our curriculum was watching underground cinema or what you may call art films. most of the required was local, but i learned to watch international as well. i guess when you step inside the movie house to watch a non-mainstream movie, you need to change your mindset and prepare yourself for a different kind of experience.i find that great storytelling can be achieved whether the pace is fast or slow, it’s a matter of whether the audience can relate to it or how open minded they are to consume it. either way, the skillfulness of the filmmaker will always be appreciated.

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