Back in the summer of 2007, a friend and I rented a couple movies: the Chris Rock comedy I Think I Love My Wife (which was improbably based on Éric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon) and Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us. I assumed that the Chris Rock movie would be vastly inferior but, given the narrative propulsion of most Hollywood movies and the charisma of its star, writer, and director, at least entertaining and intermittently funny. I expected the Kiarostami film, meanwhile, to be masterful, majestic, and thought-provoking but occasionally trying on one's patience. These presumptions were the result of the binary ways of thinking that many critics, distributors, and filmmakers have subscribed to over the years: movies are quick and fun and entertaining, films are substantial and artful but slow. I was surprised on that day in 2007 to find that I Think I Love My Wife was interminably dull, filled with desperate jokes and a story that failed to engender any sympathy or interest, while The Wind Will Carry Us was ravishing and riveting, each shot populated with sparks of beauty and uniqueness, all of its 118 minutes stuffed with ideas on technology, communication, the concept of home, what it means to be alive. In short, the Kiarostami film was infinitely more entertaining than the Chris Rock comedy, which was meant almost entirely to provide a fun diversion.
A lot of critics have written about "slow cinema," an extremely loose and vague description that arguably began with some of Carl Theodor Dreyer's austere late-career endeavors (Ordet in 1955, Gertrud in 1964) and runs through Andrei Tarkovsky, Andy Warhol, Chantal Akerman, Béla Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Lav Diaz, and many others. Such films, even when they contain a narrative, de-emphasize the rapidity and clarity with which stories are told in mainstream cinema, placing great focus on character, theme, and aesthetic style. They frequently feature lengthy takes, minimal cutting, and a spare or nonexistent musical score. Not coincidentally, most of the filmmakers listed above are not American, as most movies made in this country (even so-called independent ones) follow the rubric laid down by Hollywood: narrative is the prime vocation of cinema, and if the story lags, the filmmakers aren't doing their job.
It should be self-evident how reductive this view of cinema is, but it bears repeating that the overemphasis on narrative in the ways movies are made, marketed, and evaluated is unfair and tyrannical. This is still the expectation that many viewers (and certainly producers) have when encountering new works of cinema: What's it about? Spinning a famous Tarkovsky quote, the critic Geoff Dyer stated (with glib provocation), "What people go to the cinema for is a good time, not waiting for something to happen." Paul Schrader, who started off as a film critic analyzing the "transcendental style" of filmmakers like Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, recently stated that "the novelty has worn off" for slow cinema, but claimed that with First Reformed (which has a relatively quick-moving plot) he asked himself, "How can we use boredom to the best effect?" The emphasis is on boredom, on nothing happening, though with both descriptions nothing could be further from the truth.
The ways in which some critics try to endorse "slow cinema" are revealing. The titles of two well-known New York Times articles on this subject (both from 2011) are revealing: "In Defense of Slow and Boring" and "Sometimes a Vegetable is Just a Vegetable: Critics discuss cinema that's good for you." The former article was written by the Times' movie critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, in response to a column by Dan Kois about the guilt he feels for not liking "slow-moving, meditative", "stately, austere" movies. Thankfully, Dargis counters that cineplexes are chock full of "junk food" that Kois could enjoy instead (and which, like I Think I Love My Wife, provide their own grueling boredom). She also stresses that movies like Satantango or Jeanne Dielman, masterpieces of "slow cinema" that teem with silence and solemnity, provide room for mental meanderings and formal experimentation that are more entertaining than the ceaseless special effects and reckless storylines that Hollywood marketers tell us are cinema's forte. Her colleague Scott, meanwhile, crucially reminds us that this bias against "art films" in the United States is in part a result of the attempt to maintain the corporate status quo, something that America arguably does better than any other country in the world.
"Sometimes a Vegetable is Just a Vegetable" isa roundtable (to use the word loosely) featuring Kois, Dargis, and Scott published two weeks after the aforementioned piece. It's fascinating to read the passive-aggressive barbs flung between these writers in the guise of intellectual civility. Critics take taste (too) personally, Kois argues, and in the media-saturated world in which we live, viewers no longer have the energy to consume (such an ugly word) everything that's out there. (An even better reason, I would say, to favor the bold, unique, thought-provoking, challenging.) Scott and Dargis rightfully respond that thinking in narrow categories and assuming that certain kinds of movies can only do certain things is simplistic and limits the amount of enjoyment (and joy) to be gotten from movies. Fairly often, articles like these seem like a self-perpetuating rhetorical machine (and I realize I might be contributing to that now), but the emphasis on both sides of the argument is that these slow-moving, arthouse "cultural vegetables" won't provide audiences with a good time, but their souls will somehow be nourished in the process.
Two new releases (at least, new in Minneapolis) reminded me yet again that we need to change the way we think about slow cinema (i.e., leisurely paced movies that are not beholden to their narratives). Jia Zhangke, the Chinese director whose early films like Platform (2000) and The World (2004) exemplify slow cinema, has been diverting from this style somewhat with crime-themed movies like A Touch of Sin (2013) and his newest, Ash is Purest White (2019); but the latter clocks in at 136 minutes and frequently indulges in diversions that have nothing to do with the plot, such as it exists. Similarly, The Wild Pear Tree, the newest film from Palme d'Or-winning Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is more than three hours and meanders alongside its aimless young protagonist, placing the emphasis on marathon stretches of dialogue and a careful elaboration of a frustrated state of mind. They're both among the best films I've seen so far in 2019. But, more to the point, they're both entertaining and exciting for most of their running times, only in ways that American audiences are not told they should enjoy movies.
In its broad plot outline, Ash is Purest White sounds like it could be made by a Tarantino acolyte: a woman named Qiao (the hypnotic Zhao Tao) takes the fall for her mob boss boyfriend, Bin, after she kills some rival gang members that are beating him to death. After being released from prison and now estranged from Bin, she ends up taking over the crime syndicate in their native Datong province, the power roles reversed as Bin has been confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke. But the movie spends far more time detailing Jia's usual thematic interests—capitalism, technology, gender roles, alienation, transformations in Chinese society—and observing unexpected elements of urban and rural life, such as nightclub dancers gyrating to the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." and a leisurely stroll through a former sports arena that now lies in rubble in a decrepit mining town.
The scene in which Qiao and Bin reunite after years of separation is a long, slow encounter punctuated by fumbling attempts at dialogue; the camera drunkenly swoons around them, capturing their inability to connect in a long unbroken take, and the muted emotional effect (achieved through aloof performances that hold sympathy at arms' length) is entirely the point. Later in the film, Qiao's rise to power and her eventual role as leader of the Datong syndicate takes place almost entirely offscreen; one disorienting cut moves us forward several years, and we come to understand through characters' interactions what has happened in the interim. A Hollywood producer or screenwriting professor (or a number of American critics, who have called it "unbearably slow" with "a lot of nothing to see") would lambaste the movie's relative indifference to its own plot machinations. But practically every scene in Jia's latest is a feast for the eyes and mind, from an early mahjong game in which a money dispute is settled by the introduction of a religious icon, to a river journey through a gorge that a tour guide tells us will be underwater in several years' time, thanks to climate change. There's even a UFO sighting, eerily beautiful in its own spare way and meant to represent nothing less than humanity's insignificance in the cosmos. The most electrifying moment I've had in a theater this year consists of a cut from a nightclub dance to a kinetic shot of people observing something from behind a chain-link fence, baffling and never explained. It could be deemed unnecessary filler, but it's viscerally stunning and gives a vivid impression of this urban setting, undergoing rapid transformation like many modern Chinese cities, a precise and sublimely cinematic illustration of Jia's themes.
The Wild Pear Tree, meanwhile, furthers Nuri Bilge Ceylan's recent shift towards long stretches of dialogue and roaming narratives that stress characters' relationships and psyches. Winter Sleep (2014) was confined to a remote mountain village and the hostilities that arise between a frustrated writer named Aydin, his wife, and his sister. The Wild Pear Tree also follows a writer protagonist, Sinan, but he is about forty years younger than Aydin; he's a recent college graduate who returns to his hometown and desperately tries to find a publisher for the opus he wrote while obtaining a literature degree. (Humor has never been absent from Ceylan's movies: Sinan absurdly describes his debut as a "quirky auto-fiction meta-novel.") Around Sinan revolves a constellation of characters, including his father Idris, who has gambled away most of the family's money betting on horses; his mercurial and manipulative mother Asuman; several imams in town; a celebrated writer with whom Sinan has an extended, hilariously awkward encounter; an old flame who is entering into an arranged marriage; a mayor and a businessman who may or may not help publish Sinan's book; and more.
As is often the case with movies that have a loose or nonexistent narrative, the concept may sound simple but its breadth is practically limitless. The demands of money are more prevalent here than in Winter Sleep (though even there, class disparity is overt), and themes of religion, spirituality, morality, and responsibility are conveyed through extremely long dialogue scenes. One rambling conversation between Sinan and several imams comprises about twenty minutes, or one-tenth of the total running time (though throughout the duration of this scene, Sinan comes to understand, sympathize with, and even defend his ostracized father, so it makes sense that it would develop gradually and organically). Most intense and effective are the familial relationships that override Sinan's life, tormenting and sometimes buoying him, as he struggles not to make the same mistakes that doomed his affable but luckless father. In short, The Wild Pear Tree tries to do no less than portray the pressures that face young Turkish artists and older generations in communities perched between old and new, East and West, rich and poor.
Ceylan has admitted that he's gravitated towards dialogue-heavy movies as a way to confront the perceived truth that language is not intrinsic to cinema—that it's an innately visual medium conducive to action, not words. But the writer/director has found a way to make endless conversation cinematic: he reminds us that movies are also dialogic, combusting with numerous forces and ideas at once, and seeing thoughts unfold (through dialogue or otherwise) over a lifelike period of time is riveting. The Wild Pear Tree may be less absorbing than Winter Sleep, but watching the sublime, ridiculous, tragicomic sadness of Sinan's encounter with the esteemed writer—a scene that lays bare all of Sinan's perceived failures and which culminates in a bizarre dream sequence inside of a Trojan horse (in fact, the Trojan Horse)—may be the most electrifying sequence in any movie this year.
Admittedly, Ash is Purest White and The Wild Pear Tree are very different movies, and it may not be helpful to lump them into the same broad category as "slow cinema." But as long as the product-churning machine of Hollywood, along with its ancillary marketers, critics, and audiences, keep on trying to convince us that story is the domain of movies and nonstop rapidity equates to entertainment, it's helpful to conceive of an alternative cinema that prioritizes everything else it has to offer. The interplay of light and color onscreen, the ability to observe external action and ponder internal motivation, the capacity for movies to show us a tiny sliver of a world and make us imagine the infinite contours beyond it, the violent shock of an unexpected cut, the freedom to let the mind wander to figures in the background or (even more liberating) to completely unrelated ideas—these are some of the joys that these two movies offer us, and there is nothing boring about them.
Most of all, these two movies reminded me of that summer afternoon when a friend and I watched I Think I Love My Wife and The Wind Will Carry Us. There's no question for me which of those two films is more entertaining. Hollywood does offer its own pleasures, of course: the thrill of masterful escapism, the ability for talented artists to smuggle subversive themes into mainstream entertainment (as movies like Mission: Impossible - Fallout and Us have recently demonstrated). But it has also led the majority of audiences (and way too many critics and filmmakers) to believe that entertainment can only take the form of story, speed, and bombast. Ash is Purest White and The Wild Pear Tree, and many other movies that might be labeled "slow cinema," are far from boring; they are not "cultural vegetables," whatever that means. They are vital, electric, dazzling spectacles, and it's hard to imagine being so entranced and entertained by whatever else I see in 2019.