- Speeds of Sound:On Fast Talking in Slow Movies
In an essay published in 2008, Matthew Flanagan put forward his argument for what he called an “aesthetic of slow” in contemporary film.1 Partly a series of observations on tendencies in world cinemas, partly a manifesto for a specific form of countercinema, Flanagan sets out several stylistic motifs characteristic of slow film: a focus on “dead time” and the “de-dramatization” of events, a tendency to linger on the space of (in)action beyond any narrative happening or apparent significance, and a focus on characters drifting without obvious narrative destination. What ties all of these together stylistically is the sequence shot, and it is this to which Flanagan gives his most focused attention. “Long takes,” Flanagan writes, “act as the primary mode of formal presentation, signaling a renewal of the shot as an individual entity where montage is countered by unity, and restlessness offset by delay.”2 And behind such renewal, perhaps inevitably, is the writing of André Bazin, in particular his observations on the plan-séquence in the first volume of What Is Cinema?3 Notes Flanagan, “The work of many filmmakers cited here strongly invites a rehabilitation of [End Page 130] André Bazin’s criticism, in particular his formation of an ontological long take theory based on the artificial representation of objective reality.”4
Flanagan might be the first to admit that his essay is riven with ideological and evaluative distinctions—distinctions that, while providing grist to the mill of slow cinema aficionados, do not really address the more nuanced questions of film style and signification. The essay is from its opening paragraph shaped by rhetorical oppositions: between “mainstream American” and “art” cinema; between the “presentation” aesthetic of the former and the possibilities for “reflection” involved in the latter. He writes of slow cinema’s “retreat from a culture of speed” and its “liberat[ion] from the abundance of abrupt images and visual signifiers that comprise a sizeable amount of mass-market cinema,” leaving the viewer “free to indulge in a relaxed form of panoramic perception.”5
Such arguments for the “continuum of reality” or the “phenomenology of the real” embodied by such cinema are hardly unique to Flanagan’s piece; indeed, they have constituted an oppositional type of critical hegemony in recent world cinema studies. How such arguments understand slowness is clearly not limited to, or indeed reducible to, any one stylistic motif. Such arguments’ core belief in the long take is nevertheless worth interrogating, mainly for its failure to recognize the possibilities of a fast cinema, and indeed the culture of speed, within its own terms.
Significantly, the tendency to overlook aspects of sound in much of the slow cinema debates is a glaring (or deafening?) indication of an abiding ocular-centrism in this debate, and in film theory generally. I wish to dwell here not on visual bias per se but rather on the blind (deaf) spots in the slow aesthetic’s valorization of the sequence shot. Flanagan associates with the slow school what he calls “a cinema of walking,” embodied by films such as Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002) and In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, 2007). We may associate the organic unity of the walking-tracking shot with an aesthetic of slow, but how, then, are we to understand similar uses of this style in a highly cinematic show such as The West Wing (NBC, 1999–2006), which made the walking Steadicam shot its signature stylistic flourish? Interestingly, given that the so-called walk-and-talk mode attracts the critical ire of David Bordwell, who sees such practices as neglecting the classical virtues of ensemble staging, it fits within the terms of the “intensified continuity” style Bordwell defines, and to which slow cinema is aesthetically, ideologically, and industrially opposed.6 But when The West Wing frequently relies on extended sequences of unbroken action, where in fact is the difference from slow cinema’s continuum of reality?
There is a sense in which the supposed distinctions between fast and slow cinema are founded in institutional and political viewpoints and preferences, as much as any definite idea of...