On the Dystopian Impulses of Slow Cinema
Jan 22, 2018
23 Min read time
The monotony of slow cinema defamiliarizes our world and enables us to see it critically.
Fredric Jameson’s essay in An American Utopia (2016) begins with the observation, “We have seen a marked diminution in the production of new utopias over the last decades (along with an overwhelming increase in all manner of conceivable dystopias, most of which look monotonously alike).” Jameson recognizes the profligacy with which capitalism, its eye always on the main chance, belches dystopias. At the same time, he regrets its dulling of human creativity and, thus, its homogenization of dystopia. Yearning for richness, he finds formulaic reiteration. Risk-averse publishers gamble millions on the tried-and-tested strategy of more of the (slightly re-jigged) same. As does Hollywood, albeit on greater orders of magnitude.
Dystopia is meant to be every bit as boring as utopia. It only stops being boring when it fails.
Nearly 300 pages further into the same book, Slavoj Žižek insists that the “dystopias that abound in recent blockbuster movies and novels (Elysium, The Hunger Games), although apparently leftist (presenting a postapocalyptic society of extreme class divisions), are unimaginative, monotonous, and also politically wrong.”
Where the Marxist locates monotony in the similarity between dystopias, the Lacanian implies that each individual example is tedious, hackneyed, and wrongheaded. I am not entirely convinced by either one.
First, they sound too much like grumpy old men—too much like Adorno, or my dad. Many contemporary dystopias are written for teens, and therefore closer to the iterative, leveling-up video game than the classical narrative structure of Yevgeny Zamyatin, and possessed of an affective politics that may well evade the elder statesmen of leftist critical theory. Their boredom might simply be the kind that Elizabeth Legge calls “an injured sense of one’s own centrality.” In contrast, I fondly recall my consternated delight at Mark Fisher’s enthusiasm for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): “a counter-narrative to capitalist realism,” a reveille to wake us from our “hedonic depressive slumber.”
Second, because much as I like to imagine our doyens of political and libidinal economy poring over the latest Scott Westerfeld or Ally Condie or James Dashner or Samantha Shannon, I am not persuaded they have done their due diligence. Neither offers any evidence or argumentation. Impression as pronouncement; move right along.
However, others also clearly find repetition overwhelming difference when it comes to contemporary dystopias. Sometimes, as with the film adaptations of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, audiences stay away. Budgets are reassessed. Franchises are cancelled. Intellectual property is “reimagined” for other media.
Or shelved. Destined, after an unconscionably brief hiatus, to be rebooted, leaving us to wonder why Jameson and Žižek seem surprised by the dullness of the dystopia commodity.
Slow cinema represents a thirst for abstraction at a time when immediacy and simultaneity are tyrannical demands.
Their surprise is surprising in another way, too. Dystopia (the place) is meant to be boring. Every bit as boring as utopia (the place and usually the text). In fact, the anti-utopia, from which dystopia emerged, arose from dissatisfaction with utopia’s monodimensional characters and lack of conflict, its stalled narratives and utilitarian designs, its smug certainty and oppressive dullness. By satirically replicating the utopias of Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells in order to rail against them, anti-utopians insisted upon bourgeois individualism and thus foreclosed possibility. They cast any attempt to imagine or plan social improvement as totalitarianism, as if somehow our world is free and unplanned. As if capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacism were natural. As if somehow—and most incredibly of all—Ayn Rand were right.
Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan locate dystopia on the fractured ground between the historical antinomies of utopia and anti-utopia. It is a contradictory, hybrid form, despairing but not without hope. And, like utopias and anti-utopias, dystopias are strong and stable realms, repressive and unchanging, their inhabitants determined by dominant ideology, or fearfully simulating conformity to it.
Dystopia (the place) only stops being boring when it fails; and that is when dystopia (the text) can become exciting. Often, as in the anti-utopia, failure kicks off with an unanticipated libidinal connection, such as Winston and Julia in 1984 (1949), or Christian Bale and that puppy in Equilibrium (2002). Then later there is the running and the screaming. The blowing up of things. The flight into the green space outside the city. And, if the protagonist is really lucky, he has not had a psychotic break. He is not strapped in a torturer’s chair. He is not fantasizing escape while humming some old exaltation samba.
• • •
But let us suppose Jameson and Žižek are right. Let us suppose that, one way or another, contemporary dystopias are more monotonous than those of other eras. Why might that be?
One answer might lie in the way SF (science fiction or speculative fiction) functions. Jameson hews closely to the model proposed by Darko Suvin in the seventies: the SF text is dominated by a “novum,” a materially plausible novelty or innovation—no magic allowed!—that produces an imaginative world different from the material world the author and reader inhabit (or at least, though he never says it, the world of conventional bourgeois realism). This difference should defamiliarize our own world, producing a sense of “cognitive estrangement” that enables us to see it critically and anew.
But what if forty years of neoliberalism’s violently reiterated dogma that “there is no alternative” has left us incapable of imagining not only better worlds but also worse ones? In 2004 political scientist Bruce Tonn discovered that people were “just not able to imagine any type of future” more than fifteen to twenty years out. William Gibson suggests that “far more ominous” than the current taste for things dystopian and post-apocalyptic is “how seldom, today, we see the phrase ‘the 22nd century.’”
What if forty years of neoliberalism have left us incapable of imagining not only better worlds but also worse ones?
Neoliberalism’s “there is no alternative” was always meant to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It wants the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie to be all there is and all there can be. (By bourgeoisie, I do not mean those poor deluded fools drinking lattes out of avocados, but the capitalist class, itself increasingly a metonym for the algorithms of a global economy that no longer really needs them in order to perpetuate itself.) It wants white supremacist patriarchal capitalist brutality and immiseration. The devastation of the biosphere for profit. The exhaustion of our physical and psychic resources.
We already inhabit the worst of all possible worlds—the one that actually exists—so perhaps there is no critique left that dystopia can effect. Perhaps, reduced to a spectacular commodity, to obscene surface, it has nothing left to tell us that we do not already know. Perhaps its only function now is anti-utopian. To deny, as in The Hunger Games, the possibility of radical change. To urge upon us, as in The Walking Dead, the zero-sum sadocratic ethics of the neoliberal market, where everyone is ultimately—and suddenly, just like that—disposable.
And then, having done this on narrative, thematic, and affective levels, dystopia does it again through its very form as a commodity.
• • •
If dystopia can no longer gain sufficient distance from our own world to generate the cognitive estrangement upon which SF’s political potential hinges, we should not look to the future or to alternate words. We should, for the present, stick with the present. We just need to go deeper. To dive into boredom.
In the February 2010 Sight & Sound, Jonathan Romney described a major trend in the new millennium’s cinema:
films that are slow, poetic, contemplative—cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality. Such films highlight the viewing process itself as a real-time experience in which, ideally, you become acutely aware of every minute, every second spent watching.
With precursors in the structuralist Chantal Akerman, the indifferent Andy Warhol, the deliberate Yasujirō Ozu, the meditative Andrei Tarkovsky, the ambiguous Theo Angelopoulos, the glacial Béla Tarr, slow cinema represents an understandable “thirst for abstraction at a time when immediacy and simultaneity . . . are tyrannical demands.” It rewards us with “an exalted reverie.”
Two months later, Sight & Sound editor Nick James’s monthly column complained about these “passive-aggressive” films “demand[ing] great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects.” His discontent reeks of nausea—not some existential mal de vivre, but revulsion at the systematic reduction of creative human energies to mere labor-power (including, it perhaps dawned on him, sat there in front of yet another film in which, very slowly, very little happened, his own).
Slow cinema casts us adrift, and upon our own resources, in the unstable realms of semiosis and affect.
Slow cinema confronts us with the experience of duration, with the boredom that Joseph Brodsky describes as “pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.” The films are often long—Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History (2013) clocks in at 250 minutes, for example, and Wing Bang’s Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002) at 551 minutes. The takes are long, too: while contemporary Hollywood’s average shot length is 4 to 6 seconds, dropping as low as 2 (or less) in something like Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2007) or Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), the average shot length of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead (2015) is 40 seconds, while that of Peter B. Hutton’s At Sea (2007) is 41.5 seconds.
Cameras are often static; maybe, occasionally, there is an agonizingly slow track or zoom. The lighting and color palette are murkily naturalistic. Or painterly. And, sometimes, stunningly beautiful. Dialogue, when there is dialogue, meanders, peters out. Ambient sound—sometimes terrifyingly immersive—is preferred, but not de rigueur. Characters are opaque, and narratives tenuous. Generically familiar materials are—as in the police procedurals Police, Adjective (2009) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)—distended inconclusively.
Slow cinema casts us adrift, and upon our own resources, in the unstable realms of semiosis and affect.
• • •
At Sea: Part One
Hutton’s hour-long silent film was shot on 16 mm; its muted colors are even more subdued on YouTube, where one is likeliest to watch it. At Sea is divided into three parts of roughly equal duration, though the second part contains fewer shots than the others. It depicts the construction of a container ship in South Korea; a container ship’s voyage from Montreal to Hamburg; and a maritime graveyard in Bangladesh. Already, by noting where it was filmed, I have given you more information than the film’s eighty shots convey.
In the shipyard Hutton’s camera hangs back, eager to watch but reluctant to treat humans as its subjects. Working alone, or in twos and threes, the people remain too small for their identities, their actions and interactions, to be discerned. (Is that one really wiping down the bulbous bow by hand? With a cloth?) When, in the distance, a rogue golf umbrella shades workers who are taking a break, you begin to look for other details, other traces of subjectivity. Size defeats you.
Where Jameson locates monotony in the similarity between dystopias, Zizek implies that each individual example is tedious, hackneyed, and wrongheaded. Both sound too much like grumpy old men.
Water cascades into the dry dock, insignificant in comparison to the hull from which it spews, but momentous in relation to a truck that drives by, and then insignificant again. A section of crane tower glides horizontally against a blue sky. An elevator cage descends the edge of the screen. Scaffolding, bulkhead girders, gargantuan metal skeletons—there are grids everywhere. A flattened depth of field transforms verticals and diagonals into graphics. A cold constructivism fills the sky with metallic geometries. Suspended from dozens of cables, a component of the ship swings across the screen. But to call it a component gives the impression of something singular and small. It is already a constructed thing, bigger than a house. But here it is just one more piece of a three-dimensional puzzle.
Humans do not belong in an environment of such proportions, among such blocks of matter, such hazardous trajectories. They move things and attach things, they weld and paint, unaware that their only purpose is to provide a sense of scale.
As if to mock those audacious enough to name the completed Toledo Spirit, a giant, celebratory red-and-white sphere bursts open alongside it, trailing streamers like an enormous jellyfish, releasing shreds of paper that glitter in the sun as they flock and flutter through the air. More alive, it seems, than the complacent human microorganisms who pose, in suits and uniforms, for the official photo.
No Cronenbergian new flesh, no Ballardian psychosexual accommodation, could possibly fit us to this world. To this actually existing world.
• • •
At Sea: Part Two
As the ship eases under a suspension bridge and out to sea, the camera peers through the rain-washed windscreen, over the containers that fill the deck. They are white, green, yellow, red, blue, orange, mustard, the neatly abandoned Tetris of a monstrous toddler. Cloud shadows race over them: light, then shade, then light again. At night, their colors are invisible beneath the ship’s lights; their covers ripple.
Sometimes it rains. Sometimes there is sun. When it is cold, ice slides down the windscreen; warmer, and wipers clear away the rain so the camera can properly see the enshrouding fog. A dark smudge to port becomes another ship passing.
The horizon rises and fall, tilts from side to side. The sea runs smoothly. The sea swells. The ship’s wake is a curve of gray against a darker gray, beneath a red-brown sky. Looking over the side is like looking at a Mark Rothko painting: a strip of blue sky, a strip of red rail, a strip of the gunwale’s shadowed darkness. Then, as the ship tilts, a darker strip of blue—the sea—appears beneath the sky and disappears.
The sun, haloed in red, bobs up and down amid black clouds, a yellow bouncing ball with no lyrics to follow.
A still dusk. On the horizon a silhouetted ship passes in front of the last curve of a sinking sun.
Clouds and moonlight above are doubled in the sea below, a poorly made Rorschach. Silver-topped waters as black as kraken ink writhe mesmerically. Everything becomes dark.
This is the in-between. The filthy materiality of the financial sublime. There is no romantic wanderer above this sea of fog, contemplating immensity. Just relentless function, unending subservience. The ship is not built to outlast the world, but to incinerate it. A workhorse of the global market, its own gargantuan carbon emissions unrecorded in any nation’s ledger, it accelerates the rate at which oil is burned to make power and plastic to make commodities to make money.
It is inexorable, this end of the world, and much too big to register on 16 mm at 24 frames per second. But there are no people here, only an impassive kino-eye.
• • •
Dead Slow Ahead: Weird
Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead is like a longer, more spectacular rendition of At Sea’s second part. Nothing much happens, and what does happens slowly, as the cargo vessel Fair Lady weaves an uncertain course from the Black Sea to the Red Sea, then back to the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. (The film does not tell us this. Indeed, the four shots that are dense with legible information—blueprints, floorplans—race by, relatively speaking, in under a minute and explain nothing.) But Herce’s high-resolution digital images, his neo-noir-gone-even-more-sour palette, and his soundtrack of distorted noises and disembodied voices, render an utterly material world in all its sublime weirdness, its stonefaced absurdity.
It begins at night, offshore. Electronics beep. Amid hard-to-decipher bursts of polyglot radio chatter, an automated female voice enunciates in English. There is a machinic throb, an ominous time-golem always just about to arrive. Below, a pitch-black sea undulates; above, the sky, which should be full of stars, is deep reddish brown, filthy with light pollution. In between is a fairytale Manhattan, a skyline of yellow light, garish and unsavory. An unreal city, blazing against the night, a refinery burning down the world. It recalls the end of White Heat (1949), the film that takes James Cagney from robbing steam trains to an ultramodern exurban chemical plant, all pipes and silos and vats burgeoning with Armageddon. It also evokes the aerial views of a future Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982) and, lurking behind them, the Port Talbot steelworks on the South Wales coast that inspired Ridley’s inferno. But mostly it brings to mind the final shot of Évolution (2015), Lucile Hadžihalilović’s film about the amphibian mothers of the species that will succeed us once we have brought down the Anthropocene’s final curtain.
Equipment clangs and bangs and whirs. Humans in orange overalls, hard helmets, and protective goggles stand by. This dance of indifferent machines and diffident humans has, with all its perilous mass and inertia, been danced a dozen times before, or more. An angular monstrosity, its shape uncertain, rotates, its fell gaze sweeping the scene like the Cenobites’ Leviathan in Hellraiser II (1988). Steam swirls. Lights flare so bright they obscure more than they reveal. It is a crane, scooping coal (or is it wheat?) from barges and cascading it down into the ship’s hold.
We already inhabit the worst of all possible worlds—the one that actually exists.
Glimpsed through a window, but not heard, the crew desperately karaokes. Later, as if time is a closed, repeating loop, we will be on the other side of the window. The sporadic dance of LED torches provides the only light in their makeshift discotheque. A crewman, smoking, slumps alone by empty beer cans. Off screen, voices wail along tunelessly to Neil Sedaka’s “You Mean Everything to Me.” The crewman’s eyes, Deckard-like, glisten inhuman. The LED flickering becomes insistent. Eyes silver. The karaoke singer belts out an unheard song, overdubbed by the sound of squealing. Like amplified insects, or swine-things from the pit. It goes on much too long.
In daylight, from the deck, a riverbank or shoreline slides by. As in a L. S. Lowry seascape, sky, land, and water are washed out, off-white, and hard to tell apart. Distances are indeterminate. There are no identifiable objects (are those ancient wooden keels rotting in the shallows?) to lend scale.
Then, later, at sea, the ship rolls from side to side, tilting the horizon one way and then the other: a storm cloud ahead, balanced on a column of rain, like a mushroom; a sunset, or a sunrise, just bands of dark and light; a dropping sun eases out from under a dark cloud standing against an abyssal sky. Water above and below. The machinery begins to sound like whale song. Aquatic, amniotic, as if we are being born, and borne, out of this world and into another.
Screens map the ship’s motion—to call it progress seems impertinent—through a seeming void. The bleeping of navigational instruments is like a desperate sonar hurled into emptiness.
In the depths of the ship, clean industrial spaces become Gothic, governed by the remorselessly throbbing turbine. Tainted red, it beats. A brutal machine heart, its clanking thumps like an imperialist raconteur’s nocturnal native drums. Crewmen, their faces briefly illuminated, peer down pipes and shafts. One scrubs away at a surface. In the impenetrable darkness, hidden edits derange the space; continuous yet impossible, a non-Euclidean geometry. (Later, an unusual high-angle shot down into the engine room Eschers a staircase.)
Soon, though, amid all this dread, there will be comedy.
• • •
Dead Slow Ahead: Absurd
Three shots, 304 seconds.
On the starboard side of the bridge, the camera looks to port. Through the window opposite, it sees a light blue sky and white clouds. As the ship rolls from side to side, the sea rises into, and then out of, view.
The captain’s chair is empty. The bridge is empty. Just bleeps, a creak, a chirring phone.
A crewman enters, but by the time he picks up the receiver whoever is calling has hung up. When it rings again, he picks it up and, his voice registering neither panic nor even concern, reports:
Attention, please, there’s water in the ship. Not only at the bridge’s wheels but also at the bottom. It’s pouring in.
Yes, more water is entering from the bottom.
Yes, that’s right.
The water is flowing in!
He hangs up. Ambles out of the frame. The bridge is empty once more. The ship rocks from side to side, creaking. Nothing happens. An electronic squawk. Over the intercom, another voice lacking urgency: “Hello? Sir, here at the Sub-1 there’s water, too!”
No response. Squawks. The next voice sounds metallic: “Is anybody listening? An entire river is running through the keel. There’s a lot.”
Another unhurried voice: “The water is reaching the storage tanks.”
Cut to the view from the captain’s chair. Spray from the steel-gray sea washes over the deck and hatches. Beneath the pale sky, clouds fill the horizon, which tilts slowly from side to side. A voice: “Roger! Roger! Attention! The wheat is getting wet.”
A phone rings. Someone says: “The wheat.”
Even on YouTube, you can taste the carcinogens, the slow violence of an elsewhere-commerce shortening lives.
Cut to black. A phone quavers. Bleeps persist. A final unhurried voice: “Sir, this is a disaster!”
The roaring of the engines merges with the soundtrack.
The pace is wrong. This is not what we expect from a nautical catastrophe. There are no Somalian pirates for Tom Hanks to outfox, no fiery explosions for Mark Wahlberg to outrun. Instead, just a temporal mismatch between humans and physics, the deadpan unfurling of events.
A half hour into the film and this is the first dialogue: voices isolated in different parts of the ship calling out blindly to each other, missing each other. It will be another half hour before dialogue is attempted again.
In the hold, wavelets of red-brown water. On the dunes of wheat, there are long-handled shovels and squat buckets. Not enough men, inadequately equipped, load buckets that once full are winched away. The men sit and wait. The open hatch far above them looks like an ebony monolith into which they might fall. But there is no transcendence here. Just a cursed Earth lapping against the ribs of an unscalable wall.
Topside, the grain is piled on the deck to be blown away or swept away or, eventually, shoveled overboard.
This is not a salvage effort. (In reality, it took the entire crew a month of seventeen-hour days to dump the spoiled cargo into the sea.) The ship ploughs on.
When the floodwater is all that is left, a crewman sits there alone, as if forgotten. This is not why, eons ago, fish crept onto the land.
You have to laugh.
• • •
Dead Slow Ahead: Disconnected
Once more the ship heads down river, the immobile camera gazing to port, land and sky yet again indistinct, alien. There is another industrial plant in the distance, an enormous tower looming over it like a gargantuan moisture vaporator on a sodden Tatooine.
We pass out to sea in a single five-and-a-half-minute shot. There is no one. The whole world is deserted now, raptured, including the ship. The corridors are empty. In the crew lounge, a muted television plays. A table is set for half a dozen to eat together. A still life of an apple, a plate, a napkin, an upturned glass. Photos of the officers and crew. A whiteboard reminder of upcoming alcohol tests. A solitary voice says, “Hello?” and moments later says it again.
Finally, an automated voice responds: “Sorry, we cannot connect you. Thank you for calling.”
This is the final act: brightly lit recesses, pristine pipes and flues. Slow zooms, tilts, and pans that could be a rostrum camera moving over stills were it not for the crewman who jogs through a couple of shots. (He goes past twice, in too-rapid succession, as if his route is badly designed or time is passing differently for him.) And on the soundtrack, crewmen call their families, heartbreakingly mundane conversations thwarted by distance, inadequate technology, insufficient credit.
In the most harrowing of dystopias, there are always utopian traces.
Elsewhere it is the New Year, but Fair Lady is far from land. There is no cell signal. A wife’s texts loiter in cyberspace, abstracted from context. On the satellite phone, a man asks, “Are you still beautiful?” as might an interstellar voyager haunted by time dilation.
“Ugly,” she replies, worn out.
He tells her he looks at the photo of her and their daughters. Their exchanges of love admit to their resignation over separation. Talking is too difficult. He promises to text.
“We are on course now,” he explains to his son. “We’re in the middle of the ocean. We still don’t know where we are headed. We are just going and going.”
He cannot hear his son clearly.
A crewman phones his pregnant wife. He calls the unborn baby Eunice, but she has no idea who he is talking about. Perhaps she has forgotten their earlier conversation about baby names, or maybe he only imagined it.
She wonders who will take her to the hospital when she goes into labor. He should be home by October. If she can hold on until the last week of the month . . . “Your credit has been used up.” The line is cut.
A crewman is worried about his sons. There seem to be no problems with them, but the connection is dodgy. He cannot be sure.
The timelag, the intermittent signal, the pauses between sentences make speakers overlap, uncertain that they have been heard. Faltering conversations become incoherent, trail off. Connections are lost.
They might just as well be unsuspecting clones mining Helium-3 on the far side of the Moon. At least then they would have illusions.
The industrial and the material persist, sustaining the electronic-immaterial.
There is a turbine at the heart of it all. It is relentless, imperturbable. Down there in the dark spaces, it churns and does not care.
• • •
At Sea: Part Three
In the most harrowing of dystopias, there are always utopian traces.
At Sea ends on a beach. A man sits on a chair beneath an umbrella. Murky water flows by rather than breaking on this shore. Black birds bob around; a small dog plays in the oil-saturated mud. And against the skyline, jagged slabs: whole ships run aground, their hulls to be stripped by men without machines, with just the most basic of tools. There is no safety equipment. Debris falls from overhead. A sledgehammer is wielded against a barnacled rusting hulk. Black smoke pours from a partially dismantled hull. Even on YouTube, you can taste the carcinogens, the slow violence of an elsewhere-commerce shortening lives.
These people of color work together in the detritus of the pallid culture that brought apocalypse. They are not a cargo cult, nor dapper hipster bricoleurs. They salvage, they survive, they persist. They foreshadow the disaster communism that might yet save some of us.
They take a break to kick a ball around in the no man’s land of this undeclared war.
In long shot, they do not diminish; we recede.
Gradually, they become aware of the camera. They pose, move closer, stream past it onto unseen ground. Several faces pop back into the frame, really close, to peer into this alien device. But they too move on. We are nothing more than a lens now, an absence. We are gone.
It is customary in moments such as this to evoke Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, who is blown backward by a storm into a future he cannot see, while catastrophe “keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” at his feet. But that is the wrong angel to end with. The one we need is to be found in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I (1514). She sits slumped, elbow on knee and head on hand, radiating boredom. Surrounded by the tools of an architect and geometer, she is sick to death of her terrestrial labors and longs to return to the heavens. But there is no surcease. Even her odd-looking dog seems queasy.
Then take a look at her eyes.
She is beyond pissed off. She is fucking furious. (As we should be.)
And she looks ready to tear this shit down. (As we should.)
She is, after all, an architect, and can build something better. (As can we.)
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January 22, 2018
23 Min read time