In some ways the debate over slow cinema and fast cinema seems like a reformulation of a much older opposition — that between high art and low (popular) art. A couple of the comments to Steven Shaviro’s piece pointed this out: slow films are adored by (ahem) high-minded movie critics but no one else actually goes to see them, while the cinemaplexes are filled with fast movies that are produced to fulfill popular desire. Of course the cultural studies move (what could also be called the Christgauian move) would be to side with the fast movies because the best art reflects what the People want and because slow cinema is irretrievably elitist.
To his credit, Shaviro attempts to completely bypass this crap populism. But I wonder if in the process he doesn’t end up reterritorializing in a couple of other ways. First, and “aesthetically” speaking, his admirable defense of fast cinema is predicated on showing that fast movies are artistically distinct from slow movies but that they are still art. His implicit formation of a counter-canon, or of a counter-canonical style, still abides by the necessity to create an identifiable cinematic canon and of showing that the films in that canon rise above the threshold that give them aesthetic worth. In praising low art, he endorses the very standards that measure high art. Similarly, in the same way that high aesthetic principles want art to be an unfolding of progress and innovation, he praises fast films because they embody a kind of newness and novelty and criticizes contemporary slow cinema because the “the daringness and provocation are missing.”
Second, and more “politically” (I guess), Shaviro suggests that slow cinema is not up to the task of representing and responding to highly mediatized, financialized capitalism, and that fast cinema better reflects the speed of the contemporary world. I’m very sympathetic to this position, but I wonder if it’s too generally stated. Just because money moves around the world at the rate of a few billion dollars a second, do we need films that move at some similar speed? To what extent does mimicking capital’s speed ensure that you remain tied to its movement? Is trying to outpace capital the best way to short-circuit it? Perhaps, but I’d venture to say not always; sometimes a slowing down, a “contemplation,” of our reflections of and responses to a hyperfast world can be the properly disruptive move. But even this is too general, too bound by a dialectic of fastness/abundance and slowness/lack that taking sides doesn’t release one from.
Finally, I think there’s a sense in which the entire opposition between fast and slow is too simplified, or that only counts one kind of speed, or that insists on the near identity of expression and content. Shaviro says that, to use one example, Antonioni’s deliberate pacing was appropriate to his “portrayals of fatigue and ennui, and his precise contemplations of the positive emptiness of both natural and human-made landscapes.” But if slow cinema today is innovative, it is precisely in its having released itself from the limited emotional palette of alienation and boredom it has historically chosen from. As Robert Berry says, even in slow cinema, “sometimes things happen very quickly, alarmingly and confusingly quickly.” I would point to something like the dancing scene in Bela Tarr’s Satantango, which is certainly filmed in the principles of slow cinema: static camera, slow panning, languid, gazing takes. But the action of the scene is incredibly fast: perpetual bodily movement, constant affective modulation, continuous changing of subjective relations. Slow cinematic expression is used to capture fast content without submitting to its speed and rhythms.