Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, The Godfather, and the concept of slow cinema
In this week's World Cinema column, Baradwaj Rangan throws light on the art and motive of slow cinema.
One of the highlights at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star this year, was Hu Bo’s Chinese film, An Elephant Sitting Still. There are many things that are noteworthy about it. One, the director committed suicide soon after finishing his film, reportedly due to conflicts with the producers regarding creative control – Elephant is, thus, both a defiant debut feature as well as a tragic swan song. And two, it runs nearly four hours, which is a cause for much hand-wringing at a film festival. If you watch it, you’re probably missing out on two other films. But then, as a serious movie-goer, you have to watch these things once in a while – it’s the cinephile’s equivalent of Vipassana. And at least, it’s an easier decision than the one I faced at the Berlin Film Festival a couple of years ago, when Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to a Sorrowful Mystery was screened. It ran some eight hours, which means you lose out on four other films.
What’s remarkable is that these aren’t just long films but also slow films (even when compared to the pace of the average art-house film). In the Q and A session after the screening of the deliberately paced Manoj Bajpai starrer Bhonsle, again at the Mumbai Film Festival, the director Devashish Makhija said one of his biggest concerns was just how long to hold a shot. He said he was constantly worried about what the film needs and how to hold the audience. Directors like Lav Diaz, on the other hand, don’t seem to worry about this at all. In an interview with The Upcoming, Diaz said that cinema needs to be emancipated from the clutches of the market. “That 90-minute, two-hour thing is totally f**ked up. I don’t want to commodify my film. My cinema is not a product like that.”
At the post-screening conference in Berlin, Diaz denied that Lullaby was “slow cinema.” He said it’s just... cinema. “I don’t know why every time we discourse on cinema, we always focus on the length. It’s cinema, it’s just like poetry, just like music, just like painting where it’s free, whether it’s a small canvas or it’s a big canvas, it’s the same ....” But it’s not the same, is it? Imagine a scene we’ve seen in a hundred films: a character (say, a woman named Annie) uses an elevator. Usually, this is how the scene works. The elevator doors open. Annie gets in. The elevator doors shut. CUT TO. The elevator doors open on the destination floor. Annie exits. END OF SCENE. But in An Elephant Sitting Still, we see the full ride in the elevator, as it passes through all floors. The scene is thus closer to real time than to cinema time. (It’s how we ride in elevators.)
To some extent, we have seen slow scenes in mainstream cinema as well — The Godfather being a great example. But take the stretch where Michael Corelone kills the gangster named Sollozzo. They meet in a restaurant. They eat. They chat. Then, Michael steps into the restroom to search for the gun his men have hidden. Then, he comes out and shoots Sollozzo. The event takes about five minutes to play out (see clip above), which is an enormous amount of time to depict a shooting. But then, the “slowness” of the scene is alleviated by the tension building up. Will Michael keep convincing Sollozzo that he’s incapable of murder? Will Michael find the gun? Will this nice college kid who’s never killed before summon up the guts to shoot Sollozzo? The rhythms, thus, have dramatic meaning, as opposed to the elevator scene in An Elephant Sitting Still, where the slowness serves a different purpose.
But first, a bit about the movie, which is set over the course of a single day. We are in the city of Manzhouli, in Northeast China, and we watch four narrative threads – centred on lower-middle-class citizens, affected by China’s economic downturn – being spun out. A man commits suicide by jumping out of a window. A schoolboy stands up to a bully. His classmate sleeps with a school official. And a man living on a pension is sent to a nursing home by his son. The aesthetic is defined by long Steadicam takes, which are as “slow” as the creature in the titular metaphor: all four characters hear of an elephant that has stopped eating and sleeping, apparently having given up on life. Their suffering mirrors the animal’s (and the director’s suicide adds another, unintended, layer of suffering). Here, the reason for the slow rhythms isn’t dramatic as much as experiential. These aren’t the rhythms of cinema. They’re the rhythms of life.
This is not how most people want to consume cinema, especially in this era when the average shot length is some two seconds. (If you’re interested in this subject, do head over to Cinemetrics Database, an online database for Average Shot Lengths and other measurements.) Now let’s look at one of the most famous “slow” films of all time: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). The English author, Geoff Dyer, wrote a book about the film, and he wrote in The Paris Review about the Russian filmmaker’s singular obsession: time. He refers to Tarkovsky’s statement: “I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time, whether for time wasted, time lost, or time that is yet to be gained.” Dyer adds, “This sentiment is only a couple of words away from being in perfect accord with something even the most moronic cinemagoer would agree with.”
And what are those “couple of words”? As good. As in, Dyer says, “What people go to the cinema for is a good time’, not to sit there waiting for something to happen.” As opposed to this collectivistic determination of cinema, listen to how Lav Diaz makes movie-watching seem so individual. He said, “I am a son of a farmer and a teacher, and when I grew up in Cotabato on Mindanao, in the boondocks, I had to walk to school, ten kilometers every day, go back home another ten kilometers. Same thing in high school. I had to walk five kilometers every day. So this type of slow aesthetics is very much part of my culture. It is not just purposely done, to say I am versus this, or I am anti that. It is my culture. I am sharing this vision and this experience, this Lav Diaz experience.”
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).