“Are we losing interest in everyday life?” says one young librarian to another in Kogonada’s superb Columbus – one of the finest films to hit UK cinemas this year. The comment comes at the end of an exchange where the characters address ‘attention bias’, or the notion that their fondness for reading (as evidenced by their choice of job) is inherently more worthwhile than the computer games indulged in by a substantially greater proportion of their generation. To be fair to Columbus, it simply poses the question, and almost seems to be challenging the implied cultural hierarchy of reading over the mainly reactive, visceral immediacies of computer games.
Cinema has had its own ‘attention bias’ debate over the last decade or so over the notion of slow cinema. Slow cinema, to define it very loosely, is the received term for a brand of arthouse cinema that appears to favour the aesthetics of the medium over its narrative possibilities. The most interesting fallout of this conceptualisation has been less an evaluation of the genre’s merits, and more a war of semantics over the seeming prejudices and complications that come with the coining of the phrase in the first place.
Whichever way you look at it, “slow cinema” seems a reductive term purposely employed to act as a wall against any genuine engagement with this type of film. For the champions of this cinema that use the term, perhaps it betrays some bourgeois snobbery, in that they recognise the cultural cachet of the films through their reception at film festivals by seasoned commentators, yet no ardent cinephile would limit their appreciation of the artform with an adjective as shallow as “slow”. Similarly, the opponents of this form of cinema who use the term are simply revealing their own prejudices that the medium need only exist as a form of narrative storytelling.
Perhaps the biggest exponent (or, should I say, person that gets tagged with the term) of slow cinema is Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan: one of those imperious festival names who pops up every three or so years with his latest filmic tome. Ceylan has become so entwined within this limiting conversation of slow cinema – mainly because of the length of his films, their obsession with long takes and visual composition, and their slight – sometimes imperceptible – narratives.
As an attempt to redress the shallowness of the reception of this type of cinema, as well as to explain the true merit of Ceylan’s films, it’s worth looking back at two of his earlier works, Uzak (2002) and Climates (2006), that really announced him on the world stage as a filmmaker of significance. Although there are literary elements at play in both films, particularly in Uzak with its fondness for metaphors to out the absurd disconnect between the two cousins living together, it strikes me that the key to understanding their ideas, is through an appreciation of the senses. Cinema is, after all, a multi-sensory medium – it was never intended to be just filmed literature – and what Ceylan’s films exact are a keenly sensitised and experiential perception of the world around us: a reality of existing that can’t just be explained through homogenised dramaturgy.
Take the masterful opening scene of Climates. Is there a more truthful depiction of the irritations and acts of distancing that herald the early stages of a break-up? Instead of lashings of plot, backstory and dialogue, Ceylan films this almost entirely without words and devoid of any dramatic context. With the clever use of depth of focus, Ceylan charts how the female character, Bahar, removes herself from the obsessiveness of her partner’s sightseeing around an ancient ruin, to ponder on him from a nearby vantage point. As well as what this tells us dramatically, Ceylan has also made their distancing a literal effect. He plays with this perspective by firstly blurring the man in the background so we can countenance Bahar’s wearied reception of him, before the focal point changes, and we can perceive the man, foolishly stumbling over a stone because he’s so concerned with sorting his camera out. This long perspective, the time in the shot, and the clever change of focus from the man as a blur to a clumsy pedant, creates significantly more meaning than simply having an over the shoulder exchange where the characters voice the screenplay’s necessary import at that time.
Ceylan is an avowed fan of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky – he even used Tarkovsky’s Stalker to make a sly nod to the cultural bias of slow cinema in Uzak – and it is Tarkovsky’s notion of the camera “sculpting in time” which is perhaps one of the better ways of explaining why this type of cinema gives the impression of being slow. Incidentally, it’s revealing that Ceylan’s top ten films of all time as voted for in Sight and Sound’s last poll, featured two films each from Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Ozu Yasujirô, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni – all filmmakers who understood the multisensory purpose of the medium and who progressed their narratives at a steady pace.
Antonioni was a master at depicting the ennui of existence, much like Ceylan, but the fallacy of the term slow cinema is that it misinterprets this ennui as ennuyeuse. Some critics have also maligned Ceylan’s work as misanthropic, whereas the cinema he documents is actually one of detachment, loneliness and alienation. It’s about a solipsism that leads to a heightened sense of one’s own surroundings – thus creating not a slow cinema but an extremely attentive cinema.
One of Ceylan’s finest scenes – where his commitment to the sensory path of his story reaches its culmination – is in the closing moments of Uzak. Mahmut, the middle-aged, irascible protagonist, is, dramatically speaking, an unlikeable character. He is begrudging and condescending to his lower-class cousin who comes to Istanbul looking for work, but who eventually leaves with his spirit bludgeoned by the coldness of the city and Mahmut in particular. He also treats women callously – objectifying the woman he has an affair with, and also vicariously stalking his ex-partner at an airport just as she is about to embark on a new life, presumably, in part, to get away from the disappointments of life with Mahmut. As Mahmut muses on all of this at a windswept, isolated little spot looking out over the Bosphorus, what we come to realise is that Ceylan’s film was not solely located in the squalid politics of this man’s daily life, but as much in its sounds and silences, its bleak vistas, the drab interiors of his apartment, and through his many blank, forlorn stares. Uzak is an absolutely nailed-on portrayal of ennui, and the bleak, grey skyline over the Bosphorus almost becomes a three-dimensional entity in the hands of Ceylan, an oppressive torrent of sadness that speaks not only for the climate of Istanbul at that particular moment, but for the weathered soul of Mahmut too.