Angry Robot

Stray Dogs, Metabolism, and Slow Cinema

I saw Stray Dogs at TIFF this year. If I had actually done my homework and realized this is by Tsai Ming-liang, the director of Face, which I saw at the fest in ’09 and hated, I would have skipped it, which would have been a shame, as it was amazing. It’s tortuous though; much like Face, it’s long take city. Sometimes, 15 minute takes in which very little happens. You will watch a man eat a whole meal in one long shot. You will watch people sleep. Stare at things. Take a piss. But you will also see some amazing things, like the cabbage scene, or the film’s penultimate shot.

I will confess that slow cinema is an idea that does not excite me in the slightest. I would be much more taken by fast cinema. However, when I look into it a little bit, I see that Antonioni is considered a progenitor. I fucking love Antonioni – but I’ve never considered his films slow. There’s a lot going on in those shots. There’s always something to be watching.

I also know I had noted something interesting going on in Asian cinema – extremely languid pacing throughout a film, but periods of frenzied action. Seven Samurai, for instance, takes its sweet time until the end, when it becomes a fast cutting action fest. And the action is all the action-i-er for it.

Stray Dogs has something like this going on. It entrances you. It immerses you in the character’s world, bathing you in the sound. There is a strange phenomenon that is at the core of film: just by watching someone you develop a bond with them. Hitchcock and/or Spielberg would do this with point of view shots, but they aren’t even necessary. It happens in Stray Dogs without you realizing. And what has been left out, when it does show up, takes your breath away.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is another film you could call slow cinema. In its case, the characters are often talking about cinema – they’re a director and actress who are having an affair while working on a film. Most scenes are long single takes, albeit stuffed with self-referential dialogue.

How is a film different from real life? How is it different from theatre? A seemingly innocent scene – the character leaves the shower and gets dressed – is rehearsed and debated over and over, and when a character does just that in the “real life” of the film (and not the film within the film, which you never see), you watch it like a hawk. They talk about how it would be better to film an argument as it occurs in real life, over half an hour, than writing a seven page scene of one. When the film ended, suddenly rolling credits, an audience member blurted, “what?!” In a way, yeah – but I’m still mulling it over a couple days later.

In the context of losing a cellphone, doing without all the edits of little electronic distractions every few seconds, I actually find slow cinema kind of interesting. The eye of the slow camera isn’t ours; it doesn’t blink. But it sees different things.