Pacing is a tricky thing to pull off in movies. It takes a truly talented filmmaker (and editor) to maintain a rate of movement, events, or forward-moving plotting that sustains audience interest while avoiding the potential to overwhelm. In an era where ADHD music video editing has become a decades-worn norm (with, admittedly, a great deal of its own unique artistic merit), a fast pace can become a fruitful means for audience engagement or an all-too-evident handicap trying to cover up a film’s inadequacies through distraction—in other words, it could run the gamut between Trainspotting and Crank 2, or from Martin Scorsese to recent Tony Scott, or…well, you get the picture.
But what’s even harder to pull off is the effective slow-paced film. It’s not something that comes around very often, but when it works it can result in some magnificent cinematic revelations.
I’ve been guilty of this just as much as anybody, but lately the use of the word “slow”—by critics and everyday filmgoers—to negatively characterize a film has started to bother me, because “slow” is so often used simply as a substitute for “boring.” The word slow as a descriptive term for a film’s pacing has no inherent qualitative distinction; it’s simply a description with no judgment call immediately attached to it. But slow has instead evolved into a stigma, as if the presence of slow pacing at any point in a film is automatically a disparaging element to the quality of the film as a whole. This implies—through, I’m sure, no intention of the orator or writer using the word—that fast-paced (or even moderately-paced) films warrant superior merit simply by the very structure of their pacing, regardless of strengths and weaknesses contained in the film overall. To use slow disparagingly ignores the quite apparent reality that cinema potentially embodies an endless variety of approaches to pacing and, more importantly, that some films are (*gasp*) meant to be slow.
Okay, I’ll step back a little at this point. Depending on the context, “slow” can be an appropriate means of descriptive criticism. If a slow pace stunts the film as a whole, isn’t appropriate to its tone or story, or evidently doesn’t work as intended, “slow” can be a more accurate delineation than “boring” with knowledge of the filmmaker’s intent in mind. But this knowledge is the deciding factor. If a movie is intended to be slowly paced, and comes across as such, then this is a sign of success on the filmmaker’s part, not failure. To dismiss a movie constructed in slow pace through intent deliberation becomes self-defeating from the outset, for if this intended pacing is dismissed and the spectator/critic can’t even meet this intention halfway, what the filmmaker is attempting to achieve with such a pace, or any other merits of the film therein, are rendered impossible to broach. It’s also stating the obvious and sounds dumb. To criticize a deliberately slow movie for being such is like criticizing a horror movie for being scary—it becomes a delineation of what a film isn’t rather than what it is, and ultimately filters down to matters of personal taste rather than qualitative, informed criticism. Upon closer examination, it’s evident that there are many merits of slow-paced filmmaking.
I recently Netflix’d Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007), a film about the philandering patriarch of a Mennonite family living in Mexico. With rural Mexico beautifully captured in the film’s setting and the laborious Amish-lite lifestyle typical of the Mennonites accurately portrayed here, it makes sense that a fast pace would be a disservice to the subject matter at hand. So Reygadas here employs a pacing that matches the lifestyle of the characters, taking in the sounds and slow-moving reality of nature that stands in stark contrast to the metropolitan lifestyle of the filmgoer that would most likely see this film because of its limited theatrical release. The end result is an honest complementary style to the film’s story and a rare look into a way of life unfamiliar to most audiences. The slow pace allows one to be immersed in a time and place to such an extent that the honking of car horns and the noise of intrusive technology will come as a shock when leaving the theater, or a welcome contrast when entering it. To use a more familiar example, many of my friends who have come to love AMC’s Mad Men initially had a cautious or even negative reaction to the show’s deliberate pacing until giving in. Being a television show that contains an attractive, even cinematic approach to visuals, the slow pace allows audiences to take in the illustrious scenery as well as establish the slower pace of life of the early 1960s (portraying the slower pace of life existing even in the metropolitan areas of the past).
In addition to helping portray a time and place or subculture accurately, the slow pace also allows for a potentially hypnotic tone through the framing of beautiful images when the right filmmaker is taking the reigns. Kubrick was probably best at this, staging prolonged shots that came across more as photographs than moving images, and I struggle to think of a director who incorporated more stunning imagery in every single shot than the perfectionist that was Kubrick. Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) and Gus Van Sant’s recent work before Milk (his “return” to indie in Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007)) contained pacing that not only slowed, but sometimes came to a halt, which allowed for some rare, unique cinematic moments and, if for nothing else, surmount whatever other flaws exist (i.e., Van Sant’s sometimes suffocating pretension) with an intricate depiction of sustained, arrestingly photographed imagery. This allows the frame to become like a piece of art displayed in a museum in that we are allowed to examine its details at our will and on our own watch rather than fall to the dictation of the director/editor. There’s a reason that the most stunning of these slow-paced works were photographed in 2.35:1—the CinemaScope ratio is a perfectly epic means to contain such artful filmmaking.
But besides setting-appropriate pacing and the potential for manifesting beautiful imagery, the most important asset of the slow-paced film is its ability to manipulate time in a way that only cinema can. Say what you want about the patience-testing pace of a film like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), cinema’s ability to make a two-hour film that takes place over several decades actually feel like it takes place over several decades is an impressive and underutilized feat, unavailable in any other art form. Cinema’s ability to speed up time and manipulate chronology (e.g., Goodfellas) is complemented by its equally potent potential to slow moments down to an even more measured pace than reality (and I’m not just talking about the use of slow-motion). Without doubt the king of this style of filmmaking was Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, who with films like Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) had an uncanny ability to meticulously slow time down, as time itself stopped—and our lives, in turn, halted—while experiencing one of his films (indicated by his appropriately-titled autobiography Sculpting in Time). The end result contained an observation of details usually ignored by most films and overshadowed by the faster pace of reality. Many are turned off by Tarkovsky’s films, but I believe that those giving his films, and other slow films like these, a chance can embolden an experience truly unique and exclusive to cinema, one in which the moving image can be so immersive to the degree that we get lost in it, and thus encounter details—and even, sometimes, revelations—which are hardly apparent elsewhere.
Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak