Cinema of Boredom: A Phenomenological Critique on Cultural Industry

Introduction

The progression of history is a very dynamic process and does not follow such a linear trajectory. As such, the long history of human civilization creates a different social fabric which is appealing yet remains complex. Modernity, as one of its key points marks an exciting period for human civilization. As a significant historical period, it is not a creation-ex-nihilo, but arose as a consequence of the previous zeitgeist such as Reformation, Renaissance and the Enlightenment period. Characterized by several values such as progress, individualism, emancipation, human subjectivity, commitment to freedom and equality, modernity is conceived as the grand narrative of our epoch.

In the early day days of its inception, philosophers and scholars were very receptive of this recent development as society witnessed a number of major reconstructions taking place in various fields such as industrial capitalism, education, political movement and arts. Unfortunately, as much as modernity tries to liberate human being, ironically it also subjects the modern society to become irrational, estranged and trapped in the paradoxical state. In modern society, critical reflection is confined to scholastic jargon while knowledge becomes a tool for subjugation; consumerism becomes a ritual, and cultures and arts, including films are commodified.

As most films produced in the studio system (a form of cultural industry), it is inevitable not to argue that the end product should be catered to the masses and is focused on generating bigger revenues and increased capital accumulation so that the capitalist industry can be sustained. Hence, films as an art product are subservient to the people’s demands. By using the same template as its narrative and standard aesthetics features, most popular films do not offer a space for the enunciation of critical discourse rather than working it as way of escapism for the spectators. This is precisely how the slow cinema emerged in film culture. Slow cinema, as a strand of the art-house cinema is often termed the cinema of boredom because of its way of telling the narrative (or the lack of it).

Contrary to popular films, most slow cinema takes a liberty in using long-takes, minimalist design, psychologically complex characters, dead time and extended duration in telling their stories. This is why most films associated with the slow cinema or contemporary contemplative cinema has a limited exposure in the film culture. This essay seeks to examine the phenomenon of the slow cinema and its mode of criticism to the modern culture industry. It also claims that slow cinema offers its viewers to critically engage with the film’s text and in doing so, realize that human is a fully conscious being and capable to be emancipated again.

Slow Cinema

Film is an example of an art artifact that invites multitude of perspective in the route of analyzing and appreciating of one particular film which clearly situated on the spectator’s weltanschauung or worldview. Hence, it is a clear-cut statement that film in reality is a subjective material. In line with this argument, slow cinema as a categorical definition become problematic because the words slow connote that films should be manufactured at a particular duration or/and specific stylistic function.

For audiences who already desensitized to mainstream or Hollywood blockbuster films or intentionally avoid “slow-moving films” because it required a longer attention span (Kois, 2011), any films that might take an extended period might consider that such films are slow (Dargis & Scott, 2011). Whereas in the second case, films that produce within ‘normal’ duration hour but take an unusual approach from the mainstream films – minimal action, psychological complex character, and stillness, can also be locate under the class of slow cinema.

To begin with, slow cinema or contemporary contemplative cinema is a form of unconventional film productions under the banner of art-house film. The term slow cinema was first introduced by Jonathan Romney, a prominent film critic whereby he observed that a good number of the finest cinema in the first decade of 21st century belongs to the slow cinema genre. Writing in Sight and Sound magazine, Jonathan differentiate slow cinema from other genre as a “varied strain of austere minimalist cinema”. Because the medium relied heavily on the practice of extreme long take, Sandhu (2012) point out that some of the ardent film critics accuse slow cinema are founded on the erroneous misapprehending of what constitute cinema.

In addition, Jonathan wrote that slow cinema has gradually materialized “in the wake of the diminishing and ever self-recycling mainstream industry”. This is why most film scholars and critics posit that slow cinema as a counter-culture against the mainstream films and the cultural industry itself. Caglayan (2014) himself suggest that the underlying principle of slowness in slow cinema operate as a radical representation in opposition to “the dominance of fast-paced, industrial productions of mainstream cinema”, a sentiment echoed by Flanagan (2008) which is another prominent film scholar in slow cinema genre. Indeed, for what it is worth, slow cinema is a controversial phrase.

Historically, slow cinema or contemporary contemplative cinema can be traced back “since its emergence after the Second World War, but has become increasingly prevalent as an institutionalized mode of film practice during the last three decades” (Flanagan (2012). In contemporary art cinema, the notion of slowness is out of the surface as a causal effect of the Second World War, which according to Flanagan (2012) fulfills the requirements of “Deleuze’s concept of the schism between the movement-image and time-image”. It comes into sight in the awake of modernist and minimalist art films.

This new stylistic trend within art cinema is not something extraordinary to the contemporary art films but become more popular due to the antagonistic debate started by Nick James, an editor in Sight and Sound magazine. In his article, he wrote that because slow cinema become more generic in filmmaking practice, its radical power in criticizing the mainstream/popular films has become powerless. This debate has been celebrated and turn into conference where film scholars and critics debating the merit of slow cinema.

Film and Ideology

As with theaters, music, paintings and sculptures, films are also one of the art and cultural products which do not operate in a vacuum or born out of nothing. It exists as a result of an interaction or a mixture of elements of particular social-historical-political structure in the society. All of these elements make our spectator construe different meaning from different films in different background. This is the underlying principle where films can perform as an ideological site to construct certain meaning in society. By examining the buried structure embedded in one particular films, we can discern the set of ideology which may be implicitly or overtly presented in that films.

Ideology is generally understood as the structure of ideas or set of beliefs (Freeden, 2003). Historically, ideology as a philosophical idea has been systematically developed in the Marxist institution whereby it focus on how the capitalist and the borgeous class with the assistant of ruling elites has been dominating the proletariat in terms of power relational structrure and economic production system.

Louis Althusser, one of the renowned Marxist intellectual proposes four qualities of ideology. First, “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. Second, that “ideology has a material existence”. Third, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” and lastly, “individuals are always-already subjects” (Althusser, 1972). Ideology can be seen operating in our private space such as sex orientation, religion, political inclination and public sphere likes in the process of policy-making, legislative and judiciary and in media production.

Because ideology is such a powerful tool, it can dictate the relationship between subject or spectator and their culture. Furthermore, ideology can influence and inform our ideas about politics, gender, sexuality, religion, arts and aesthetics. As being discussed above, ideology functions in such an ordinary and seamless manner but in fact all ideologies are founded on certain primary assumptions about the way things should be. For instance, liberalism as an economic ideology emphasize on the free market and minimal interference from the government whereas Marxism ideology strives on classless society and the ideal of equality between every human being. During the process of film analysis, film scholars “attempt to expose the underlying logic of the ideologies at work within films” (Pramaggiore & Wallis, 2008). In order to do that, they trace the obvious or subtle ideologies hidden in the film against the backdrop of the films material production, society and its culture and the whole structure that which contribute the availability of the particular films. In doing so, film scholars locate ideologies which may be embedded in the narrative, visual style, theme, choice of actor or actress, sound design of a film or a group of films. Prammagiore & Wallis (2008) added that the “material effects of ideologies” can be map out by researching how the film industry operate “on the basis of ideological beliefs, suppressing or excluding certain individuals, groups, and their stories”.

Hollywood Studio System

Although it was in Europe that the first public film screenings being held in 1985, but it is in the United States that the film industry become booming. Not long after that when the first World War break out, European film industries become paralyzed because of its financial deficiency and human capital to run the film productions. Contrary to the European country, film industry in United States was able to flourish for the reason that it was not enter the war until 1917, thus “bolstering capital investment and building up networks of production and distribution, both in Europe and in the United States” while the European countries had to focus on sustaining the consequences of war (Ezra, 2004).

Nowadays, Hollywood has become a household names in the international film industry. Again, this phenomena can be traced back in the ninetieth century, major film and studio productions has been shifted to Hollywood, the new hub for the mainstream and commercial filmmaking. This is partly due to the a few reasons such as weather, lower rent to pay and the film company has the prospect not to pay the equipment licensing fees to Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company. An additional justification is because during that period, American film industry has been solely focusing on “expanding domestic demand and paid less attention to foreign markets” before the war coming (Thompson & Bordwell, 1950). 

But before that, the economy of United States was almost collapsed particularly during the 1930 and 1945 and then come the Great Depression which hit the highest point in 1932 and become the key turning point in the upcoming presidential election because Franklin Roosevelt claim to the victory after “blaming the disaster on Herbert Hoover”. National Recovery Administration, an economic policy introduced by Roosevelt’s government on 1933 have a positive outbreak on the Hollywood film production and its studio system.

Due to the Hollywood always been identified as the largest centralized film industry and it is factually true, many has equate Hollywood as the only dominant and major film industry in the world, thus neglecting what happening outside United States and Hollywood particularly such as the arise of Third World Cinema, Italian Neo Realism, French New Wave and German Expressionism. This is partly because the uninvolvement of the United Stated in the Second World War.

As the Hollywood film industry remain relatively stable during the silent era, it then expanded into an oligopoly where several large companies began mutually cooperating to dictate the market and closing the playing field only to several industrial players. In the 1930, Hollywood film industry has been dominated by several big companies such as Paramount Picture, MGM, 20th Century-Fox, Warner Bros, RKO, Universal, Columbia and United Artists.

There is a few reasons why Hollywood has become one of the famous studio system in the world, thus “modify the concept of films as commercial products and become the dominant filmmaking practice, both in economic and aesthetic terms” (Ezra, 2004) in the United States and to the rest of the world. As stated before, Hollywood studio system have always “been referred to as factories” (Thompson & Bordwell, 1950) partly because due to its “efficient mode of production, distribution and exhibition” (Pramaggiore & Wallis, 2008) of the films. Although this statement to some extent is true according to the Thompson & Bordwell (1950), but because the products been churned out from the Hollywood studio system follow the generic convention style from Hollywood, it will makes the final products become stagnant and banal.

If we examine few aspects of Hollywood filmmaking and technique, there is common characteristic being featured in these film such as clarity (the events being covered in the narrative is being show clearly and have a linear trajectory in terms of space/time/events), goal-oriented characters (characters have a definite objective), unity (cause and effect being linked effectively) and closure (ending should tied up without any jarring or fragmented narrative) (Pramaggiore & Wallis, 2008). These are common components in the classical Hollywood style and remain popular until today.

 In terms of editing, the practitioner prefer to use seamless editing where in the context of narrative, audience can follow the plot or the story without facing any difficulties in their viewing experience. In a words preferred by Bordwell & Thompson (1979), this method relies on “unobtrusive craftsmanship” to ensure that audience will be absorbed in the narrative thus confirming the objective that all components in the classical Hollywood film such as cinematography, editing, sound design, lighting and actor/actress subservient to the narrative itself (Pramaggiore & Wallis, 2008). This kind of technique was used to heighten the fantasy being demonstrated in the film so that spectator can focus on the film texts and overlook their daily reality. Classical Hollywood technique in majority Hollywood film which has always been produced studio system remain popular for majority of the world population until today.

Audience may assume that the reason of this popularity was because of its efficient Hollywood studio system which was managing like a factory. Another may presume that this classical Hollywood technique is the only approach to be apply in the narrative but the truth is, this technique is not merely exist just because the narrative in the films required it to be but rather as an after effect of economic and political circumstances  (Pramaggiore & Wallis, 2008).

Because Hollywood studio system exist in the emergence of modernity and the rapid industrialization of the industry, it was designed to perform as a factory in delivering their products and in the case, films. The studio system thus focus on making profit as much as they can and can be roughly translated as an “assembly line of the modern factory system” (Pramaggiore & Wallis, 2008). Same thing happen when factory have their own division of labor in finishing their products, studio system apply the same model to continue rapidly making more films with least amount of money. Thus, even though the film come out in different title, different director and thematically different setting, but the core of the film’s narrative remain the same as the result of this standardization process. This compartmentalization in Hollywood studio system was largely influenced by the logic of industrial capitalism and has pave the way to Hollywood blockbuster films that audience can watch nowadays. The effeciency of studio system, the seamless editing being employed in the narrative and the star of its actor/actress is a few elements contribute to the Hollywood convention. This does not mean that this way of producing film is inherently superior than the others, but it turn films from cultural product into commercial industry which profit and money is the greater goals need to be achieved.

Slow Cinema as a Phenomenological Critique on Cultural Industry

Slow films as one of the genre being used in art-house filmmaking employed several techniques in their filmic text or in terms of style where according to Flanagan (2012) have three common characteristics; the use of long-takes, stillness and lack of dramatic action whereby Caglayan (2014) distinguish slow cinema in characteristic such as “minimalistic by design, retard narrative pace and elide causality”. But most film scholars agree that the use of long take is common trait that can be found on the majority of slow cinema. This technique I would argue that it seeks to foreword a phenomenological critique on the cultural industry and our modern society particularly.

Phenomenology as a school of thought is famously associated with Edmund Husserl and its disciple, Martin Heidegger which both are German philosophers. Phenomenology aim to examine how the subject and connsciousness can be see as one way to reality being emerge in the surface. To phenomenologist, consciousness is just a mask to conceal the very reality itself.

In Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time, he discusses several issues about the world, the essence of human being (Dasein), tools and technology, and metaphysics (Wrathall, 2005). According to Heidegger, phenomenology means to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself. Hermeneutically, phenomenology derive from two words which is logos means knowledge and phenomenon which is the phenomena which is being perceived.

By phenomena, he means anything that can be visible in reality like things, events, institutions, thoughts and cultural products like film and also anything that can be accessed by our own consciousness can be perceived as a phenomena. In Heidegger project, phenomenology is being used to questioning the reality and the essence of Being. To put in simplest term, Heidegger seeks to examine our ontology by using the method of phenomenology. To Heidegger, we must let the reality reveal itself without forcing our own interpretation. For example, to perceive things, we must look at it like the first time we see it, without any pre-notion or judgmental mindset. First, we must questioning the reality in front of us in order for us to understand it in its very raw and transparent way.

In order for us to see slow cinema as an phenomenological critique against cultural industry, we must look locate it against the notion of modernity which cultural industry become flourish and significant in our civilization. As mentioned before this, the most conventional way to make film is produce it in studio system as have been exemplified by the Hollywood system. Because the Hollywood studio produce films as factory produce their products, the result is comparatively the same.

By repeating the same method to produce film, the end product acts as an escapism to the most of the audience. The illusion being created in the narrative is so “ideal that audiences forget they are watching a carefully orchestrated fictional representation” (Pramaggiore & Wallis, 2008). All popular films strive on to create this illusion of the real so that spectator can follow the protagonist of the films and the narrative thus rendered themselves to uncritically engage in the shared space between the film and spectator.

With the arriving of the studio system, it helps changing the notion of film from cultural products to commercial products thus situated the film to become a form of popular culture. As proposed by Storey (2012), popular culture which is the embodiment of the cultural industry is a culture “that is widely favoured or well liked by many people”. By that quantitative definition, it was assume that popular culture is targeted to the masses hence the debate of quality versus quantity. Popular films as a form of popular culture helps to sustaining the profit make from the studio system because it easier to make from an audience who perceives film as a mode of escapsism from their work stress and problems they faced in their daily life.

This is where slow cinema as a form of filmmaking practice is effective to acts an counter-culture agains the popular films which is located in the backdrop of cultural industry. By using the logic of capitalism which favour on making profit, it subject human being to become passive object rather than active subject as being illustrated in most films being produced in landscap of cultural industry. In that sense, there is a domination in power relational structure between audience and the studio system. Audience is desensetized to engage critically with the film text as not to disrupt the flow of capitalism. By ensuring that spectator remain passive in viewing their favourite films, they can keep using the same template over and over again.

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two philsophers from Frankfurt School analyze these negative consequences of modenity. As Enlightenment suppose to liberate human being and move us to progress, ironically it subject us to depends on modernity. Both philosophers argue that enlightenment project is still a domination of power between human and human and between human and nature.

Enlightenment suppose to bring the supremacy of reason faculty which can influence the progession of the society. At first, reason and rational use to bring freedom to human being from the domination of the nature as direct dual-relationship between human and nature. Adorno and Horkheimer explain that Enlightenment project is to make human being the centre of the narrative because human are able to think, rationale and make decisions. In the name of progres, knowledge and reason, Enlightenment aim to break free from primordial such as religion or anything that do not conform to the law of positivism. Through Enlightenment and positivism, human become the master and the subject while anything outside our consciousness considered as an object. Previously, positivism as a tool is use to explain the nature using scientific laws and the hard science such as chemistry, biology, psychic but after that it also use to explain the law of nature and society. 

In the context of film industry, there is a clear domination of power between human being who is being trapped in the notion of popular culture in cultural industry. Today popular films mostly make out of remakes, sequels, or cheap adaptation from the literary texts. Even though, some may seen that this is the way forward in film industry but this analysis is not based on the analysis of the cinema itself but rather a sympathetic and Eurocentric opinion on the Hollywood film industry.

As been illustrated by Bordwell (2002), most contempary American film has not fundamentally change in terms of their technique of storytelling neither their stylistic method. Everything remain the same since the golden age of classical Hollywood films. In Bordwell’s words commenting on the current situation, “today’s films generally adhere to the principles of classical filmmaking” (Bordwell, 2002) or better known as classical continuity. One of the main criticism of slow cinema is precisely because a good portion of this films is relatively slow in terms of their pace and narration as contrast to popular or blockbuster films. Sandhu (2012) observed that there is less than two seconds of the average length syot in films such as Batman Begins (2005) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) while most slow cinema can take up to ten minutes for just one syot.

This is where slow cinema can be an avart-garde to critique the popular films and then the cultural industry. By using long take, stillness, dead time, slower pace in narrative, it give times to the audience to contemplate their very existence in front of the screen. This distanciation process made famous by German playwright, Bertolt Bretcht give audience a critical space to critically evaluate the text in the film. By employing all these tactic, there is sense of time being passed in front of the audience and make the reality become more lucid and transparent. Consequently, spectator become more active in deciphering the meaning in the text. Slow cinema is a form of avant-garde filmmaking practice that employ several techniques such as long take, stillness, slow pace, dead time and psychologically-complex character which is starkly different than most contemporary films. By doing that, it helps the audience to critically engage the text rather than being a passive spectator. Slow cinema should be widely appreciated particulary for the audience living in the modern society.


References

Bordwell, D. (2002). Intensified Continuity Visual Style in Contemporary American Film. Film Quarterly , 55 (3), 16-28.

Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (1979). Film Art: An Introduction. Canada: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Caglayan, O.E. (2014). Screening Boredom The History and Aesthetics of Slow Cinema. Thesis Dissertation, University of Kent.

Dargis, M., & Scott, A. (2011, June 5). In Defense of the Slow and the Boring. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/movies/films-in-defense-of-slow-and-boring.html?_r=2

Ezra, E. (2004). Introduction: A Brief History of Cinema in Europe. In E. Ezra, & E. Elizabeth (Ed.), European Cinema (pp. 1-17). New York: Oxford University Press.

Flanagan, M. (2012). Slow Cinema: Temporality and Style in Contemporary Art and Experimental Film.Thesis Dissertation, Exeter University.

Flanagan, M. (2008). Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema. Retrieved November 20, 2015 from 16:9 6.29:

http://www.16-9.dk/2008-11/side11_inenglish.htm

Kois, D. (2011, May 1). Eating Your Cultural Vegetables. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/magazine/mag-01Riff-t.html

Pramaggiore, M., & Wallis, T. (2008). Film A Critical Introduction. London: Pearson.

Roberts, A. (2013, May 24). Adam Roberts: Revisiting Slow Cinema. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from Institute of Contemporary Arts: https://www.ica.org.uk/blog/adam-roberts-revisiting-slow-cinema

Sandhu, S. (2012, March 9). ‘Slow cinema’ fights back against Bourne’s supremacy. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/mar/09/slow-cinema-fights-bournes-supremacy

Storey, J. (2012). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture An Introduction (6th Edition ed.). United Kingdom: Pearson Education.

Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (1950). Film History An Introduction (3rd edition ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wrathall, M. (2005). How To Read Heidegger. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.



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