Cinema, Fast and Slow
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2015 film Cemetery of Splendor ends with a somewhat improbable soccer match. We see a group of boys pursue the run of play across a poor but serviceable field into an area of dunes that are the byproduct of some mysterious excavations taking place throughout the film. This show of motion and exuberance is wonderfully absurd as sport, and even more bewildering as a final scene of action in a film whose tenuous narrative concerns a sleeping sickness afflicting a group of soldiers in a northern Thai town. For a filmmaker often linked to the “slow cinema” of Tsai-Ming Liang, Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, Jia Zhangke, Kelly Reichardt, and others—a style of global art film much debated in recent years—it’s a little perverse for Weerasethakul to give us bodies with so much energy to burn after almost two hours replete with stasis, immobility, and enervation. The movie’s plot is difficult to summarize quickly, but it is something of a ghost story as we eventually discover that this town was once the site of violent battles in Thailand’s distant, pre-colonial past. The spirits of the dead now take hold of sleeping bodies and continue their fighting in the dreams of the afflicted; doctors and nurses treat the sleepers in their beds, and help them eat and walk when they occasionally wake up. But this makes Cemetery of Splendor sound too much like a high-art Poltergeist, and does no justice to its long stretches of meditative emptiness, or to the charming opacity of the way it mixes mundane modern Thailand and supernatural realms of being.
Almost all the movie’s characters are haunted by forms of slowness they cannot control: from soldiers possibly possessed and rendered comatose by spirits of ancient generals, to young goddesses who’ve lived for centuries as statues before appearing in the flesh, and, most affectingly, to the film’s protagonist, a middle-aged woman with a severely disabled leg who has come north to volunteer amongst the sleeping. Played by Jenjira Pongpas, we see her in this last sequence sitting near the left edge of the shot, watching all these boys play soccer in what Arden Reed’s Slow Art inspires me to call a “tableau” of attentiveness. Boys will always have their games and fights, but we know to look harder where the action isn’t. The fact that we view Pongpas as she is quite literally framed by an open shutter only makes her stillness more striking as a figure for the camera that captures life for us to watch while we sit in the dark and move as little as we can. She is the very picture of the spectator who vicariously experiences bodies doing what they do on screen—playing football, fighting hand-to-hand, having sex, dancing fox trots—from the comparative immobility of her seat. Cemetery of Splendor is anything but an action picture, and shares little with the multimillion dollar blockbusters that can make billions for their franchises. But here, at least, Weerasethakul seems to indulge a moment of kinetic pleasure in a film where almost everyone moves slowly if they move at all. This shot lasts for one full minute, and is just as mystifying, at the level of narrative logic, as all the exchanges of oblique dialogue, extended takes, and largely empty scenes of landscape that make the film so exemplary of “slow cinema” in the first place. It isn’t long enough to get more popcorn or a drink of water, but represents a sufficient test of patience in a film that does just this from its very beginning.
“Habituated to instant visual gratification,” Reed asks in Slow Art, “how can we open up or stretch out the standard six-to-ten second contact?” He gets this brief timespan from a study of museum-goers tracking how long they stood, on average, before any single work of art. There is something depressingly empirical about both the fact itself, and about how close to typical I suspect my own viewing habits probably are. Like Reed, I too am “drawn to slowness” and I am usually motivated enough—by the demands of my job if nothing else—to pay attention when it’s needed. Which is not to reduce the “older gazing habits” that Reed explores so provocatively in Slow Art to another kind of labor, since what distinguishes the experience of “looking” that he favors is its long, evolving continuity with religious habits of perception that pre-date modern capitalism and its many accelerations of technology, society, and our own inner lives. “Medieval worshippers spent far longer gazing . . . because church rituals established the sequence and dictated the duration of encountering images. Contemplation was time-based as going to the movies is today.”
Since Reed takes us to church, I should probably confess: I’ve never seen Cemetery of Splendor in a theater. I first watched it on my iPhone during a flight from San Francisco to Estonia; it was one of several films for “work” that I had readied for the trip, anticipating that I wouldn’t be able to sleep on board the plane. (I wasn’t, and had no idea that the movie was about the opposite of insomnia.) Given that I live in the Bay Area, I have as good a chance as anyone to see a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul at “the movies.” If that ever happens—or if I’m able to make a pilgrimage for a screening—I’ll not just be able to watch the film at a visual scale its “splendor” justifies, but also faster than I ever have before. With breaks for drinks and stretching and people being generally free to move about the cabin, my attention on the way to Estonia was anything but undivided. Back home, I've watched it on my TV and computer, and God only knows how many times I’ve paused it for a snack or for an email I just remembered or for something unbearable on Twitter…Cemetery of Splendor has a running time of just over two hours. I’ve never made it through in under three. It took four days for me to watch it once again a couple weeks ago when I started thinking about the film alongside Slow Art. “How to identify the conditions that sustain aesthetic engagement?” asks Reed, just after warning that “applying the brakes is easier said than done.” Preaching, meet choir.
The last image of Cemetery of Splendor offers an answer that I try not to find distressing. We cut from the distant view of Pongpas watching soccer to a medium-shot that brings us as viewers right up to the presence of her body in an exaggerated pose of looking. To borrow from Reed, it is as if she has assumed the role and attitude of a “spectator” in some tableaux vivant of highly obscure origin. She is not entirely paralyzed for the remaining minute of the film, but her unblinking stare and measured breaths are meant, I think, to signify that she has caught the sleeping sickness too. She has frozen into immobility—drawn into a dream world of Thai mythology and ghost stories—just as the film finally seems to have achieved the speed of life today. There is nothing particularly modern about these kids who we see playing soccer, and they hardly look like avatars of our 24/7, accelerated future. But relatively speaking, they go faster than anything else in Cemetery of Splendor in this sense they do embody, however fleetingly, the modernity that figures everywhere in film’s own history as a medium. “Film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus,” writes Walter Benjamin, “changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen.”1 Film is an invention of what Reed calls “the great age of speed,” and it reflects on this technological momentum even when, in a movie such as Cemetery of Splendor, it so painstakingly makes a point of going slow.
I have moved too quickly through a film I’ve watched too slowly to do justice to all the ways that Arden Reed’s searching new book has made me want to think again about the speeds at which modernity can operate. Film usually is described as both a symbol of, and a tool for, the acceleration of perception that Slow Art challenges so powerfully. Yet there is something splendid about realizing that this might no longer be the case, despite the fact that the infrastructure of film production and distribution depends on computers, digital processing, and high-speed internet transmission. Film is also now a relic of an older time, an artifact of the slowest century any of us living can remember. Movies like Cemetery of Splendor caution against the sacrilege of only seeing things on the go, though inevitably we’ll be rushed and feel the need to hurry on our way. Let’s look for works of art that can stop us now and then, if only for a moment before we join the action elsewhere.
- Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 250.
Mark Goble is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life.