I’m not a constant reader of Landon Palmer’s Culture Warrior column for various reasons. For one thing, there’s not enough time in the day to parse my way through his weekly post and have it make even the slightest bit of sense. (There’s a whole world outside and I’d rather be out there enjoying the sunshine!) Believe me I try, but I simply can’t stay focused long enough to find his cleverly hidden thesis and watch it play out throughout the seventy-four paragraphs that follow… and I kid obviously, but it’s no joke to say Palmer’s columns are an education unto themselves and have a lot more to say about film than my usual posts about hot Asian chicks taking baths and fighting the Yakuza.
Once in a while though, Palmer chooses a Culture Warrior topic that’s compelling enough for me to force myself to slog through his dense prose from beginning to end, and I’m almost always happy to have done so. Last week’s installment is one such example, and it got me thinking about intentionally ‘slow’ films that work exactly as their creators intended. I asked Palmer if he wanted to help put together a quick list of ten perfect examples of effective slow-paced films. We were going to do five each, but then Cole Abaius found out what we were up to and demanded a seat at the table. He played the ‘managing editor’ card so we had to let him join in the fun.
Le Jour se lève (1939)
Alongside Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo, Marcel Carné was part of the pre-WWII French film movement called Poetic Realism. While these filmmakers may not have invented mise en scène, they certainly perfected it, employing a style dominated by a wide frame that, theoretically, allowed audience eyes to explore where they please rather than be dictated by the intent of the filmmaker, resulting in a rare democratic form of classic filmgoing. In a way, this style invented great slow filmmaking. And Carné’s Le Jour se lève (Daybreak) is one of the best of the pack. A (now) familiar and simple story, the film opens with a disgruntled factory worker (Jean Gabin) committing murder then flashes back chronicling his involvement in a toxic love triangle. The width and depth of the Poetic Realism’s iconic long focus shots are complemented here by Carné’s deliberate pacing, and the end result is a film that can’t help but enrapture you in its dense, unforgiving tone. The visual and storytelling style are both interesting from a historical perspective, but at its core Le Jour se lève is just a damn good heartbreak of a movie. It’s shockingly dark and pessimistic, and proof that one hardly needs any fast-paced action to make a trilling and suspenseful mystery pre-noir noir. - Landon Palmer
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
While fully covered in Old Ass Movies, Treasure is a film that’s more about what’s not being said, what’s not being done, than it is about the actions of the characters. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), Howard (Walter Huston), and Curtin (Tim Holt) are three men that all want the same thing, and they’ll spend the entire run time of the movie plotting to get it and keep it for themselves. With the setting in the grizzly, gold-filled dust, there’s already an exotic danger, a death by the elements that looms over them, but the real action is in the struggle to find fortune and smuggle it all out without necessarily having to kill two other men in the process. Through the dialog, the revelation of past lives, and the prize at the end of the tunnel, these three men captivate with a dark intent and a finger that is trembling on the trigger for the entire run time. It might feel like nothing is happening, but the sweat running down your back while watching it should tell you differently. – Cole Abaius
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Only Robert Bresson would be able to take the slow exploration of faith and its failures and spin it into something intense. Granted, there’s the harsh treatment of the young Priest, who comes to the village completely unwelcome, that gives a lot of life to the movie, but for the most part it is the epitome of a slow burn. The girls torment him, his lifestyle is mocked openly, and his health worsens. That’s about it for two hours, but what’s fascinating is the study of an outcast, the look into the mind of a man who is not really part of this world. It moves with intensity and was certainly intriguing enough to influence Scorsese in making Taxi Driver. - Cole Abaius
Barry Lyndon (1975)
In another Scorsese connection, the iconic director has called it his favorite of fellow-iconic director Stanley Kubrick’s entire body of work. It’s a period piece recounting the whole life of an Irish adventurer in the 18th century. There’s a few duels, some incestuous seduction, some highway robbery, and some military careering, but make no mistake – this is Kubrick being the methodical director he loved being. Images and scenarios are lingered on to beautiful effect, and the charisma of Ryan O’Neal carries a lot of that attention. The ennui of high society is a major theme, but the film is absolutely never boring – maintaining a quiet, brooding interest that lasts a lifetime. Or almost two and a half hours. - Cole Abaius
I just can’t let a list like this go out there without mentioning at least one film by the late, great Russian time sculptor Andrei Tarkovsky. I’ve discussed his filmmaking in depth in two CW posts so far, and it seems that he more than any other filmmaker has perfected the art of deliberate pacing. In Stalker Tarkovsky revisits science-fiction (after his sci-fi epic Solaris), but here he sticks to Earth as his palette instead of the reaches of space. Stalker portrays an oppressive, antiquated, inferentially fascist dystopian future. But emancipation exists in the mysterious Zone, a cordoned-off strip of land that supposedly defies the laws of physics and grants its visitors their innermost desires. Professional “Stalkers” (the term here meaning something along the lines of “hunting guide”) lead citizens into the Zone for a large sum of money, and this film concerns the journey of one Stalker leading a scientist and a writer into the mysterious Zone. The film’s ambient, experimental score (you can’t tell where the music ends and sound design begins) and astounding long shots make for a totally immersive experience, ratcheting up the mystery of what supernatural force lies in the Zone. Tarkovsky doesn’t just slow time—he temporarily halts the experience of time and space, potentially transcending his audience towards a new, revelatory plane of cinematic perception. - Landon Palmer
Afraid of the Dark (1991)
Creating a “slow” film that doesn’t bore or lose the audience in its deliberate pacing is difficult enough for traditional films, but it’s an incredible feat when it comes to thrillers. Writer/director Mark Peploe’s moody ode to childhood fears accomplishes this through a combination of quality acting, smart writing, and a game-changing event halfway through the film. A psychotic slasher is attacking blind women, and a young boy fears his mother may be next. He wanders his small town collecting clues to the identity of the madman and soon finds himself face to face with what he fears most… and it’s not exactly what you’d expect. The film puts the viewer right in the middle of one boy’s world, one where everyone may be bigger and smarter, but only he knows the truth that can save them all. - Rob Hunter
The Pledge (2001)
Sean Penn gets a lot of flack for a lot of things, but few can find fault with the man’s directorial skills. His third film (and I would argue his best) stars Jack Nicholson as Jerry Black, a newly retired detective with one unsolved case haunting him. A child had disappeared and he promised to never quit searching for the truth. Black enters into retirement but never forgets his promise, and instead turns his investigation into a hobby. But what happens when the hobby becomes obsession? Nicholson is fantastic and surprisingly understated, and he’s joined by an equally compelling cast including Benicio Del Toro as a suspect, Aaron Eckhart as a fellow cop, and Robin Wright Penn as a single mother with her own pains to bear. Black’s daily life begins to include more and more of Penn and her daughter, but are they they family he never had or are they simply part of his hobby? Penn moves his film methodically and purposefully towards a devastating truth, and it is mesmerizing. - Rob Hunter
Writer/director Kim Ki-duk has built a career on films that move slower than a bowl of kimchi on my dinner table (see, I don’t like kimchi). Films like Samaritan Girl and The Isle are brilliant explorations of lives that linger day in day out until brief bursts of violence reshape them (usually for the worse) into something new. 3-Iron is a different beast all together… it’s instead one of the most beautiful and romantic films I’ve seen. Tae-suk breaks into homes when the owners are away, but it isn’t theft he has on his mind. Instead he cleans up, fixes broken clocks and appliances, and does the laundry. His pattern is interrupted when he finds himself in a house that isn’t as empty as he first presumed. A battered wife named Sun-hwa has gone unnoticed, and as she watches his routine an odd relationship begins to develop. Not only is the film leisurely paced, but it’s also almost dialogue-free. Tae-suk never speaks a word, and Sun-hwa says barely a sentence or two, yet the couple find find themselves falling in love anyway. Their growing bond is evident solely through their expressions, glances, and minute actions, and yet it still manages to be an incredibly believable on-screen romance. The film plays like a dream, and is both beautiful and fascinating to watch. - Rob Hunter
The Clearing (2004)
Like two of my other three picks above, this is a thriller in every way except for traditional pacing. A high-powered executive (Robert Redford) is kidnapped and forced to fight for his life, not through violence but with reasoning and negotiation. His struggle is mirrored by his wife’s as she tries to come to terms with his disappearance and all of the truths that come to light in his absence. Writer/director Pieter Jan Brugge presents a film about a kidnapping that eschews chase scenes and explosive SWAT team rescues in favor of something more introspective. The husband has to revisit the choices in his life while his wife (Helen Mirren) reflects on the marriage she thought she had. Willem Dafoe stars as the kidnapper who may just bring the couple closer together if he doesn’t tear them apart forever first. - Rob Hunter
You see what looks like a banal, prolonged, uncut shot of a Parisian house. Suddenly, the images speed up and slow down, jumping forward and backward. You quickly realize this is not the filmmaker’s establishing shot, but a voyeuristic secret video made by a character within the film. Probably Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s strongest work to date (I haven’t yet seen his recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon), Caché uses Haneke’s typical long shots and slow pacing throughout; but the brilliance of this film lies in its ability to make the audience continuously question whether anything they are seeing is the work of the filmmaker or the mysterious voyeur terrorizing the nuclear family at the film’s center. Coupled with a shocking on-screen moment that changes the name of the game entirely, the viewer becomes entirely on edge, knowing the filmmaker is always one giant step ahead of us. Haneke here turns the banal and the ordinary into something incredibly suspenseful and discomfiting, and the film’s meticulous pacing is central to achieving this effect. Caché is also a thematically heavy film, touching on issues regarding bourgeois cultural consumption, the long-term effects of imperialism, and privacy in the digital era, but the film thankfully provides few answers for the many questions it asks, instead showing how sometimes we often end up knowing a lot less about something the closer we look at it. - Landon Palmer
What are some of your favorite slow, but not boring films?