A reflection on the big screen vs small screen viewing experience by festival programmer Nadin Mai.
Nighttime. Janos, a young postman, enters the local bar. It’s closing time, but the villagers, who have spent their evening drinking to their hearts’ content and who don’t want to leave this comfortable escape from the daily boredom and hopelessness, refuse to leave the bar. They refuse to return to their wretched lives, to their unemployed and miserable existence. This isn’t the first time the bar owner struggles to close his bar. This isn’t the first evening, which seems to drag on forever. This isn’t the first time his shift doesn’t have an end. Janos knows. Janos knows the regular evening struggles in the city, knows that it is difficult to ask people to leave their soothing delirium behind and return to their hopeless lives. But there is something that always works: a re-enactment of the solar system.
When Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) ends, I turn off the TV. Very often, I shut down my computer after a film. I don’t get up from my seat and leave a darkened auditorium, together with other likeminded people with whom I have shared this experience. Instead, I get up from my sofa and do something else that needs to be done; the dishes, the laundry, class preparation. No magical reawakening in the daylight after two hours in the dark, two hours in a mysterious world which is reality but not quite my own reality. No immediate confusion as to what to think, now, back in real life. No discussion with someone on the way home. The film, as stunning as it was, was a mere bracket in my daily life. Writing this now makes me see the discrepancy between what I preach on my website The Art(s) of Slow Cinema and what I do on a regular basis. How often have I told my readers that certain films are not worthy on a small screen? How often have I told my readers to please go into the cinema in order to get the best possible film experience? And yet, the most important question to me, now, ten years after my first slow film, is: how many films have I seen on a big screen and what does this do to my film experience?
When the first television sets arrived in people’s homes, there was an angst making its rounds amongst the film industry. Could television bring about the death of cinema, a medium that was popular amongst the masses, but nevertheless still new and therefore fragile? Television became not a new, but another medium of choice for people. The evening news, a film, later on a popular soap opera – there was something ritualistic about turning the television on and everyone coming together. When I went to school, the first questions in the morning were “Did you see … ?” and “What did you think of last night’s episode?” This ritual, this communal feeling of watching something right at this very moment with hundreds of thousands of others in your country, has slowly disappeared. The initially feared small screen may not have killed cinema, but it did begin the steady decline of ritualistic viewing practices. Now, millions the world over watch The Hunger Games, but they do this, in many cases, alone at home, when they have time or when they feel like it. The virtual connection to other viewers, which television, even more so than cinema, gifted us with has mutated into an imaginary connection. The connection, the feeling of community provided by the small screen is no longer real, it is imagined.
If I look at the statistics of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema blog, I have so far written about approximately 200 films. For the most part, those were proper slow films. A handful of films would not strictly count as contemplative, but initiated talking points for my blog. I remember a fantastic experience in Edinburgh, where Béla Tarr introduced his last film The Turin Horse. I also remember a great experience in Glasgow, where Tsai Ming-liang’s last feature film Stray Dogs was screened. Lav Diaz’s Melancholia was my first experience of a long and slow film on a big screen back in 2012. I had a chance to see Wang Bing’s Bitter Money in cinema as well as Fred Kelemen’s Frost. I saw a couple of others, but that number goes perhaps as high as twenty. And here is the paradox that defines Slow Cinema: more than any other genre, I believe, Slow Cinema is made for the big screen, is dependent on it in order to show its full beauty and create a true sense of the weight of time, but it is the small screen which dominates the experience of slow films. Private screeners, pirated files – the majority of slow films circulate online and therefore on small screens. Even though things have changed considerably since I started writing about Slow Cinema it is still a challenge to find most of the slow films I’m writing about on a big screen.
The first submissions for our festival arrive in our inbox. By the end of the submission period, there would be over three hundred films to watch. Everything happens on my laptop. One film after another runs on my small screen. I’m taking notes, especially about the visuals. It’s been a long day. I’ve seen a lot of films and I feel tired. One film strikes me, but I discard it because it doesn’t feel like a slow film. Over the years, I have created a gut feeling, which tells me whether a film is slow and good. This usually shows within the first two to three minutes, or while seeing the first frame of a film. This particular film didn’t convince me. It is set at night and shows us nothing but the glow of streetlights. I didn’t see how this could be an asset to the festival. I flag it red and couldn’t quite get myself to defend the film when the programming team discussed the final selection.
When I stop in London on my way to Mayfield, I see people all around me who watch films. This sentence would have sounded bizarre even ten years ago. Today, it is reality. There is a man, possibly on his way to the metro, holding his phone up in order to follow what’s happening on his small cinema screen. A teenage boy appears to watch the latest Marvel on his phone. I walk past a young woman who indulges in her favourite TV series. Cinema and television is everywhere and I cannot believe the rapid development, which the UK has seen since I left the country four years earlier. In 2015, albeit VoD platforms were readily available, the actual viewing practice was still vastly confined to one’s own four walls. Today, cinema means not only moving images, but moving images which move with the audience.
Viewing practices have always changed according to the change of technology. If I can sit on my sofa and watch a large selection of festival entries, then it is first and foremost thanks to major developments in technology. A good laptop with a good screen size and resolution doesn’t cost a fortune anymore. Everything is made in such a way that one can get stunning visuals for comparatively little money. Beautiful film scenes set in nature look just as gorgeous on a small screen. 4K and Ultra High Definition screens gradually became standard in people’s living rooms. But while technology helps the viewers to take film and television wherever they go, little thought is spent on what the increased preference for small screens does to our viewing practice. I’m thinking in particular of the experience of film. Can we still speak of a cinematic experience if a film is viewed on a small screen? How do we define experience? When does a film become an experience?
The film I initially discarded was Eli Hayes’ The Growing Glow. It was selected for SFF 2019 and was screened on a large screen on the first day of the festival. I wondered how it would fare with the audience and also with myself? When the screening ended after twenty minutes, I was stunned by the beauty, the gentleness, the experience of light, piercing the darkness of the night, the darkness which surrounds me in the auditorium. I couldn’t believe that this was the same film I had seen during the submission process. What happened?
Except for the Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle in March 2012, the Slow Film Festival was the first time I sat in a darkened auditorium with a dedicated audience. No walkouts, no frustration. Everyone was there because of a genuine interest in Slow Cinema and the sense of sharing this opportunity of seeing films otherwise unavailable creates a unique atmosphere, which cannot arise in your living room. It cannot arise on the way to the metro, it cannot arise standing on the platform waiting for the train. It is an atmosphere that can only exist in an auditorium which one shares with others. This is what makes the auditorium this special: it is today the only place where a sense of community and of communal viewing still exists. As pervasive as small screens are, they add to a devaluation of film as art, film as a shared experience with others, something it was conceived for at the beginning and for most of the 20th century. Slow Cinema, with its weight of time, with its long contemplative observations of drained and fatigued characters, lives off the big screen. The gentle camera movements need space in order to fully unfold their mesmerising effect at times, their devastating effect at others. The darkness in the auditorium creates a womb in which we snuggle up and yet feel unsure of. It is, after all, the night which holds the dangers we fear most. And yet, our eyes’ singular focus on the large screen, facilitated by the same darkness which we inherently fear, sets us on par with the camera, following the characters in their daily lives, focusing on their every move, tracking them wherever they go. The camera’s focus becomes our focus, becomes the hand we stretch out in order to feel our way through the darkness.
Hayes’ The Growing Glow made a point about the importance of the screen and the characteristics which it carries and which therefore influence the viewing experience. The paradox of Slow Cinema – in need of a large screen with a lack thereof and the resulting viewing on small screens only – is problematic in that an inadequate viewing practice risks a devaluing of the film and generates boredom in the viewer. Boredom – the most common negative response to Slow Cinema. But as Julian Jason Haladyn suggest in his book Boredom and Art (2015), boredom doesn’t derive from the actual artwork. The source of boredom are the viewers themselves. It is they who decide whether or not to engage in a painting, in a sculpture, or in a film. If the Slow Film Festival made clear one aspect of Slow Cinema, then it is the role of the screen and the auditorium in the willingness of the viewer to engage with a slow film. It is the darkness, it is the shared experience, the guided focus onto a large screen, which brings the true beauty of Slow Cinema to the surface. Only then can films such as The Growing Glow be seen for what they are: extraordinary views on our ordinary lives.
Nadin Mai is an independent film critic based in France. She runs The Art(s) of Slow Cinema website.
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