By Jack Wareham
Dedicated to those filmmakers too often branded as ‘slow.’ Bresson, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Tati, Kubrick …
Describing the speed of a film is one of the most common metrics we have of assessing cinematic technique. We’re told that fast-paced films are thrilling entertainment or popcorn flicks. Slow films, in contrast, are more likely to be a part of ‘art cinema,’ and for many, sitting through them is a duty rather than a pleasure.
But what do we really mean when we describe a film as slow? After all, every film moves with the same speed: twenty-four frames a second. I think the adjectives ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ are often used incorrectly to describe films, and should ideally depart the vocabulary of film discussions.
1. The most obvious problem with discussing whether a film is slow or fast is that speed is entirely dependent on the viewer. To a movie-goer in 1941, Citizen Kane was likely a wildly sensational experience, but to someone growing up on Snapchat stories and Vines it might be a dreadful slog.
2. Maybe speed is a descriptor of the number of plot points, or the rapidity with which one plot point leads to the next. But consider Barry Lyndon, a movie deemed ‘slow’ by its detractors, which spans a man’s entire life and his rise and fall from fortune. It can’t be a matter of dialogue either: for a recent example, think of A Quiet Place, which was deemed a thrilling movie by many despite having almost no conversation between characters.
3. A more precise measure of speed could be a film’s Average Shot Length in seconds, or ASL. And yet in my High School film class some students described Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as slow despite its ASL being only 3 seconds, compared to Michael Bay’s 3 and Steven Spielberg’s 6.5.
4. In their current form, discussions of speed in film tend to privilege plot over form and new films over old ones. I think what people really mean by ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ is the speed from which a film moves from one meaningful moment to the next. As such, the real question is not the pacing of the plot or the length of the shots, but how often we find ourselves captivated or astonished.
If you find rapturous pleasure in the long space sequences in 2001, or the melancholy zoom-outs in Barry Lyndon, there is no need to describe them as ‘slow.’ To quote Jonathan Rosenbaum in his discussion of the speed of Yasujiro Ozu’s films: “For what finally matters most in Ozu is not how slow or fast he is but how slow or fast we are in keeping up with him.”