FROM SLOW CINEMA TO SLOW MACHINIMA
“I’ve always liked to watch people play video games. Or to watch video games as cinema. So when you start watching video games as cinema and you start considering them cinema… It becomes so unlike anything you’ve seen in cinema that it’s kinda interesting.”
(Cory Arcangel, 2011)
In his “State of Cinema” address at the 46th San Francisco Film Festival, French critic Michel Ciment (2003) described the emergence of a new cinematic style, “a cinema of slowness, of contemplation”. One year later, British critic Jonathan Romney coined the now popular expression “Slow Cinema” in a review to indicate those films that deliberately reject the narrative and aesthetic conventions of mainstream productions (1). Practitioners of slow cinema prefer a more contemplative, reflective, ruminative, and meditative approach to filmmaking to the frantic action, sensorial over stimulation, and asinine narratives of most Hollywood productions.
Slow cinema emphasizes long takes and extended durations. Observational in nature, it uses subdued visual techniques and minimal narrative strategies. As Ira Jaffe (2014) writes in Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action, “The plot and dialogue in slow movies often gravitate towards stillness and death, and tend, in any case, to be minimal, indeterminate and unresolved” (p. 23). According to David Campany (2007) slow films began as an avant-garde practice (consider, for instance, the Situationists) and represented a counterpoint to the “mass distraction” of advertising, television, and popular culture. Today, slow cinema is an umbrella term under which one can find contemporary arthouse and experimental film directors such as Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso, Ben Rivers, Carlos Reygadas, Bela Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Kelly Reichardt and many more.
I would like to argue that slow cinema is not limited to the film medium. There’s a growing category of game-based video productions that consciously or indirectly emulate the aesthetics of slow cinema and, in some cases, of what Justin Remes (2015) has called “cinema of stasis”. Like its cinematic counterpart, “slow machinima” is an international effort, fiercely independent, and deliberately adversarial to the dominant paradigm. Slow machinima productions are generally indifferent or deliberately antagonistic to mainstream game audiences, and perhaps, to mainstream audiences in general. In a sense, this "certain formal trend" in contemporary machinima can be seen as an indictment of video games’ ongoing cretinization of society. In their explicit refusal to adhere to the conventions of popular genres - e.g. comedy, sci-fi, and horror - a handful of directors have chosen to explore alternative visual strategies featuring long takes, sparse narrative, minimal camera movement, editing, and dialogue. These auteurs operate in the interstices separating cinema, animation, gaming, and performance art, contributing in their own way to blur the boundaries of each practice. Their work is situated within a recognized artistic language that transcends the confines of video games and rejects the bombastic visuals, fast rhythms, and frequent allusions to the fiction worlds upon which they are based. In many ways, slow machinima is a gesture of coordinated resistance to contemporary game culture and its testosterone-driven aesthetics, hype cycles, and overt misogyny. It also rejects digital culture’s emphasis on child-like visual titillation, constant distraction, and pervasive narcissism. Additionally, slow machinima often embraces games’ in-built visual obsolescence, rather than adhering to the imperative of photorealism. Above all, slow machinima tests viewers’ patience skills. Its expected - or desired - viewing position presupposes endurance: the pace of many productions can be described as “glacial”, the camera often lingers on “non happening” situations, and the overall visual iconography is generally austere or explicitly devoid of games’ visual clichés.
The expression slow machinima may appear baffling, or even pretentious. In its rejection of gaming instant gratification, slow machinima chronicles the spaces and times of inactivity and “in-betweenness” of mainstream productions, those sparse moments of tranquility of otherwise fast and furious “triple AAA titles” or “franchises”, as the marketing types - and, by osmosis, the average game journalist - call them. If most video games can be situated in the accelerationist paradigm - itself a manifestation of capitalism’ obsession for growth, speed, and grotesque excess - slow machinima invokes a more reflective, attentive, and introspective viewing experience. As Lutz Koepnick (2014) writes in On Slowness: Toward an Aesthetic of the Contemporary:
Our attention spans shrink toward zero because we have to make too many decisions within ever shorter windows of time. Cell phones, handheld computers, and ubiquitous screening devices urge us to be always on and produce instantaneous responses, yet we no longer take the time to contemplate an image, develop a profound thought, traverse a gorgeous landscape, play a game, or follow the intensity of some emotion. (p. 12)
Slow machinima can be seen as alternative to a constant flow of interruptions, inane updates, and juvenile distractions. In terms of presentation, distribution, and circulation, slow machinima diverge from fandom productions insofar as they are not usually distributed on popular video sharing websites such as YouTube or Vimeo, but in the artworld circuits. Slow machinima prefers projection rooms to smartphone screens, art galleries’ video installation to laptops. As such, the profile of their audience rarely overlap with that of the “gamer”. Although machinima and slow machinima engage with the same material, that is, video games, they rely on radically different contexts and markets.
Over the next few weeks, I will share a few thoughts about the emergence of what I am calling slow machinima and how it has been consciously and/or unconsciously embraced by a variety of practitioners. These posts will focus especially - but not exclusively - on the works on display at GAME VIDEO/ART. A SURVEY and included in the collateral events (screenings).
Interestingly, as Romney was conceptualizing slow cinema, media artist Cory Arcangel modified a copy of Tetris for the Nintendo Entertainment System to prolong its duration. In Arcangel’s version, "It takes about 8 hours for the blocks to fall in one complete game. At the same time, it is still possible to move them left and right, it just takes minutes for them to drop one pixel down on the screen. It’s totally maddening!" (Arcangel, 2004). In a sense, Super Slow Tetris (2004) can be considered the videogame equivalent of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho.