I just caught Philip Gröning's extraordinary documentary Into Great Silence (2 screens and opening wider), about Carthusian monks living in a charterhouse in the French Alps. It runs just past two hours and 45 minutes and I would wager that no more than two hundred words are spoken throughout. The film merely shows the monks going about their daily business: praying, chanting, caring for gardens, shoveling snow, sawing firewood, cooking, eating, etc. I have to admit part of my enthusiasm for the film stems from the fact that it contains no talking heads or clips; I was just about ready to scream if I saw one more documentary shot in that tired old PBS format. But I was also drawn to the film's meditative rhythm.
Or is it just slow? Already some of the reviews have trudged out the word "boring" to describe the film, and certainly it's a hard sell. But why? It's apparent that Gröning doesn't have any particular viewpoint about the monks; he's not trying to sell us on their dignity or righteousness, nor is he trying to uncover some secret, seamy underbelly. He merely wishes to show them to us. And in his great, quiet stretches, a viewer can easily get lost in his or her own thoughts. Indeed, I believe that Gröning actually prefers us to get lost in our own thoughts.
Other film critics have teased me over the years about my appreciation for "slow" movies. I was utterly entranced when a character explored the giant, preserved corpse of a whale, walking all the way from tip to tail and back again, in Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and when Matt Damon and Casey Affleck trudged through the desert for ten full minutes without a word or a cut in Gus Van Sant's Gerry (2003). Not to mention Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), a slow odyssey that unfolds at the pace of night. Perhaps a clearer example would be Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life (1998), which asks viewers to choose their most perfect memory for permanent preservation on film. It's impossible to watch that movie and not consider our own memories.
All four of these movies (as well as many others) allow us to ruminate on anything -- at first maybe the state of our physical being or the mystery of death. But here's the trick. If a viewer begins thinking about the safety of his or her parking spot or where to have lunch, does that count? If not, why not? Isn't parking and lunch just another part of life? Obviously something in the movie spurred us to think about such mundane issues. Here's another question: how often do we really think about such things? I mean, when do we really ponder the true meaning of where to have lunch? I would wager that, while watching Into Great Silence, one could do so. In several scenes, we watch the monks dining alone while looking out their sun-filled windows. What do they think about while eating? And, indeed, what are they eating?
The truth is that most viewers resist letting their thoughts wander. It's roughly the equivalent of letting the phone ring instead of answering it; it's not in our programming. We're more comfortable with rules, with movies that push all our buttons for us, leading us by the hand with no fuss or muss. It's not a matter of smart vs. dumb, it's a matter of control vs. letting go. And aren't we all control freaks these days? How many of us could actually leave home right now without our cell phone or Blackberry? One of the repeating refrains in Into Great Silence has to do with giving up everything one has. What does that mean? Does that mean memories and experience? How many of us could actually do it?
I'm just throwing all this out there. I don't necessarily want slow movies all the time. In 1999, my #1 and #2 movies were Eyes Wide Shut and Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run; I liked to say that they were the slowest and fastest movies of the year. Truth to tell, I love movies that find their own, proper pace. I love fast movies just as much as slow movies. The movies that fall in-between are either too scared to slow down or too inept to speed up. I read somewhere about a film class that attempted to re-create scenes from Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940), one of the fastest movies ever made. They couldn't do it. Hawks had the skill for speed, but also rhythm.
That's the key: rhythm. Hawks and Tykwer knew when to pause in their breakneck pace for a laugh or a sigh. We hear the phrase "roller coaster movie" used a lot these days, mainly to describe summer popcorn movies, but how many filmmakers remember the concept of slowly climbing several stories, anticipating the drop, or even rounding a corner and slowing down for a beat to catch your breath? Fast or slow, rhythm is a very delicate art. Dreamgirls (314 screens) and Hannibal Rising (218 screens) don't have it, while Children of Men (92 screens) and The Cave of the Yellow Dog (1 screen) do. And the beat goes on.