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Slow Cinema: Resistance to Motion & Emotion


Slow Cinema: Resistance to Motion & Emotion


Ira Jaffe

What is slow cinema? Ira Jaffe, professor emeritus at the University of Mexico, explores through numerous distinguished directors, such as Lisandro Alonso, Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa and Bela Tarr, how slow movies resist motion and emotion, while foregrounding the aesthetics and duration of the human condition & cinema itself.

In the movies I call slow in Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action (2014), emotion as well as motion is curtailed [1]. If a motion picture presents strong, clear emotion to the audience - as, for instance, many mainstream American films do, according to Carl Plantinga - the film falls outside my definition of slow. Even the monochromatic stasis of Derek Jarman’s Blue falls outside, since Jarman’s voice-over brims with emotion. Blue is simply too moving to be slow. The idea that emotion and motion are intertwined is, of course, not uncommon in aesthetics and cinema studies. In her book, Feeling in Theory. Emotion after the ‘Death of the Subject’ (2001), Rei Terada writes that ‘the ideology of emotion diagrams emotion as something lifted from a depth to a surface.’ [2] She proceeds to cite James R. Averill, who explains that ‘the term ‘emotion’ stems from the Latin, e + movere, which originally meant “to move out,” “to migrate,” or “to transport an object.”’ Eugenie Brinkema in her recent book The Forms of the Affects (2014) also relates emotion to motion: when she writes, for instance, of anxiety as inhering in a cinematic form or structure distinguished by movement that is constricted, awkward and intermittent. [3]  

Besides underscoring in this essay that emotion, not just motion, is often resisted or arrested in slow movies, I want to stress that resistance to emotion both distinguishes slow-movie characters and inheres in the very form, style and duration of slow movies. Any resistance to emotion is felt or experienced in the film world as a whole. Among major filmmakers, perhaps none has stressed interrelations of motion and emotion more than Sergei Eisenstein. As recounted in his essay, ‘Through Theater to Cinema,’ Eisenstein early in his stage career was directing actors to express emotion via acrobatic movement [4]. ‘Rage expressed through a somersault, exaltation through a salto-mortale...,’ he wrote. It seemed natural to him that motion and emotion proceed in tandem, that motion express, reflect or intensify emotion. Greg M. Smith has noted that Eisenstein came to describe ecstasy, perhaps the most important emotion he sought to convey, as itself a form of internal motion, ‘a transport,’ said Eisenstein, ‘out of understanding...and consciousness,’ ‘out of a normal state,’ into a state of enhanced energy, flux and transformation. Moreover, transmitting or arousing emotion – especially ecstasy and pathos – often seemed to be Eisenstein’s salient cinematic goal: ‘exercising emotional influence over the masses,’ as he put it, seemed even more important than influencing them intellectually. Eisenstein’s view that motion was ‘the basic element of art’ relied on motion’s entwinement with emotion. Not only ecstasy and pathos, but all emotion (from the Latin root motio, said Eisenstein), was ‘a movement of the soul...created out of the performance of a series of incidents.’ These incidents Eisenstein described in ‘A Dialectic Approach to Film Form’ as converging in conflict, collision, explosion and montage. Regarding the tie between emotion and montage, he wrote, ‘Emotion begins only with the reconstruction of the event in montage fragments.’ [4] He held that the audience contributed to this reconstruction by discerning links between the fragments, or by filling in the blanks, and that such engagement stimulated audience emotion. 

Probably no motion picture is devoid of both motion and emotion, but the two need not be as emphatic and strenuous as in Eisenstein’s cinema, mainstream American cinema, or, I might add, the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, who enjoyed noting what he termed the ‘processes through which we take the create...audience emotion.’ Rather, just as motion may be slowed and even halted, emotion may be restrained or muted. Robert Bresson recommended a ‘production of emotion... determined by a resistance to emotion.’ [5] Directors of slow movies including Argentinian Lisandro Alonso and Romania’s Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu have explicitly instructed performers to limit or restrain their emotional expressiveness. ‘Don’t look into the camera and don’t express anything,’ Alonso has told his actors. In slow movies, moreover, fictive characters, as well as actors may hesitate to express emotion: in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, for instance, the ex-wife of the commercial photographer Mahmut phones him toward the end of the film to apologize for getting ‘too emotional’ in their recent conversation. Consistent with such worries and inhibitions, Jim Jarmusch considered Stranger Than Paradise a repressed film and Todd Haynes said that Safe is about restraint, while Alexander Sokurov has asserted that ‘art is only where reticence exists.’ The descriptions of slow movies and their central characters by critics, filmmakers and actors routinely stress terms such as blank, flat, affectless, deadpan and expressionless.   

Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion
— Robert Bresson

The muting of emotion (not only as a result of the acting and the delineation of character) likely contributes in slow movies to a sense of immobility, of existence as fixed or frozen in place. Further, diminished or constricted emotional expression in these movies tends to be ambiguous, indeterminate, difficult to read and frustrating, much like the attenuated narrative of these movies, in which little or nothing happens. Consequently, instead of attracting and arousing audiences in the manner, say, of Eisenstein or Hitchcock, slow movies may distance and estrange viewers – as the New York Times Manohla Dargis has noted. Dargis wrote that Alonso , who recently was Filmmaker in Residence for 2014 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, cultivates a style that ‘seems calculated to bring him as modest an audience as possible.’ Alonso’s cinema, says Dargis, seems indifferent to the spectator rather than eager to secure his or her emotional engagement. Pedro Costa’s cinema possibly goes a step further: it seems not merely indifferent but almost hostile as it resists the spectator by withholding narrative information as well as emotion. ‘The spectator can see a film if something on the screen resists him,’ says Costa. Let there be ‘a door,’ he says, that tells the spectator ‘Don’t come in.’ Even if this means turning the spectator ‘against the film,’ says Costa, the spectator must encounter resistance, must experience the film as less penetrable and comfortable than the norm, must confront in the cinema differences from him – or herself. ‘I believe that today, in the cinema,’ declares Costa, ‘when we open a door, it’s always quite false, because it says to the spectator: “Enter this film and you’re going to be fine, you’re going to have a good time”, and finally what you see in this genre of film is nothing other than yourself, a projection of yourself.’ Much like Alonso and Costa, Gus Van Sant in his slow movies such as Gerry and Elephant prefers distance, seeks to forestall conventional audience involvement and identification with characters and actions. Like Alonso in particular, Van Sant wants spectators, he says, ‘to have space to drift off and reflect’ and ‘to get lost.’ Moreover, much like Abbas Kiarostami as well as Alonso, Van Sant seeks to create what he calls ‘open’ films, by which he means open to diverse and cool-headed responses and interpretations. Unlike Eisenstein and Hitchcock, Van Sant envisions or prescribes for the audience no particular emotional or intellectual trajectory and destination.        

I believe that today, in the cinema when we open a door, it’s always quite false, because it says to the spectator: “Enter this film and you’re going to be fine, you’re going to have a good time”
— Pedro Costa

Along with the acting and the fashioning of characters in slow movies, various formal or structural features contribute to the emotional minimalism and indeterminacy, as well as to the slow pace. One such formal feature is the paucity of dialogue and the recurrence of silence. ‘Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence,’ Bresson advised in Notes on Cinematography. [5] ‘Build your film on white, on silence and on stillness.’ As if impelled by such maxims, father and daughter in Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse speak not a single word for the first 20 minutes of the film. Eleven minutes go by in Ceylan’s Distant prior to the first conversation. Just thirty words are spoken in the first 25 minutes of Costa’s Ossos, a circumstance that adds mystery to the film’s long takes featuring expressions of human sadness. Alonso says of his own slow movies, in which characters speak few words, ‘I...don’t have any confidence in words. I do have confidence in what I see.’ In Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu – a more experimental slow movie than most – there are no spoken words at all. As has been said of Samuel Beckett, makers of slow movies build their ‘aesthetic on what is not said and not known.’

Aside from the wordless intervals that occur throughout most slow movies, films such as Stranger Than Paradise, Van Sant’s Elephant, Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Alonso’s Liverpool contain blackouts, though in Elephant and Turin these blank, imageless moments bear either names of the film’s characters or two or three words announcing time’s passage.  

Another formal element related to emotional minimalism and indeterminacy in slow movies concerns the camera. Manoel de Oliveira said in an interview in 2008 that ‘the present is immobile...just like the images in celluloid, every single one [of which] is still….’ Slow movies stress the stillness or immobility of the present. They rarely feature rapid, dramatic movements, such as the somersaults celebrated by Eisenstein. Equally important is that movements of the camera itself are rare in slow movies; and when the camera does move, as in Bela Tarr’s films, the movement is quite slow. Further, the stationary camera in slow movies often records characters and objects from a distance, in long shot, which can make it more difficult for the spectator to determine what a character is feeling and thinking or to identify with that individual. In addition, even when an event before the camera would seem to warrant a camera move or a cut to a new camera position, in order to illuminate or underscore a point, the camera typically remains fixed in place and the shot persists without a cut. Such is the case, for instance, when Farrel, the ordinarily incurious, unemotional main character in Alonso’s Liverpool, appears suddenly drawn to what may be a photograph in his mother’s home, which he has not visited in a great many years. He stares at the photo, picks it up, runs his finger over it, sets it down, soon returns to it and places it in his red travel tote, which he carries from his mother’s home and out of her village. Conventional direction might have cut to a closer shot of the photo and/or of Farrel reacting to it. But there’s no cut, new shot, new information, or change of camera position. And, as human eye and camera eye rarely coincide in slow movies, there’s certainly no shot from Farrel’s point of view, which might confer on him greater narrative agency or power. Instead, Alonso’s camera, besides remaining still and distant throughout Farrel’s transaction with the photograph, stays fixed on the empty room for 29 seconds after Farrel goes out the door. The camera’s stillness and distance recur outdoors as Farrel hands the girl what later turns out to be a keychain bearing the word Liverpool. Then the stationary camera holds on Farrell for more than 60 seconds in extreme long shot as he walks off in the snow and, in effect, exits the film.   

The fixity of the camera in slow movies often brings to mind an unmoved or unfeeling person. Hence Richard Porton in Cineaste remarks on the stationary camera’s ‘impassivity’ as it records the heroine’s social entrapment and dismay at the birthday dinner in Cristi Puiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days. Impassivity, of course, distinguishes many slow-movie characters, who withhold emotion and take little action. In describing the camera as impassive, Porton attributes a human condition to an aspect of film form.  

Juan A. Suarez has described Stranger Than Paradise as a film of ‘blank affect,’ while Jim Jarmusch has labeled it a ‘repressed film.’ Neither description, if judged in light of Bresson’s maxim that ‘the flattest and dullest...have in the end the most life,’ entails that Stranger is devoid of life and emotion. My main point, though, is that the characterizations of Stranger by Suarez and Jarmusch ascribe emotion(s) to the film as a whole rather than to its characters. Such claims seem consistent with recent reminders that films, not just characters, are felt by us and embody emotion themselves: in Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema, Daniel Yacavone avers that ‘film worlds are felt as much as they are perceived and known’; [6] and in The Forms of the Affects, which I mentioned earlier, Eugenie Brinkema urges that we regard ‘affect as having form and inhering in form.’ 

It is the flattest and the dullest parts that in the end have the most life
— Robert Bresson

I have tried to indicate that it is in the form as well as content of slow movies that we feel or experience film worlds’ resistance to emotion. In slow movies, not just time looms larger as action is displaced or diminished; cinematic form itself comes to the fore in a new way. A cut, camera move, slant of light, the texture of a wall, the posture of a character – all become more prominent, and afford the pensive spectator rare insight and pleasure. Hence the formal artistry of slow movies belies their indications of human incapacity, of nothing happening, of time as empty or dead.


[1] Jaffe, Ira. Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action (2014). Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press.
[2] Terada, Rei. Feeling in Theory. Emotion after the ‘Death of the Subject’ (2001). Harvard University Press.
[3] Brinkema, Eugenie. The Forms of the Affects (2014). Duke University Press.
[4] Sergei Eisenstein. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (1969). ed. and trans. Jay Leyda. Harvest Book.
[5] Bresson, Robert. Notes on Cinematography (1977). trans. Jonathan Griffin. Urizen.
[6] Yacavone, Daniel. Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema (2015). Columbia University Press.


Sergei Eisenstein
Robert Bresson Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Lisandro Alonso Liverpool (2008)
Cristian Mungiu The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)
Cristi Puiu Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days (2007)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan Distant (2002)
Jim Jarmusch Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Todd Haynes Safe (1995)
Bela Tarr Turin Horse (2011)
Alexander Sokurov The Second Circle (1990) & Mother and Son (1997)
Pedro Costa Ossos (1997)
Gus Van Sant Gerry (2002) & Elephant (2003)
Abbas Kiarostami Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003)
Manoel de Oliveira A Talking Picture (2003)


Ira Jaffe is founder and former chair of the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of New Mexico. He is author of Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action (2014) & Hollywood Hybrids: Mixing Genres in Contemporary Films (2008). Jaffe has written about Robert Altman, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles & Errol Morris for magazines, such as ARTSPACE, Film International & Film Quarterly.