Goodbye Dragon Inn (NC)<br></br>Histoire de Marie et Julien (15)<br></br>Bright Leaves (NC)

They're art, for goodness' sake, not cheeseburgers!

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 10 October 2004 00:00 BST

Slow Food, Slow Cities... It's surprising that no one has yet tried to market films in line with this new zeitgeist and promote Slow Cinema. Of course, it does such cinema a disservice to suggest that it's simply an antidote to Fast Films, a temporary detox after which you can go back to gorging on indiscriminate visual fry-ups. In fact, Slow Cinema operates according to a language of its own which simply can't be compared to the way conventional films cram in information. It's more about reducing information. With Slow Cinema, people often complain there's nothing to see: in fact, while commercial films constantly scream "Look! Look!" at you, this other variety allows you the time and space to see for yourself, and the content often proves inexhaustible.

Take Goodbye Dragon Inn, by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, whose mastery of slowness becomes more perfect, and more playful, with each film. Cheekily, Tsai kicks off with a blast of martial Chinese music and a booming voice-over exposition of military intrigues under the Ming Dynasty. You think you've walked into Hero by mistake; in fact we're in a rundown Taipei cinema screening Dragon Inn, a 1966 martial arts classic by King Hu. But the real show in this cinema - which is about to shut down - is on the periphery. A lame cashier hobbles along the cavernous upstairs passageways trying to give the projectionist half a steamed bun, but he's nowhere to be seen (when he finally turns up, he's played by the mournful Lee Kang-Sheng, who's rarely off-screen in Tsai's other films). An elderly man watches the movie with his little grandson. A stony-faced man in the stalls turns out to be Dragon Inn's star, mourning his younger self.

Meanwhile, a gay Japanese man haunts the auditorium in hope of a pickup, but keeps running into deterrents: like a pair of feet thrust in his face, or a woman who drives him mad crunching sunflower seeds (a brilliantly drawn-out sound gag). In cramped corridors and box rooms that resemble art-installation spaces, men hover. One of them tells the young Japanese that the cinema is haunted. Is he a ghost too? Or is nearly everyone here? The real ghost, you might say, is cinema, and Tsai's film is a tender séance for it, as if to prevent it disappearing forever.

Goodbye Dragon Inn uses gay cruising as a metaphor for a type of cinema that constantly keeps you nervously waiting for some pay-off, but gradually makes you realise that the waiting is all. In fact, the pay-off is happening constantly, if you only look: in the characters' gestures, the Jacques Tati-like slow-burn comedy of their fumblings and stumblings in the dark, in the layered poetry of the sound design (torrential rain as a background to footsteps in stone corridors) and in the brilliant compositions created by Tsai and the director of photography, Liao Pen-Jung, with their long deep-focus perspectives. Nothing happening here? Nothing but pure cinema.

Another great master of the leisurely and undemonstrative is the Nouvelle Vague veteran Jacques Rivette. In his enigmatic chamber drama Histoire de Marie et Julien, Jerzy Radziwilowicz - who packs more sombre bulk than two Depardieus - is Julien, a clock mender living in a labyrinthine old house, who for reasons unspecified is blackmailing an elegant woman known only as (what else?) "Madame X" (the lean, patrician Anne Brochet). Emmanuelle Béart, managing this time to be sultry and distracted, is a woman who first appears to Julien in a dream, then moves in with him to share amour fou and to undertake a very curious interior-design project.

Marie and Julien is parsimonious with the conventional cinematic pleasures, so much so that it often comes across as screen theatre - but that's part of Rivette's singular subtlety, to occupy a peculiar, confounding borderline position. The effect is rather like a Racine tragedy threaded with supernatural ritual, and shreds of melodrama narrative straight from Balzac. This may not be Rivette's liveliest work - it's a little dusty and reclusive - but stick with it, because it unveils its dramatic pleasures when you least expect them. The film's last line - "Give me a little time" - could stand as Rivette's motto.

The week's most entertaining film, however, is differently slow - slow in the sense that you're seeing a film-maker working it out on screen as he goes along. American documentarist Ross McElwee makes films the way that some people write diaries, figuring out his own life and the state of America in the course of richly associative ramblings. Bright Leaves is partly about the American tobacco industry, partly an archeology of McElwee's North Carolina family - the connection being that his great-grandfather, a failed tobacco baron, was supposedly the model for a character played on screen by Gary Cooper.

McElwee's film is a travelogue of the American South, both at its grandest and most mundane; a subtle contemplation of family history and the meaning we invest in it; and an inquiry into McElwee's deep-rooted need to shoot footage as a way of holding back time. It makes a compelling contrast to docs like Super Size Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, which use film purely as a journalistic tool; McElwee sets out with an investigation in mind but not a thesis to prove. Bright Leaves is a philosophical shaggy dog story, told by a winningly self-effacing raconteur, and a passionate vindication of film-making as a thought process - still one of the richest that's available to us.

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