LOOK. PAY ATTENTION. NOTICE THE MOVEMENT.
If you grew up during the 1970s, and first came into sentient moviegoer-ship during the 1980s, then one slow-motion scene which probably dented your consciousness was the running scene at the beginning of Chariots of Fire, showing the film’s two heroes running down a beach to the tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch of a much-imitated Vangelis soundtrack. The purpose of the slo-mo here turns out to be one of the key purposes of this technique—to give dignity to an action whose speed we might otherwise take for granted. The slow motion impresses upon us the gravity of the movement, its meaning above and beyond mere movement. In the same way, a director might present someone walking in slow motion to show, somehow, that the character in question has hit his or her stride; the crooks of Reservoir Dogs might be leaving brunch to go to work, in one sense, but the work they are doing is sinister, however darkly and semi-comically confused it might become after that brunch. Sometimes that slo-mo walk might simply show a character who is at ease inside her own identity, as in the case of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot, gliding towards her brother to Nico’s frail voice in The Royal Tenenbaums; unhappy as she may be, she has full possession of her unhappiness. Motion may be slowed down to draw out the tension of a scene like pulling, pulling, pulling on a rubber band, with the understanding that if the scene were played in real time, the action might be too explosive for us to bear—but also raising the question as to whether the motion is so much more bearable in slowness. Think of the falling carriage in The Untouchables: step, after step, after step, bullets flying, but achingly, achingly slowly… And yet what about the cases in which slow motion seems to be presented for its own sake, to show us the terrible beauty of things blown apart: glass windowpanes, buildings, cars, even human heads? Or to show us what a bullet looks like as it flies to its destination, or, as in the case of Wanted, is deflected by Angelina Jolie’s wrist? Leigh Singer’s video shows us 113 different films featuring slow motion, dating from 1936 to the present, demonstrating that, above all, the use of the technique forces us to do what any film worth its salt should do: LOOK. Singer wisely places a crucial, classic slo-mo scene near the piece’s very end: a shot of the apes, the earliest human ancestors, pounding bone with bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick used slow motion in this case for one reason, and one reason only, to make sure we would not forget our history. And at this speed, who could, indeed, forget it?--Max Winter
Leigh Singer is a freelance film journalist, filmmaker and screenwriter. Leigh studied Film and Literature at Warwick University, where he directed and adapted the world stage premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies and videotape’. He has written or made video essays on fllm for The Guardian, The Independent, BBCi, Dazed & Confused, Total Film, RogerEbert.com and others, has appeared on TV and radio as a film critic and is a programmer with the London Film Festival. You can reach him on Twitter @Leigh_Singer.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.