Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jean Ma reviews The Long Take

Lutz Koepnick. The Long Take: Art Cinema and the Wondrous. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 288 pp.

Review by Jean Ma

The title of Lutz Koepnick’s new book might prime the reader for yet another contribution to contemporary debates about slow cinema. The Long Take: Art Cinema and the Wondrous takes the name of the technique from which slow cinema derives its coherence as a category—otherwise historically and geographically nonspecific—and upon which it builds its aesthetic claims. Indeed, in Koepnick’s pages we find several of slow cinema’s usual suspects, international auteurs like Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, Abbas Kiarostami, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But we also discover many names that slow cinema’s standard definition as a subset of global art cinema would exclude: the avant-garde filmmaker Andy Warhol, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, sound artists Janice Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and a host of artists such as Tacita Dean, Sophie Calle, Francis Alÿs, and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. Koepnick delves into orthodox cinematic examples of prolonged shot duration as well as examples that push at the limits of what can be described as a long take, such as first-person shooter games or Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993), whose extreme dilation of time not only turns every take into a long take, but also makes the film’s cuts difficult to detect.

What unifies these diverse works is a common aesthetic project founded on durational experience, an imperative “to make time for time,” to wrest an interval for reflection from the dominant temporal regime of the twenty-first century. Their impact goes beyond deceleration as a simple remedy for, or refuge from, the corrosive effects of a culture of speed. Rather, the context in which their interventions stand out concerns not speed, but attention: the ceaseless data streams, agitated alertness, compulsive interactivity, networked self-management, and inescapable technological distraction that characterize the twenty-four-seven society. Against this background, Koepnick locates the capacity of the long take to suspend habitual processes of automated attention and to thus create an opportunity to reflexively grasp the conditions of attentiveness. In an argument built up from a series of close analyses of individual works, he shows how they construct durational experiences in which viewers can see their own seeing, reshape their sense of time, and retune their perceptual engagement with the world. For Koepnick, the aesthetic promise of the long take resides in its power to move the viewer to wonder, defined with the help of Plato and Descartes as an openness to the first sight of the new, a receptivity to what lies beyond anticipation, routine, and existing categories. The whiff of anachrony that accompanies the term wonder is embraced and developed as a central thread in this argument.

Koepnick begins with the long take in order to move outward into an expanded field of moving image works and screen practices. In doing so, he constructs a compelling genealogy through which to frame questions of time and moving images, linking narrative cinema with expanded cinema and contemporary art, moving among black boxes, white cubes, and other spaces. The Long Take in this respect offers important, timely, and provocative insights on the transformation of our relationship to projected images as sites of exhibition morph and multiply and as viewing practices become mobile and contingent. Koepnick’s mode of analysis—finely phenomenologically layered, relating the temporalities of images themselves to the material configurations of their display as well as to the dispositions and rhythms of moving, perceiving bodies in physical space—serves as a lesson in how criticism must adapt to the dynamic visual ecologies of the present moment.