I don’t know when it happened that “long takes” became synonymous with “art film,” but I’m getting pretty sick of directors who think that simply by holding a shot longer than 60 seconds they’re making a Grand Artistic Statement, in the same depressingly naïve way that a black and white photo of an empty playground swing set registers perfunctorily as “art shot” to a high school student in Beginner’s Photo.
Granted, there are directors who employ the technique masterfully — Béla Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Carlos Reygadas (in last year’s sublime Silent Light) are among the most accomplished auteurs working today. They understand that a perfectly framed and sustained shot can become an ecstatic meditation on light and shadow and the passage of time, a consummately cinematic way of seeing the world without the crutch of easy edits. Inevitably, however, at the expense of their mastery comes a host of imitators who fail to understand that it, in fact, takes an extraordinary visual imagination to pull off a deliberately slow and contemplative film. These jokers' clumsy and slavish (bordering on lazy) co-optation of the technique results only in egregiously self-indulgent exercises in tedium.
In this respect, Spanish director Albert Serra’s Birdsong — a barebones retelling of the biblical story of the Three Wise Men — is hardly the most egregious offender. (I found the art school indulgences of last year’s In the City of Sylvia, for example, far more problematic.) It is, however, one example of the increasingly worn-out trend I’m describing. Shot in grainy, overexposed black and white and set amid barren, desolate landscapes, Serra seems to be going for a sort of Dreyer-via-Pasolini meditation on spirituality. In their films, Dreyer rendered the flesh and blood sublime, while Pasolini rendered the sublime flesh and blood. But in Birdsong, Serra splits the difference and fails on both counts. The film never attains the transcendent spirituality of Dreyer’s tales of faith, nor does it pack the subversive political punch of Pasolini’s contemporary takes on sainthood.
In a film almost devoid of traditional narrative or dialogue, the director must lean heavily on his visuals to convey his ideas and sustain his audience’s attention. The biggest problem is that Serra’s images are simply not arresting enough — neither visually nor intellectually (that is, they lack both metaphorical and symbolic richness) — to warrant the amount time he lavishes on them. Thus, moments that should feel transcendent, such as when the Wise Men finally arrive at their destination to present their gifts to the newborn baby Jesus, fall disappointingly flat.
Simply put, Birdsong neither offers a fresh perspective on the age-old story it relates nor is visually engaging enough to sustain itself. It takes a great visual stylist to pull off the long, static shots that comprise the film, and, indeed, in the hands of a director like Béla Tarr, I could imagine it feeling transcendent in the way Serra seems to intend. As is, however, Birdsong is yet another (relatively inoffensive) entry in an ever-growing category of films I’m affectionately dubbing “pretentious art school wankery.”