Something rather wonderful and definitely unique in the world of television is going on at the moment. Channel Editor for BBC4 Cassian Harrison may be strapped for cash which could be the main reason why he has commissioned a season of minimalist television programmes in the visually equivalent spirit of the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Nick Cage and others. Be that as it may, the BBC is broadcasting some inspirational and beautiful films that unfold, if not mostly in real time, then almost.
This Slow Season kicked off with the three-hour, acutely observed and insightful latest work of the acclaimed documentarist American Frederick Wiseman about the National gallery. It is a compelling and engrossing observation; a film without commentary – something that is repeated throughout the BBC4 season, and as powerful an argument as I have seen for a while for the image and the soundtrack to do the work, rather than inane and dumb commentary which is the meat and two veg of television. Wiseman is a most uncompromising filmmaker in the true American documentary tradition who has focused on filming inside institutions. He was a guest at last year’s Zurich Film Festival. There is a good account of a masterclass he attended here
At a time when the world of social media is trumpeting the wonders of the seven second short, an homage if ever there was one to the continuing evolution of the dwindling attention span of modern Man, it is refreshing and rewarding to sit in front of the telly and, for once, simply watch and listen. My favourite in the season so far is a thirty-minute film in real time of a glass-blower making a jug. Beautifully shot and observed with a most creative use of the ‘cutaway,’ a much abused editing convention, with an elegant ambient soundtrack, the film is as much a work of art as the glass jug that we watch being created. Every aspect of the film is as beautifully crafted.
When I settled down to watch a two-hour film of a journey along the Kennet and Avon canal filmed from a single camera on the bow of a barge and in real time I thought it would be a tough watch. But it wasn’t. On the contrary, it was utterly engrossing and absorbing. My eyes were able to roam across the screen to see every nuance; to enjoy the effect of wind on water, the changing light as clouds scudded across the sun; the speeding cyclists on the tow path. Above all, the soundtrack, with its background mantra of a gently throbbing engine, the equally ever-changing audio landscape of birdsong, rippling water and wind in the trees served to emphasis so much of what we miss in the mass media today; namely, that the moving image can and should be contemplative.
In a sense, to watch this season of films is to go on a media retreat. It’s therapy and I urge anyone who hasn’t yet found the series to visit it on the BBC iplayer. I ask only this of you. Don’t be tempted to fast forward. Settle down, switch off other appliances and remove all distractions. This season may never be repeated. It was cheap as chips to make so let’s hope financial imperatives continue to be the spur for creative enlightenment.