Stray Dogs ★★★★½

or Slow Cinema in the Age of Covid-19

On Sunday, I had some time to watch something on my own. For future readers, depending on just how fucked we ultimately are, Sunday was either in the midst or the very early stages, almost definitely not in the late stages, of the realities of coronavirus hitting the fan in the United States. I live in New Zealand, where the realities were starting to sink in, which would have been worrying enough; with family and friends in America, where the deficiencies in both preparation and leadership were firmly established, tension was overwhelmingly high, and my mind was racing.

Arguably, slow cinema is the dumbest thing to turn to at this time, as it requires focus. But maybe it's also the smartest? A cinema that is not about serving up narrative, but about attenuating your attention, requires a full cognitive shift, one that has physiological consequences. To say that watching Stray Dogs has the same benefits at meditation is probably horseshit. And yet, 30 minutes in, tuned into its wavelength, I managed to keep Twitter and the news at arm's bay, and could feel the swarming rabbits of worry running circles around their heads gradually doze, a relaxation that spread through my body.

This has nothing to do with the emotional tone of the material. Stray Dogs is not by any means a happy film. For those familiar with the bleak, political and poetic cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang, that won't be a surprise. Nor will its increasingly oblique narrative strategies. (I thought its complexity was overstated until a Lynchian/Bunuelian shift in the back half, possibly signaling a flashback, possibly not, baffled me entirely.)

But for those of you who find yourself with a surfeit of free time and several kegs of worry, I'd encourage you to consider, if not Stray Dogs, then other slow cinema. Self-care is a tediously overworn phrase, but our nervous systems are in overdrive right now. Art can do a lot of things, and art can have physiological effects on us. I've seen films cause people to pass out from disgust or have seizures from visual complexity, and I'm sure that won't surprise anyone reading this. But it's worth keeping in mind that it can do the opposite if you log out of Twitter, put away your phone, and let it in.

Take care of yourself and stay safe, everybody.

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