In Praise of Boring Films
In April 2011, the critic Dan Kois ignited a mini-firestorm among cultural commentators when he published an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Eating Your Culture Vegetables.” Kois confessed that he had lost the will to sit through any more austere, slow-moving, high-art movies. He had spent his career dozing through such films because he felt obligated to attend them, both as a professional critic and as an educated person. “Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out,” he said. His epiphany came when he realized that no one was forcing him to eat his cultural vegetables. “I feel guilty to be still reaching, as an adult, for culture that remains stubbornly above my grasp,” he said. “Perhaps I’m realizing that enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have to be a performative act, even for someone who writes about movies.” Kois’s article was suffused with a sense of relief, a letting go of the façade of reverence for movies that, to his mind, hold no pleasure for the audience. He did not condemn all difficult films; he was full of praise for intellectually complex, multilayered films and for narratively sophisticated films. Instead, his focus was on a specific genre of art-house cinema that has become familiar in the last two decades: the opaque, measured, ascetic film that lingers over quotidian action and can only be called, in relation to classic Hollywood cinema, “boring.”
What do we really mean when we say a movie (or any work of art for that matter) is boring? The word denotes a lack of viewer involvement, a desire for the work to be over, even a sense of exasperation. Most people might instinctively equate excessive length with boredom, but the phenomenon has more relation to the texture and pacing of a work than to its actual length. For many, the problem occurs when someone else dictates the experience of time. Especially in today’s short-attention-span culture, we are used to holding almost complete control over the pace of our existence. Remote controls allow us to fast-forward through commercials or uninteresting sections of programs we are watching. Smartphones allow us to fill empty pockets of time while on the subway or waiting in line. A work that appropriates the viewer’s control over the flow of time, especially one that moves at a deliberate pace, can cause feelings of frustration that correlate with boredom. Lack of variety or lack of dramatic incident can also be a culprit. The absence of sensory stimulation can be off-putting; in many “boring” movies, large chunks of time pass with virtually nothing happening. When a work is difficult and opaque, the frustration is compounded. A film can feel slower when it is hard to follow, or has a fragmented or shapeless narrative.
Of course, part of the Modernist project is to avoid linear narrative, to abjure classical shape and form, to challenge the viewer with uncompromising content. There is a long history of important work from the last 150 years that people have found boring, much of it from artists who boldly challenged their audience and refused to pander for the sake of accessibility or engagement. Henry James and Richard Wagner, two vastly different artists, are both progenitors of a certain repetitive, meditative interiority that was vastly influential on twentieth-century art. And the boring movie is hardly a new phenomenon. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the new wave of European art films by such masters as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais came to the U.S., the critical old guard’s most common term of disapprobation for these works was “boring.” At the same time, the American avant-garde began to explore the limits of attention spans with movies that observed fixed objects and scenarios for lengthy periods. The ne plus ultras of this phenomenon are Andy Warhol’s series of prolonged filmic portraits, probably his least-seen works. For example, his Empire (1964) is a single eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building, a cinematic stunt that flaunts its outrageous monotony. In the 1970s, many filmmakers appropriated Warhol’s daring long takes and lack of incident into narrative films that challenged audiences’ patience while exploring new models of communication. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) observed a Belgian housewife preparing meals and doing chores, all in uninterrupted, drama-free takes of up to fifteen minutes. Akerman intentionally rubbed the nose of her audience in the tediousness of her heroine’s everyday tasks in order to foreground the limited role of women in modern society and to create contrasts with the violent and sexual actions in the latter part of the film. By the late 1990s, the slowly paced film had become its own genre, dominating the awards at Cannes and counting among its partisans a new generation of art film directors including Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and the current reigning master, Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Tarr’s magnum opus is the seven-hour-long Sátántangó, a superbly evocative look at a Communist-era collective farm in which almost nothing happens.
All to say that the issues Kois raised were hardly new. What many objected to in his article was the underlying “Emperor’s New Clothes” subtext, the notion that nobody really likes these boring films and critics and film snobs only pretend to do so to look smart and current. Kois used a specific word to describe his target—“aspirational”—that carries interesting connotations. Aspirational in today’s marketing-speak implies a desire to live slightly above one’s means: to have a nicer house, eat nicer meals, drive a better car than one can technically afford, all in the service of signifying achievement to the world. Aspirational movie viewing implies that viewers are seeking films that are just a little out of their grasp. They seek films that signify intelligence, cultural sophistication and insider savvy. Being able to claim “I saw and loved Amour (or The Master or Once Upon a Time in Anatolia)” carries specific benefits that make sitting through such films worth the time and effort.
Kois seemed not to acknowledge that the notion of “boredom” is of course completely subjective. One person’s “boring” is another person’s “hypnotic” which is another person’s “riveting.” The New York Times’s film critic Manohla Dargis, in a refuting essay, turned Kois’s analysis on its head by noting she finds many Hollywood blockbusters dull, referring to “the kind of boring that makes money, partly because it’s the boring that many people like, want to like, insist on liking or are just used to, and partly because it’s the sort of aggressively packaged boring you can’t escape.” Her colleague A. O. Scott, writing in the second half of the same essay, said that boring is “an accusation that is almost impossible to refute, since it is a subjective hunch masquerading as a description.” I would also argue that there is “good boring” and “bad boring”: well-made films with a deliberately slow pace and poorly-made films that unintentionally weary the viewers.
But let us ask ourselves whether boring an audience is ever really the goal of any artist. Certainly, there are provocateurs like Warhol who deliberately set out to exhaust their spectators. For the most part, however, the intention of art that is popularly read as boring is generally something quite different. Most modern auteurs of so-called boring films are strategically employing a specific sense of pacing and narrative flow to induce a reaction in the audience that is different from the sense of seamless narrative involvement typical of popular Hollywood filmmaking. The populist filmmaker strives for a sense of identification and comprehension that engages spectators so that they are not thinking about time passing as they view the movie. The filmmakers I am focusing on here utilize antithetical techniques—slow pacing, lack of dramatic incident, opaque characterization, and so forth—in order to induce one or more alternative sensations in the spectator. Four recent films illustrate four different resulting sensations associated with these techniques: Brechtian alienation (Amour), narrative and genre skepticism (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), hypnotic trance (The Master), and surrealistic confusion (Holy Motors). All of these are goals that many spectators misread as “boring” but are instead simply distinct from standard Hollywood immersion. Viewers of such films must reposition themselves in relation to what is on the screen. If successfully accomplished, this can lead to more powerful and more profound artistic experiences on the part of the audience.
The most celebrated and successful high-art film of 2012 was Michael Haneke’s Amour. The Austrian auteur traveled to Paris for this latest work, which depicts a long-married elderly couple coping with the agonizing decline of the wife’s health due to a series of strokes. The film, like all of Haneke’s work, rigorously avoids sentimentality, creating a classic Brechtian distanciation between spectator and screen and demanding objectivity in the act of observation. One way that Haneke achieves this distancing is through a deliberate sense of pacing. Many scenes play out in real time as opposed to standard cinematic time in which multiple incidents come together in segments that would never be able to contain them in real life. We see Georges the husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant, excellent) caring for Anne, his incapacitated wife (the luminous Emmanuelle Riva), feeding her, cleaning her, reading to her. The length of these sequences and their lack of standard incident push the viewer into a contemplative relationship with the characters and their situation. Haneke spends little time on exposition or psychological backstory. He sketches the relationship of the couple with a few quick strokes, and we learn virtually nothing about their history. They verbalize almost nothing about their plight during the film, never really letting us inside their troubles. Haneke rebuffs the audience’s attempts at sentimental identification, leading to an austere tone that keeps the film’s emotional temperature low and the pace correspondingly unhurried.
Rather than tumbling into an emotional identification, facilitated by swift narrative beats, the careful pace of Amour opens up room for a more cerebral interaction with the film, an engaged detachment that is the quintessence of Brecht’s strategy of alienation. For some viewers, the result of this approach is uneasiness, a sense that nothing is really happening onscreen, that the story is one that could be told in 20 minutes but is here stretched to over two hours. Haneke’s intention, however, is not to bore his viewers but to demand that they think in a clear and unbiased way about the true nature of “Love” (the title of the movie, after all) and its manifestations. Haneke deliberately avoids the comforts of incident and identification so that the rigorous analysis of the central themes—the duties and sacrifices that Love does or does not obligate, the everyday details that constitute the true relationship between Lovers—remains foregrounded. Ironically, for many viewers, myself included, this denial of the standard cinematic tactics of identification and involvement makes the movie all the more emotional as there is no manipulation against which to rebel.
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia illustrates the tendency of the modern art-house film to layer a measured sense of pace and action onto traditional genre trappings. The film follows a group of officials, including a prosecutor, a police officer, and a doctor, as they search for the body of a murder victim in rural Turkey. The suspect accompanying them has a hazy memory of the event and, over the course of a single long night, keeps giving the officials imprecise, inaccurate directions, leading them to a half dozen random locations. Much of the first part of the film consists of long shots of the automobiles moving through the dark, hilly countryside, headlights gleaming. Ceylan’s strategy is to make explicit the tediousness of police procedural work, the long stretches of inactivity that pass between moments of revelation or clarification. In several segments, the characters step out of the cars and eat a meal, roam a stretch of the countryside, and discuss previous cases. Of course, even the extended, flaccid sequences—which seem to signify the passage of real time in the film—do not even remotely depict the actual passage of real time in the narrative. A three-minute-long shot of slowly moving cars can seem endless from the perspective of the movie theater seat, but an actual three-minute car ride is rather short, and Ceylan is depicting rides that probably took at least half an hour each.
Ultimately, Ceylan’s intention is to pull back the layers of genre convention that typically fill police procedurals. The familiar precepts of cumulative evidence gathering, red herrings, surprise reversals, and triumphant solutions to the case are all absent in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The focus instead on the monotony of police work moves the viewer’s attention away from the tyranny of narrative that typically reigns in genre films. Ceylan is more interested in nuances of behavior, especially among the group of officials who engage in a very subtle battle for position as the case drags endlessly on. Their power, or lack thereof, is not tied to control over the information associated with the case since such information is virtually nonexistent. Instead, Ceylan observes the intricacies of dialogue and of the vivid body language, which is heightened by the limited movement allowed a group of men crowded into cars. In the last segment of the film, the doctor, performing an autopsy, achieves some new insight into the crime, but the revelation is not particularly important. Instead, Ceylan turns his attention to further discussion of a previous case that the characters had deliberated earlier. In this way, the film illustrates how the typical cinematic approach to police procedurals, in its single-minded focus on narrative engagement, ignores the way that real police officials interact with multiple cases at the same time, often disregarding the most recent or pressing cases as their attention drifts among multiple situations. Ceylan’s style asks for a healthy skepticism on the part of the viewer in relation to genre conventions.
Paul Thomas Anderson has become, over the last decade, perhaps the most interesting American director working within the mainstream industry. His early films, particularly Boogie Nights and Magnolia, exhibited precocious virtuosity in creating unified visions out of wide-ranging character ensembles; in this regard, he was the true heir to Robert Altman. More recently, he has turned to riveting studies of American mavericks, most successfully with There Will Be Blood (2007), probably the finest American film of the last ten years. His 2012 film The Master continued in this vein, focusing on two men dealing with the fallout of World War II whose lives become entwined: Freddie Quell, a substance-abusing, barely coherent, animalistic veteran (the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix in a performance of Method ferocity) and Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic cult guru (the superb Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a lightly fictionalized version of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology). One of Anderson’s signatures is a constantly moving camera that glides elegantly through his mise-en-scène, a welcome change from the ubiquitous hand-held immediacy found in most films today. Anderson’s long, smooth takes are a key part of his purposefully low-key affect. Almost all of his scenes play at a very low pitch, with characters speaking slowly and long pauses filling the time. The effect is certainly very strange to viewers used to the brisk pace and quick cutting of the standard popular film.
In one sense, Anderson is returning to a style found in many Hollywood films of the late 1940s and 1950s, which rely on long, uninterrupted takes, smoothly gliding cameras, and a certain decorum in the emotional temperature. In the 1960s, the directors of the French New Wave introduced and popularized an edgier, more immediate approach to filmmaking, relying particularly on the “jump cut,” which allowed the director to move quickly through a scene, cutting out pauses and other “boring bits” even at the expense of temporal and spatial coherence. This style dominates in popular moviemaking today, so a director like Anderson is consciously intending a radical alternative when he makes a movie like The Master. Like Haneke, Anderson is after a certain level of alienation; he does not want the audience to invest emotionally in his characters but is instead interested in a more analytical attitude. The more powerful result of his style, however, is a sense of hypnotic reverie, an almost trance-like connection with the screen. If the viewer submits to Anderson’s approach (and such submission is facilitated by the masterful filmmaking, the impeccable design, and the flawless acting), then the passage of time seems to lose its rhythm and sense of duration; an hour can feel like a minute and vice versa. There is a scene late in the film in which Quell and Dodd race motorcycles in the desert, and Anderson lets the races play out in real intervals. The resultant expanse of time, augmented by the hypnotic movement of the vehicles through the empty space, allows the viewer mental space for contemplation of the film’s puzzling psychology and thematic and character ambiguities.
The French director Leos Carax makes a full-length film only once a decade or so and therefore cultivates a certain mystery not unlike that associated with the late, similarly reclusive Stanley Kubrick. Carax specializes in spectacles of unease, wildly strange and surrealistic tales that make audiences deliciously uncomfortable while at the same time seducing them with fabulous visuals and wild narrative leaps. His 2012 film Holy Motors was surely one of the highlights of the cinema year, a long-awaited and (for the most part) rapturously received phantasmagoria on identity, masquerade, and the nature of work in the postmodern world. The film follows a mysterious Parisian man, M. Oscar (the dazzling Denis Lavant), who spends his days traveling in a limousine from location to location, enacting at each stop a specific role in a seemingly real-life drama. Through intensely realistic makeup and costuming, he transforms himself into an upper-class businessman breakfasting with his family, a homeless woman begging for change, a middle-class father dealing with a rebellious teenaged daughter, a deranged sewer-dwelling cannibal attacking a model at a photo shoot, a cold-blooded assassin, and so on. His attitude is professional and completely committed. The film depicts these scenarios with no accompanying explanation or motivation. The viewer is left to puzzle out the meanings without clear cues from the filmmaker, and the result is often confusion.
Confusion is a deeply unsettling state for many people. One of the more potent responses to art is the phenomenon of epistemological panic—the upsetting notion that you do not understand what is happening. Most people when experiencing such panic instinctively shut down: “I don’t get it and therefore I don’t like it,” or—just as frequently—“I find it boring.” Directors like Carax require the audience to undergo lengthy periods of epistemological panic. Who is this man and why is he playing all of these strange roles in these disparate dramas? Who hired him? What does he think about what he is doing? Is any of this actually happening or is it a dream or fantasy? Who is the strange woman chauffeuring him from place to place (played by French cult favorite Edith Scob) and does she know what is going on? What are we to make of the fanciful final sequence in which the man’s limousine engages in a strange conversation with other cars in a parking lot? The key is not to let the surreal confusion throw you but instead to be comfortable with the lack of clarity and then do the work of digging beneath the bizarre and often grotesque surface. What lies underneath is an incredibly rich illustration of the essentially fractured nature of identity, an acknowledgement that we all contain a multiplicity of selves that we put on and discard depending on our surroundings (the office, home, vacation), our interlocutors (strangers, colleagues, friends, family), and our frame of mind. Walt Whitman’s “multitudes” find manifest form in M. Oscar’s various disguises. The surrealist trappings and the resulting confusion actually work with intention to force a movement of the viewer’s attention away from the surface and toward the existential metaphor that lies at the heart of the film. Unlike the previous films, Holy Motors is neither slowly paced nor austere. Its challenge to its audience, and the cause of audience boredom, is not an extended attention span or an unusually deliberate sense of time. Rather it purposefully baffles with fantastic, bizarre incident and inexplicable psychology.
A new appellation is needed for the cinema of austerity, of mystification, of alienation; “boring” is too pejorative. Modern directors who employ these strategies are doing so to solve the age-old problem of finding form that fits the content. Some films require a slow and deliberate approach in order to convey their meaning and intention. There is an old maxim that the expression of boredom does not necessarily have to be boring, but in some cases, one needs to experience the length and weight of what is depicted onscreen in order to take its full measure. Short cuts can short-circuit implication and significance. In an ideal world, a good “boring” movie encourages the spectator to accept, even revel in, the lack of traditional stimulation or coherence and to use the resultant clear space to observe and meditate on the deeper meanings contained therein.