Entertaining the Notion of Slow Films

Last week I dragged my sister and father to see The Tree of Life. While I think they were glad they experienced it, I’m almost certain they found stints of it boring. Going in, I knew this would be the case. For whatever reason, I’ve got a stigma for liking films often labeled boring and pretentious. While the issue of pretense is a whole other can of worms, I’d like to directly speak to the issue of boring films.

The problem is that boring films don’t exist. Boredom is not something that exists within the film, but a subjective experience of watching a film. Yes, certain films can convey that sense of boredom, that span of time where not much happens and the mind goes numb, where time seems to slow to a crawl, but the actual state of boredom is an issue of individual audience engagement, not the actual film.

Now, there are certainly films that are more likely to induce this state in audience members than others. Films that are very slow moving, films that linger on a shot and films where there is little dialogue or action tend to be the ones that are labeled as boring. However, the opposite notion is almost never explored. What happens when a film throws so much at the audience, so many things are happening and it becomes so action heavy and disorienting that it makes no sense? Couldn’t that be equally boring?

My father fell asleep during Inception, more than once I believe, because he wasn’t engaged. Does that make Inception a boring film? To him, it might. But to suddenly say his lack of engagement of the film is a result of it being boring seems preposterous when there are millions of people who found it engaging. To be honest, the third time I saw Inception, I walked out of the room just about any time there was a lengthy scene of someone explaining anything because I found those stints of the film boring. Do I think Inception now deserves to be labeled as boring? No. I just failed to find myself engaged with the film on that viewing.

In the last week, critics have been debating this very issue. Manohla Dargis said something I think so well surmises the modern mode of keeping the audience from being bored in popular films. “Thinking is boring, of course (all that silence), which is why so many industrially made movies work so hard to entertain you. If you’re entertained, or so the logic seems to be, you won’t have the time and head space to think about how crummy, inane and familiar the movie looks, and how badly written, shoddily directed and indifferently acted it is. And so the images keep zipping, the sounds keep clanging and the actors keep shouting as if to reassure you that, yes, the money you spent for your ticket was well worth all this clamor. [New York Times]”

There’s this idiotic notion that as long as things are happening, as long as there is this constant sense of forward momentum, action and antics going on throughout the film, that we’ll be entertained. It’s the assumption that as long as you can engage the audience on a visceral level, you can entertain them. But how many people came out of Transformers 2 and Iron Man 2 lamenting how dull it was? Clearly, there’s more to engaging an audience than simply throwing lots of things at them.

Some people would differentiate these boring films from the like of these action heavy films because they are pretentious. However, I think A. O. Scott makes a very insightful distinction when he talks about Mr. Schickel’s dismissal of The Tree of Life: “In Mr. Schickel’s argument, ‘pretentious’ functions, like ‘boring’ elsewhere, as an accusation that it is almost impossible to refute, since it is a subjective hunch masquerading as a description. [New York Times]”

That’s the core problem with people using the word pretentious to describe a film. It becomes a way to mask the fact they found a film boring as they can simply decry it as pretentious. While I can certainly understand people who found their attention span stretched in The Tree of Life, because I was one of those people, to simply call it pretentious is to completely misunderstand the meaning of the word and to keep from saying what you mean: you found it boring.

Honestly, I try to avoid the use of either word because they are rarely helpful in critiquing a film. I usually find something boring because either a film did not invest me in the characters early on or I found certain sequences were too long. I had both of these problems with The Tree of Life. I address these as issues in films by saying that I found certain sections too long or that the film didn’t invest me in the characters. That’s a meaningful way of addressing your experience of being bored without simply dismissing a film as boring.

In a piece for Salon, Andrew O’Hehir says “let me make clear where I stand on boredom: I’m for it, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I enjoy it when it’s happening to me. [Salon]” I too am for this boredom, but have to admit that I don’t always find it an enjoyable affair. O’Hehir mentions by Andri Rublev by Tarkovsky, calling it “incredibly boring” but also worth it in the end. I’d agree because it was a film I was glad I endured by the time the credits rolled.

This isn’t to say I condone some masochistic movie watching habits. I find far more pleasure in the slow, thoughtful films of people like Kieslowski and Malick than I do in the high action, constantly engaging flicks of Tony Scott or every superhero movie ever made. The reason is that those films engage me less on a visceral level and more on an emotional and intellectual level.

Part of that is taste, another part is that there’s something far more rewarding about watching a film that challenges you to think about it after the credits roll, a film you play over in your head, a film that haunts your everyday life. It’s something sustained beyond the screen, it’s those films I chew on to sate my mind when boredom comes to hang around, it is, odd enough, these “boring” films that have all but eradicated any boredom in my life.

Yes, I probably look weird walking around campus staring up at the trees and thinking about The New World. I’m sure my family thinks I’m strange as I mutter to myself as I walk down the hall, thinking about In the Mood for Love. And surely I’m not the only one who sticks my head against the window on a car ride and thinks about The Double Life of Veronique.

Guy Debord in his piece Society of the Spectacle says “For some reason it needs to be asserted, over and over again, that the primary purpose of movies is to provide entertainment, that the reason everyone goes to the movies is to have fun. Any suggestion to the contrary, and any film that dares, however modestly, to depart from the orthodoxies of escapist ideology, is met with dismissal and ridicule.”

That’s a massive issue that time and time again arises. There’s an entire culture built around movies that perpetuates the idea that movies are first and foremost about entertainment. Hell, we have a publication that focuses on TV and films called Entertainment Weekly (although, they do some fantastic work). What does that say about films when the leading publication on films is labeled as “entertainment?”

This is not to decry entertainment. I recently watched Zoolander and it was hilariously entertaining, it’s to decry the view that if something isn’t entertaining me, it’s boring and bad. Not every film experience must simply be amusing. Film has the power to challenge us, to make us walk in someone else’s shoes, take us to an unexpected place and broaden our horizons. Sometimes that requires a few slow parts. Sometimes it requires, horrors of horrors, thought. Most of all, it requires patience, an oft forgotten virtue, one that can open a gateway into a whole other world of cinema that is as rich and deep as the viewer makes it.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • Hey, if I’m not allowed to arbitrarily place my preconceived notions of self-absolutism on all films I come in contact with, what’s the point of having an opinion at all? It’s like you’re trying to tell me that what I think doesn’t instantly define what everybody thinks, and that somehow I am not the focal point from which all human beliefs are formed. Which of course, everybody knows to be a fact. (this is the point where you agree with me *cough cough*)…

    On a serious note – great writeup, and so very true. I think a lot of being a good movie critic -and in turn movie watcher – is knowing what you like. I find I like movies that exist in between ‘high octane’ thrills and ‘methodical movement pieces’ when it comes to pacing. Sure, one from either side of the arena can pull me in every now and again, but I don’t feel overtly committed to either side of the spectrum.

  • I too try to stay away from using the word “boring” in my reviews, because as you said “boring films don’t exist”.

    Recently, for reasons unexplained, I’ve tried to figure out what makes someone think a movie is good or bad or hysterically funny or depressingly sad. And ultimately, after spending time pondering the subject I arrive at the same conclusion time and time again: film is art, art and film are subjective. Beauty, as in film, is very much in the eye of the beholder.

    But I’m not so sure you can pick what you come to “love” .. or what film will resonate with you long after the credits roll. I think those lasting feelings are maternal and come naturally. Mostly those everlasting feelings come from inside of you: the experiences you’ve been through, the family you were raised in, and the morals you live by … that’s what makes you love or embrace a certain film.

    Sure, I agree in the notion of slow films – because within those films comes subtleties, nuances, and small flashes of life.

    This is certainly a great article James – equal measures moving and thought provoking.

  • Interesting article. A good example for me recently was seeing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as part of a local university’s film series. I’ll admit that there were moments that tested my attention span, especially due to the static shots with little sound that you describe above. However, this movie has stuck with me and I’m still thinking about the experience several months later. I can compare that to Thor, which I saw in the theater a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it mildly, but I’ve barely thought about it since. Obviously Thor was the “faster-moving” film, but in the long run, I’m not sure you could classify it as less boring. And this isn’t even the best example of a busy film, with the Transformers movies making Thor look like an art-house film. I’m simplifying the issue too, though, as there are “slow” art-house films that don’t stick with me either. The key point is to really try to dig into what a film is saying and not dismiss (or accept) a film for its surface elements.

    Good job with this post.

    • Great point. Sometimes the slower film is the one that will stick in your head and keep you engaged while the faster film is the one that fades from memory.

      Haven’t seen Uncle Boomee yet, doesn’t come to my parts until July.

  • This is a superb post and you and your commenter’s make some very pertinent points. I tend to favour slower moving films but I know from experience that when I’ve recommended films such as Two-Lane Blacktop and Flesh And Bone to people I often find the word boring being thrown back at me. You’re right that it all boils down to peoples taste but given the way Hollywood is going, sadly I think that thoughtful and slow burning films are going to be harder and harder to find.

  • Todd

    It’s the space between the notes that make the music. The difference between entertainment and art can merely be the space between the notes. Good Post–look forward to future naps.

  • Excellent post James. I did find bits of The Tree of Life boring (the overlong creation of the universe sequence among others) and I can tell it won’t be the kind of movie that will do well with the ADD-riddled generation. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make the movie any less incredible. While boring films may not exist as you state, it falls on the filmmakers shoulders to make their movie as engaging as possible

    • I don’t think the director must make their film engaging as possible, I think a lot of great directors make films that oftentimes disengage us from the film for various reasons. I think a lot of films are even intentionally built around being “slow” and seemingly distant for a reason. Sometimes it’s thematic, sometimes it’s a stylistic choice.

      In cases like that, I don’t mind it, but in a lot of traditional films, it is simply a lack of the director’s ability to make engaging material.

      • I have a feeling that people that have seen it would like to scream “Somewhere!” right now. I know this mostly because I recently heard a tirade from Kai on exactly that film.

  • Haha, nice article. Broaden your horizons, yes! Films are made to provide both entertainment and exposure. The problem is when people go into films that provide entertainment expecting exposure and ones that provide exposure expecting entertainment. I also think characterization and acting have a lot to do with the how ‘boring’ a film is. Barry Lyndon is a terrific film, well-made, well acted, everything but I label it as BORING because I didn’t care about the lead character.

    Good job.

  • You may not be inaccurate, but you enter dangerous ground when you state “boring films don’t exist.” It’s not much of a stretch to advance that line of thinking to “good films don’t exist” or “bad films don’t exist.” Is film art, and does it stand up to the “eye of the beholder” claim? Of course. There’s fluidity to all of it, and there will never be 100% consensuses on anything. But the same could be said for murder; does that not make it “evil?” It’s a philosophical mindf— to which there is no answer, which then leads to the questions of the purposes to which we write about art in the first place. Sure, there are no absolutes, but at what percentage are we able to come to a collective conclusion about a piece of art, if ever?

    • I think if you go back and read how I frame that statement and what I develop afterwards, you’ll see that I’m not quite taking the postmodern leap you seem to be suggesting I am. Boredom is very much in the realm of a subjective experience. And your certainly aren’t going to get everyone to agree that one particular film is good, but we have ways of understanding and arguing over whether or not a film is good, while we really have no way of arguing with someone’s experience of the film boring them. That’s the key distinction I would make.

      • “we have ways of understanding and arguing over whether or not a film is good”

        This is where I disagree. Being “good” and “bad,” while it may not seem so sometimes, is no less subjective than something being label as boring. Just as you and I could argue 15 ways from Sunday as to why X-Men: First Class is good or bad, neither of us will be right in any fundamental way.

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