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Into the Great Big Boring

When I was a child I was taught that it was unacceptable to call something -- a movie, a song, an activity -- "boring" because: 1) it doesn't make sense (a thing can't be boring, unless perhaps it is a drill bit; a person feels bored); and 2) it's indefensible, since the quality of "boringness" cannot be isolated or identified as an element of the thing itself; it's a feeling and it is yours).

So, saying something is "boring" is not exactly like saying something in a movie is "funny" or "moving" -- though, again, I'd prefer to place the responsibility for a response on the "feeler" rather than on the object -- because at least you can describe how something is presented or intended to be received as humorous or touching, even if you don't think it is. (Yes, there are exceptions to that, too.) I mean, a joke or a gag or an emotional situation can be objectively analyzed, but there are no agreed-upon cultural standards for evaluating "boring."¹

"Boring," I believe, is more like the word "entertaining" -- too vague to be of much use in a critical vocabulary. So, I might say I found something about a movie "tedious" or "engaging" or some other thesaurus word, but I'll attribute the emotion to myself and my taste, and even then not without a serious attempt to describe what I'm talking about, and to give at least one specific example.²

But now, "boring" is hot, at least in overheated Interwebular film criticism circles, since the publication of Dan Kois' New York Times Magazine piece called "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables," in which he says:

As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I've long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?

Those are questions worth asking (and I've asked them of myself and others here, too). Perhaps, Kois suggests, certain movies are more like experiences you don't particularly enjoy while you're having them, but nevertheless you want to have had them -- which is precisely the way I feel about what they used to call "water cooler" movies that, well, you just had to see in order to talk about them with everybody else who was expected to see them. (I would include "The Dark Knight," J. J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboot, "Avatar," "Inception" and other so-huge-as-to-be-unavoidable movies I found more fun to discuss online than they were for me to watch, while other pop hits like "Ratatouille," "Pineapple Express," "Superbad," "Ocean's Eleven" and "True Grit" struck me not only as engaging, but as genuinely good movies.) Kois, on the other hand, writes:

... [Rather] rather than avoiding slow-moving films, I've viewed aridity as a sign of sophistication. Part of being a civilized watcher of films, I doggedly believe, is seeing movies that care little for my short attention span -- movies that find ways to burrow underneath my boredom to create a lasting impression. [...]

[Other critics] love the experience of watching movies that I find myself simply enduring in order to get to the good part -- i.e., not the part where you're watching the real-time birth of a Kazakh lamb, but the rest of your life, when you have watched it and you get to talk about it and write about it and remember it.

A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis responded in the pages of the NY Times with "In Defense of Slow and Boring" (June 6, 2011), with Scott citing Richard Schickel's cranky review of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life":

For Mr. Schickel the problem with "The Tree of Life" is not just that it isn't a good movie ("inept" is his succinct appraisal of Mr. Malick's skill), but also, more seriously, that it gets the medium wrong. Movies, Mr. Schickel writes, "are an essentially worldly medium, playful and romantic, particularly in America, where, on the whole our best directors have stated whatever serious intentions they may harbor as ignorable asides. There are other ways of making movies, naturally, and there's always a small audience available for these noble strivings -- and good for them, I guess." [...]

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.

Precisely. Likewise, Kois observes, "Surely there are die-hard Hou Hsiao-hsien fans out there who grit their teeth every time a new Pixar movie comes out." You may fill in your own auteurs, genres, styles on either side of the equation. As I've said many times, "slow" and "boring" don't usually go together for me, anyway. A movie can go on auto-pilot at any speed, and it seems to me it's more likely to devolve into incoherence the more it tries to bombard the viewer with senseless "action" in the form of rapid cuts and frenetic movement. (Like I say, nothing puts me to sleep faster than a gunfight where you can't tell what's going on and you know nothing matters.) Or dialog scenes that are put together so mechanically that (to paraphrase Richard T. Jameson's memorable phrase about Ron Howard's oeuvre) the movies practically watch themselves.

Scott puts it this way:

Lately, I think, protests against the deep-dish and the highbrow ... mask another agenda, which is a defense of the corporate status quo. 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.

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Trailer announcer: "Adam Sandler is Jack. Adam Sandler is Jill.... This November, Adam Sandler s--ts in your eyes, ears and mouth! It's Adam Sandler in [scatological noises]. F--- you! Rated Argh for Pirates!" Is this "South Park" version different from the actual trailer? Or the one for "Grown-Ups"? Oh, that one was about pee...

I would go (and have gone) further to re-emphasize that "fun" and "entertainment" are not the same things to all people, and that escapism³ itself doesn't necessarily qualify as either. For me to have fun, to be entertained by a movie, I also have to be engaged, interested, provoked, maybe even challenged. If there's nothing to think about, nothing that even holds still long enough for me to get a good look at it, it's not much fun for me. I'd rather focus my attention on something else. Like something I can focus my attention on.

Earlier this week, Andrew O'Hehir stepped into the discussion with a piece called "In praise of boredom, at the movies and in life." In one respect he echoes Scott, observing that this critical debate

... has a whole lot to do with the ancient 20th-century feud between advocates of art-house cinema, which is essentially a remnant of what used to be called "high culture," and fans of mass-market popcorn entertainment. Which is weird, because one side won that battle a long time ago but refuses to acknowledge its victory and wants to go on acting like the aggrieved underdog.

But O'Hehir is not against boredom, per se. He's all for it. The boredom of his generation of teenagers in the 1970s, he reckons, eventually produced the revivifying musical energy of punk, for example, "and then (God help us) the global phenomenon of 'alternative culture,' which flourished in an interesting way for quite a while before itself attaining mastodon-scale boredom."

There's also the question (which Dargis raises by recalling the real-time meatloaf-making scene in Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman") of whether some films set out to provoke boredom in the viewer for aesthetic reasons. But since when did "thinking" become synonymous with "boring"? Dargis writes:

Faced with duration not distraction, your mind may wander, but there's no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.

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, a din that started months, years, earlier when the entertainment companies first fired up the public-relations machine and the entertainment media chimed in to sell the buzz until it rang in your ears.

Now Scott and Dargis have opened the online discussion in an "Ask the Critics" feature: "How Boring is Boring Enough?" and are soliciting questions and comments from readers, to which they will respond next week.

The Kois piece that started this particular brouhaha is based on the idea of "aspirational viewing" -- movies people say you "have to see" because they're good (and good for you?), but that you (or Kois) may find grueling to actually sit through. Like me and "The Phantom Menace" or "Avatar." But there's another side to it, too -- not just that corporate entertainment products encourage us to amuse ourselves to death, but that the bulk of what's available to us is, in fact, crap. (See the recent "South Park" episode "You're Getting Old," in which Stan turns 10 and realizes that almost everything he used to like -- in music, movies, video games, desserts -- is just shit. Literally. Well, metaphorically, too, but also literally.)

What all these critics are saying, as I see it, is that they have their own criteria for determining what is worthwhile, and what they want from movies when they devote their time and attention (or attention-deficits) to them. But I think all of them (and I include myself) detect a certain hostility (Godard called it "Contempt") coming from the movies themselves -- whether they set out to try our patience (deliberately "boring" us, just to see how much we can take!) or, as in the "South Park" episode, defecating all over us with crass, insipid, lackluster product-pictures and laughing all the way to the investment bank. We're talking about movies. Maybe we can't help but take it personally.

Me, I think if you like crap, there's plenty of it to choose from, and you should not worry about what anyone else says. Tonight I plan to re-watch Tarkovsky's "Solaris" -- for fun!

AN AFTERTHOUGHT/clarification from a comment I made at Some Came Running:

When I encounter something like Kois's article I don't think it's a question of "taste." Sure, taste is something you're born with, or you acquire and develop as you learn and grow. This, I think, is more a matter of core values -- as if I were to try to have a conversation about morality with a religious fundamentalist. Even if we reached the same conclusions, we wouldn't be likely to do so for the same reasons. When I read Kois's article I quickly realized we don't value the same things in movies. (I've run into the same thing with the Nolan fans at my blog, too. Some think movies are puzzles and that as long as everything is explained, one way or another, they're satisfied.) So, I think it's a little too easy to say (not that anybody here was) that, "Oh, we have different tastes." More like, "Oh, we have entirely different value systems, conceptions about what movies are, and what we find worthwhile in them."

UPDATE (06/10/11): Glenn Kenny explains why "slow" does not automatically equal boredom-inducing: "I have literally never been bored watching an Andrei Tarkovsky film because there is so very much to see in every single shot, and in the way every single shot relates to the next and the one before and so on."

He objects to Kois' and others' assertions that Tarkovsky intends to bore the viewer with his films:

I believe that Tarkovsky would object to the idea that his films were "deliberately" boring. Although Tarkovsky made intensely personal films that hewed uncompromisingly to his own vision, he was very invested in engaging his audience and extremely proud when his 1975 film "The Mirror," considered here in the West to be one of his most obscure, even gnomic movies, was something of a popular hit in Russia. His definition of film, as given in the title of his book of strung-together essays on the art of filmmaking, was "sculpting in time," and thus pacing was extremely important to him. And yes, he was interested in slowing things down, and did so quite often, as in the looong shot of the three main characters in "Stalker" as they make their way into the "Zone," with, among other relentlessly repetitive features, its droning, maddening click of their conveyance travelling over the railroad tracks. And this shot was possibly meant to strike the viewer as odd, or even aesthetically querulous, but still did not constitute, entirely, a form of negative engagement. I'm reminded of one of the phrase David Foster Wallace ascribed to his sister Amy in the acknowledgements of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: "Just How Much Reader-Annoyance Are You Shooting For Here, Exactly?" and its implication that sometimes a little reader-annoyance can be a not-bad thing, at least in terms of bracing the reader. Tarkovsky's pronouncement on film art were/are idiosyncratic enough to strike some as either maddening or perversely impractical, but this chunk from his essay on editing in Sculpting makes good sense: "The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. The actual passage of time is also made clear in the characters' behavior, the visual treatment and the sound--but these are all accompanying features, the absence of which, theoretically would in no way affect the existence of the film. One cannot conceive of a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the shot, but one can easily imagine a film with no actors, music, décor or even editing." Wait, did I say "makes good sense?" Hmm. Of course, today one doesn't HAVE to imagine a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the frame; in the works of Michael Bay, there is no time for time to register itself passing through the frame, rather, the frames themselves are instead keeping/constituting time.

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Doctor: "Look at these two pictures. One of them is an ad for Kevin James' new movie 'Zookeeper' and the other is a turd in a microwave. Which one is the ad for 'Zookeeper'?" _ _ _ _ _

¹ Manohla Dargis ("In Defense of Slow and Boring") on "The Hangover Part II" and working toward a personal definition of "boring":

Filled with gags and characters recycled from the first "Hangover," the sequel is grindingly repetitive and features scene after similar scene of characters staring at one another stupidly, flailing about wildly and asking what happened. This is the boring that Andy Warhol, who liked boring, found, well, boring.

"Of course, what I think is boring," Warhol wrote in his memoir "Popism," "must not be the same as what other people think is, since I could never stand to watch all the most popular action shows on TV, because they're essentially the same plots and the same shots and the same cuts over and over again. Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different."

Warhol's own films are almost always called boring, usually by people who have never seen or sampled one, including minimalist epics like "Empire," eight hours of the Empire State Building that subverts the definition of what a film is (entertaining, for one).

Point made. But was "Empire" ever intended to be watched straight through?

² Hence my ambivalence about the "useful but not very respected mode of criticism" that Girish Shambu has memorably tagged "micro-criticism," the short bursts of movie-related writing that appear in social media like Twitter and Facebook, in blog comments, or otherwise facilitated by the Internet. Some do it well (and by that I mean they can make one coherent, provocative observation that gets you thinking), some are terrible (making ludicrously arrogant, unsupported A----- W-----like pronouncements: "This is Good; that is Bad."), and some simply cheat (I consider it cheating when, as with some of the examples in Masha Tupitsyn's book "LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film," paragraphs are simply doled out in multiple 140-character chunks; the only thing "new" about that is the delivery system). And most of it is hit-or-miss with a preponderance of the latter. I'm not being dismissive, however, when I suggest that the term should be "mini-criticism" rather than "micro-criticism." "Micro-" implies looking at something in close detail, something that requires a greater investment (at least in terms of character count). "Mini-," though it may sound belittling, is I think the more appropriate term -- one little idea-nugget at a time.

Here's an example of good mini-criticism from Tupitsyn's book: "Eastern Promises & A History Violence are twin parables: one film looks at violence from the outside in and the other from the inside out." That's something worth thinking about as you examine how the films work.

³ What does "escapism" mean, exactly? My dictionary says it's "the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, esp. by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy." So, how is a science-fiction movie like Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (1972), which Kois says he found boring, not escapism? What could be more "escapist" than the fantasy of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," which is a kind of fantasy you haven't already seen a gazillion times before? These are rhetorical questions.

NOTE: I've learned (via Twitter) that Masha Tupitsyn took issue with my characterization of multiple 140-character tweets on one line of thought as "cheating." In her very enjoyable book, she writes about the way her use of Twitter needed to evolve. I hope it's clear that I was saying "cheat" with tongue in cheek, though I do still think the primary challenge Twitter poses is to compose and distill thoughts into those arbitrary-for-technological-reasons140-character chunks. Those are the rules of the game... but you know what they say about rules.

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Trailer announcer: "Jim Carrey has a bunch of turds in his apartment! It's Jim Carrey in whatever -- you'll pay to go see it. F--k you! July 12."

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