Are boring films good for the soul?
|Terrence Malick's perplexing Palme d'Or winner, The Tree of Life. Is it a film to enjoy or endure|
On one side of the aisle sit those critics who embrace the best of popular entertainment and who regard slower-paced films as the equivalent of eating their "cultural vegetables"; on the other side are arthouse aficionados who much prefer an oblique or contemplative work to the hectic approach of multiplex blockbusters such as The Hangover II or Pirates of the Caribbean.
With the release this summer of a new slate of potentially challenging, thoughtful films and the announcement of a British release date for Terrence Malick's perplexing Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life, the question has prompted a bout of popcorn throwing among British and American critics.
The debate kicked off when American critic Dan Kois confessed he was "suffering from a kind of culture fatigue". Writing in the New York Times, he asked whether some films are designed to be endured and then remembered with fondness, rather than enjoyed at the time. More controversially, Kois questioned his own assumption that glacial speed was the mark of cinematic sophistication.
His daring gambit was swiftly met with several passionate defences of the right to make and enjoy those films that seem to move more slowly than the hands of the clock on the cinema wall. The New York Times chief film critic, Manohla Dargis, suggested that Kois was a "cheerful conformist", prepared to accept a diet of flashy special effects and fast-editing that prevents mass cinema audiences from having time to think about anything.
Her colleague AO Scott was also keen to expose Kois's doubts with the pinpoint light of an usher's torch. "Why is thinking about a movie an activity to be avoided, and a movie that seems to require thinking a source of suspicion?" he asked.
The British author and cultural pundit Geoff Dyer has waded into the debate. "I have no problem at all with the idea of entertainment," he told the Observer. "But a lot of these big budget action films actually bore the pants off me."
Dyer is working on a book about Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. The late Russian director is famed for a distaste for urgent plotting and Dyer argues that this 1979 film makes a compelling case for film art that forces the viewer to change the way they normally experience life.
A line from Zona, Dyer's study of the film due to be published by Canongate next year, makes the point. "Right from the start of Stalker Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Stop looking at your watches, this is not going to proceed at the speed of Speed, but if you give yourself over to Tarkovsky-time then the helter-skelter mayhem of The Bourne Ultimatum will seem more tedious than L'Avventura."
Yet Dyer says that his love for Tarkovsky's work and for slow film in general is not unconditional: "Slow or fast; these things don't mean anything much. It is more about the potential friction between what you expect to happen and what happens in a film. We must never make the mistake of assuming that slowness is synonymous with profundity."
The British editor of the New York magazine Film Comment, Gavin Smith, recalls sitting through the premiere of Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny at Cannes. This 2003 film tested even his love of slow film, comprised as it was of long sequences in which Gallo, who also took the starring role, did nothing but drive a truck and then take his jacket off.
On the whole, though, he agrees with Dyer. "Boredom is one thing, but there's a realm beyond boredom where things can paradoxically get really interesting. Here, engagement with nuance, the experience of time passing, and the free-associative potential of allowing the mind to wander around in a space or situation that's ostensibly inert are a few of the things that can be savoured," said Smith.
"While many find prolonged duration in film an endurance test, others prize its purely experiential liberation. Boredom can raise many interesting questions – but for those who prefer not to engage, the exit sign answers most of them."
Critic Andrew O'Hehir, who writes on independent film for the influential Salon internet site, summed up the row by looking at the wider artistic value of boredom. He argued that the sensation is always subversive and will unsettle the dominant social norms.
For O'Hehir the problem is that "precious few people will want to ride along with a concept of movie-watching that sounds more like churchgoing or Zen meditation, and it's difficult for Manohla Dargis or me or anybody else to advocate that without appearing to adopt a position of lofty and superior wisdom".
Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life, which stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, will open in British cinemas on 8 July, and is billed as "an impressionistic hymn to life, excavating answers to the most haunting and personal human questions through a kaleidoscope of the intimate and the cosmic".
For the Observer's veteran film critic Philip French it is film's duty to play with our expectations, particularly about time. "Film-makers now seem afraid of boring people so they have to travel at the speed of a bullet," he said. "There are different kinds of speed though. And pace can be a very different thing too. If you are driving at 40mph through a winding village, it will seem very fast, whereas flying on Concorde – not that I ever did it – probably seemed like floating in the air. Film always works by changing our idea of time and it is actually very hard to convey boredom on the screen."