It’s a Bore!
The New York Times recently published a piece, “In Defense of the Slow and the Boring,” by their main film critics, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, on “slow and boring films.” These films are what some critics used to call “difficult films,” that is, films that are slow and therefore boring to the people who prefer their films straightforward with a fast and furious pace. The discussion is really about the two types of films that go back to Lumière (long-take, reality based cinema) and Méliès (formalist, playful fantasy), an opposition that has also been carried over into film theory with the two main early camps represented by André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer on the one hand, and Soviet Montage and Sergei Eisenstein on the other.
However, what interests me more is how the Times critics, as well as some of the comments, seem to think that there has been a change in America over the last few decades regarding film tastes. I don’t think so. I don’t detect much, if any, change. Perhaps people are more vocal about their opposition to “boring” films in addition to the people who support them, but I don’t think there’s been a substantive change in the percentage of people who dislike or, more likely, ignore them. I say this because that’s been my experience over the years, something that was apparent to me even when I first became interested in films beyond the multiplex.
Here are a few of my experiences:
- Upstate Films opened at roughly the time I first became interested in seeing “art” and “classic” films. This upstate New York movie theater in Rhinebeck showed everything from Bergman and Fellini to Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. None of my family or friends were interested in seeing any of these films so I ended up going by myself. However, going to the movies without family or friends was a new experience, and it took a while to get up the courage to see a film by myself. But the payoff was big, and I saw many great films at Upstate. However, I always felt that I was watching films not just in the dark, but alone and isolated. This feeling did not change for a long time (not until I was married). It did not change even when I was in film school where, although I went to the movies regularly with friends to see new releases, never once did any of my film school friends go with me to see an older film outside of a classroom setting. In fact, I have several memories of friends asking me with disbelief why I was going to see films such as White Heat or Meet Me in St. Louis or The Fearless Vampire Killers. None of these can be considered “slow” or “boring” films in the sense used by the NY Times film critics, but my friends still thought they were boring.
- Around the same time that Upstate Films opened, I discovered that our town library had access to the mid-Hudson library system’s collection of 16mm films. But there was a big problem: the library did not have a 16mm projector. So I saved up my money and sold my copy of Amazing Spider-Man #1 (don’t ask) to buy a 16mm projector. Over the next few years, I successfully twisted arms a few times and several friends watched some of the films with me. This did not always turn out well. For example, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Metropolis came in two reels. My friends laughed throughout the first reel and left during the reel change. Then there was Alexander Nevsky. One friend, who now teaches philosophy at the American University in Germany, laughed during the first reel and left during the first reel change. These were all college educated people. When I went to film school, I hoped, even expected, things to be different. But I was wrong. How badly could things go when an audience is made up of people studying film? David Shepard, for one, knows. As part of semester one of a course on World Cinema, Shepard screened The River by Pare Lorentz. In the darkness, many, not just one or two, voices started heckling the film. They just couldn’t take a film with blank verse narration seriously. Shepard stopped the film and chided the class for its narrow-mindedness.
- Miraculously, I convinced one of my friends, Andrew, to go with me to see Alphaville, my first Godard film, which was showing at Upstate Films. After the screening I talked to the owners of the cinema, with whom I was acquainted. Andrew was bewildered by the film and asked them if they liked it. They said they did not. “So why did you show it?” “We can’t just show films that we like.” Andrew was a college graduate and had taught in Venezuela as part of the Peace Corps program. As far as I know he’s never seen another Godard film.
- When talking to a high school teacher’s aid, Mrs. Fowler, about a film I had seen the night before, I mentioned that it had subtitles. She said that she would not watch a film if it had subtitles. “I don’t want to have to read while I’m watching a movie.” I suppose it could be worse. She could have said, “I don’t like to read at any time, let alone during a movie.” (However, writing, or texting, during movies appears to be catching on.)
- In college I went with two of my roommates to see the Faces by John Cassavetes. One of my roommates, who was with a friend, left about ten minutes into the movie. Later I asked him why he left. He said he didn’t like black and white movies, and preferred films such as Dirty Harry. He was an engineering major from Pakistan. (For what it’s worth, this screening was part of a Cassavetes retrospective and Cassavetes made an appearance after the screening of the last film, Opening Night. At least two others were with him, his cinematographer, Gary Graver, and his wife, Gena Rowlands. Cassavetes was very nice and appeared to be a bit embarrassed when all of the questions were directed to him. He said, “Why don’t you ask Gary a question? He’s worked with Orson.” But no one did.)
For a long time I’ve thought that not watching a film for silly reasons such as its being black and white or having subtitles was what it seems, irrational, but lately another theory has suggested itself to me. What if these reasons are reality filters? Filters in the sense of limiting our possible experiences. Why would anyone want to limit their life experience? Because we all have limited time and energy. There is only so much we can afford to do with our lives. And in the end, aren’t our own filters just as irrational to others as not watching a film because it is a film in black and white with subtitles, or, simply put, a bore?
Quiz time! Who said this:
For me he’s just a hoax. It’s empty. It’s not interesting. It’s dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of — is all the critics’ darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it’s a total bore.
It’s not your Aunt Vera. Find out the answer here. You may be surprised.
Matt Zoller Seitz writes about similar experiences in “From Russia with Love is not unsophisticated. You are.”