In recent weeks, several prominent film critics have engaged in a lively back-and-forth about the question of “slow and boring” cinema. Hearkening back to the famous Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris debates of the 60s-70s, this latest debate revives some of the classic, ongoing tensions in cinema, and raises fundamental questions about about the movies are for, and how we should watch them.
It started with Dan Kois’ piece in the New York Times Magazine, in which he basically said that he was sick of suffering through boring, artsy films, even though he knew they were good for him. Even though he still engages in what he calls “aspirational viewing” (giving artsy films a shot, hoping to connect with them in spite of their difficulties), Kois notes that he would rather not pretend to like certain films just to demonstrate refined taste:
Perhaps I’m realizing that enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have to be a performative act, even for someone who writes about movies. Or perhaps I just lack the youthful exuberance that led me to believe I could rewire my brain through repeated exposure to Antonioni. Part of me mourns the sophisticated cineaste I might never become; part of me is grateful for all the time I’ll save now that I am a bit more choosy about the aspirational viewing in which I engage.
This post was then responded to with a one-two punch from the Times’ Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, in a piece entitled “In Defense of Slow and Boring.”
Dargis unleashed her missive with a particularly large heaping of ire aimed at mindless Hollywood blockbusters such as the universally panned Hangover 2. She writes:
“As I get older,” Mr. Kois concludes, “I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me.” Happily for him, movie theaters offer a cornucopia of junk food.
For instance: “The Hangover Part II,” which I find boring, raked in $137.4 million over the five-day Memorial Day weekend. It’s 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, having opened on an estimated 17 percent of American screens. 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.
For his part, Scott responded not only to Kois, but also to critics like Time’s Richard Schickel, who hated Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, decrying its “twaddling pretenses,” and calling Malick “an inept filmmaker.”
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. Manohla, you had some reservations about “The Tree of Life,” but your dispatch on it from Cannes emphasized its self-evident and disarming sincerity. Sincerity is the opposite of pretentiousness, and while it is certainly possible to be puzzled or annoyed by Mr. Malick’s philosophical tendencies or unmoved by the images he composes or the story he tells, I don’t think there is any pretending involved.
At Salon.com, critic Andrew O’Hehir takes a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach, though he sides with “team boredom” in the end:
Suffice it to say they’re both right and both wrong and that, thankfully, hardly anyone holds those positions in their purest form. Pop culture can be a tremendously liberating collective experience, and can also be a tool and an example of totalitarianism. What remains of aristocratic high culture in the art-house tradition really does embody some of the finest aesthetic values of the post-Renaissance West, but it can also be a masochistic and exclusionary ritual, like Odysseus tied to the mast and listening to the Sirens sing. What is boring? A lot of human life is boring, and we’ve all got to pick our poison. Most people, most of the time, prefer to be distracted from the boredom of everyday life with movies that labor to entertain them — and they may get understandably pissed off at those of us who claim that those things, too, are boring.
What about works of art that are deliberately and intensively boring, in the Tarkovsky mode? They’ll almost certainly be out there somewhere, for the audience of flagellants like me who want to seek them out, but that’s hardly the point. Even if you take the most dystopian possible view, as I often do, and see a culture that has tried to build a massive edifice to keep boredom out, a Maginot Line or Berlin Wall of permanent entertainment — well, then reflect on what happened to the Maginot Line and the Berlin Wall. Boredom is like the ants’ nest underneath your picnic, or the mass of hungry zombies outside the mall. Do what you will, you can’t keep it out.
Though complex and multifaceted, I think what this debate boils down to is a question of the merits of “escapism” and the proper posture one should have towards consuming cultural items like films. If a film demands more than intellectual passivity from its audience, should we rise to the occasion and “aspire” (as Kois puts it) to get the film? Or is it our right and prerogative, as an audience, to demand that films speak to us on our level, give us what we want for a few hours (escapism), and then send us on our merry way?
Of course, beneath these questions is the complicated history and nature of the cinematic medium. Historically it’s been a popular form of diversion, more “mass entertainment” than other artistic forms. But in spite of its populist roots, there is no question that cinema has proven, from even its earliest days, that it is indeed an art form–capable of exploring, exposing, moving, and challenging audiences as effectively (or , sometimes, even more) than novels, paintings, or plays. Thus, I think we can excuse from the outset the notion that film is somehow destined, or properly meant, to solely be diversion. Film has proven itself adept at artistic achievement, and we should thus proceed in this conversation as if film is on the same level as the “high arts,” because it is–or can be.
The issue here is bigger than just film. It’s about how we consume anything, and how we look at the world. Do we really believe in the power of art to edify our lives? Are there things left to discover or learn about the world through art? Or is it merely something pleasing from which we can partake as means of reprieve or escape?
It would be easy to accuse Kois and Schickel of being lazy–just not looking hard enough or caring to exert energy in “getting” a difficult, slow or boring film. But I think it has more to do with cynicism than laziness. Sadly, our world is ever more cynical and skeptical, doubtful that anything mediated is truly true, or good, or new. We’re understandably reluctant to trust in anything mediated to us, because we’ve seen everything, we think. What could a movie possibly add that we haven’t learned from first-hand experience? It’s almost as if, in a world of over-mediated, what-can-we-trust incredulity, our physical and first-hand experience is all we can believe in.
We are also skeptical about meaning. Is it even there? Grand, ambitious attempts at meaning making are foolishness in a postmodern world (this is evident in Schickel’s insinuation that great film directors only touch on the “big questions” as an aside to the more important narrative entertainment). We’re dubious that pondering, probing, or discovering meaning in life is possible, or even desirable. Thus, why exert energy trying to figure out the nuances of what some other dude (especially some annoyingly esoteric, obtuse artist like Terrence Malick) thinks about the mysteries of existence? Just give me something I can laugh out, immerse myself in, or be amused by.
This sort of cynicism understandably makes any sort of sincere, complex or difficult art terribly arduous to endure. When we are closed off to the possibility that art can actually teach us things, or make our lives better, or reveal truth to us, then of course it becomes a chore and a bore to sit through. Kois’s “aspirational viewing” is admirable, but it seems like what he’s “aspiring” to is more a sort of in-the-know literacy than an actual discovery of beauty and truth. In the end, Kois seems to resent films that set their own terms, confront or challenge us, or suggest that we have things to learn about ourselves and our world. Escapist films are just so much more palatable.
The thing is, “escapism” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s all in how we understand what escapism means. Yes, film and other arts are great at escapism in the sense that they show us exotic worlds, take us out of our comfort zones and allow us to see and experience wonders we might otherwise never behold. But when escapism is sought after merely because it temporarily nulls the boredom, void, denial, or fear we have in confronting the world right in front of us, escapism becomes an abuse (in the same way we might abuse alcohol or some other drug). In the latter case, escapism is a selfish, lazy, quick-fix thing we use to soothe ourselves. We don’t care what the cultural text in question has to say; only what it does for us. The better approach to escapism is when we cede our control, letting the film take us where it wants to go and opening ourselves up to what it has to show us. In this, we see new scenery, new places, new perspectives. We “escape” the mundane. But we also see the mundane anew, recognizing–if we are willing to actively search–mysteries and curiosities about ourselves and our world that film and other arts are uncannily skilled at revealing.