Friday, 27 February 2015

Being Boring

The other day I did a podcast about Bergman and Antonioni, and the word "boring" appeared a few times. It got me thinking about something peculiar. Whenever someone says "I thought that film was boring." there is usually someone else who replies "Ah, but boring is good! Boring films make you think, and reflect upon what you are seeing. It is a healthy antidote to Hollywood spectacles." This is what I find rather peculiar. For one thing, are there any proofs at all that a boring film actually has that effect on the viewer, and that when we are bored we think deep and meaningful thoughts rather than something like "Hmm, maybe next Christmas I should go to some place warm, but where? Perhaps Madeira, I have heard nice things about it. I wonder if Jennifer Lawrence has been there? Where does she live? Probably LA. That is also a warm place, maybe I should go there? Or what if she lives in New York perhaps. But it is not warm there. Is she dating anyone now? Speaking of dating, I need to shave."

Another thing is that boredom is not a property of a film, like colour or length is. You cannot point to a film and say "That is objectively speaking a boring film." I thought The Avengers (Joss Whedon 2012) was incredibly boring but I am not sure the cheerleaders of boredom would tell me off for saying that, or argue that it is good for me to experience that boredom. What they mean are films like The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr 2011) or Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman 1975), long films where not much is happening on the surface. But I do not find either of them boring. Would the boredom adherents consider it a failure if a film did not bore them? As it would be absurd, probably not, but it is not more absurd than the original argument that there are films that are objectively boring and as such good for you. Sometimes it seems people feel guilty about being bored, but they should not. Being bored is just as valid as being overwhelmed, amused or disappointed.

In the podcast I mentioned that Bergman has said that he found Antonioni boring, or at least some of his films. Although Bergman also thought that some measure of boredom was a good thing, he also thought that there could be too much of it. But he did not feel guilty about this. He liked La notte (1961) and Blow Up (1966), but others he felt was "a little bit too boring". (He also thought Antonioni was somewhat of an amateur, from a technical viewpoint, but that is beside the point.)

I suppose the argument the pro-boredom crown is making is that boredom is an alienating effect, in the Brechtian sense, but I am highly sceptical of Brechtian alienation too. There are several reasons for this, and one is that I see no reason to assume that an alienated audience will think in new ways or be politically enlightened, just because of the alienation. I also think that many get confused about what alienating effects really are and which films have them, but that is for a later post.

In short I find the whole discussion about boring films peculiar, and intellectually shallow. There is also something condescending about it, both towards those who complain about a film being boring and to the filmmakers. To say that someone's film is boring is a weird kind of praise, since few, if any, filmmakers set out to make boring films, or would feel comfortable if told that their films were boring. Is it not similar to saying to a chef "Your food taste awful, and that is what is so good about it. It really made me think about food, poverty and those who go hungry in the world. Can I have some more please?"

Finding something boring is not a personal flaw but a natural, subjective reaction, and I am not convinced that we do art any favours when we praise it for being boring.



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Bergman speaks of Antonioni on several occasions. The quote above was from an interview John Simon did with him in 1971. It has been re-published in Ingmar Bergman: Interviews (2007).

6 comments:

  1. Hahaha, very NOT boring post! Where I am going next Christmas I don't really know...

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    1. There's still time to come up with a destination. San Diego perhaps?

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  2. I haven't really read or spoken with many people who defend "boring" films or boredom itself as a positive quality. I do know someone who's currently teaching a class on "slow cinema," and I suspect that this is what people conflate with "boredom." Dan Kois wrote an infamous New York Times article on "cultural vegetables," and I suspect he'd throw all the European films you've cited into that basket. But there can be a meditative brilliance to slowness, and I find the incoherent action scenes of a film like WORLD WAR Z far more tedious than Antonioni or Tarr.

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    1. I was thinking about slow cinema too, and almost quoted from Jonathan Rosenbaum's piece "Is Ozu Slow?" Apparently a waiter had said to him that he thought Ozu was slow, and Rosenbaum wrote an article in Ozu's defence, counting the length of shots and such. Rather weird if you ask me... But "slow" is at least more objective than "boring".

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  3. Thought provoking post as always. You are quite right that "boring" is a subjective quality, just like "funny" or "good" and therefore precarious to use as an objective one. I also think you hit the nail on the head that "boring" has become synonymous with non-apparent action, which in itself for some reason is regarded as more high brow form of culture. Because it is seen as more demanding of its audience? A boring film to me is one that does not manage to make me invested, emotionally or intellectually. It matters less if it portrays a potatoefield for 90 minutes or contains 90 minutes of non-stop unfolding of events.

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    1. Yes, and what is "demanding" is of course also subjective. Some (like me) will have no problem with watching, and being hypnotized, by the 160 minutes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) or the 190 minutes of his Winter Sleep (2014), but struggle with five minutes of some teen musical, finding the later much more demanding. Sergio Leone's films from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and onwards are very long and opaque, and I love them, but quite a few find them incredibly boring, even though there is plenty of action and violence in them.

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