In Praise of "Boring" Films

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Last Friday, in our suggestions for end-of-the-week time killers, we directed your attention to Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott’s “In Defense of the Slow and Boring” piece in that day’s New York Times. A response, of sorts, to Dan Kois’ lament of ingesting your “cultural vegetables” (which also inspired one of our most divisive posts in recent memory), Dargis and Scott’s two-handed article sings the praises of films that risk alienation by taking their time to tell stories (and, occasionally, to forgo even that) in a more contemplative manor. “Long movies,” Dargis writes, “take time away even as they restore a sense of duration, of time and life passing, that most movies try to obscure through continuity editing. 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.”

Few moments, as a film fan, are more heartbreaking than talking movies with a friend or acquaintance and hearing that one of your most beloved favorites is “boring,” or “dull,” or “slow,” or some combination of all, occasionally with the descriptor “soul-crushingly” attached. Different strokes for different folks, of course, and everyone’s sense of monotony varies (or, as a friend of mine said over the weekend, “I don”t find slow movies boring. I find action movies boring”). We’ve collected a few of our favorite movies that tend to be described in those terms; check them out after the jump, and add your own in the comments.

Solaris

Andrey Tarkovskiy’s 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel runs 165 meditative minutes, and while it’s set (mostly) in outer space, it’s no Star Wars (or even 2001). The fact of the matter is, not a whole hell of a lot happens over the course of its nearly three hours, but what doesn’t happen does so beautifully. “Tarkovsky doesn’t script so much as paint and compose,” wrote Desson Howe in The Washington Post , “his work is a collection of living paintings, or visual symphonies, rather than narrative movies. Though Solaris is one of the late director’s most plot-coherent and accessible films, its plot is still a mere conduit for mood, atmosphere and philosophy.”

Gerry

When your writer first saw Gus Van Sant’s anti-adventure tale in 2003, all I could think of was that line from Ghost World, when Rebecca asks Enid if she likes Seymour, and Enid replies thus: “I don’t know, I kind of like him. He’s the exact opposite of everything I really hate.” And so is Gerry. It stars Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting co-stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, but couldn’t be further removed from that crowd-pleaser; it concerns two guys who drive to a wilderness trail, start to hike it (they’re going towards a “thing” at the end of the trail, never explained), get off the trail (“all trails must lead to the thing,” Damon declares), and then get lost in the desert. That’s about it. They talk, a little; they walk, a lot. Long sequences unfold with little or no dialogue, and no action more riveting than two guys walking (or, later, staggering). One shot (above), which runs just shy of seven minutes, tracks the pair from behind in a peculiar, dream-like state that seems first a hallucination and then reveals itself to be a stunning sun rising over a desert canyon; another is simply a tight two shot of the pair walking, and walking, and walking, until they slowly begin to walk in sync with each other, their sneakers crackling in the dirt with a peculiar (and, frankly, funny) synchronicity. It’s a strange, spare, and alienating film, but in its own uncompromising way, it’s utterly fascinating.

Last Year at Marienbad

Alain Resnais’s 1961 drama has been contentious since its initial release; bad-movie connoisseurs the Medved Brothers notoriously included it in their 1978 book The 50 Worst Films of All Time (placing it alongside Myra Breckinridge, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and The Terror of Tiny Town). So it goes; with its shifting narrative, enigmatic characterizations, and pensive pacing, some find Marienbad unwatchable, while others call it a masterpiece. Plant us in the latter camp; its slowness is central to the picture’s sense of mystery and its notions of memory and displacement.

Colossal Youth

Pedro Casta’s 2006 mediation on the Cape Verdean immigrants of Portugal — particularly 75-year-old Ventura, who basically spends the film wandering the slums and paying visits to supposed friends and relatives — runs over two-and-a-half hours and is shot mostly in long, static shots. The scenes are often repetitious and frequently seem to go nowhere, but accumulate to convey a sense of the drudgery in the everyday lives of the characters. “Eventually,” Andrew O’Hehir wrote at Salon , “across the monumental boredom, mesmerizing, nearly still images and poetic rhythms of this 155-minute film, something like pathos or meaning can be sensed, if not really apprehended.”

My Dinner with Andre

Perhaps the greatest bait-and-switch of the previous television season was Community‘s “Critical Film Studies” episode, which garnered huge advance internet buzz as the “Pulp Fiction episode” — complete with advance photos of the show’s characters in iconic Tarantino garb — only to turn out to be a riff not on that film, but on Louis Malle’s 1981 art-house hit, a 110-minute dinner conversation between actors Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. Though the possibilities for putting an audience to sleep were myriad (is there anything less cinematic than two people sitting at a table and just talking for two hours?), the film is riveting, entertaining, and funny. Those aren’t just words passing between Gregory and Shawn, as Roger Ebert wrote in his original review: “They are alive on the screen, breathing, pulsing, reminding us of endless, impassioned conversations we’ve had with those few friends worth talking with for hours and hours. Underneath all the other fascinating things in this film beats the tide of friendship, of two people with a genuine interest in one another.”

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s new film Meek’s Cutoff is a centerpiece of the Times back-and-forth, so we couldn’t help but think of her last film, also a collaboration with Michelle Williams. This simple story of a girl and her dog trying to get to Alaska and start over doesn’t exactly move at a breakneck pace — Reichardt’s camerawork is simple, her shots are often lengthy, and the action is subdued, almost inert. But the picture is quietly devastating, in much the same manner as the Italian neorealist films that clearly inspired it; the AV Club’s Scott Tobias wrote, “Shooting with the same plain-Jane naturalism she brought to her last film, 2006’s lyrical Old Joy, Reichardt reduces the story to a simple, direct series of cascading setbacks and an ever-narrowing set of options.”

35 Shots of Rum

Claire Denis’s 2008 film recalls the work of Yasujiro Ozu, himself the creator of several pictures that could have easily made this list. The film is less of an A-B-C narrative than a series of sketches and slice-of-life vignettes. “Hushed minimalism is a rare and appealing quality in the cinema these days,” Amy Biancolli wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle , “but so little happens in 35 Shots of Rum that I’m hard-pressed to describe the plot. It doesn’t exactly have one.” What it does have is a sure sense of the four characters at its center: who they are, what their lives are like, and how they intersect in ways both assumed and unexpected.

The New World

Just about everything Terrence Malick has ever directed could pop up here; with his fondness for poetic voice-over, lingering nature photography, and mood-driven storytelling, Malick’s films have been testing the patience of literal-minded moviegoers for decades. Never was this more true than in his 2005 take on the story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, a lengthy epic (various cuts ran from 135 to 172 minutes) filled with idyllic forest compositions and meandering inner monologues; it’s a deeply flawed film, yet gorgeous and captivating all the same. “Malick works instinctively, discovering his movies as he films them on location, then rediscovering and reshaping them in the editing room,” David Ansen wrote in Newsweek . “The reward is moments of transcendent beauty. What gets sacrificed is structure… The paradoxical Malick is a shoot-from-the-hip perfectionist who may be temperamentally incapable of making perfect movies. He can’t see the forest because he’s head over heels in love with the beauty of the trees.”

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

If Malick made a cowboy picture, it might come out something like Andrew Dominik’s 2007 art-house Western — particularly in the narrative interludes that punctuate the story and set its contemplative tone, which are gorgeously photographed by the great Roger Deakins and perfectly complimented by to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ gorgeous music and Dominki’s narration (much of it pulled verbatim from Ron Hansen’s novel), spoken by Hugh Ross. With an unwieldy title and a running time to match, Jesse James is in no hurry to get where it’s going, but it unfolds with an uneasy inevitability, and the results are fascinating, lyrical, and absolutely spellbinding.

Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone’s final work, an American gangster epic starring Robert DeNiro and James Woods, clocked in at a backbreaking 229 minutes; Warner Brothers, its American distributor, panicked and took a hatchet to the film, initially releasing it in 1984 sliced nearly in half. The results were a disaster (of the shortened version, Roger Ebert fumed: “The movie has been wrenched into apparent chronological order, scenes have been thrown out by the handful, relationships are now inexplicable, and the audience is likely to spend much of its time in complete bewilderment. It is a great irony that this botched editing job was intended to ‘clarify’ the film”). The original cut was resurrected for VHS and DVD, thankfully, and while it is without question a film that requires patience and concentration due not only to its leisurely running time but its complex structure, that patience pays off — given the time to fully develop his complicated characters and their byzantine web of relationships and betrayals, Leone creates one of the greatest of all crime dramas.

Those are just a few of our picks — what films would you add to the list?