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February 17, 2006

IS BORING THE NEW SERIOUS?

In the 70's, if you wanted your movie taken seriously you had to show some skin and bristle with anti-authoritarian cool like a hip porcupine, but these days there's only one thing you have to do if you want critics and film festival gatekeepers to know you've made a Serious film with a capital "S": make it boring. The more Seriously you want your film to be taken, the more boring you need to be. Long shots of people walking - good start. People sitting and staring off at something behind the camera - getting better. If you're a real daredevil and not scared to take it to the limit then try long scenes of people eating silently. You're the winner!

Lots of critics like to say that they loved Wong Kar-wai from the second they saw Leslie whip out his watch at the beginning of DAYS OF BEING WILD but WKW didn't become an international cool kid until CHUNGKING EXPRESS. And why did people sit up and notice CHUNGKING? Because it was fast and fun, but serious on the inside, like a nice chocolate bon bon with a tiny Nietzsche in the middle waggling his finger at you. So what happened since then? Why are the fun movies "guilty pleasures" and the serious movies boring?

Dunno. What I do know is that Wong Kar-wai (post-97 WKW), Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-Ke, Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have been to filmaking what that guy who takes his alcoholic buddy to a cocktail party and encourages him to get ripped is to alcoholism: enablers. These directors are all good directors, and they've all made some good films (I like WAYWARD CLOUD and PUPPETMASTER and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE quite a bit) but they've enabled a massive critical climate change and now serious filmmaking is a puritanical land where the pleasures of narrative are denied and the height of pleasure is to contemplate the frame rather than enjoy the movie. The surface elements of a movie (visual, aural) have been privileged over the fictional elements of a movie (emotional content, narrative). Creating an atmosphere or a mood is the ultimate achievement while creating a character or a plot twist is treated as a gauche display of vulgarity.

These movies play into critical insecurity - if it's difficult to enjoy then it must be good - and liking them is vital to film festival conversation: they're status markers. There is no more loaded question at a film festival than someone who is your social superior asking you what movies you've liked. Say you thought HOSTEL was good and you run the risk of seeing them mentally hang an "Idiot" placard around your neck. But tell them you liked TROPICAL MALADY or found A WAYWARD CLOUD "interesting" and you're on safe ground. They may not care about the movie, they probably don't even care about you, but you have successfully navigated the situation. And so the film festival atmosphere becomes even more rarefied and insular.

Again, boring movies can be good movies. KEKEXILI is a film that applies boring, important movie techniques to a loosely structured story and wrings every ounce of value out of them. The best movie at the Toronto Film Festival last year was, hands down, WALLACE AND GROMMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, and there's only been one editor I've met who has had the guts to say that out loud. But by not saying it out loud we allow a double standard to exist where as long as a movie wears the clothes of importance it's given a free critical pass, whereas movies that entertain us are given the consolation prize of box office dollars. The longer this bankrupt equation ("serious" = boring; "entertaining" = trivial) is accepted unquestioningly the wider the split grows between arthouse and multiplex, and that's bad for everyone.

February 17, 2006 at 07:18 AM in News | Permalink

Comments

This post is so so so so spot on!

Posted by: Lee | Feb 17, 2006 7:27:38 AM

Hear, hear!! Truer words have ne'er been spoken, good sir!!

Posted by: FiveVenoms | Feb 17, 2006 7:41:22 AM

agreed : theres a school of 'world cinema appreciation' that has always existed though, maybe now it's more obvious or the approach has spread cos of DVD buying habits. its overly academic, too specific or narrow, imbalanced and not entirely convincing appreciation of films that fit the 'could be studied at film school' feel to it : slow, poderous, cool, black & white : the potential candidates are endless. but like you say, there's a whole tonne of great films within these stodgy ones... i thought hou's 'cafe lumiere' was superg, perhaps one of those films i prefer in my memory than in my minds-eye whilst watching. i suppose one of the other issues is that websites and discussions intentionally become genre-specific or region-specific instead of the broader and much more realistic 'if its good its good' approach thats rarely found...

Posted by: logboy | Feb 17, 2006 8:07:27 AM

That's a lot of crap, or rather a return of the perennial and incredibly presumptuous charge that person X can't *really* like a film person Y finds dull. I found Wallace & Grommit funny and dull by turns and far less entertaining than Tropical Malady or the utterly excellent Three Times. Yes, entertaining -- meaning an immersive and transfixing experience, one that brought me out of myself and to a more interesting place. Despite the fact that it was "hands down" the best film at Toronto, I would much rather see either of these films again than W&G.; So that makes me a poseur? You're free to think so, as long as I'm free to think you a putz -- *not* for liking W&G; but for dragging out such idiotic arguments.

Posted by: Brett Andrews | Feb 17, 2006 8:49:41 AM

I'm with the majority on this one, a place I rarely find myself. So that's 4 putz's to 1 poseur, so far. Go putz's!

Posted by: Putz | Feb 17, 2006 9:25:50 AM

Funny thing: Sidney Lumet said only yesterday at the press conference that his latest film "Pleading Guilty" was not supposed to be part of the Berlin film festival competetion. Because, now listen closely, it *was not boring*. I beg to differ. It was even the most boring film I have seen there, excepting Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Invisible Waves". This one, however, would belong to the school - if only it existed - of boring films you talk about. Which goes to show that *boring* has nothing to do whatsoever with action or non-action, with the speed of moving and editing. It has to do with lack of intelligence and inventiveness, with a preference of cliché and the utterly expectable.

This, then, makes your diatribe a totally, totally boring one.

Posted by: Ekkehard Knoerer | Feb 17, 2006 10:01:03 AM

It's a slippery slope, this discussion. Personally, I have a taste for the longeurs of an Andrei Tarkovsky or a Takeshi Kitano (and I mean DOLLS, people, a luxuriate-in-the-frame bore if ever there was one, but one I find endlessly rewatchable and rich), but that shares a room with my need for Steven Chow and Tsui Hark. The argument presented in this article is, in some ways, geared to provoke a negative response from the 'bore'-lovers, but I think it nails a pretty serious point. We've reached a moment in popular culture when critical analysis is getting more difficult to validate than ever. If Everlasting Regret is the aesthetic opposite of The Island, does that make it inherently a good thing? Film Comment certainly seems to think so. Well, I think it's as dull as dishwater, a plotless muddle with some nice clothes. The rejection of traditional filmic pleasures like plot, form, etc., used to be a gateway into finding new ones (Truffaut and Goddard, anyone? FUN! Seriously, kids), but now the allergic reaction to popcorn tropes seems to be enough. It shouldn't be. Brett Andrews is not a poser, but he ignores the larger point of Grady's article for an issue of personal taste. Grady's not saying you're an idiot sheep for saying you enjoyed those films. The schism, though, between "fun" movies we should feel ashamed of enjoying and "serious" films we should be afraid not to like is widening, and it's a troublesome thing to contemplate. People are being encouraged to distrust their own opinions and not develop distinctive tastes. I don't resent serious cinema. I resent "serious cinema" and its scornful proponents (reverse snobbery is another problem for another time, so go read some of Armond White's psychotically misguided writing if you feel like getting really pissed off). Cinema is, was, and for some time will be THE predominant popular art form, and there's room for all sorts, no doubt. But don't sell me a box of frosted offal and tell me I'm a fool for spitting it back out.

Posted by: Abe Goldfarb | Feb 17, 2006 10:25:10 AM

The new version of "If you didn't get it there's no point in me telling you" has been turned into "If you couldn't hold it because you drank that Big gulp, then you're obviously not a serious cinema person/scholar/thingy".

I love Kitano to death, but someone needs to punch him in the face about Dolls.

Posted by: anangbhai | Feb 17, 2006 10:39:16 AM

Thanks for clarifying my point, Abe. I'm not saying that you're stupid for not liking "Wallace and Grommit", but I'm surprised at how internalized the schism between "serious" movies and "entertaining" movies has become. I talked up A WAYWARD CLOUD because I loved it, but you know what? I like W&G; better but I feel on some basic level that WAYWARD is the "better" or more "important" film and I can't believe that I'm the only person who felt this way. Why? That's what I'm trying to point out: there's a schism here and it's getting wider and it's on a feedback loop that makes it more and more entrenched.

But what deeply troubles me is how the surface qualities of a film are seen as more important than the more internal qualities of a film by many film writers. Look at "Shanghai Dreams". People talk about its mood, and its atmosphere, but it's practically a parody of the "serious" film with its long, long, long takes of people walking. Okay, I get it, everyone has two legs on which they get around. It's a small world they live in. The director wants to emphasize the physicality of the locations and have this geography resonate with his characters: they're trapped in the frame. But aren't there more interesting ways to present this than to just pick up the camera and start it running? It's gotten to the point where I genuinely believe that if someone follows the plan (minimal narrative, oblique characterizations, long shots of mundane everyday detail, lots of walking) then their movie will be taken seriously. I think we've hit a point where surface has become valued over narrative. You can point this accusation at big budget Hollywood movies, and you can point it at the arthouse as well. But it troubles me more when it's pointed at the arthouse because I like to think that the people who champion these movies are actually thinking about them, not sticking to a party line.

When's the last time you saw a critic examine why a movie made them cry or laugh? Is it in equal proportion to the amount of time film writers spend unraveling mood and visual and aural schemes? I think Robert Warshow nailed it when he said the primary moviegoing experience was between the movie and the person watching and in his writing that's what he talked about. He always started from the internal (or, often started from the internal since I haven't read everything he wrote).

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Feb 17, 2006 10:44:52 AM

I'm not so sure that the entertainment/arthouse schism is widening. Sure, it might not be too respectable to say you liked HOSTEL, but LAND OF THE DEAD was the 2nd most popular studio film in last year's VILLAGE VOICE poll. What about the rise of artsploitation and the cult success of Asian directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook, who keep one foot in the arthouse and the other in the grindhouse?

Also, I find THE FORSAKEN LAND, in which almost nothing happens for the first half hour, a lot more entertaining than WALLACE & GROMIT or HOSTEL. (As torture-porn goes, give me THE DEVIL'S REJECTS instead.)

Posted by: Steve | Feb 17, 2006 12:33:09 PM

Well, part of the reason this post resonates with me has to do with Ang Lee's recent disparaging comments about Stephen Chow, who is a "kid," while Hou and Tsai make "art." That's such a load of bull, and I think it does show that some people who take film "seriously" as an art form can't see how thrilling, joyous entertainment can also be--is, in fact, inherently--art. But I think that's always been true, to a certain degree.

Personally, I loved Blissfully Yours and the first half of Tropical Malady, but early in the second half of TM I started to experience what I think Andrew Sarris once called "Antoni-ennui."

There's a great, long tracking shot in Alex Cox's Highway Patrolman that feels a lot longer than it is, and that I think sums up everything that any filmmaker could ever say about the artificiality of cross-cutting, while also having tremendous emotional impact, and serving the story. That famous last shot of Through the Olive Trees is similar in the way it melds a kind of "pure" cinema and a powerful connection to universally understandable human experience. I don't see so much of that in, say, Hou's work.

Posted by: Josh | Feb 17, 2006 9:46:13 PM

How can anyone talk about boring without mentioning Hong Sang-soo?

Seriously though (wait, am I boring now?), good post.

Going hand-in-hand with Houhsiaohsien-itis is the rise in pretty cinematography (generally Christopher Doyle-lite) and the boring movie soundtrack (generally some kind of ambient Japanese ditty). People are lazy and not terribly creative, so they tend to copy what works.

As always, art exists in time (especially small-a "art"), and so what is successful and popular is often a reflection of the period. With so much hyper-kinetic fluff all around us, I'm not surprised people turn to the opposite.

Posted by: Haisan | Feb 17, 2006 10:26:39 PM

That's actually a great point, and one I hadn't thought of. Do people feel that because cutting is getting faster, movies are getting louder and more interested in spectacle as the age of the ideal audience member drops that maybe the arthouse circuit is embracing slowness and quietness more readily as a welcome antidote? Has cinematic comfort food been elevated to an indicator of quality? There also could be a skill factor at work here: drama is easy, comedy is hard, goes the old saying. By hewing to a few simple rules and taking your time with the editing almost anyone can make a movie that has enough signifiers of quality that critical gatekeepers will give it serious consideration. On the other hand, generating emotions in an audience (laughter, tears) is a much more difficult proposition that requires sharper instincts. Is this embrace of the Hou Hsiao-hsien et al. aesthetic merely a democratizing of filmmaking?

Steve's point about the rise of artsploitation is also a good one: one could argue that Park Chan-Wook's use of "slow cinema" techniques in SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE were roundly rejected in favor of the flashier OLDBOY.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Feb 18, 2006 10:24:14 AM

You also can't discount the eternal desire to be on the "cutting edge." It's hard to see how movies can get much faster but you can always slow it down. I recently told a friend that "Slow is the new fast." Critics who want to define themselves as "serious" often champion art house films and disparage popular entertainment. It is generally a successful tactic, and they can celebrate some excellent films, but it can also be very limiting. The most obvious example of this are Ten Best Lists which claim to modestly say these are the year's best films but are truly a sort of sneaky manifesto saying this is what cinema should be. In Toronto, I loved both WALLACE AND GROMIT IN THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT and THREE TIMES. I would never want to favor one over the other, and I wish more critics (and audiences) could learn to enjoy the widest possible spectrum of cinema.

Posted by: Dylan Skolnick | Feb 18, 2006 12:24:26 PM

I'm reminded, as a related note, of a Godardian principle: that the best way to criticize a movie is to make one.

Posted by: Abe Goldfarb | Feb 18, 2006 3:15:13 PM

Yes, Grady. i agree with most of what you wrote. i think there should be a distinction between "slow" artmovies that have content (emotional, psychological, spiritual)and that don't. Kar-wai's are slow and appear to be all about the externals but they are infused with so much emotional feeling they make me cry every time. Comrade Hsiao-hsien is for me a good example of the 50/50 division: half of his movies are great ("The Flowers of Shanghai" for example, or "Good Men Good Women") and half are really boring ("Goodby South Goodby", fell asleep in the middle)
i LOVE slow movies that make me feel and think but i also love entertainment movies like "Azumi". and i hate the "entertainment movies" coming off the Hollywood conveyer belt because they are lame, artificial and all the same.
Voila. have a good week and steer away from those Bollywood remakes... they are fast and entertaining but boy are they crap.

Posted by: Dina | Feb 20, 2006 8:57:59 AM

This is a fascinating post and I only wish I had the ability to add something extremely insightful to the discussion. What I will say is that, while I like films of all types, I suspect I sometimes tend to favor films that require patience and concentration simply because I favor the cinema over the home viewing system. Because of my highly distractable nature, it's a rare instance (FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI was one) when I've been able to really engage with one of these so-called boring movies when sitting at home in front of a television set. But when seeing them in the theatre, they have a chance to totally overwhelm and amaze me, if they're good enough. Whereas, more "conventionally"-paced films don't feel as wholly compromised when watched at home. Which means that when given the option of watching THE WORLD or WALLACE AND GROMMIT at a festival or when glancing over the newspaper showtimes, I'll pick a film like Jia's almost every time, knowing that even if I miss a chance to see the THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT in a theatre with an audience, I'll still have a chance to appreciate it when the DVD comes out. But seeing a film like THE WORLD on DVD for the first time doesn't feel like giving the film much of a chance at all.

In a perfect world, every film I ever wanted to see would play the Four Star Theatre, a block from my house, I'd always have a free ticket and the showtimes would always be convenient. But barring that fantasyland, I make choices about the films I watch in theatres partially informed by style, and I wonder if others do too.

PS I just saw KEKEXILI: MOUNTAIN PATROL and wonder what techniques you're thinking of, Grady. I found it a very fast-paced and "un-boring" film.

Posted by: Frisco Brian | Feb 21, 2006 4:06:15 PM

i truly don't believe a line can be validly drawn between 'narrative' & 'non/anti-narrative', first of all (& all your subsequent problematic simplistic conflations - boring/slow/academic/surface vs 'emotional'/'naturally' or fast-paced/entertaining/*real* etc). if we want to continue simply projecting our opinions (as a previous commenter said), i'd say on my part i find many in the non-narrative/contemplative 'category' very emotional (eg from tokyo story to goodbye dragon inn) & 'narrative' on very grand scales (maybe not 'narratives' as we know it/are used to). and of course we don't need to drag up the bizillions of shitty ones in the other category. it is what it is - yes, 'boring' films can be bad (eg just watch some of catherine breillat's), and even worse when it becomes a 'paradigm', with a set of formulae & rules that you must use to be taken 'seriously' (by whomever - but i think that's more a problem of culture and 'the times' rather than the films themselves - whatever that means - in isolated consideration). your post ultimately reads like a backlash (and yet you still wish to possess some 'basic cultural capital' by admitting, yes, you still like some of those 'boring' films) and complicit in form w/ the conditions you attempt to criticize. i think it's gonna take more than a simple 'return to narrative' to truly revolutionize cinema.

Posted by: cliff | Mar 8, 2006 11:04:15 AM

last one typed in kind of a hurry, so let me just add that - actually any form of 'return to narrative' should be anything but 'simple' (at the same time, for better or worse, re-legitimizing what was branded many people's 'guilty pleasure' - ie a 'good story'). i think assayas has done a decent job in this regard, with a lot of complexity - so not a 'simple' return maybe, but always questioning what 'narrative' means, in the same vein. formal filmmaking is not going away, but it *is* going to take a lot more than wallace & grommit, or crash, or capote etc to realize that sensibility & inventive edge.

Posted by: cliff | Mar 8, 2006 11:50:34 AM

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