Friday, December 14, 2012

In Defense of Boring Movies

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax,
No more new territory, so pull away the IMAX.
—"Our Life Is Not a Movie, or Maybe," Okkervil River

One of my favorite films of all time is Stalker, directed in 1979 by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It is, in a word, boring.

Oh, there are more eloquent, poetic words an expert reviewer could use to describe this film—and I use those words, often with great relish. But "boring" is my personal description of choice for Stalker and its ilk; in fact, there are a whole class of movies that I love dearly that I group together as "boring movies."

Before I get into what makes a "boring movie" in the sense that I mean, let's back up and talk about Stalker. It's a science fiction film: it takes place in a world where, somewhere in rural Russia, an unknown, but clearly very strange, event occurred, creating a "Zone," said to drive people mad or kill them and cause mutations in their children. At the center of the Zone, supposedly, there is a room that, if you enter it, will make your dearest wish come true. It's illegal to go to the Zone, but in the film two men do, guided by a "Stalker," who knows the Zone's many (invisible) traps and pitfalls.

If that premise sounds intriguing, good, because it is. It is not, however, exciting, and, in its execution at least, is never entertaining. Instead, the movie ... takes ... its ... time. Through long stretches of dialogue-free scene- and mood-setting, it bores you into either turning it off and doing something else more fun, or to settling down, relaxing, and beginning to think. Take this scene as an example: the long, wordless ride to the Zone (filmed in beautiful color) from the world outside it (in sepia tone):

Sequences like that let you know that the director's goal is not to entertain, but to induce a meditative state and provoke thought. To quote Tarkovsky, "If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention." In this film, you can focus this attention on a variety of subjects; I tend to pay attention to certain details and use them to debate with myself whether the Zone is real or made up (there is almost never any direct, visible evidence that anything is amiss: for most of the film, we have only the Stalker's word that the Zone is not wholly illusory), but a viewer can spend her time pondering many other questions, including another personal favorite: what does it mean to truly desire something—are our "dearest wishes" made consciously or unconsciously?

A boring movie, in this sense, is a movie with a subversive purpose. Many of my favorite movies in this category advertise themselves as genre fare—the science fiction film, the western, the frontier epic—almost as if they are hoping to draw in the unexpecting viewer, not prepared or wanting thought but an escape. Instead of offering the usual transport to another world, though, where you can forget your own life and its attendant troubles in a sea of fun, tensions quickly followed by resolutions, and the promise of a happy ending, they confront you with questions to ponder and problems to ruminate on. Such confrontations are necessary, and it is good to have pieces of art that will approach us, offer us the opportunity to think deeply, and provide some directions in which answers may lie. I am happy that films like this are out there. And I think you should be, too.

If what I've said on this subject interests you, here is a short list of my favorites, with articles linked to explain what each is about more thoroughly and with more expertise than I can here.

Stalker: I've explained this one to you, but see also Solaris by the same director.
Dead Man: an "acid western" wherein Johnny Depp confronts his own mortality.
The New World: the story of Pocahontas and John Smith as meditation on humanity's relationship to nature.

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