Wednesday, October 28, 2015

In Defense of Boring Movies - Timbuktu

This post is part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies

It’s a time which separates the beloved from those they love,
And when you think of them, painful obsessive thoughts are all that come.
—"Cler Achel (I Spent the Day)," Tinariwen (trs. from Tamasheq)

What is a boring movie? A boring movie is one whose purpose is not to entertain, but to provoke thought. Watching a boring movie is about self-improvement: it's like sitting down to read a book of ancient philosophy or densely written fiction—in the end, it can be rewarding and even fun, but you have to put in the work yourself.

There are no rules for how to make a movie like this, but a couple of common characteristics have emerged as I have studied this kind of film. One is sparing use of music: many of these movies refuse to use music as a crutch to tell the audience how to feel. (The previous entry in this series, Steven Soderbergh's black and white Raiders of the Lost Ark cut, might seem to be an exception, since the whole movie is set to music and has no dialogue or other sound, but the music in the film is never the first choice for pairing with the images on screen, and sometimes even actively works against the natural emotion that the scene might be invoking.)

The other characteristic is frequent use of long shots. (Long in time, not distance.) Lengthy shots force viewers to slow down and reckon with what we're actually seeing, to focus on images and allow thoughts to bloom in response, rather than trying to keep track and make sense of a rapid sequence of cuts designed to carry forward a plot and maintain interest. Click the clip below and watch for 60 seconds or so for a good example, comparing last year's frenetic Interstellar with the grave, somber 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The whole video is worth watching, by the way, but some other time when you're not reading this post!)

The movie I'm reviewing here, 2014's excellent Timbuktu, has both of these qualities in spades. The director, Abderrahmane Sissako, uses long shots to establish a quiet, even meditative mood, which is tough (and, in a way, bold) considering the movie's premise: in 2012, Timbuktu, an important city in Mali, west Africa, was occupied by Islamic militants, and Timbuktu depicts life during their regime. 

The sparing use of music is a tool that requires viewers to focus on their emotional reaction to and interpretation of a scene. Music can be used to enhance a scene, sure, but it can also simply tell the viewer what to think or feel; refusing to use music in almost any scene in Timbuktu, Sissako lets the audience think for themselves about the nature of life in occupied Timbuktu; for the most part, the slow pace and refusal to heighten tensions with music lends the whole thing a humdrum feel, especially in the first half of the movie. Life goes on in the city, less conveniently, with more difficulty and strangeness, but still feeling very ordinary.

In Timbuktu, though, unlike other films in this series, music has a specific meaning throughout the film: all forms of music are forbidden by the occupying regime, so when music does show up in the film, it is usually associated with illicit activities. Mostly, the association is subtle; music plays in the soundtrack almost exclusively during events that are, in one way or another, illicit or forbidden, as in this questionably legal soccer game, played without a ball because soccer is forbidden (note: the scene involves one person speaking through a translator, and subtitles appear for the translator but not the original speaker):


The association is direct, though, in at least one case, where some young adults are arrested for gathering and making music:

Sissako employs long (sometimes very long) shots to great effect. Not only does he get viewers to slow down and really contemplate what is happening on screen, as with any longer shot, but he also uses long takes to make us absorb and process singularly uncomfortable, disquieting moments. By refusing to cut away to a new angle, the audience is provided with no relief, and we are forced to reckon with the discomfort radiating from the screen. Take, for example, this accidental death (murder?) scene, in which confrontation, awkward struggle, accidental gunshot, flight, and death take place in just four shots over three and a half minutes: 

Note music doesn't interfere with the awkwardness and discomfort of the struggle, but arrives after the crime has occurred, continuing the connection between music and illicit actions. 

~   ~   ~

Timbuktu asks us that most unsettling of questions: What if the monsters we fear most are just like us? In other words: If the occupiers in Timbuktu are simply ordinary men, who argue over soccer, make bumbling mistakes, and put forth bad arguments to cover poor or self-serving decisions, what separates us from them? Could we become like them given similar circumstances?

And in the tradition of boring movies, it gives plenty of space—plenty of slow-paced, quiet screen time, unencumbered by music or frenetic action—to contemplate the answer. 

~   ~   ~

To wrap things up, here are some more reasons to watch this movie, if you're still on the fence:
  • If you're a language nerd like me, you'll love it—the characters speak not only widely spoken languages like English, French, and Arabic, but also the local languages Bambara and Tamasheq (one of my favorite bands, Tinariwen, perform primarily in Tamasheq).
  • Like just about any film on my Boring Movies list, it's visually striking, and all the more so because you get plenty of time to look. Western Africa is rarely depicted in media that Americans watch, and it's a beautiful place to shoot a movie.  
  • Unusually for the Boring Movies list, the movie has more of an ensemble cast--there is a central plot line of sorts, but lots and lots of characters get generous screen time and character arcs. I think this gives the movie a unique and intriguing feel. 
  • Also, unlike most of the films in this series, Timbuktu clocks in under two hours—at a quick 96 minutes!
  • If you're still unsure, the late, great Dissolve website has an excellent review that might help you decide.  
If you're like me and still have a Netflix DVD account, you can get Timbuktu that way, but it's also available as a video on demand from Google Play, Amazon, and iTunes

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