You can read my latest Humanists column, on Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, this week on 3Quarksdaily:
"No good movie is too long," Roger Ebert once wrote, "and no bad movie is short enough." Oh, how my inner cinephile regrets bringing up the 201-minute length of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles so early in the discussion, it supports that dictum so well! Later revised to "All good films are the right length," the line now applies to the film that much more directly. I'll sound higher-flown but surely even more accurate when I claim that the form of all good movies closely fits their substance. Here we have one of the closest form-substance matches ever made.
The title may have already given this away, but those three-and-change hours don't serve a labyrinthine plot, an ensemble of dozens, or any particular historical sweep; we get a widow, her son, three days in mid-1970s Brussels, and the preparations for those days' three dinners. Already we hit the fearsome wall this film raises against critics: having watched (and perhaps loved) it, you want to insist that, against the implication of all possible summaries, it's not boring. Yet that insistence sounds, to the rightfully skeptical reader, like too much protestation. What's more, you feel all the while that the very impulse to deliberately highlight non-boringness trivializes the many fascinating (and actually relevant) qualities of a picture so richly non-boring on every level. It's like making a big deal out of the fact that it was shot with a camera; sure, it's true, but it's also part of the work's very nature.
Generally speaking, no serious viewer considers boredom a function of length. After all, many boring movies clock in around 90 minutes, and often they're filled with event after tiresome event. Neither, then, can a serious viewer consider boredom a function of happenings. Let's not even start on all the turgid "epics" the annals of cinema history offer us. I would submit that boredom is actually the result of a form-substance mismatch; it's the unpleasant sensation of those two aspects of a film grinding away at one another, rattling, vibrating, putting out that awful burning-rubber smell. Hence the dullness of so many films adapted from other media — literature especially — as well as those conceived first and foremost as screenplays. When the material can't properly engage all the creative bandwidth cinema has to offer, something's bound to burn out. Usually, it's the audience.
I promise you more paragraphs over at 3QD. What with this and all the Jean-Philippe Toussaint I’ve read, this has been not just a very Belgian month for me, but a very Belgian-aestheticization-of-the-mundane month for me. Shouldn’t we have long ago made that month official, like Poetry Month or Black History Month?