Given my long-standing love of film, my new but flaming interest in boredom (stoked by reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King and interviewing Lee Rourke about his boredom-centric novel The Canal), and my admiration for Manohla Dargis, I think I have a constitutional mandate to blog about "In Defense of the Slow and Boring”:
“Of course, what I think is boring,” [Warhol wrote in his memoir “Popism,” “must not be the same as what other people think is, since I could never stand to watch all the most popular action shows on TV, because they’re essentially the same plots and the same shots and the same cuts over and over again. Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different.”
Warhol’s own films are almost always called boring, usually by people who have never seen or sampled one, including minimalist epics like “Empire,” eight hours of the Empire State Building that subverts the definition of what a film is (entertaining, for one). Long movies — among my favorites is Béla Tarr’s seven-hour “Sátántangó” — 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.
Forgive me for invoking the same old quote from favorite director Abbas Kiarostami that I drop every dozen posts or so:
I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater.
Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake me up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kinds of films I like.
As little as I want to approach an argument about the merits and demerits of “boring” movies — or, worse, “eating your cultural vegetables,” the subject of the opinion piece that originally sparked this dialogue — this talk does illustrate something I’ve observed in myself and maybe you’ve observed in yourself: I live in constant fear of boredom, yet I never actually experience anything that feels like boredom. Half the reason I don’t work as much on what I probably should comes down to a terror that the work won’t provide enough stimulation to keep me going. But everything always does provide enough stimulation to keep me going! But is it ever just a matter of the task, the experience, or the work at hand? Isn’t it more to do with my own mind?
Most of the time, I’ve accidentally upped my “baseline” stimulation level too much by, say, opening twelve browser tabs of terribly compelling audiovisual information and rapidly flipping between them, wallowing in a veritable orgy of meaningless auto-distraction. Get up that high and it seems, if falsely, like the labor of Hercules to quiet down the buzz. Only one way to avoid that hassle: keep the distractions flowing. Some forms of entertainment, such as the movies I don’t really like, do this with particularly freakish effectiveness.
Dargis offers this explanation as to why:
If you’re entertained, or so the logic seems to be, you won’t have the time and head space to think about how crummy, inane and familiar the movie looks, and how badly written, shoddily directed and indifferently acted it is. And so the images keep zipping, the sounds keep clanging and the actors keep shouting as if to reassure you that, yes, the money you spent for your ticket was well worth all this clamor, a din that started months, years, earlier when the entertainment companies first fired up the public-relations machine and the entertainment media chimed in to sell the buzz until it rang in your ears.
This explains a lot, for me, about why people meditate. Meditation — or any kind of voluntary deprivation of sensory input — lowers that stimulation baseline like nothing else. I groan a little whenever I hear a film critic call a picture “meditative,” and I groan louder still when I realize that they apply the word to so many of my personal favorites, but I don’t quite consider it coincidental anymore. These films, call them “slow” or call them “boring” or fall asleep during them if you will, both lower my stimulation baseline and yield their riches to the viewer in direct proportion to the lowness of their stimulation baseline. I find that one of the more rewarding positive feedback loops around.
Your mileage may vary, but the lower my stimulation baseline, the more interesting I find any given thing in the world. And could I go to far in arguing that the more interesting you find any given thing in the world, the richer life you lead? I don’t subscribe to the level of asceticism that dictates total severance from the need for stimulation, but I do expect good things from he who eliminates his dependency on any one particular source of stimulation — any kind of stimulation. The world is his, isn’t it?