Monday, November 19, 2007

What We Mean When We Call a Film "Boring"

The vocabulary we use to talk about films fundamentally defines our attitudes towards the cinema. As we watch a movie and begin to formulate an opinion, we call upon our own personal vocabulary, mentally assigning the film to one or more evaluative categories based on the different descriptors we apply to the work. Since most of the vocabulary used in thinking and writing about film has become hopelessly trite thanks to years of overuse (think of unilluminating expressions like "a meditation on..." or "an exercise in style"), and generally focuses on what makes a film similar to any number of other works rather than defining what makes it unique, we tend to bring stale, passive attitudes towards the viewing experience and continue to think about the most challenging films in the same old terms. When these challenging films don't fit any of the old categories, we fall back on dismissive formulations to invalidate the work, since we have little or no prior cinematic grounding from which to evaluate it. (We may say, for example, that a film is "pretentious"). The directors of these films may have employed a new cinematic vocabulary in their work but, too often, we are still locked into our old critical vocabulary which has become insufficient to describe many of the important contemporary works being made. A failure to adjust the language in which we think about film inevitably leads to a failure to adjust to the new aesthetic strategies being employed by the world's leading filmmakers.

One of the more dangerous accusations that an unreflective viewer can inflict on a film is the charge of "boredom". The question of a film's being "boring" - or in its euphemistic critical formulations "slow moving" or "deliberately paced" - poses a unique problem, since the speaker is often less than clear as to what he means when he uses the term. Saying a film is "boring" is not merely to abjure the responsibility of actively engaging a given work, it is to fundamentally misunderstand the proper uses of film viewership. Writing in 1965, Susan Sontag noted, "the charge of boredom is really hypocritical. There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration. And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of most educated people." She was speaking specifically about the art of Antonioni and Beckett, artists that forged a new vocabulary (cinematic and literary) to challenge the by-then largely assimilated language of the modernist movement that was beginning to weigh down much of contemporary art. Today, the question of a unique cinematic "language" that is often dismissed as "boring" is no less an issue than it was in the 1960s, as most of the best filmmakers working today, Béla Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Alexsandr Sokurov and Tsai Ming-Liang, employ an aesthetic approach (long takes, an emphasis on strong visual composition, a refusal to grant primacy to traditional notions of character and narrative) likely to frustrate those unwilling to engage the filmmakers on their own terms. When someone says of one of these filmmakers that his works are boring, he is betraying his inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the filmmaker's singular aesthetic presentation. What the viewer means is not "this film is boring," but "I lack the cinematic grounding to engage this film's unique language". Outside of a small number of the world's more discerning critics, the works of these filmmakers have largely failed to connect not only with a majority of viewers (educated or otherwise) but with many short-sighted film writers as well, who employ a modified version of the vocabulary of their lay counterparts to the same dismissive ends.

To describe a film as boring is, in many cases, to assert a definition of the cinema that is hopelessly narrow: film as a narrative-centered medium, relying heavily on dialogue to grant its characters the illusion of psychological complexity; a medium that presents a closed, self-sufficient world and is carefully engineered for easy viewer consumption. There aren't too many critics who would, in theory, subscribe to such a limiting definition of the art form, but when writers like Todd McCarthy take filmmakers to task for refusing to adhere to these very limitations, we know that something is very wrong with the predominant critical attitude towards contemporary cinema. When McCarthy writes something like "the various influences of Chantal Ackerman [sic], the Dardenne Brothers and Bela [sic] Tarr have moved numerous filmmakers to abandon the shaping and dramatizing of events in favor of recording mundane daily activity and presenting repetitive behavior ad nauseum" in his 2005 report from the Cannes Festival, he is again giving expression to a fallacious understanding of the medium. By insisting that only films that "dramatize" their material are worthwhile, McCarthy and writers with a similar critical orientation lay the groundwork for damaging accusations of boredom. Granted, every filmmaker that follows the example of Akerman, the Dardennes or Tarr may not be as successful as their models, but they are still attempting to speak in a fresh cinematic language, a language that may seem "mundane" or "repetitive" (two synonyms for "boring") to its detractors, but is perpetually invigorating for those willing to engage it, just as the language of Antonioni and Godard was for receptive viewers in the 1960s. Those who insist on "traditional" passive notions of film viewership will always fall back on their stock vocabulary (or new variations thereof), but, by doing so, they automatically preclude themselves from properly experiencing the truly important work being done in the medium.

But the descriptor "boring" does have its critical uses. It applies quite nicely to a work like Pan's Labyrinth, a film that mystifyingly received near universal critical acclaim upon its 2006 release. Clinging to a tight narrative structure and conventionally defined characters (that is, given a consistent, if shallow, psychological grounding), Labyrinth everywhere plays it safe, confining itself to too narrow a set of boundaries and then failing to generate any interest within these boundaries. Certainly a film that follows traditional notions of cinematic storytelling can achieve great success, but it must do something with its narrative elements other than simply allow them to unfold in a predictable chronology. The film presents two levels of narrative reality - the brutish existence of resistance fighters following the Spanish Civil War and the fantasy life of the young girl, Ofelia - but both play out without surprises, the clichés of political oppression alternating with the clichés of the fairy tale. The Francoist is a typically brutal chauvinist, one of the most ordinary screen villains ever created. The girl is a poorly conceived example of the typical "imaginative" kid. A film can be wholly successful without developing interesting characters (and in many of the best films of today, character "depth" is largely beside the point), but in the terms set by Guillermo del Toro's film, the terms of strict narrative development, character inetivably plays a central role and del Toro seems content to rely on the least imaginative conceptions to build his principal figures. The film's interest may not lie in characterization, but it needs to lie somewhere. The director seems to have saved all his imagination for the creation of the mythical creatures that inhabit Ofelia's fantasy world, because it is only in these vividly imagined figures (and the accompanying makeup and costuming) that the film generates any interest, visual or otherwise. What finally makes the film so dull is its insistence on drawing extremely narrow limits to its cinematic conception and then failing to do anything worthwhile within those limits. A failure even within its own highly constricted terms, Pan's Labyrinth is a film for which the frequently mis-applied descriptor of "boring" fits all too well.

This post was selected as a "link of the day" for December 2nd, 2007 on the excellent collaborative blog The House Next Door. It generated a lively discussion both on that site and right here on The Cine File consisting of (mostly) intelligent commentary. Check it out here.


PVLGO said...

This is a fine elaboration on what Sontag said very succintly. And I agree on every single point with your assessment of Pan's Labyrinth.

But I must ask: What makes the charge of boredom "dangerous"?

andrew schenker said...

It is dangerous for a viewer to charge a film with "boredom" because it perpetuates a passive, unreflective attitude towards film watching which prevents the viewer from being receptive to a certain type of work. To accept "boredom" as a valid critical criteria (except in the instance described in my discussion of Pan's Labyrinth) is to saddle viewers with a priori barriers against engaging with films that don't conform to their conservative notions of what constitutes a movie. These restrictive barrierse must be considered dangerous since they ultimately hamper creative filmmakers who can't get their works released because audiences have been pre-conditioned to dislike them.

Luis Calil said...

1) So "boring" is an evil word when used to describe a "slow-paced" film, but it's an OK word to describe a film Andy Schenker does not like? Now, wait a minute...

2) If a viewer calls a film "boring", all you can draw from that is that he was bored by the film. It does not automatically mean the film was inaccessible or too complex for the viewer. It's entirely possible that someone could describe Sokurov as "boring" not because his movies are often mind-numbingly slow, but because the person found them unimaginative, trite, etc.

3) It seems that the entire purpose of this post was to diss McCarthy and PAN'S LABYRINTH, which is fine, but you chose to present it as some sort of grand thesis with gross generalizations. That's not a good idea; it makes you look like an arrogant twit. Which I'm sure you're not.

4) That picture seems more "shock" than "boredom", probably because I can't see his eyes. I smell a Kuleshov Effect post coming...

andrew schenker said...

The fact that I sanction the use of the term "boring" in some instances and not in others is not an example of a double standard. Nor is it a question simply of me saying it's okay for describing films I don't like, but not those I do. There is indeed a fundamental difference between the two uses. The difference is that in the first instance, the viewer is unprepared for the film because he is unfamiliar with the "language" that the film speaks. It is not presumptious to demand that a viewer meet a difficult film on its own terms. Imagine an untrained reader picking up Finnegan's Wake and not making heads or tails of it. It doesn't mean Joyce's work is boring, it simply means that the reader is incapable of speaking the novel's "language". In the case of a film like Pan's Labyrinth, the language is the same as any Hollywood production, so there is no difficulty engaging del Toro on his own terms. I feel justified in calling that film boring, because I understand these terms and see that it doesn't do anything interesting within its own limits. If a viewer were to watch Sokurov's films, situate himself properly within the director's aesthetic, and then find them "unimaginative" or "trite" (which given that Sokurov's films are wonderfully fresh and original would be a difficult conclusion to reach) then I suppose he would be justified in using the term "boring."

3. I did not write the piece to attack McCarthy and del Toro. It grew out of an earlier piece on viewer responses that I found unacceptable, which mentions neither work. I added them to the present piece as two examples to support my thesis, and I don't think I'm guilty of any gross generaliztions. Although I'm sure you wouldn't like the first piece any more than the present one, you're welcome to check it out. It's the October 5th post on my blog.

PVLGO said...

For Luis Calil:

You think that Andrew claims to know what a viewer means when he or she describes a film as “boring” and, worse, you accuse him of accepting the use of that term only when applied to movies he does not like. Although incorrect, this reading of Andrew’s post is not very surprising. You are not the first one to have (mis)understood it that way. I will not address your comments because Andrew has already done so. I only wish to provide a succinct summary of the post’s main points.

Plainly, this what the post says:

Boring is a common way to describe a film. Too often it betrays frustration, stemming from the inability to engage the film on its own terms. But sometimes –when the viewer does understand the film’s language-- it simply means that the film is found to be unoriginal and generally unremarkable.

Now, here is my CliffsNotes to the post:

These are two different attitudes that any one viewer may adopt. The ability to engage different films necessarily will vary, so evidently the best one to adopt is the second one. Such a viewer will accept his or her ignorance of a given film’s language, his or her inability to engage it on its own terms, and not simply dismiss it as a “boring” film.


Nota Bene: I’m afraid that Andrew’s unwillingness to express his thoughts in plain language and his at times slightly supercilious tone are enough to distract and confound some readers.

Simon Crowe said...

I'm with you on the fact that too often audiences and critics can't or won't make the leap to a different cinematic "language." But I find your view of Pan's Labyrinth incoherent. You write about the different narrative levels as if they weren't part of the same movie. I'd argue that the ordinariness of the villain is precisely the point. Despite Ofelia's imaginings, her fanatsy life is no match for the ideologically motivated Captain. (Although she is hailed as a Princess after death)....

andrew schenker said...

I'm not clear on what you find incoherent. My basic view of the film is that it's a simple story simply told and that even within this limited context, it plays it safe at every opportunity by refusing to go beyond stock characters and situations. The two narrative levels certainly combine into a single coherent film, but they are each presented unimaginatively except (as I mentioned) in the conception of the creatures. The villain's ordinary nature may provide a pointed contrast with the "rich" fantasy life of Ofelia, but he just registers as one more conventional element in a remarkably conventional film.