What exactly do we mean when we find a movie to be boring? Does boring mean redundant? Monotonous? Tedious? Wearisome? Frustrating? Tiring? Uninteresting? Not challenging? The proposed definitions here are far from a collection of synonymous effects on what constitutes a “boring” work. The above terms can often be associated with boredom, but when parsed apart these can denote very different, even oppositional, experiences. For instance, tedium and frustration, which imply an active and engaged (though not positive) form of viewership, do not necessarily describe the same experience as something that feels monotonous or tiring, which by contrast suggests a passive viewer.
However, the boredom critique deserves to be severed from its associations with “uninteresting” and “unchallenging” cinema, and “monotony” and “tedium” need not always be negative experiences when watching films. Boring cinema can instead be the most challenging and revelatory of all.
In 2009, I wrote a piece titled Slow Isn’t Boring in which I defended the type of deliberately-paced cinema Dan Kois later expressed his frustration with, arguing that slow cinema has the capacity to give viewers a unique and hypnotic experience of time that you can’t find in other entertainment media. Thus, with the films of slow filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakhul, and Carlos Reygadas, I find myself the furthest from a state accurately described as “bored”; in fact, I experience the reverse: total immersion.
The intent, at least, of these filmmakers is not to bore you, and I for one find welcome respite in films like Solaris, Uncle Boonmee, and Silent Light against an impatient, hyperkinetic, instant-karma daily reality of smart phones, Adderall, and highway traffic.
Most critiques of a film as “boring” are based on the assumption of cinema as an entertainment medium. But there is also value in cinematic boredom.
Boredom and Danger
American composer Dick Higgins wrote the following about boredom in 1968:
“…in the context of a work that attempts to involve the spectator, boredom often serves a useful function: as an opposite to excitement and as a means of bringing emphasis to what it interrupts, causing us to view both elements freshly. It is a necessary station on the way to other experiences…”
Higgins, in this excerpt from his essay “Boredom and Danger,” was referring specifically to deliberately boring avant-garde music, but his argument can easily be extended to movies. Higgins goes on to state, as the title suggests, that the boring artistic experience involves a significant factor of danger, both on behalf of the spectator and the artist. The danger lies in the element of risk and alienation.
For Higgins, the valuable experience of boredom is one in which boredom is merely an initial state, and provides a bridge to deeper understanding – not necessarily the immersive experience that some “slow filmmakers” offer, but an opportunity for boredom to illuminate, deconstruct, and reveal what we accept by its opposition to be “normal.” Boredom is thus the beginning of the experience, not the end of the conversation.
If we experience a cultural product as boring, the question to then ask is, “…and then what?” The “and then” can be a quite challenging and revelatory experience.
The Practice of Boredom
Boredom as aesthetic practice has been something of a regular mode of operation for avant-garde cinema. Andy Warhol’s notorious Empire (1964) featured a single sustained shot of The Empire State Building for eight straight hours. And Warhol’s similar Sleep (1963) captured over five hours of a man sleeping. Are these films provocations? Sure. Are they practical jokes that critique avant-garde audiences, or are these the most challenging of aesthetic experiences? Are we meant to leave the theater in frustration after tolerating only so much, or are we meant to challenge ourselves to endure these films until their anti-climactic end? For many viewers of these films (I admit I have sat through neither), the experience can be completely different and unique. Boredom in these cases can be an initial sensation leading to an almost meditative and otherwordly experience of stasis. This is where there are stories of audiences gasping when the “protagonist” of Sleep rolls over several hours in. The initial frustration of monotony is only the beginning.
A richer example, I think, is Michael Snow’s Wavelength, a 45-minute film in which a camera slowly zooms in from one corner of a room to another while the wavelength of a sustained noise slowly escalates. Experiencing the film from beginning to end, one’s ears and eyes slowly become tricked: is the camera actually zooming and the noise actually escalating, or is the endurance of monotony creating only an illusion of such a sensation?
But the challenges of cinematic boredom are also available in narrative cinema. Last month, Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr’s proposed final film, The Turin Horse, was released in the US. The film’s central “story” is predicated on Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous late-life encounter with a cab horse being beaten in 1889. But this inciting incident is never actually shown.
The Turin Horse instead concerns itself with the impoverished daily life of the cab driver and his daughter. The cab driver seems to not be at all effected by the Nietzsche encounter, and the audience sits through sit arduous and monotonous days with these two solitary characters as their resources slowly diminish during a seemingly never-ending windstorm. We as viewers experience the repetitive nature of their daily lives – eating boiled potatoes, fetching well water, watching in hopes of the storm diminishing – with increased frustration as no “out” is ever made available for the viewer, just as it is for the characters.
Through the “boring” experience of The Turin Horse, the audience experiences the most terrifying and threatening type of boredom, one that knows no Hollywood-style respite. Boredom, then, reveals closure and release in storytelling to be a manufactured and false illusion, one that has rarely existed in a long history in which most humans’ lives have been characterized by soul-deadening boredom as a given.
In boring cinema, the power balance between filmmaker and audience is reversed. Rather than providing the distraction audiences demand, boring films challenge audiences by holding them captive, and in this way provide an experience that is completely unique precisely because it would otherwise be avoided.
Boredom in a Distracted Culture
There is nothing that we as a culture currently fear more than boredom. We simply do not enjoy an experience of time as dictated by someone else. Is there a lull in your conversation with friends? Pull out a smart phone. Don’t want to wait until a movie’s release date or the airing of a new television episode to find out what happens? Seek out some spoilers. Making dinner by yourself? Have the television on or listen to a podcast in the background. No time for a movie? Watch some YouTube videos.
I am not blankedly criticizing an impatient society here, but revealing myself as part of and complicit in it. And movies and television are equally complicit, for one can make a case that boredom as we understand it today is precisely a product of the entertainment media that we seek to eradicate it with.
This is why boredom is not only an increasingly rare experience, but one that should be valued specifically because it is feared. Boredom of value simply asks us to experience time. Ironically, boredom (or the idea that we are “wasting time”) actually reveals the ways in which we associate time and value it, which is, of course, based on our understanding that our time is limited. To embrace boredom, then, is to acknowledge mortality. There is indeed danger in boredom.
But deliberately boring movies arguably provide the least dangerous kind of boredom because they do, eventually, promise to end. Empire, Sleep, Wavelength, and The Turin Horse do not so much provide the actual lived experience of boredom, but create a sensation of boredom that is just as fabricated as experiences entertainment/distraction in conventional Hollywood cinema (let’s call it a “simulacrum of boredom”). These films can then teach us to navigate boredom rather than actually live it, and to even see it as an initial experience rather than a dauntingly apocalyptic dead-end experience. And where’s the danger in that?