I’ve always suspected that those around me groan internally or are at least skeptical whenever I’m in charge of selecting a movie to watch. Even worse, when I actively suggest we watch something, people are wary. I watch movies that not a lot of people I know enjoy. There are a prized few people in my life who can sit through the artsy, abstract, non-linear movies (they’re either masterpieces or pretentious garbage, depending on who you ask, ) and they know who they are.
The other day, for example, I went to go see Last Year at Marienbad (dir. Alain Resnais, 1961) at my local theater with my mom and my uncle. It’s a movie that I had heard so much about, so I was excited to finally get an opportunity to witness the wonders of the enigmatic French film that has kept people talking for almost sixty years. My uncle had seen the film decades earlier as part of a college French film course and had hated it. Which is why I invited him. My mom is one of the rare kindred spirits who gets as much pleasure out of films that are out of the ordinary, challenging, experimental, etc. as I do.
The film was, for me, challenging. It actively resists the kind of narrative structure that has been in our brains throughout the course of evolution, it makes no attempt to explain itself and it often feels like it wants to alienate you as a viewer. Last Year at Marienbad consists of conversations that are repeated, long shots of a magnificent and opulent hotel, often with the characters frozen in motion like a wax museum. It’s fragmented, it’s slow, and it’s very, very French.
My uncle barely survived. “After thirty years, you would think maybe it would be better. It isn’t,” he said. For him, it was an hour and thirty-four minutes of torture. For my mother, on the other hand, it was an hour and a half spent watching something incredibly detailed, engaging, complex, and evocative. But that’s how it goes with modernism: you either love it or you hate it. Right?
I felt somewhat torn between the two camps. I won’t lie, there were times during the film where I was actively thinking about something completely different than what was going on in the movie, but I also did really enjoy it and find myself continually drawn to art that requires attention and patience. On the one hand, my ADHD really makes itself known when that sultry French voice-over comes on and starts repeating the same story for the fifth time about how he went into some woman’s room last year. On the other hand, there’s no denying the beauty of the film’s black-and-white photography, the costumes by Coco Chanel, the incredible layering of detail and plot that is woven with an intense air of mystery. Furthermore, there’s no denying that those things make me swoon, inspire me, intrigue me.
So I came to writing this, after having had it in mind for a long time (I’ve been watching movies that bore all of my friends for a while now), curious to see what would come out when thinking about how anyone, no matter who they are, could learn to possibly enjoy and/or appreciate movies that are, for one reason or another, challenging. Now, I’ve heard people talk (rant, is often more accurate) about why they thought a certain movie was boring. The reasons are usually quite simple and here are some of the ones I hear most frequently: “I don’t like black-and-white.” “I don’t like movies with subtitles.(i.e. foreign language)” “It was too long.” “Nothing happened.” “I didn’t understand it.” “I hated all of the characters.” “It was just boring.”
It’s interesting to read what comes up when you do an internet search for “how to watch a boring movie.” A couple hilarious wikihow articles will tell you all different ways to distract yourself during a movie’s duration. A reddit thread entitled, “What’s the most boring movie you’ve ever watched?” mostly contains comments about various blockbusters that people thought sucked, but some art films do come up in the conversation. So, really, this article should be titled “How to watch an art film that most people would find boring.”
Look, some movies just aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I understand and respect the vast variety of taste in entertainment that is found in the world. And this article isn’t to tell people that arthouse films will become their favorite if they just do x, y, and z. Even after all the advice I have to give, I think most people will prefer Marvel movies to three hour Chinese surrealist movies. But, if you want to enjoy movies that are outside of the mainstream, if you want to expand your horizons and approach some new, less-accessible material, or if you just want to see other ways of finding entertainment in movies, read ahead.
What are you watching for?
In my experience of watching movies, there are two modes of watching, two ways of actively participating in it. You can watch for the event or you can watch for the image. Let me explain what I mean by this. When you’re watching something, whether it’s The Office or Titanic, you’re usually watching an event unfold before you on-screen, an event that is one of many within the story. Fast-paced movies are popular and accessible because something is always happening. As you’re watching, you are following along with the characters within a story. This is how movies reach us emotionally, carry personal significance, because we experience the events of the story with the characters.
In a movie that is not story-driven or is at a much slower pace or does not have a conventional story structure, watching for the event can be hard to do. Watch the opening scene from Last Year at Marienbad, for example, and ask yourself, what is happening? Even without subtitles or an understanding of the French language, you can watch this five minute clip and recognize that you’re not watching a conventional movie. The lines spoken are repetitive and enigmatic. Even after hearing (or reading) them over and over, you’re not really sure what they mean. There is no event happening here.
So if you try to watch for the event and there is none or the event takes ten minutes or doesn’t explain itself, why it’s happening, why it’s important, then you will lose interest.
But, you can watch for the image instead. Imagine a painting is put in front of you. If you spend five minutes looking at the painting, even if it’s the most action-packed of tableaus, you won’t spend the majority of your time looking at the event that is unfolding before you simply because the painting isn’t moving. It’s still. So what are you doing when you look at a painting for five minutes? You’re looking at the image. Your eyes travel across every inch of the painting, looking at all of the details, which change your perception of the painting. You look at the image as a whole, the big picture, if you will. You look at the colors, the shadows and the light. You think about how the painting makes you feel. Here are two paintings that you can look at for a bit:
Now apply this to a movie. Take another example: go to Netflix and watch the first five minutes of Roma. Very little happens and it’s very intentional. When the character walks into a building and closes the door behind her, the camera stays fixed on the closed door, unmoving, for a solid twenty seconds, before the character comes back out of the door. In those twenty seconds or so, the only things moving are two birds in a cage. So we sit and we watch the side of building for twenty seconds while literally nothing happens. If you’re watching the beginning of Roma for the event, you’re going to be bored stiff. But if you’re watching for the image, just looking at this world we’ve been dropped into and the gorgeous black-and-white photography, you’re in front of something that is engaging, detailed, and fun.
So when I’m watching something that is moving slowly or isn’t moving at all, I’m watching for the images, not the event.
Understanding Impressionism (Beyond Monet)
Look, Monet is pretty much my favorite painter, so I am partial to the traditional definition of Impressionism in the art world, which refers to a specific movement in late nineteenth-century France. Whether or not Impressionist paintings do it for you, understanding the goal of Impressionism can have a great effect on how you watch or experience a film.
So, following along with this idea, when watching a movie that does not depict things in a straightforward, conventional way, oftentimes a film is trying to recreate, express, or evoke the sensory effect of a moment. Go back to the two examples I’ve mentioned or watch this scene. How are these clips trying to evoke something beyond a literal representation of an event? What Impressionism did in painting is akin to what makes something “poetic” in any art form. Rather than detail a scene, you craft something that feels more like the experience of that scene, something that gives you the impression of that event, moment, period of time, etc.
So if you’re watching something, but you’re not really sure what it is, focus on what the images and sound evoke. Last Year at Marienbad is a confusing movie, but it is constructed to convey a certain sense of confusion, alienation, isolation, etc. If the opening from Marienbad is a recursive, labyrinthine introduction to the mysterious world of the film, then Roma’s opening scene drops us into its world by being abnormally straightforward, by being true to a moment unfolding in real time. It’s a slice of life: it gives us not the impression of a scene, since it is a realistic depiction, but rather the impression of someone’s life, of a moment of time, of a place on earth. The sounds, the motion, the look of everything in the scene is meant to immerse us into the memory of someone’s life. So films can impressionistic, giving us the impression of something, in different ways in order to communicate a feeling of a lived experience.
So, when you’re in a movie and something is strange or slow going, think about the overall feeling, the experience, the aesthetic, that is being communicated.
Think About What Your Boredom Does
Sometimes, a filmmaker has the audacity to make something that is intentionally dull. Now, I don’t agree with everything in the linked article concerning Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. I saw it for the first time almost two years ago, by myself, at a special screening in an art museum. And I was captivated for all three hours. Seriously, I was never bored. The film was so beautiful, so atmospheric, so evocative, that I never checked my watch. But there is something to be said about the film’s intentional slow pace and its persistence to see things unfold in real time that defies normal cinematic conventions.
Watch this scene, for example. It’s ten minutes long and not much happens, although the characters are supposedly walking through a life-threatening area. If you made it through the first nine and a half minutes, hoping for some kind of explosion, just something to happen, maybe you got excited when the character pulled out a gun. A gun! Now something exciting is going to happen.
He listens to the other characters and drops the gun and keeps going. No one gets shot, no one gets killed or even injured. In short, they walk down a tunnel and nothing happens. And it takes ten minutes. Now watch this scene. It’s also a great, unconventional, rule-breaking scene. But you could never say that “nothing happens.” A lot happens, quite quickly, and we’re engaged the whole way through. This is how it should be, right?
Well, then, why did Tarkovsky shoot that scene (or a three hour movie) where you’re supposed to get bored? What is the experience of being bored in front of a screen? Over the course of Stalker, the viewer eventually slips into this specific flow of time, one that isn’t going anywhere quickly. As we acclimate to the film’s temporality, we become more immersed in the work itself. I don’t think movies like Stalker or 2001: A Space Odyssey are more timely than ever because their pace is so against the pace of the world at this moment. I think these movies are, in part, intentionally boring because they’re trying to get you out of your norm, out of your movie watching habits, in order to get you to pay more attention. If you don’t get pulled out of your comfort zone, you will never experience something new.
Ingmar Bergman, a man who made many boring movies, said about film, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” Some movies that challenge us are trying to reach something different, something in “the dark rooms of our souls.”
Often, language of depth is used, “This movie is so deep,” in connection with significance, “This movie is so deep, which is why it’s so good.” But I think films that fall outside of the mainstream, ones that challenge, that take a different route in their storytelling, don’t reach a place that’s deeper, better, and more profound. Instead of thinking in terms of depth, think of art films as accessing a different part of you altogether. Like rather than entering into you (your heart, your mind, whatever) through the front door, some movies find their point of entry through a wall, a backdoor, an underground tunnel, through a hole in the ceiling. Learning to watch arthouse cinema isn’t like training for a marathon if the average Disney movie is a 100 meter dash. If a mainstream movie is a foot race, films that are off the beaten path are swimming races: you’re getting somewhere in both cases, but at different speeds, through different ways, going different lengths, using different muscles.