Boredom has become a popular topic in discussions about cinema. Last year, The Tree of Life raised debates about the importance of films “with no plot.” Other critics and viewers felt dissatisfaction with Drive, a movie marketed as an action thriller which turned out to be atmospheric and slow-paced. Leaving the quality of those films independent from this discussion, when we associate the slow pace of a movie with boredom, it might mean that language and perception are playing a trick on us.
Imagine that you are in physical pain, and the end of that pain depends on reaching a certain point in space (the nearest hospital) or waiting until a certain moment (the return of the only doctor in town). In the first scenario, moving faster helps you. In the second case, there is no point in rushing things; the solution will arrive in its expected time. With movies, it is always the second.
The average movie takes an hour and a half to two hours of your life. If you find its contents stupid or awful, it will be boring regardless of its rhythm. Even if the action moves at full speed or the characters find a solution in the first thirty minutes, more stupid or awful things will happen for at least another hour. The boredom comes from the fact that you hate the content, no matter its pace, and there will be nothing the characters can do to put your torture to an end.
Audiences presented with deadpan comedy or non-talkative heroes may think “Dear Lord, more artsy stuff!” or “Isn’t mumblecore dead yet?” But some of cinema’s most badass heroes hail from the school of mumbly deadpan. Think of Stallone in First Blood and Delon in Le Samouraï.
Pacing doesn’t determine the quality of a film any more than special effects do. Even the masters of slow-footed cinema sometimes fail. Fans of Béla Tarr — movie buffs who can live for seven hours inside of Sátántangó — would never recommend The Man From London as your first Tarr experience. Followers of the deadpan guru Jim Jarmusch are still not sure about what was he trying to achieve with The Limits of Control. Maybe just pushing the audience’s patience to its limits.
It would be easy to use action-packed films as a counter-example, but I’d rather mention those films that begin and end with their premise. I felt that way about Black Swan, which claimed to be about a character who couldn’t trust her own perceptions. When you watch the film, that’s exactly what happens over and over again, and then it stops because the character dies. Its premise is played many times, and then it ends. I felt a similar dissatisfaction with Inception. Well, it wasn’t even dissatisfaction; I just felt there was nothing in either movie for me.
The boredom you assign to a movie does not come from its pace. If the film engages you, its pace is irrelevant in terms of satisfaction or meaningfulness. If it doesn’t engage you, what bores you is your own pace. Not the one you find in the movie, but you, yourself, stuck staring at the screen while you wish you were doing something else instead.
Think of it as a date. Dating is not boring or meaningful per se, it depends on your appreciation of the person you are going to meet. Sometimes it is meaningful because of that person’s hesitations, long explanations and stares. Some other times it is meaningful only because of the action it leads to.
Image by Flickr user erin m, used under a Creative Commons license.