A Trip to Boring

March 15, 2012

So, I’m sitting in my living room with Hugo on our relatively small but impressively flat new monitor, and my twelve-year old son comments, a minute or two in, that it seems to be moving awfully slow. He reiterates this sentiment when the title card meanders into sight, many more minutes into the flick. I agree. My thirteen-year old step-daughter flits by, and since she saw it in the theater, my son asks, “does the movie stay so boring?” and she replies, that yes, it really does. There are some good sentimental parts to be sure but she’d advise “multi-tasking during the movie” to make it tolerable.

Granted, we were watching it flat and not 3D (where I imagine one would need time to make sense of all that space), and as I’ve already admitted, the image was pretty small, considering, but given that this is supposed to be a children’s movie, albeit by one of our great grown-up directors, and our children mostly watch Hugos like this

one must consider that Scorsese must be being petulantly, self-referentially, or didactically slow, which makes good sense, given that the film is about how machines move things like images, writing, desire, stories and history, and that these machines themselves have histories, and all these histories and images are moving away from our cultural memories at lightening speed, even as they are also being preserved. But those ideas are frankly not of much interest to children because in many ways this they already know given their own immersion in the digital, and also because Scorsese peevishly expresses them through images that are not of interest to anyone but cineastes.

I don’t usually think of myself as a cineaste, but I often play one at school. And I like, and teach, and admire A Trip to the Moon as much as the next PhD in Cinema Studies. So, now I’m thinking, Scorsese thinks he can sneak in the nasty film history and boring silent movie parts by embedding them in a sappy story with 3D and movie stars, which really is pretty much what The Artist did as well, albeit without any of the didactic lessons in slowness (which is probably why it won the Oscar), and 127 Hours did by speeding things up, and Singin’ in the Rain did just fine already

Which is why I’d choose Pina any day, because at least Wenders doesn’t pretend not to be anything but what he is, an erudite artist celebrating and experimenting with space, time, memory and cinema with technologies old and new.

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Darling of the art world, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, like so many pieces of conceptual art, was for me as giving in the reading and anticipatory thinking about it as it was in experiencing it.

Now granted, the 24-hour film had a lot of buzz surrounding it, generated first in NY and then here in LA. So, I went primed for the viewing itself to reveal exciting thoughts and feelings about time and cinema: a kind of dance between form and affect, structure and concept, that I have often enjoyed via structuralist and other avant-garde films that are committed to practices and theories of duration.

But as was true of my experience of 127 hours, this contemporary time-project also delivered, instead, a meditation on time compression, cutting so frantically and gimmicky that one couldn’t catch a breath to think or ponder, or just be alive and aware in (movie) time. While that just may be the point–in our ADD, multi-tasking, world of cut-up screens we seek to ever fly away from boredom and contemplation–I got that point in just a few minutes. So why 24 hours?

Sure, the film was impressive as an indexing project, what Lev Manovich has called database cinema. And this was especially apparent to me, given that I was watching it with my friend, Carina, an early-modern historian, frantically trying to complete the index for her codex. But the cutsey cutting–montages of running in the rain, L-cuts carrying sound from one scene into the next, shot-reverse across time (thanks Maya Deren)–are pretty much Editing 101. Which leads me to the larger (and perhaps more controversial) reflection upon the growing craze for video and cinema in the art world. While I’m glad it’s there, there has been over a hundred years of production, teaching, and criticism about this medium, needless to say, much of it amazingly remarkable and astute, that hasn’t seemed to have moved as readily into the moving image’s new and fancy palaces. Not to say that avant-garde cinema and video haven’t had a precarious place in the art world since it’s birth, but the reception of present-day meditations on and celebrations of editing would be well framed by the huge body and long history of well-thunk missives on this very topic: itself a time project worthy of deep contemplation and careful consideration.

It’s like reality TV for famous filmmakers: wacky games with ridiculous rules bring out the real man. In this episode, our intrepid directors don’t have to eat maggots but they do have to shoot almost an entire feature film within the tight, murky confines of a cave. There’s no vistas in reach, the set is all set, the actors can’t do much, and it’s often really dark. Then, the French Ministry of Culture ups the ante for German master, Wener Herzog: consumer camera, four man crew who can only walk on small metal pathways, and very very tight shooting schedule. Meanwhile, Danny Boyle seems to unleash all of Hollywood’s glitz (and even one of its rising stars) into the tight crevice that is his canvas. Despite these differences, both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and 127 Hours use the strictures of extreme, if confined filmmaking (think Dogme 95) as both metaphor and inspiration for the macho and masochistic, exposing a ritual set of beliefs that underline much of filmmaking culture (think Fitzcaraldo or Apocalypse Now): it is this film that will either bring out the man in me, or kill me, or both. As if filmmaking itself is war or torture; as if shooting in caves is mountain climbing or spelunking itself.

Representation becomes the thing and the action–especially as suffered and achieved through the hands of a worthy man. More on this soon.

In an earlier post I consider how Boyle’s strenuous and splendid effort becomes a postmodern ode to duration via acceleration, music, mise en scene and narration. Meanwhile, Herzog’s gauntlet propels him to seek movement in stasis. Even as the wall paintings have been entirely still for 32,000 years (with a small addition occurring at a 5,000 year interval) Peter Zeitlinger’s camera always moves, as do his hand-held light sources. And thus Herzog suggests that the paintings not only anticipate cinema, they already are and always were. His inner caveman shares and anticipates the urge to document space in time: and this he suggests is what makes us knowing men, or homo sapiens.

There’s an amazing moment in Caves where an honored French art historian’s junior colleague attempts to correct her esteemed Professor, suggesting that we can not know whether the painter of the Chauvet Cave was male or female. Madame disdainfully disregards her student, and continues to discuss the profundity of “his handprint’s signature crooked finger.” The explicit signatures of both (post)modern men mark their efforts in this definitively human project. All the men admirably succeed in their quest: to use the confines of a cave as allegory for understanding cinema as human history and existence. But the small place left for women in the current representations of this cosmology leaves me questioning the perception of our role in contemporary tellings of technology, narrative, nature and art especially because primitive man put the Venus at the very center of theirs.

Duration is a hallmark of experimental media practices. While always boring, to some extent, great duration works depend upon a profound mirroring of technique and ontology to allow us to ruminate on definitive questions of both cinema and existence: desire and boredom, what lasts and what we will wait for.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, this post merely considers how he quite masterfully turned an avant-garde concern with duration into a post-modern festival of acceleration. With an impressive array of artful cinematic tricks, varied and purposeful, from the craft departments of screenwriting, color, lighting, sound design, music, camera movement, close-up, performance, and mise-en-scene, Boyle keeps his film a-movin’ with nary a second left over to experience what duration usually delivers: that the viewer is induced to hallucinations, reveries on the nature of love, sex, family, and time, and the desire to slit one’s own wrist (or arm) from an unaccountably vehement anger at that which moves too slow in a form that usually delivers.

True to our ADD culture, Boyle lets us longingly look at someone else’s duration troubles as a new form of heightened narrative voyeuristic pleasure rather than trusting us to be strong enough, patient enough, smart enough, or man enough to handle waiting on our own.