Breaking with my own quietly enforced editorial policy, I’m actually going to use the word “boring” in the film section of The L Magazine, as Jonas Mekas, from whom we still have much to learn about contemplative cinema, has programmed a series of “Boring Masterpieces” at Anthology Film Archives beginning with Andy Warhol’s Empire on July 24, and continuing with Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition on August 7 and 8, and Robert Kramer’s Ice on September 2.
The reasoning behind this policy is that it’s not in fact possible for a movie to be boring—though you may be bored watching it. The most bored I have ever been watching a movie was during Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest—put the numbness down to the supposed fun of endless undifferentiated spectacle, or maybe my blood-sugar was low that night. It’s your right, of course, to wonder how anyone could be so oblivious to the film’s sensory pleasures: this is certainly what I wonder when people walk out of Hou Hsiao-hsien movies, which I love for their sense of time passing in space, and elliptical, private drama—only boring, I submit, if your attention span doesn’t happen to be acclimated to non-Hollywood storytelling rhythms. They’re slow-moving, sure, but in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited the late great Robin Wood reminds us that “terms such as ‘slow-moving’… are descriptive, not evaluative,” a distinction also defining the difference between reckoning with a film’s singular experience, and presuming to tell you whether it’s worth your $12.50.
“Boring” is always evaluative, never descriptive—but Mekas means it as a compliment to “films [that] take their time to tell what they have to tell… a kind of contemplative cinema rooted in reality or the memory of it.” In the Rivettian-Watkinsian Ice this means watching 60s student radicals talking revolution in a present-tense American dystopia; perhaps strangely, not even the most narrative-driven film in the series. I’d sub out the three three-hour Human Condition prestige pics, which track a soldier’s belief system in solution with the horror of war, for Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which uninflectedly serves up three menial days, and countless peeled potatoes, in the life of a housewife—inviting us into the negative space of cinema and life, and allowing our minds to wander as hers does. “Nothing happens,” except—to a degree more elemental than in, say, Hou’s more conspicuously lovely and eventful but similarly domestic (and culinary) oeuvre—for everything.
If we take “boredom” to be a sedentary state undiluted by distracting stimulus, we note its similarities to meditation—and its potential for rapture. Empire isn’t “about” the Empire State Building, it’s about what happens in your head during the eight hours and five minutes you spend looking at it. Or what happened in Mekas’s head while he was operating the camera.