Tokyo, or something like it, in Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972
Aside from being a bit of a dick about it on Twitter, because being a bit of a dick about things on Twitter is kind of how it works for me in that format, I've been staying mostly clear of what the no-doubt very pleased new York Times person Adam Sternbergh has called a "film critic food fight" over the Times' Magazine piece by Dan Kois about, you know, that whole "cultural vegetables" thing. The reason I'm steering clear of it is that it's way too personal for me, in that it gets me too angry, as note my own characterization of Kois's unflattering characterization of Derek Jarman's Blue, below. There's a difference between being a dick on Twitter and going around dropping napalm on professional bridges; and I can only hope that by the time I've successfully completed the steps that will enable me to walk away from this you-know-what business (if indeed I ever do, which is doubtful), I'll have at least acquired the measure of grace that'll make me no longer even want to napalm anything. But right now I'm stuck.
I would, however, like to address an unfortunate misapprehension that has arisen in the discussion. In his original piece, Kois describes some of his difficulties with Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris. "In college, a friend demanded to know what kind of idiot I was that I hadn’t yet watched Tarkovsky’s Solaris. 'It’s so boring,' he said with evident awe. 'You have to watch it, but you won’t get it.'" Kois relates that he then sought out the film "because the intimation that there was a film that connoisseurs knew that I’d never heard of was too much to bear" but that it was terribly removed from his "cinematic metabolism" and that he zoned out on it but when asked by his friend what he thought of it replied “That was amazing,” I said. "When he asked me what part I liked the best, I picked the five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway, because it seemed the most boring. He nodded his approval." Leaving aside the fact that the anecdote makes the author and his friend look like utter tools even by the lax standards we allow for the callowness of college students, and that Kois did in fact seek out and watch the film for all the wrong reasons, leaving aside the annoying habit that so many critics have of presuming that THEIR threshold of boredom is in fact THE threshold of boredom (I stole this from a critic friend who I won't make trouble for by naming here), leaving aside the category error that elevates actual boredom, that is, irritated disengagement, as a condition necessary to high-art profundity...leaving aside ALL of that, let's look into the notion that boredom was the condition that Andrei Tarkovsky was aiming for in his work. That's what Andrew O'Hehir (who's a friend, or at the very least a very friendly acquaintance) more than implies in his response to Kois' piece in Salon, where he praises boredom as a positive value (in a way) and speaks, at the end, of "works of art that are deliberately and intensively boring, in the Tarkovsky mode."
I believe that Tarkovsky would object to the idea that his films were "deliberately" boring. Although Tarkovsky made intensely personal films that hewed uncompromisingly to his own vision, he was very invested in engaging his audience and extremely proud when his 1975 film The Mirror, considered here in the West to be one of his most obscure, even gnomic movies, was something of a popular hit in Russia. His definition of film, as given in the title of his book of strung-together essays on the art of filmmaking, was "sculpting in time," and thus pacing was extremely important to him. And yes, he was interested in slowing things down, and did so quite often, as in the looong shot of the three main characters in Stalker as they make their way into the "Zone," with, among other relentlessly repetitive features, its droning, maddening click of their conveyance travelling over the railroad tracks. And this shot was possibly meant to strike the viewer as odd, or even aesthetically querulous, but still did not constitute, entirely, a form of negative engagement. I'm reminded of one of the a phrase David Foster Wallace ascribed to his sister Amy in the acknowledgements of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: "Just How Much Reader-Annoyance Are You Shooting For Here, Exactly?" and its implication that sometimes a little reader-annoyance can be a not-bad thing, at least in terms of bracing the reader. Tarkovsky's pronouncement pronouncements [somebody get this guy a proofreading intern-Ed.] on film art were/are idiosyncratic enough to strike some as either maddening or perversely impractical, but this chunk from his essay on editing in Sculpting makes good sense: "The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. The actual passage of time is also made clear in the characters' behavior, the visual treatment and the sound—but these are all accompanying features, the absence of which, theoretically would in no way affect the existence of the film. One cannot conceive of a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the shot, but one can easily imagine a film with no actors, music, décor or even editing." Wait, did I say "makes good sense?" Hmm. Of course, today one doesn't HAVE to imagine a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the frame; in the works of Michael Bay, there is no time for time to register itself passing through the frame, rather, the frames themselves are instead keeping/constituting time.
But let's not get into that here. What the pace of Solaris and Stalker and Andrei Rublev want of the viewer is not for him or her to feel boredom, but to feel time; its passage through the frame. I have literally never been bored watching an Andrei Tarkovsky film because there is so very much to see in every single shot, and in the way every single shot relates to the next and the one before and so on. Take the scene Kois mentions, the so-called "five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway." It is indeed five minutes, and it does indeed for the most part depict a car driving down a highway. But it also depicts the character doing the driving, the haunted and nearly ruined ex-astronaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who has just been at the countryside dacha of Kris Kelvin and his father, describing his own harrowing experience on the film's title planet. Actually, Burton's not doing the driving; the car seems to be driving itself, and Burton''s talking on a car video phone, and being worried about his son who's being restless in the car; and these shots depicting Burton and his fretful state are, yes, alternated with long shots of highway, a tunnel, and so on. And interestingly enough, a bunch of the highway signs, we notice, are in Japanese. Why would that be the case if Burton was just at a Russian dacha? We never find out; and at the end of the sequence there's a aerial shot of what looks like 1972 Tokyo by night (above). Between Burton's worries and the bizarre sense of displacement created by his seeming to be driving in Japan, the sequence never, for me, registers as in the least boring; rather, it's uncomfortably tense and suffused with an anxiety that's never resolved (as it happens, this is the last we see of Burton).
Allow me to suggest, as politely as possible, that maybe if you are bored by this, your best course of action would be to just leave it alone. Dana Stevens' and other Kois supporters' assertions that the piece was a "confession, not a manifesto" notwithstanding, the essay does intend to set an agenda, and right now I don't want to articulate the agenda I believe it wants to set because it'll look paranoid. But I'm convinced this is not an "innocent" piece. And again, if I continue I'll just get angrier. But I just wanted to put it out there that, whatever it is that Tarkovsky wants from you, boredom's got nothing to do with it.