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June 09, 2011


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I am not the perfect film audience. I can grow frustrated while watching certain films of the Tarkovsky type, but this frustration is not with Tarkovsky, but with myself. I know that I don't do enough, or no longer do enough, to keep my attention span and focus strong. I don't need anyone telling me that letting my mind wander while watching ANDREI RUBLEV is fine, because that's just my deal, and everybody's different. It's this attitude that led a magazine writer a while back, someone who described themselves as a reader, to cheerfully announce that they would never read THE CANTERBURY TALES ("Sorry, Chaucer," he wrote). The erosion of this sort of discipline is not something to be shrugged off. And from a critic...I remember reading a Jonathan Yardley (clearly my first mistake) article wherein he rather smugly pointed out that he'd never been able to finish ULYSSES. I think I had read the book by that point, so if I could do it, fucking Jonathan Yardley should be able to do it. Regardless, the attitude was appalling. People are supposed to want to get better at things.

Kent Jones

Tarkovsky's okay, but the colors aren't as pretty as the ones in FILM SOCIALISME. Or SCENES FROM UNDER CHILDHOOD.

"I'm convinced this is not an 'innocent' piece." I'll say. Sometimes a confession is a confession, and sometimes it's a manifesto. What I find crushing is the utter lack of self-respect it takes to write such a thing and see it published. A proclamation of your own inability to tolerate anything more meditative than TREME is very sad, but not as sad as the implicit invitation to the reader to come out of the closet and admit that he/she feels exactly the same but has been afraid to say so for fear of looking stupid (how about the comments? like the guy who is thrilled to say, in public, at long last, that his mind wandered during...NEW YORK, NEW YORK!). The reality is that you can count on such a proclamation about once every six months, but the people who are making them always behave as if they're the first ones who've dared it. This particular "think piece" brings back fond memories of William Bennett's infamous statement: "I say too bad about foreign films. If they can't make it, tough. I stopped going at the same time I threw away my black turtleneck...I went to those Bergman things and felt bad, and felt good about feeling bad, and the 80s was good medicine for that."

That Fuzzy Bastard

Part of what Tarkovsky's films demand---and Kois seems incapable of doing---is to be viewed as aesthetic objects, rather than conveyers of data. A moment like the highway drive in SOLARIS, or the ride into the Zone in STALKER, is very boring if you're thinking "Right, so now they went from point A to point B, I get it, why are you taking so long to show it?" But a lot of what the deeply nature-loving Tarkovsky is getting at is how much there is to look at in a moment where nothing human is happening. When Solonitsin walks through the field in THE MIRROR, one first registers "A guy is walking through a field." And then the shot holds, and gradually (if you keep looking) the eye expands past the people to take in the patterns of the wheat, the grain in the wood fence posts, even the texture of the rough muslin dress that The Mother is wearing. These moments are full to bursting with objects of aesthetic contemplation---I find that by the time Tarkovsky does cut away, I've become so absorbed in some beautiful detail that I want the shot to go on even longer. But to absorb that requires that one looks to see, rather than watching to extract a little nugget of plot that you can apply to the next nugget of plot. If one's willing to do it, it's as mind-expanding as a good acid trip. But Kois, like most of these proud philistines, seems allergic to mind-expansion.

jim emerson

Kent -- I must have blocked that out. I had to Google "William Bennett" and "black turtleneck" to find out in what context Mr. "Death of Outrage" could conceivably have been blabbing about Bergman. Turns out it was part of his "argument" against public funding for the arts. Of course.


I'm glad someone else did the Googling; I was about to ask whether it was William "gambling addict/moral philosopher" Bennett or William Bennett from the UK noise group Whitehouse. Either one could have been plausible.


I haven't read Dana Stevens' comments, but from Glenn's description I think I may share her reaction. In my eyes Kois's piece doesn't exhibit the kind of upward snobbery people are attributing to it. There's an implicit sense in his piece that it's productive to group movies by Reichardt, Tarkovsky, Jarman, Hou, and the Dardennes as meaningfully similar, which makes me suspect he's an extremely inattentive viewer. But I don't think he's arguing that anyone who claims to like these artists is lying to seem fancy, which is the typical philistine argument. He doesn't use the words "pretentious" or "elitist," for instance. What he says is that he's grateful to have watched a lot of this stuff but that they aren't to his taste, which really doesn't sound unreasonable to me. My own views on these movies, many of which I revere, jibe better what Kois wrote than with a lot of what was written in reaction to him ("deliberately and intensively boring," et cetera).

Is he pulling the wool over my eyes?


I personally do find SOLARIS boring, in that I don't find its ideas, plot, characters, or visuals of any interest on any level. But, like Mr. Kenny, I certainly wouldn't claim that this was Tarkovsky's intent -- it's just that, for me, he failed at his intent. To claim there is some virtue in the boredom I experienced, as some (not here) have done, strikes me as perverse.

Another thing that has baffled me about this debate is the absolutism; I dislike SOLARIS (to simplify) because I find it boring, but I found THE SACRIFICE engrossing -- despite some minor reservations about certain aspects of the movie, I wasn't "bored" for an instant. So whose side am I on? Am I on the "pro-boring" side because I liked one slow film? Am I on the "anti-boring" side because I didn't like another? Is THE SACRIFICE insufficiently boring to be discussed in this context? Am I allowed to say that, say, a handful of the scene/shots in WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES wear out their welcome, but that the majority of them are exciting? I don't know what critics I'm supposed to be rooting for here.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

For me, the five-minute highway sequence, which I adore--and which, I'm sorry to say, one of the audio commentators on the Criterion DVD offhandedly identifies as one of the weaker sections of the film, as if this were somehow self-evident--is Tarkovsky's provocative and even polemical "replacement" for an extended depiction of space travel, which I suspect is one of the many ways he wanted to counter something like "2001", which he disliked, with something more earthbound but no less mysterious. Where it occurs in the story is fairly close to where, in a more conventional narrative, Kris Kelvin would be traveling over an extended period to Solaris. In any case, that's the way I've always liked to read this sequence, which I believe makes its length and even its intermittent monotony an essential part of the film's narrative.


Mirror - for all its so-called obscurity - seems to me to be one of the most watchable of art-film, it has a warmth and narrative drive which Tarkovski's other movies lack and that is probably why it was received so well on release in Russia. I don't feel there is anything in the movie which is deliberately obscure, although knowing much more now about Tarkovski than we did in the 1970s ensures the audience can fill in any gaps the movie might leave.


I love the Tokyo/Space drive scene. Lovely.

Jeff McMahon

I've always thought the driving/travel sequence in Solaris was an endurance test designed to warn audience members "it's not going to get any flashier, folks" (and I have found the scene confoundingly boring every time I have watched it), but I'd just like to add that it seems that Tarkovsky's films really need to be seen in the immersive confines of a theater to be really grasped. Home video and all the attendant distractions don't cut it with his images.

Kent Jones

JBS, there is no such thing as the "pro-boring" and the "anti-boring" people. They're idiotic categories based on a non-idea. To say that you like one movie by Tarkovsky and don't like another instanty places you light years ahead of Eric Kois.

Sutter, I think the Kois piece is no different from the usual "how could they presume to take my money with their esoteric elitist claptrap" thing. It's just pitched from a different angle. As in: "some people like that kind of stuff, and I have no problem with them, because after all, I could be wrong here at The New York Times."

Jim, sorry, I forgot to include the context in which Diamond Bill made his joyful pronouncement.

Kent Jones

Sorry, I substituted "Eric" for "Dan."

Larry Gross

Thank you for this characteristically eloquent, accurate post. And glad
that it elicited Rosenbaum's astute deduction about Burton's drive as a surrogate depiction of space travel, not to mention Kent's shooting this
particular Kois fish in his particular barrel.

Glenn Kenny

@ Sutter: What Kent said. For me, the clincher—where Kois really shows his hand—is the completely dismissive, contemptuous description of Derek Jarman's "Blue" that I talk about in the comments thread of the post below this one. The "do you BELIEVE these weirdos?" tone of "it's available on DVD—'enhanced for wide-screen TVs, thank goodness." Oh, the hilarity.

Also, you ask about the provenance of Stevens' comment: Sternbergh cited it in a complimentary tweet to Stevens, I presume she made the comment in the Slate "Culture Gabfest" (Jesus) in which the Kois piece is discussed; here's the link: http://www.slate.com/id/2295827/

It features Stephen Metcalf, you should be aware.

Stephen Watson

Just an addendum on Jarman's 'Blue', in case it is not common knowledge. 'Blue' was transmitted as a radio play on BBC Radio 3 at around the same time as it was released as a film. There is an apocryphal story that the BBC offered to send out plain blue postcards, so their listeners could get the full effect of the film...

I wonder, too, whether a taxonomy of 'boring' cinema might be an idea. In addition to usual suspects such as 'slow', 'repetitive' and 'incomprehensible', one could have 'inconsequential' (which would include wonderful films like Passer's 'Intimate Lightning' and Rozier's 'Du côté d'Orouët') and 'counter-intuitive', where the narrative (such as it is) simply fails to go in the direction that you, as a viewer, think it should. I've found that this last makes you resent the film while you're watching it but find it highly enjoyable in retrospect: for me, prime examples include Godard's 'Alphaville' and Akerman's 'La Captive'.

One could go on inventing categories, of course. I'd like to see one for Linklater's 'Slacker' and another for the Uruguayan film 'Whisky': friends of mine found both of these very boring. (In the case of 'Whisky' – to which one might add the films of Otar Iosseliani – is it possible to be TOO deadpan?)

Stephen Watson

Apologies: that should be 'Intimate Lighting'...

martin skrypnyk

Well said, sir. Slow, yes, but not at all boring.

Hauser Tann

I feel like a mention of Deleuze's "L'image-temps" (Cinéma 2) is in order here. Essential reading. I don't remember (if/what) he had (anything) to say about Tarkovsky in that volume, though...

The Fanciful Norwegian

"Just an addendum on Jarman's 'Blue', in case it is not common knowledge. 'Blue' was transmitted as a radio play on BBC Radio 3 at around the same time as it was released as a film. There is an apocryphal story that the BBC offered to send out plain blue postcards, so their listeners could get the full effect of the film..."

I might be misremembering here, but I seem to recall that at least one incarnation of "Blue" (the CD release, probably) is actually different from the others, with some different music and certain passages read by different actors.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Woah---it's Jonathan Rosenbaum! Hi, Jonathan Rosenbaum! (please insert voice of GZA in COFFEE AND CIGARETTES). I love the idea of the long drive as a replacement for the standard space travel scene---that goes a long way towards explaining the fascinatingly truncated and eccentrically presented shot in which Kelvin actually does go to space. Much of what SOLARIS seems to be "about" is the loss of the natural world, and the way men go mad when their connection to the earth is severed. So a lot of what the drive does is break the connection between the world of the dacha and the world of the ship. The former is filled with culture (those busts!) but surrounded by nature, and therefore can support decent humanity. The latter is entirely man-made, full of man's imaginings (the books of art, the Visitors, and the station itself), and is therefore a place where men go mad, having nothing but the products of their own minds to rely on. The boredom/annoyance one feels as the highway rolls on and on is exactly what the moment should produce, ideally growing into a sense of real existential horror at the sight of an environment that goes on and on without a single blade of grass. It's point isn't just polemical, of course---by following the dacha with such a long, unbroken stretch of grey concrete, a longing for nature is created in the viewer that can finally be fulfilled at the movie's conclusion. Uh.. spoilers?

Tom Russell's Favourite Movie is INTO GREAT SILENCE

Props to the Fuzzy Bastard for identifying a crucial difference in approaches to film. Until a certain time in my life, I approached films, and art in general, as conveyers of data, and whenever a film lingered on something after I had "got" it, I grew impatient with it; they were wasting my time! There was no film, I maintained, that couldn't be twenty minutes shorter.

To make a long story short, somewhere between a showing of RUBLEV at the DIA and BARRY LYNDON on VHS (as well as a second viewing of FACES, which I had rejected the first time because every scene went on past the "point" of the scene), I realized the obvious. I'd hypothesize that many of us start by approaching art as conveyers of information to "get", and that somewhere along the line, we realize that it's not about "getting" or "extracting" something from it, but about experiencing it, surrendering to Flow.

Some of us, of course, never make that transition-- which is such a sadness.

Does my experience mirror those of others? Was there a film or films (or book or music) that galvanized you from "film-as-information-and-don't-you-waste-my-time" to "aesthetic experience"? Or am I somewhat unique in my adolescent philistinism?


Given the various interpretations of the possible purpose of "the long drive" sequence - it makes me think, why is it so short?

Scott Nye

"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."

Hear, hear. And this is what gets to the heart of it - if, "as a film critic," you are able to admit to yourself and to the world at large (or at least the NYT readership) that you just don't get something, you might be better off just not saying anything. It's not an "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all" thing; I'm saying it seems like Kois just doesn't understand ANYTHING about Tarkovsky's intentions, and he admits as much. If you can't first meet the art on the level it's operating, your conclusions about its intent/worthiness/quality are completely useless. I've always said it's fine if you don't "get" these kind of movies, just don't use that as a reason the movie's no good.

Because, in the end, the patience/stamina/receptive qualities you have for "this kind" of cinema is either there or it's not. You can develop it, of course, but it's going to be a tough row to hoe if you hear the description for "Blue" and don't automatically think it sounds like the coolest thing ever (I'm still waiting, eight years after hearing about it, for an actual theater in whatever town I'm in to show it; don't think it'll have the same effect at home).

Incidentally, I've tried twice to watch Solaris, and I'm fine with not writing about the fact that I don't like it very much (although weirdly enough, I adore the long driving sequence), because I don't really have a strong, objective, critical reason for it. I'm sure I'll take another run at it someday. On the other hand, I'm still trying to find the words to express how awesome "The Mirror" is. "The Mirror" is sort of the flip side to what I was saying earlier - I don't get it, but that hardly stood in the way of loving it.

Scott Nye

Tom - I'm right there with you. For me, I was 16 when Gus Van Sant's "Gerry" came out. I know that period of Van Sant is sort of a hot-button issue for cinephiles, but whatever, I loved the crap out of it. Blew my mind. Changed movies for me forever. I owe it everything.

Andrew O'Hehir

Glenn, I think this is a fair and interesting response. And of course well written. I don't share your fears about Dan Kois' secret agenda, whatever you think that was. I think what he wrote was lazy and conventional and a bit smug, and the whimsical, personal, throwing-up-my-hands tone masks a fundamental muddledness. Any "anti-art" agenda was basically just background or oxygen, and unconscious from his point of view.

Your piece is mainly about Tarkovsky and mine wasn't meant to be at all. That said, I think you're incorrectly inferring my attitude about him from a line that was basically meant as a crack or throwaway aimed at the general readership. In my phrase "works of art that are deliberately and intensively boring, in the Tarkovsky mode," you can put scare quotes around "boring" if you like, or replace it with "challenging in a way many people receive as boring." Another thing here is that I'm using the term "boredom" in a broader vernacular sense that some people will get and others will find overly vague or just wrong, where you're insisting on a more restricted definition, viz. "irritated disengagement."

In any case, I definitely didn't intend any verdict on Tarkovsky's accomplishment, or any diagnosis of his intentions. He's only in that sentence because he was Dan Kois' exemplar of intolerable artiness; Dargis' use of Chantal Akerman is probably a better example. For the record, "Andrei Rublev" is the ONLY Tarkovsky movie I find boring (well, maybe "The Sacrifice" a little, need to see it again), and I still like it. As for "Solaris," it's one of my favorite films. I vividly remember watching it for the first time -- on the big, big screen of the Castro Theatre in SF -- and hoping it would never end. I find the highway/Tokyo scene completely mesmerizing. (I love Jonathan Rosenbaum's reading of it, above.)

I don't have any problem, actually, in describing some art-cinema type movies as boring, or "intermittently monotonous," in Rosenbaum's phrase, in a way that's often worth it. I don't think that boredom is actually poisonous (Richard Brody's word), even if my case connecting the 1970s cultural boredom that led to punk and the "boredom" of a three-hour, slow-moving film was pretty darn tenuous. Ceylan's most recent film definitely bored the dickens out of me in places. I was tired and it's slow and all that. But much of it is amazing, it's really stuck with me, I'm eager to see it again, etc.

It's that kind of reaction that makes me want to extend an olive branch to Dan Kois, who did say he was glad he had seen "Meek's Cutoff" and that he found himself thinking about it a lot afterward. I mean, it's not to his taste and he didn't enjoy watching it, but *the movie did its work on him anyway.* No harm, no foul, I say. (The harm may come in, as others have said, when he congratulates himself for the bold maverick position of having utterly conventional taste.) My larger point, though, wasn't about any of that. It was about how vastly much more boring the culture that is officially and compulsorily non-"boring" actually is. (e.g., You were way too nice about that X-Men movie, man. Topic for another day.)

That Fuzzy Bastard

As long as we're making Tarkovsky distinctions, I'll admit that while STALkER, THE MIRROR, and SOLARIS are three of my favorite films ever, I've never been crazy about NOSTALGHIA or THE SACRIFICE (though the latter does grow on me with repeat viewings). Much like Dostoyevsky or Solzhenitsin, Tarkovsky often seems at his best when censorship prevents him from windy speechifying. I notice that no one's bringing up NOSTALGHIA much here---are there others who feel the same?

James Keepnews

+1 on El Fuzz' bullseye -- after so much flowing flora and walkin' in the rain to open SOLARIS, shouldn't a five-minute drive through a traffic-pulsing Everycity (what I called Exhibit A in a piece I wrote many years ago), and prior to a liftoff into the heavens, AND that drive being "auto-driven" by an interrogatee who's still deeply troubled by his experience up there, ipse loquitur already?

Ever since I first saw THE SACRIFICE back when Maxwell's had a film series, and then walked those long Hoboken blocks back to the PATH train in utter silence, I have always experienced my favorite director bar none as transfixing, not boring. So much of the power behind the spell Tarkovsky's work casts over me is that sense of life being experienced in real-time -- though, come on, how many cuts are in that driving sequence alone? -- and not just some sort of narrative sequence of events, obviously, but the reveries, reflections, aporia, you name it, that encompass life as we live it. Kois might just as well call "real life" boring, and maybe he does. Is that also Tarkovsky's fault?


All I know is, if you asked me to carry a lit candle across an empty pool, I bet I could do it on the first try.

warren oates

After a test screening of STALKER Goskino higher-ups asked that the film have a more dynamic beginning to which Tarkovsky replied: "The film needs to be slower and duller at the start, so that viewers who walked into the wrong theater can have time to leave before the main action starts."

There you have it from the man himself. The slowness -- or boredom even, or whatever you want to call it -- is sometimes something of an intentional endurance test, to weed out the Kois among us.

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