“The Liturgical Year in Cinema” is an ongoing series, a personal exploration of the thematic connections between the Christian calendar and films. Ordinary Time is the season of growth, vitality, and the normal practices of the Christian life.
Few films this summer provide us an image of the mundane. Instead, the current box office features superheroes and talking animal movies with a couple surrealist indie fare. Mostly escapist cinema, these titles offer us two hours in the dark to avoid the next horrific news story or onslaught of emails. The quick edits and constantly-moving camera attempt to hold our attention spans, often cramming half-a-dozen cuts in a 10-second time frame. A sentimental score carries our emotions on a journey to the bright and noisy images on the screen. In the midst of international and personal crises, we trust in the CGI-laden, 3D, IMAX, action-packed blockbuster to distract us.
Film will always have this escapist quality to it, but it can also emphasize the beauty and transcendence of ordinary life. Static shots of quotidian actions and objects and the minimization of soundtrack while emphasizing the noise of common life—a door opening, footsteps on pavement, birds or traffic in the background—are all employed to prepare the viewer for the remarkably cathartic moment where grace and the divine break through. Instead of sweeping melodrama or vivid surrealist imagery, the realization of the transcendent occurs as a response to the ordinary and every day, “a meticulous representation of the dull, banal commonplaces of everyday living,” writes screenwriter Paul Schrader, in Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.
Here’s the catch: this sort of film is boring. In our culture of immediacy, the slow and steady pacing of directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson offers little stimuli for our minds. Both filmmakers employ static shots, deadpan performances, and silence, emphasizing image over plot. This style subverts audience expectations; we often anticipate sweeping soundtracks and empathetic performances, which both Ozu and Bresson resist. Thus, viewers may find their attention span waning throughout the film, even though the final scenes are often cathartic. But boredom is a current cultural anathema. You can entertain, scare, humor, or offend me. Please don’t bore me.
But in our desire to dispel cinematic boredom, we may end up missing out on films which may offer unique insights into the human condition and divine nature. Here’s New York Times critic Manohla Dargis’ defense of slow cinema:
Thinking is boring, of course (all that silence), which is why so many industrially made movies work so hard to entertain you. If you’re entertained, or so the logic seems to be, you won’t have the time and head space to think about how crummy, inane and familiar the movie looks, and how badly written, shoddily directed and indifferently acted it is. And so the images keep zipping, the sounds keep clanging and the actors keep shouting as if to reassure you that, yes, the money you spent for your ticket was well worth all this clamor, a din that started months, years, earlier when the entertainment companies first fired up the public-relations machine and the entertainment media chimed in to sell the buzz until it rang in your ears.
“Is boring bad? Is thinking?”
Fellow Times’ critic A.O. Scott goes further: “Why is it, though, that ‘serious’ is a bad word in cultural conversations, or at least in discussions of film? Why is thinking about a movie an activity to be avoided, and a movie that seems to require thinking a source of suspicion?”