Time, said Alfred Hitchcock, was meant to be stretched and squeezed like an accordion. Sometimes, you need to cover a lot of ground quickly; sometimes you need to slow the ticking clock to drag out the tension.
Joan Fontaine is eating dinner with her wealthy family in Hitchcock’s Suspicion and she is called to the phone. She rises slowly and anxiously and walks through a door, down an endless hall and off screen to the right, and we follow her with our eyes, a long, slow aggravating wait with suspense for the possibly distressing news the call will bring.
It’s a typical moment in a movie by the master of suspense. What happens next may be even more typical for Hitchcock. After the suspense is drained, Fontaine puts the phone down, takes two steps toward us and eases quickly back into her seat.
What happened to the hallway? The door? The slow steps?
It’s the time accordion. Hitchcock was its virtuoso.
Movies and time:
One small experimental film I’ve seen takes 90 minutes to cover the events of 10 minutes. Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life apparently covers 12 billion years in its two hours.
But time, in America, is money, and we have little of it to waste: We want our rewards now. We don’t want to work for it; we don’t want to linger.
One-Hour Photo? Takes too long. Digital is instant.
Minute Rice? Who has the time? You can buy a pre-made pilaf at the grocery store on the way home from work.
Instant tea? Why, when you can buy it in a bottle?
Let’s face it: Do you actually have the time to read this story?
Or are you conference-calling on the cellphone while driving 75 mph down the freeway on your way to drop off a package at FedEx?
In America today, not only has time speeded up, but we demand it be so.
There is little patience for anything slow. Especially in our movies. Fast editing, short, punchy dialog, and lots of things blowing up, without too much exposition in between the ignitions. Fuses, thus, must be short: We cannot wait for the boom.
I remember coming out of one recent art film and overhearing a fellow audience member saying, “I just spent the last two weeks at the theater watching that movie. Maybe it was two hours that just seemed like two weeks.”
But people go to the movies for different reasons. If it’s action you want, or a good plot, Hollywood has a vast menu of tapas, quick hits. Even most Indie films — the butt of many a complaint about sluggishness in film — move like arrows through the air compared to some of filmdom’s real glaciers.
There are films – and filmmakers – who do their best to slow the viewer down, make him pause and ponder, to consider the smaller issues, or the details that normally go past us unnoticed. They are the Bruckner symphonies of the cinema.
They want to to notice what’s hanging on the walls of the bedroom, what the weather is like outside the window, what emotional color the lighting is.
Such art movies are aimed at a different audience from those usually found at the multiplex. Such films are difficult. Some are nearly unwatchable.
But they are great art nonetheless, and true classics.
Those of us who appreciate glaciers on film don’t just want to “get” the story, to move the plot along, but rather, we want to live in the world the filmmaker has created, so savor its flavors, scents and sensations. We engage with that world even as we compare it with our own to find the congruences and divagations. Some of the greatest films ever made are long, slow and trying.
Here is my list of the Top 5 Unwatchable Gold-plated Classic Films:
Number 5: La Belle Noiseuse (1991) – Director Jacques Rivette spends a good deal of this 4-hour film showing us an artist drawing. He’s drawing a naked Emmanuelle Béart, so it’s not all tough going, but we watch endless moments of pen-scrawl on paper as the fictional artist who is the film’s hero, tries to recapture his earlier genius.
No. 4: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) – This is four hours plus of talking heads, discussing the collaboration with the Nazi government during the Vichy years of France, and the excuses otherwise good people make for acceding to evil. By director Marcel Ophuls.
No. 3: Andrei Rublev (1969) – Spend 3 ½ hours in medieval Russia with Andrei Tarkovsky’s truly glacial moodpiece about a 15th-century monk and artist who created religious ikons. Utterly hypnotic, it is also opaque: We don’t always know what’s going on, but it is almost mystical.
No. 2: L’Avventura (1960) – A young woman goes missing on a rocky island in the Mediterranean in Michelangelo Antonioni’s ur-existentialist rumination, and her lover and her friend spend the rest of the film looking for her. Hint: They never find her. One of the most beautiful films of all times, it also drives many viewers crazy with impatience.
And the No. 1 Unwatchable Gold-plated Classic Film of all time:
Last Year at Marienbad (1961) – The poster child for artsy-fartsy films, Alain Resnais notorious L’Année dernière è Marienbad is the most self-conscious film of all time. You never know – and never find out – exactly what is happening, or if it is happening, or if it happened, or maybe it will happen. This is the supreme test of the artfilm lover. You have to check to make sure you are still breathing by the end.
Of course, there are lots of candidates for such a list. If we forgot your “favorite,” well, here are a bunch more of the movies that give art film a bad name. Nevertheless, they are all great films. Just not for the multiplex.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Renais)
Heart of Glass (1976, Werner Herzog) (He actually had the actors hypnotized for their performances)
Woman of the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara)
Solaris (1972, Tarkovsky)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodore Dreyer)
Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)
Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)
Arabian Nights (1974, Pier Paolo Pasolini)
Zabriskie Point (1970, Antonioni)
The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Mallick)
The Pillow Book (1996, Peter Greenaway) (Actually, anything by Greenaway counts. He’s the current king of the pretentious.)
You probably have your own nominees: But for this list, it only counts if you also think they are great films: Bad tedium remains bad tedium.