Just the other night I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World with my family. A poetic and beautiful reimagining of the legendary romance of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, it was a remarkable cinematic journey to undertake, as we found ourselves whisked off a land of profound magic, spirituality and humanity. Malick, in his direction, takes a leisurely route through the story, which leads to a resonant and powerful conclusion, but also a path that had several of us puzzling and even yawning at the numerous slow and tranquil shots of nature and simple human interactions. Perhaps frustrated by the film’s lack of action in the traditional sense, instead focusing on pensive reflection, a few of us complained vocally about the ponderous length of the story. But by the time the credits rolled, The New World had chastised us for our impatience, rewarding what we mistook for boredom with a remarkable amount of emotional resonance that would not have been possible without the meandering journey that came before.
I began to think on how Malick’s vision for The New World, taking a slow, beautiful and hypnotic pace that is so peaceful it threatens to lull its audience to sleep, is a complete antithesis to modern American society and culture. We demand speed and efficiency in all that we do. Our food must be made quickly and served immediately. Our packages must come within mere days of placing our orders. Our internet must provide information instantaneously. If we are not served what we desire within seconds, we are dissatisfied. Malick’s film is torturous to the audience of modernity because it requires its audience to wait, to soak in the scenery, to drink in deep and profound emotion that only comes with the passage of time. These qualities of patience and contentment, which allow for life to unfold at its own pace, are virtues sorely lacking in America today, and for this reason I wish to put forth a brief defense of slowly paced, immensely long, and tiringly boring films.
I include the word boring because, it must be admitted, the type of film I am defending has been known to bore many an audience. In conversations with fellow filmgoers I hear them lament the slow and deliberate pacing of the old epics, for instance, such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. When watching 2001: A Space Odyssey the modern viewer glances at their cell phone for the time, impatient at the camera’s lingering over spaceships participating in delicate dance, accompanied not by dialogue but by classical music (Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic has other glaring flaws, but its pace is most certainly not one of them). More recently, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, released in a proper director’s cut, moves at a snail’s pace, unfolding musings on the Crusades and faith over more than three hours with a surprisingly small amount of action for viewers expecting a Gladiator-like emphasis on masculine violence. One of my personal favorites, The Last Samurai, is also slowly paced, clocking in at just under three hours as it peacefully and methodically explores the fated old order at the turn of the 20th century. Some of the greatest films in American cinema, The Godfather, for instance, also move at a glacial pace, allowing sleep to remain a menacingly present threat for the viewer expecting frequent mobster violence.
So what am I trying to say by listing all these slowly paced films? I bring these up because too often have I heard fellow film-goers dismiss films such as these because they are “too slow, incredibly boring” and “sleep inducing.” I have even heard some complain that last year’s Gravity bored them from the opening sustained shot of Earth! (Considering it clocks in at only about 90 minutes, I find these complaints hard to comprehend.) Frankly, a slow pace by itself is an absurd reason to count off a story, and reflects a flaw in our modern standards for art and perspectives on life rather than something wrong with the film itself. Our culture has pushed forth an increasingly selfish and self-centered view of the world, and it is often reflected in the intersection of business and art that is Hollywood. When we go to the cinema, we go to watch films that have been marketed to meet our specific tastes. We have certain expectations, and we want what we want in a film (whether that be distraction, entertainment, humor, action, drama) and we want it immediately. We do not want to be challenged by our art. We want to be affirmed. We want excitement, we want a distraction, and we want it now.
The slowly paced film is offensive because it evokes reality. Real life is not a series of quick cuts and flashy maneuvers, stylized violence and sexualized models, (as in a myriad of action films, Transformers foremost in my mind) but rather a gradual progression of moments, moments that slowly build sometimes to profound sadness, and other times to profound beauty. The slow film does not distract us from reality, it instead invites us to draw connections between the images on screen and the lives we lead, challenging our preconceived notions. It will not yield what we want immediately, but forces us to wait as we wait in life. The Godfather is a masterpiece not because of its portrayals of gangster violence and savagery (though those are present) but rather is impactful because of its shockingly normal and understated portrayal of the Corleone family. We see them live, love and hate on a day to day basis. Think of the beginning of the film, an extended wedding sequence. Surely the modern blockbuster editors would cut down the wedding to a fraction of what it exists as in the final cut, afraid that audiences would lose interest. “We have to give them action, what they want is a powerful hook!” I can hear them complaining to Francis Ford Coppola. But I can just as easily picture Coppola shaking his head and replying “we cannot give them what they want, but rather what they need.” And what the story needs is for us to truly know the Corleone family, and to know the Corleones we need time with them.
In some ways, encountering the slowly paced film is like encountering a new family, a friend or a person. We meet them and immediately have our own expectations and desires of who we want them to be. Initially, however, we may be repulsed. “This is not who I expected,” we might say, “I don’t think I’m interested in this person because they are not who I want as a friend.” But if we dropped every friendship simply because it initially did not give us what we thought we needed, we most likely would miss out on all the things it offered that we actually needed. I have found that the best friendships are forged in difference, in transcending our petty expectations and, after time and patience, yielding fruit we never could have imagined.
Kingdom of Heaven, for instance, is a film I entered with expectations of a boldly heroic tale of the Crusades, based on my previous experience with Scott’s Gladiator and Robin Hood. Instead, the director’s cut meandered through the Holy Land, following the decidedly uncharismatic knight Balian as he attempts to found a kingdom of conscience in the midst of a remarkably murky and tragic religious conflict. Scott allows us to explore the conflict as it slowly builds towards Saladin’s Siege of Jerusalem, giving us time to weigh the sides for ourselves, noting the tragic honor of the leper King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, fuming at the disgusting bloodlust of the Templars, puzzling at the noble figure of Saladin and his violently eager lieutenants, all while repeatedly posing the question “is God real, and if He is, what does His Kingdom really look like?” The answer is only halfway given after a long, arduous journey that ends with a sigh of relief rather than a cheer of victory, and at times the film tested my attentiveness, threatening to lose my interest with line after line of dense dialogue and methodical action. But after the fact, I found Kingdom of Heaven dominated my absent-minded musings for weeks. What is the kingdom of heaven? I weighed the varying interpretations put forth by the characters Balian had encountered, and eventually Balian himself, and though I might not completely agree with the humanistic/moralistic philosophy Scott espouses, his ideas have much merit, and the time spent in a “boring” film rewarded me with a bounty of food for thought.
Would such meditation have been possible had the film been trimmer, leaner, and better-paced? Probably not, as the time spent within Scott’s story deepened my level of engagement. I began not simply to know the characters in an intellectual sense, but I began to know them in the sense that you know a long-time friend. And this knowledge, this time spent bored, made it possible for the film to challenge how I look at the kingdom of heaven on Earth. I find the leper king a fascinating moral example of a man striving to maintain peace in a world hell-bent on war and violence. I find the questions of faith challenging. Our film-viewing should not be intended to simply shore up our own conceptions of reality, or even worse, to distract ourselves from it. Let us surrender ourselves to the long, boring films which may not grab our selfish interest initially, but will bring immense rewards afterwards. But better yet, perhaps we should stop looking at people as those from whom we can immediately get satisfaction, money, or enjoyment. Instead, let’s open ourselves to investing in those we might otherwise brush past, give them a little time, and see what wonders their Creator might have embedded deep within.