"The nice thing about being a celebrity is that, if you bore people, they think it's their fault."
— Henry Kissinger
Your legs are stiff. The camera pans to reveal another forgettable sand dune. You become acutely aware of how often you're blinking. There's no denying it: you're bored. And for that, you feel a twinge of guilt.
You may also feel fear; you are afraid that your boredom reflects poorly on your taste. "If I were more sophisticated, I'd be able to sit through all 277 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia completely engrossed," you think to yourself. "I'm sure smarter people than me appreciate this movie's depth and patience." Perhaps they do. But you're bored all the same.
Maybe, in your case, it wasn't David Lean's epic tale. Maybe you think Gone With the Wind drags in the middle, or Touch of Evil serves the same purpose as a touch of Xanax. But at some point you've seen a classic film and your mind has wandered, and you probably felt bad about it.
But should you?
There is something about the nature of art that changes your perspective once it reaches a certain level of quality. Most things that we consume we judge in a fairly correlative way: the degree to which you like something reflects how good it is, and the only change is one of degree. This goes for cheeseburgers, sneakers, and blankets, none of which you would dream of feeling obligated to like. There is no such thing as blanket-based peer pressure.
Art is different: it has peaks and troughs that most other commodities do not. No cheeseburger or blanket will ever change your life (one would hope), but a movie very well might. A bad cheeseburger will still feed you, and a crappy blanket will still help you retain some slightly more significant amount of your emanating body heat, but a movie that fails to engage you on any level has failed utterly. When you watch a movie you hate you do not merely cease to gain a benefit: you actively lose the time and attention you've sunk into it. This is reflected even in the specific language used to pan bad films, with people often saying that a poor film "stole" two hours from them. And this general posture towards bad film is a reflection of two things:
- In an information-rich world, your attention is one of your most valuable commodities. When your most immediate needs of food and shelter are relatively easy to obtain, and access to entertainment is broad and cheap, no one will be able to take in all the entertainment they would like to. When you do not lack for options, anything you choose will inevitably crowd something else out, compounding the affront. In other words, a bad film isn't just a bad film: it's also one less good film.
- Films are one of the few culture-wide experiences left. As content of all types has fragmented, it has become increasingly difficult to produce a single media product—be it a book, a TV show, or an essay like this one—that one can expect any other random person to have heard of. Gone are the days when everyone watched Carson. But film has remained stubbornly communal. Blockbuster films still achieve a penetration of group consciousness thorough enough to ensure a level of left-outedness for those that don't see them. Consequently, most people are expected to have opinions about them, and most people are comfortable giving them.
Contrast the second point with other forms of art, the appreciation of which is increasingly relegated to a devoted few. The world of modern art is well-nigh impenetrable to your average person, and your average person is just fine with that. But film is different. Its accessibility, and the degree to which it remains a shared experience across every demographic, means that it must make room for the opinions and elbows of people with highly variable degrees of knowledge and the widely disparate impressions that result. And it is this proximity between rigorous and casual moviegoers that creates filmic guilt.
In other words, other art forms are cordoned off (that's often part of their cultural appeal), but film has no intellectual cover charge. I know very little about sculpting, for example, and generally have little to offer in any discussion about it beyond the level of "boy, that stone must have been hard to chisel." Consequently, I do not frequent message boards or dinner parties centered around sculpting, assuming such things exist. My lack of knowledge or interest in the subject has led to (and is probably reinforced by) a situation wherein I never even have the opportunity to display what I do or do not know about it. And that's probably for the best.
But film, being so culturally ubiquitous, puts people who put a tremendous amount of thought into the topic alongside people who don't. I am not here concerned with defining the delineation between an enthusiastic student of film and an elitist snob, nor of pinpointing precisely when a moviegoer goes from deliberately casual to downright uncultured. What I am concerned with is how this disparity changes people's expectations of themselves. People who watch films, but don't put a lot of thought into analyzing them, are still aware of the fact that others do, because there is no natural cultural separation based on their level of appreciation.
Purportedly great films have a leg up on any other kind of product because their reputation precedes them, and that reputation changes the way we view them in the first place. When you know a film is considered by many to be great, you approach it from a different perspective. It becomes a flea circus, where the critical eye gives way to the desire to see what others already have. Often times they deserve the praise, but their perceived greatness is inherently self-reinforcing.
This idea can be found in a wide variety of otherwise disparate fields. Albert Einstein was not the smartest human being to ever live, but his name has become synonymous with intelligence to the point of sarcasm ("The blender isn't plugged in, Einstein"). Similarly, the Mona Lisa is probably not the most impressive or significant work of art in human history, yet is has come to represent all great works of art as a sort of shorthand. "It ain't the Mona Lisa," someone might say of a mediocre painting. And it doesn't matter if you find the Mona Lisa to be radiant, mediocre, or disconcertingly masculine; the painting's reputation has grown larger than its source. Most areas of art or achievement will tend to self-reinforce this way until they've chosen a champion, and that champion often becomes a synecdoche for the entire medium.
The upshot of all this is that it doesn't matter how good Seven Samurai is; you have to see it, anyway. And when you do, you will bring with you all the weight and expectation that has been heaped upon it over the decades, which means that you may spend just as much time looking for the reasons it is great as you will simply taking it in.
Bored, or Jaded?
The general assumption is that the modern mass-market moviegoer is shallow and needs a bottle of Ritalin to sit through anything that goes more than five minutes without an explosion. How could any of them possibly hope, then, to sit still through a 102-minute film about ex-lovers in an African cafe during World War II? It's in black-and-white, for crying out loud, and Ingrid Bergman doesn't even take her top off.
It's undeniable that a certain segment of the movie going public has little patience for the decidedly slow burn of classic cinema, and prefers movies that depict the more interesting plight of the giant alien robot. But a lack of ninjas is not the only reason someone may find themselves bored by the films of yesteryear. For some the boredom is more akin to jadedness, which comes not from simplicity but from experience.
One of the most striking things about older films is how easy most of them are to predict. We often know who the bad guy is and what they're hiding long before we can possibly have been intended to. This is not a reflection of the quality of the film, but of its place in the chronology. It is the conventions of cinema, repeated again and again, passed through the decades by a form of filmic osmosis until the original creation has become a cliché, and we've been introduced to the cliché before we've seen its progenitor. The end result is that everybody knows "Rosebud" was Charles Foster Kane's sled, even if they haven't seen Citizen Kane and have no idea who Charles Foster Kane is. The conventions grow larger than their source, just like the films themselves.
This may be, in part, the result of cinematic paranoia. The modern viewer is not a passive recipient of whatever's projected in front of them, but an active participant in the plot's mystery. Who among us doesn't speculate about plot developments before they happen, so that we can have the satisfaction of knowing the movie didn't outsmart us? Many moviegoers (present company included) predicted the twist ending of Shutter Island during its trailer. Audiences have become, in the words of Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, "forensic plot detectives." With such a suspicious lot even basic foreshadowing risks telegraphing the story, and filmmakers are liable to end up shooting themselves in the foot with Chekhov's Gun.
So stand proudly, you Lords of Lethargy, you Emperors of Ennui. Do not let someone bully you into pretending you enjoyed The Deer Hunter. Do not feel you must actively enjoy a film whose acclaim may rest on how "influential" it is. Watch the classics, anyway, because some are worth your time. But if you do watch them, and if you yawn when you do, let that yawn be a battle cry.