The French for Boring

Blog by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 03 Mar 2010

I started writing this blog entry last week full of enthusiasm for all the avant-garde and experimental films that I’d discovered online. It was exciting to find that these rare films, which previously could only be seen at amateur screenings where watching the celluloid catch in the gate and melt was one of the attractions, were now available to anyone with an Internet connection.

I was most thrilled by finally getting to see La Jetée, Chris Marker’s 1962 film, whose mix of sci-fi, time travel and philosophy should be instantly recognisable to fans of J.G. Ballard. Indeed, if the film seems familiar on first viewing this is testament to its influence (it was Terry Gilliam’s acknowledged inspiration for Twelve Monkeys). But the most extraordinary thing about the 28-minute film is that, apart from a single shot, it is made entirely of still photographs. Critics have attributed this to the popularity in France of the photo-comic at the time, but mostly it was just the result of Marker’s determination to make a movie despite having no camera and little money. Watching this influential, wonderful piece of cinema makes claims that the digital revolution will transform creativity seem hollow. Real creativity will always use the tools that are to hand. The difference is that we can now all see the end result.

It was after coming to this heart-warming conclusion that, along with a rare Marker film, I downloaded a virus that knocked out my computer. For a week I was cast into the dark void of Internet-less-ness. The irony was not lost on me. Formerly a man luxuriating in the fact that I had the whole history of avant-garde cinema only a click away, I was now unable to check my email. I couldn’t even look on the BBC homepage to see what the weather would be in two hours; I had to peer out the window and make a guess. So twentieth century.

There have been a number of scientific reports recently that have come to the unsurprising conclusion that the Internet has begun to rewire our brains, that the siren call of the hyperlink is slowly compressing our attention span to nanoseconds. This has been a charge levelled at new technologies for years, and I’m not sure that it is always a bad thing. Without the arrival of radio, newspapers and the movies men would still write, and we’d still have to read, books like Ruskin’s Modern Painters, a nine volume work whose salient points can be summarised in a nine-minute PowerPoint presentation.

In my self-inflicted exile from cyberspace I certainly felt agitated and under-stimulated. Most of all, however, I realised that I had forgotten what it was like to be bored. Nothing on TV. Nothing on the radio. Nothing I wanted to read. It was like being twelve on a wet Sunday afternoon again. At the beginning of the last century the surrealists saw boredom, or ennui as they liked to call it being French, as a profoundly modern problem, a symptom of the disconnection between time and the self brought about by modernity. But they also thought that by taking ennui and elevating it to a state of existence, rather than just that moment of restlessness between the end of your tea and the beginning of Eastenders, they could create a contemplative, almost meditative condition that might allow us to step outside the headlong rush of modern time. As I sat staring at my blank, disconnected computer screen I resolved that when my precious hard drive was restored to its rightful place I wouldn’t return to my thoughtlessly clicking ways. I would embrace the lessons of ennui: I would watch Wavelength online.

Wavelength, made by Michael Snow in 1967, is the archetypal experimental film. It consists of a 45-minute, incremental zoom across an anonymous room to a soundtrack of electronic noise. It is eye-wateringly boring. A single viewing of it changed my cinema-going habits for a decade; afterwards I watched only Hollywood blockbusters.  The idea of watching Wavelength on the Web - the home of the cute kitten video - is counterintuitive enough to make a certain kind of sense

So when my computer came back from intensive care, I made a cup of tea, disconnected my mouse to remove temptation, started the film, and sat back and watched. And I was bored. Not in a French way, but in a good old-fashioned, self-harming Scottish way. I’m off now to see Avatar for the third time, but only after I check the weather. You can’t be too careful.