The Usefulness of Boredom

I attended a talk last night at my university entitled “The Inattentive Spectator.” Fitting, as I had been up since 5:30 am and my mind was wandering all over the place.

After the talk, someone raised a question that I found incredibly interesting. What of boredom? What function does it serve? How can it be used purposefully by filmmakers? The speaker was hesitant to engage with these issues, as he felt that “boredom” isn’t objective, nor is it universal.  But is it not undeniable that some form of inattentiveness, detachment and, yes, boredom, is universally experienced by cinema spectators at some point? And is it necessary to consider boredom a negative reaction, particularly when it serves an important function in the film, or when it says something about ourselves?

Police, Adjective (2009)

Corneliu Porumboiu’s film is a slow, meandering story, following a low-level police officer assigned to follow an even lower-level teenaged drug dealer. His days are mundane and mediocre, and the film represents this. He is bored, and does it not follow that we should feel an element of this as well? Porumboiu excels at translating this to the audience; he doesn’t seek to inject the film with any false sense of excitement. This would be a disservice to the film, and to the audience. He uses boredom to draw the audience in. Clearly, boredom serves a purpose.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Kelly Reichardt’s film is another that uses bordeom purposefully. Following several families of settlers travelling across arid Oregon desert in 1845 with a mysterious guide leading them. They search for their trail. They search for water. They walk. And walk. And walk. When I first saw the film, I hated it. Maybe hate is too strong a word, but I certainly didn’t like it. Even with the knowledge that Meek’s Cutoff uses boredom for the same narrative function as Police, Adjective, I couldn’t connect with it. What does this say about me? Why was I rejecting the boredom?

Using boredom necessarily avoids easy answers and pat conclusions. It comes hand in hand with opacity and ambiguity. Perhaps when I saw Meek’s Cutoff I was looking for answers or direction. Perhaps I was uneasy with unease. Whatever the reason, I find it fascinating that the film can raise these questions about myself.

Cinematic boredom, then, can and does serve a purpose. It illustrates and motivates narrative. And it can also motivate interesting and revealing reactions from ourselves.

Editor’s note – this piece originally appeared on filmschooled’s tumblr, and you can find it here.

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