Day 663: Movies For Those Who Hate Themselves

originally published October 24, 2013

Ever since I began working toward my vocationally hopeless major of film studies, friends and family began assuming that I would drift into the realm of the film hipster. That I would forego whatever movies won the weekend and instead find inspiration in the unfathomably absurd. I thought this too – that after four years of training I’d be able to sit through any Lynch or Cronenberg film and immediately understand the layered nuances.

Well, that didn’t happen. And I’m looking as forward to the Anchorman sequel as anybody else. My tastes didn’t change, they simply broadened to include French New Wave, Japanese quiet films and German silent expressionism. None of that is going to change the fact that our family Christmas Eve movie is and always will be Die Hard.

But when it comes to movies that are “out there” for out-there’s sake, my eyes tend to gloss over and my feet yearn to foxtrot me the hell out of the theater. I’m not wholly averse to the avant-garde; I find films like Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice or Bruñel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou to be magnificent and enjoyable visual collages. But for most of its indulgences, the experimental and avant-garde scene doesn’t connect with my inner oomph.

Maybe I just need to find the right ones.

Here’s a film that acts not only as a rich artistic statement (perhaps that there are too many good films in the world and that the creator of this one is trying to balance things out), but also as a cure for insomnia. It’s called The Cure For Insomnia. You’ll have a tough time tracking this one down on DVD or at your local repertory theater, but don’t worry, you’re not missing a great story. Or really any story.

The entire film consists of a reading by L.D. Groban of his 4,080-page poem, which is also called “A Cure For Insomnia.” Interspliced with the reading are a few heavy metal music videos and clips from pornography films. From opening credits to ‘fin’ you’re looking at an investment of 5,220 minutes. That’s 87 hours, or over three days. The film – which the Guinness people claim is the longest of all time – was screened once at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I’d be surprised if anyone, including director John Henry Timmis IV can claim they’ve seen the entire thing.

Timmis wasn’t the first to pour such an immense waste of celluloid into the culture. 23 years earlier, Andy Warhol decided he’d capture the incomparable beauty of New York’s Empire State Building. And why not? Experiencing that magnificent structure from the inside out is one of the mightiest architecturally-inspiring rituals a human can undergo. But Andy’s film doesn’t delve into the building’s rich history, nor does it poke around all of its subtle art deco nuances.

The film opens on a white screen. The sun sets, then the viewer spends roughly eight hours and five minutes looking at a continuous static shot of the Empire State Building at night. In the penultimate reel the building’s external floodlights go out, so you’re looking at near darkness for the film’s gritty climax. Which is nothing.

Empire has been added to the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress, due to its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance. Even Return of the Jedi hasn’t received that honor.

In 2008, director James Benning shot a 16mm film in the style known as ‘minimalist restraint’. As you may have guessed, this is an academic way of saying that not much happens. RR is a movie about trains. Benning claims it is an exploration of American consumerism and overconsumption, but from what I can gather, it’s about trains.

Empty frame. A train enters. It passes the camera. It leaves the frame. Cut to another empty frame. Repeat. Roll credits.

Look, I like looking at pretty things. Films like Baraka and Samsara are filled with static or slow-moving shots that are sometimes tied together thematically and sometimes not. And I don’t like judging a film I haven’t yet seen, but I simply cannot fathom how a series of trains entering and exiting my field of view is going to prompt me to consider the ills of American consumerist life. I’m just saying.

How about a six-minute loop of a blinking woman? What if the loop was off-center, showing the sprocket holes and edge lettering? What if the film was dirty and scratched? Are you interested yet? Yes, there’s a running theme here – movies in which the act of the film being made is deemed sufficient by the artist to make his statement. In the case of Owen Land’s Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc., the title truly gives away everything you’re going to see.

Whereas Andy Warhol refused to allow Empire to be screened unless the entire 8-hour ordeal was exhibited, Land’s film is only about six minutes long. That’s still a long time to expect viewers to watch a film that exists almost as a negative space on the screen. The popcorn you’re serving had better be pretty damn good.

Minimalism in film has never been achieved in quite such a succinct and economical fashion as in Tony Conrad’s 1965 film The Flicker. It’s hard to top the use of only five individual frames of film. It starts with a warning that the movie could cause seizures and that a physician should be in attendance at any screening. Then there are two title cards: “Tony Conrad Presents” and “The Flicker”. After that, the screen goes white. After a while, a black frame sneaks in. Then it repeats, quicker and quicker, creating a strobe effect. If you’re still conscious after thirty minutes of this, you have watched the entire film.

To Conrad’s credit, the musical score that accompanies the movie is played on a synthesizer built specifically for the film. I suppose a case could be made for the film score’s contribution to the musical genre of ‘noise music’, but I won’t be buying the soundtrack. It sounds like a diesel engine arguing about the debt ceiling with a robot while they wait for their dry cleaning. You can sit through the entire thing here if you’re really looking for a way to hate a half-hour of your day today.

Maybe I’ll never be an authentic film snob because I simply cannot comprehend why anyone would subject themselves to watching films like this. I understand the artistic statement: the focus on the medium itself, or the absence of activity revealing the flaws in our biases and expectations… but I’d still rather watch Die Hard.

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