Films as diverse as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte (2010) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) can be linked through their denial of immediate visual or narrative gratification, indeed by their apparent determination to bore their viewer. They can be off-putting and antagonistic towards their audience, but their insistence on boredom is arguably intrinsic to their epic scopes.
Jeanne Dielman, for instance, can be seen as a cinematic counterpart to James Joyce’s Ulysses, albeit set over a period of days, rather than a single one. It is an epic of the everyday that follows its protagonist as she goes about her mundane routine of shopping, preparing dinner and helping her son with his homework. This repetitive structure and insistence on minimal action is in one sense meant to bore the audience: to make them acutely aware that time is passing. As Akerman once remarked in an interview, ‘the way cinema was done was mostly to escape time. When people say, “Oh, I had a good evening. I didn't see the time passing by.” Well – they were robbed of two hours of their life.’ A couple of tactics are used by Akerman to ensure that her audience is not robbed of their time: the first three hours of the film consist of a series of repetitions with very slight variations on Dielman’s carefully calibrated days, which deny any sense of narrative arc. One is invited to notice time passing – to be bored – through Dielman’s highly regulated routine. And, like Yasujirō Ozu, Akerman often uses a static camera set at hip height, so that characters move in and out of shots and the audience is asked to look at a kitchen interior and ingredients for meatloaf as much as the ostensible protagonist of the film. Unpeopled spaces are used to challenge human attention spans.
Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is another case of this audacious use of non-human scenes, as only a quarter of the “action” is human; the rest centres on a goat, then a tree, as it transforms from being the centrepiece of a village festival to charcoal. He gives roughly equal space to humans, animals, plants and minerals and this breadth of scope indicates the film’s epic intent. Sometimes the sections mirror each other; so a fly on the face of the goatherd in the opening quarter is echoed when a human climbs the tree in the latter half of the film. One is asked to expand one’s anthropocentric notions of action in films further than the confines of human activity.
Malick interweaves the story of the origins of the world with the origins of a man in The Tree of Life. From the Biblical quotation that opens the film: ‘where were you when I laid the earth’ (Job 38:4), to the National Geographic-esque sequence in which the audience is invited to twin an interaction between two dinosaurs and the mother’s religious ethic as a history of the growth of compassion, Malick insists on setting human activity within a cosmic context.
Frammartino and Malick seem interested not simply in drawing parallels between the human and the natural, but also, like Akerman, in presenting unpeopled scenes in order to confront human concentration with non-human subjects. Part of the aim seems to be to make one aware that time is passing as one is watching the films. This can be seen as an inherent part of their epic scope; Thomas Mann once noted, ‘an epic is a sublimated boredom’. And as Clive James suggests when he glosses Mann’s gnomic statement, ‘simply by its outline, an epic demands of us that we submit to having our time consumed, and be conscious of it’. This provides a helpful way to think about the sequences of the formation of the world set to operatic music in The Tree of Life. Some saw them as a failed attempt at epic scope that was instead numbingly dull. However the young Malick proffered some useful advice in an early interview that echoes Akerman’s and Mann’s, when he said of Days of Heaven (1978) that it should be experienced ‘like a walk in the countryside; you’ll probably be bored, or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature’. Malick’s remark highlights a proposition essential to these films: the epic form involves boredom as well as revelation. Dielman’s dull and unrelenting routine in the first couple of thirds of the film is necessary, so that its derangement is startling. Similarly, Frammartino limits action and character in his film, until the final sequence that shows charcoal forming, which reduces the cinema screen to shades of black. But this ostensibly reduced scope paradoxically expands one’s vision to a grand panorama that encompasses a universal life cycle.
The epic ambitions of these films – Akerman’s cinematic Ulysses, Malick’s intertwining of cosmic and personal histories, and Frammartino’s illustration of the Pythagorean four – ask the audience to re-evaluate the place of immediate gratification in cinema and instead to discover the virtues of boredom.
Jessica Fletcher is a BA graduate in English at University College London