By DAN KOIS
Published April 29, 2011, NY Times
“Do you watch ‘Phineas and Ferb’?”
“You have to watch it!”
Upon hearing those words — uttered by her friend Cassie, just a year older but, in her eyes, impossibly sophisticated — my daughter Lyra became infatuated with a TV show of which she can barely make heads or tails. “Phineas and Ferb” is an animated program about the absurd summer-vacation adventures of two stepbrothers and the endless frustration of their older sister, who’s constantly trying to bust them in the middle of, say, carving a new face onto Mount Rushmore. Each 12-minute episode bounces maniacally through a convoluted plot (always including a subplot about the brothers’ pet platypus, who is, of course, a secret agent) and is spring-loaded with jokes, gags and parent-friendly pop-culture references (“Cool Hand Luke,” Stanley Kubrick, Shepard Fairey).
For Lyra, just turned 6, this rapid-fire show is bewitching in its complexity — the epitome, she thinks, of sophisticated viewing. She watches “Phineas and Ferb” aspirationally, as a sort of challenge to herself. She’s trying as hard as she can to adopt the knowing, self-aware manner of story-watching that older children already have. And Lyra now becomes exasperated when her younger sister forces her to watch what were, not long ago, her old favorites on Nick Jr. Yuck! Dora the Explorer asks you questions and then waits for the answers! Phineas and Ferb, flattering their viewers by assuming a base-line level of comprehension, never wait for the answers. There’s never time; another joke is fast approaching, and though Lyra doesn’t get the jokes, she understands the rhythm of jokes, and so when she hears that rhythm, she laughs, knowingly, in a manner that tugs at my heart — and feels more than a little familiar.
I was reminded of Lyra and “Phineas and Ferb” as I sat in a dark movie theater watching Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff.” Like Reichardt’s recent films “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy,” it’s a quiet, arduous chronicle of a long journey through the Pacific Northwest, portrayed seemingly in real time. “Meek’s” follows a lost wagon train of desperate settlers through what a hand-embroidered title card tells us is the Oregon Territory, 1845. For long stretches of film, the men and women and oxen simply trudge across the barren plain, their only accompaniment the low rumble of wagon wheels and the sporadic clatterings of pots.
As a viewing experience, “Meek’s Cutoff” is as closed off and stubborn as the devout settlers who populate it. (“Pleasureless,” raved David Denby of The New Yorker! “There is not much action,” noted A. O. Scott of The Times!) By the end, I could sympathize with the settlers’ exhaustion; I felt as if I’d been through a similarly grueling experience. Which is to say, it affected me viscerally, and I’ve found myself thinking about it over and over since. But during the time I actually watched the film, I had trouble staying planted in my seat with my attention focused on the screen, as the long dissolves from one wind-blasted plateau to another sent my thoughts blowing in a dozen directions.
As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?
My aspirational viewing is different in its particulars from Lyra’s, but we both embrace unfamiliar viewing experiences even though — or because — we struggle to understand them. We both yearn: Lyra to be 8 years old; me to experience culture at an ever more elevated level.
In college, a friend demanded to know what kind of idiot I was that I hadn’t yet watched Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” “It’s so boring,” he said with evident awe. “You have to watch it, but you won’t get it.”
He was right: I had to watch it, and I didn’t get it. I had to watch it — on a laserdisc in the university library — because the intimation that there was a film that connoisseurs knew that I’d never heard of was too much to bear. I didn’t get it because its mesmerizing pace was so far removed from my cinematic metabolism that several times during its 165 minutes, I awoke in a panic, only to find that the same thing was happening onscreen as was happening when I closed my eyes. (Seas roiling; Russians brooding.) After I left the library, my friend asked me what I thought. “That was amazing,” I said. When he asked me what part I liked the best, I picked the five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway, because it seemed the most boring. He nodded his approval.
Forever after, rather than avoiding slow-moving films, I’ve viewed aridity as a sign of sophistication. Part of being a civilized watcher of films, I doggedly believe, is seeing movies that care little for my short attention span — movies that find ways to burrow underneath my boredom to create a lasting impression. I still remember watching Derek Jarman’s 1993 “Blue,” a movie that’s simply 79 minutes of narration over a screen colored an unwavering deep blue. (It’s available on DVD — “enhanced for wide-screen TVs,” thank goodness.)
Now, as a film critic, I find writing about stately, austere films difficult. Often, I scapegoat others for my own boredom via the reviewer’s best friend: the fabled “many viewers.” As in: “For many viewers” (as I wrote about one drama about the Kazakh steppes), “accidentally walking into a showing of ‘Tulpan’ would be a 10-minute nightmare of tractors and bad haircuts, followed by a 90-minute nap.”
Yet I’ve nevertheless tried to write thoughtfully about the gifts that these deliberately paced movies might offer viewers attuned to their rhythms. For instance, there is a moment from “Tulpan” I’ll never forget, in which a traveling veterinarian’s ancient motorbike is parked next to a yurt, its sidecar glumly occupied by a heavily bandaged camel.
Other critics, much smarter than me, write about these films with the kind of unfettered enthusiasm that I feel when writing about directors like Alfonso Cuarón or Lisa Cholodenko or Steven Soderbergh (except for his “Solaris” remake, obviously). They love the experience of watching movies that I find myself simply enduring in order to get to the good part — i.e., not the part where you’re watching the real-time birth of a Kazakh lamb, but the rest of your life, when you have watched it and you get to talk about it and write about it and remember it.
I feel guilty to be still reaching, as an adult, for culture that remains stubbornly above my grasp. My guilt isn’t unique, even if my particular aspirational viewing is my own. (Surely there are die-hard Hou Hsiao-hsien fans out there who grit their teeth every time a new Pixar movie comes out.) And my cultural guilt has only intensified as Twitter reminds me hourly that my colleagues and friends are finding deep satisfaction in reading “The Pale King” or attending “Gatz” or watching “Le Quattro Volte.” A friend messages me: “Oh, you have to see ‘Mildred Pierce,’ ” and she’s right: I do have to, because Todd Haynes is a major director, and Kate Winslet is among my favorite actresses, and the miniseries — currently resting quietly on my DVR — will be part of the cultural vocabulary for years to come. But that doesn’t mean that, as Kate Winslet bakes yet another pie, I won’t sometimes wonder if those five hours might be more profitably spent aspiring in a different direction: exercising, maybe, or reading a book or just watching 10 episodes of the hilarious (and not at all contemplative) cartoon “Bob’s Burgers.”
As I get older, I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me. I don’t fool myself that aspirational viewing no longer has anything left to offer, that I’ve somehow absorbed the lessons Tarkovsky couldn’t teach me all those years ago. Yes, there are films, like the 2000 Taiwanese drama “Yi Yi (A One and a Two),” that enrapture me with deliberate pacing, spare screenplays and static shooting styles. I’ve watched “Yi Yi” five times and never once dozed off over 15 cumulative hours of low-key Taiwanese domesticity.
But while I’m grateful to have watched “Solaris” and “Blue” and “Meek’s Cutoff” and “The Son” and “Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)” and “Three Times” and on and on, my taste stubbornly remains my taste. Perhaps I’m realizing that enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have to be a performative act, even for someone who writes about movies. Or perhaps I just lack the youthful exuberance that led me to believe I could rewire my brain through repeated exposure to Antonioni. Part of me mourns the sophisticated cineaste I might never become; part of me is grateful for all the time I’ll save now that I am a bit more choosy about the aspirational viewing in which I engage.
Last spring, I wrote about the first season of the HBO series “Treme,” David Simon’s jazzy ode to post-Katrina New Orleans, which unfurls at an unhurried pace, interspersing scenes of high drama with long stretches of everyday living and snippets of live music. Just before the first season ended, I defended it, loudly, in a published debate with another writer, as a good show whose slow development was a welcome antidote to the context-free dramas surrounding it on television. “I really like these characters,” I wrote. “I don’t mind that they are low-key. I don’t mind that the stakes are low … because the actors are convincing me of how high the stakes are for them.” Give “Treme” a chance, I said. One day it could be great.
Then what happened? I was out of town for the season finale of “Treme” and didn’t get around to watching it right away. And then months went by, and I never felt like watching that episode, even as news of a second season began to trickle out. I finally deleted that season finale, unwatched, from my DVR, as well as my season pass for the show. “Treme” returned last week. The space the second season might have taken is now going to be filled by a solid dozen episodes of “Phineas and Ferb.”