Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Five movies about coping with boredom

...When public places provide constant entertainment they’re undermining my parenting decisions and depriving my child of what he could learn while bored. I understand what motivates them to install televisions and DVD players – no one wants to deal with a screaming toddler, and other patrons might get upset at the noise — but in my opinion their ubiquitous presence indicates a deeper problem.
I was running late for my writers group meeting. The subway was stalled. A bus would've taken too long. I was flush with money, so I decided to take a taxi, something I almost never do unless it's really necessary. It was a spur of the moment decision (and at $24, I'm not likely to do it again for awhile).

I got inside and there was a video screen affixed to the back of the passenger front seat. I wanted to sit and read my book, but a news report was playing, loudly. It was a touch screen. There was a mute button at the bottom, but either I was all thumbs or it was too small. I couldn't get it to work. I had to ask the driver to kill the sound for me. He did, but I still had to deal with the images on the monitor playing out of the corner of my eye as I read. There wasn't much room in the back of the taxi; the screen was fairly close to my face. Ignoring it completely was almost impossible.

Taxis, restaurants, cafes, bars, hospital waiting rooms - it seems like someone passed a law requiring public places to have video screens and/or music playing to keep you from being bored. (My "favorite" is music in the bathrooms. This is a thing now. Zod forbid you take a dump without Katy Perry to keep you company.) If you don't want to look or listen to them, though, if you'd rather quietly read or write, or - here's a wild thought - engage in a conversation with another human being - you're SOL.

This article, which I saw a mere week after the taxi adventure, focuses on children, but I'm here to tell you, it's not only kids who have to deal with the problem... and it is a problem, because what's gonna happen to us when we run out of spaces to unplug, to sit in silence and not be bombarded by man-made sounds and images for two seconds?

I never thought about it before, but I'm beginning to see the virtue in boredom as a sharp contrast to constant sensory stimulation. When you are your only source of entertainment, your mind is absolutely forced to come up with something, anything, to keep yourself alert and active. If we lose touch with that ability to make something outta nothing, then it's game over for us as a species. We might as well go back to living in caves for all we'll be worth.

So here are five examples of how people have dealt with boredom in the movies. If this post bores you, by the way, just make believe I'm Roger Ebert writing about the new Scorsese movie. Or get away from this computer screen altogether and go out and play. Does anybody remember playtime?

- Daydreaming. "Whaddya feel like doin' tonight?" In the Best Picture Oscar winner Marty, this is a familiar query between Ernest Borgnine and Joe Mantell, desperate as these two working-class schlubs are for some action of a Saturday night. In this early scene, they imagine going out with girls they like. Borgnine's Marty, in particular, dreams of finding the right one and getting married, like his family and his culture expect. When you have plenty of unwanted time on your hands, imagining something better can become habit-forming, until dreams are all you have. Such is the case with Marty, until he does find a girl later on in the story.

- Bickering. For a teenager, few things are more boring than serving a stretch in detention, especially with people with whom you have nothing in common. The John Hughes 80s classic The Breakfast Club throws a brain, a princess, an athlete, a basket case and a criminal together in one room (in what could be seen as a precedent for MTV's The Real World), and the initial result, naturally, is infighting. The five of them would never be put together under any other circumstances, even though they all go to the same school in the same town. This is partly by choice. Is it any wonder, then, they struggle to coexist, never mind get along? By the end, though, they do reach a kind of detente.

- Sex. One can hardly go wrong here, but what if the old in-out-in-out is dull and perfunctory? If you're gonna be bored, you might as well be bored in French, and in 1998, a film actually called L'ennui had this covered. The main character's a philosophy teacher, for Pete's sake, so he's already on that existential, life-is-meaningless tip. He meets a young chick who's his polar opposite, so naturally, they have sex! It's not a lot of fun for either of them, though. I haven't seen this one. Few of the reviews for it were raves. Most of the positive ones were qualified in their judgments. Perhaps that's appropriate for a film named "boredom"?

- Mockery. Laughing at other people and imagining them as all sorts of things is easy and fun, as the girls of Ghost World demonstrate. Thora Birch and a pre-fame Scarlett Johansson get their kicks making up stories about strangers and putting down their slowly-gentrifying neighborhood. Things kinda sorta happen when they meet Steve Buscemi, but on the whole, this is a very character-driven film, following Enid and Rebecca wherever they feel like going.

- Wandering. Eventually there comes a time when you're all alone with nothing to do. Walking around town is an easy solution to stave off boredom. In this wordless vignette from Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Johansson (again) strolls through Kyoto, simply taking in the sights and sounds around her, occasionally interacting with this foreign world.

Additional suggestions for dealing with... [yawns] boredom are... welcome...


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