3 Faces
Plaire, aimer et courir vite
Laurie Anderson over Chalkroom
THE POT (Kim Tae-Gon, South Korea), shown at IFFR slow criticism | The sleep of cinematic reason

Sleeping through films is usually considered a major transgression, but sometimes it is surely helpful, argues American film critic Richard Porton.

Is sleeping through films the ultimate faux pas for film critics? Is even initiating a discussion of slumbering scribes the last taboo? Well, yes and no. At least as far as international film festivals are concerned, the specter of jet-lagged journalists drifting off during screenings is accepted as an occupational hazard. There appears to be an implicit understanding among colleagues that one should not suffer humiliation by succumbing to drowsiness during the eccentric rigors of festival going. When a well-known American critic snoozed during a Toronto Film Festival screening of a film by one of his favorite directors — Jia Zhangke's still life — he did not evince any embarrassment when asking me plaintively as the lights came up, "I wasn't snoring, was I?" It was a given that he would not write about the film until attending another screening in his home city. And, unsurprisingly, when the critic in question finally caught the film again on his home turf, he eventually declared it one of the best of the year.
Similarly, when a friend told me that she couldn't stay thoroughly awake for even one film during the Istanbul Film Festival, we just chalked it up to the slightly inane ritual of watching films while semi-exhausted and — depending on the extent of the hospitality — either overfed or undernourished. Speaking for myself, although I technically 'saw' Nuri Bilge Ceylan's distant during my first evening in Cannes in 2003, I napped so frequently during the screening that it was only after I returned to New York and savored the film while fully awake that I could in fact confirm that it was one of the best entries in that year's competition.

On the other hand, it's difficult to dispute the fact that, as part of a regular work regimen, sleeping through films is usually considered a major transgression. This is probably attributable to the fact that critics are viewed somewhat cynically by the general public and staying sentient during a film — narcoleptic tendencies notwithstanding — is deemed the basic minimum requirement for assessing films, awarding star ratings, and being qualified to receive accreditation for those sleep-inducing film festivals in the first place. Even though I am only a freelancer and part-time reviewer for quarterlies — with no particular obligation to see, much less review, every mediocre movie released in a given week — I was not particularly proud of having slept like a baby throughout the dark knight (a film I had no intention of reviewing and was attending for ostensibly 'recreational' reasons.) Was it merely disappointment that a so-called 'popcorn movie' proved dull as dishwater? Or perhaps the impossibly arch dialogue, dreadful performances, and dreary pyrotechnics made this batman sequel the ideal soporific? Or should I just be pleased that Bresson makes me feel more caffeinated (whether I've been fueled with coffee or not) than Christopher Nolan?

Temporary zombies
It is of course true that various avant-garde tendencies — Maya Deren's 'trance films' and Stan Brakhage's emphasis on the 'hypnagogic' qualities of cinematic vision — explicitly demarcate analogies between non-narrative cinema and sleep and dreams. Yet given the careful, in fact usually meticulous, exegeses that, say, dog star man or meshes in the afternoon have inspired, it's evident that connoisseurs of Brakhage and Deren are not literally encouraging spectators to sleep through these films. Some years ago, Christian Metz postulated that "the filmic state and the conscious phantasy... suppose a rather similar degree of wakefulness... they are both established at an intermediary point between minimal wakefulness (sleep and dream) and maximal wakefulness". Although these remarks are certainly not an injunction for audiences to embrace a semi-comatose modus operandi for viewing movies, they do appear to concede that the film going experience is somewhat far removed from the banal verisimilitude of 'everyday life'. And perhaps oscillation between sleep and wakefulness can occasionally function as a form of submerged resistance, a "conscious phantasy" that allows dreams to merge with unsavory cinematic fare and create a tentative, "intermediary" alternative.
Yet, if all of us are vulnerable to circumstances that might render us temporary zombies, what are the implications for criticism? It goes without saying that the best writing by the best critics almost always involves careful, arduous, and most of all, conscious multiple viewings of worthwhile films. (The very idea of "close textual analysis" implies a state of intense wakefulness.) Nevertheless when it comes to dozing in the cinema, a cigar is not necessarily a cigar; there are numerous causes of cinematic somnolence. On some occasions, falling asleep during a film might be an adequate reason to dismiss it (without of course attempting to review it). Banal, hackneyed contrivances and cinematic ineptitude promote a mode of sleep engendered primarily by boredom. From a far different vantage point, it is perhaps inevitable, but not at all shameful, that certain 'difficult' films induce sleep during 'initial' viewings. After all, the pacing of many films made by noteworthy avatars of art cinema — e.g. Tsai Ming-liang, Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso, Apichatpong Weerasethakul — is deliberately languid and unfrenetic. Being sleepy during their films is not a disincentive for most serious critics; on the contrary, it is usually an indication that re-exploring challenging work with respectful diligence is nothing less than a priority. Sleeping in the movies is neither a mark of shame nor a badge of honor. The significance of closing one's eyes once the lights are dimmed is contingent upon a wide array of personal, psychological, geographical — perhaps even political — contingencies.

Richard Porton

Richard Porton is one of Cineaste magazine's editors. He is the author of Film and the anarchist imagination (Verso) and editor of two forthcoming anthologies: Dekalog 3: On film festivals (Wallflower) and On anarchist cinema (PM Press).

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Gliese 581c
In the film galaxy quest (1999) the inhabitants of a planet far, far away are able to receive an American TV series. In contact (1997), the aliens bounce back a broadcast from Hitler. Now a British social network, Bebo, is sending messages into deep space, in the hope of contacting a civilization intelligent enough to appreciate a drawing of a human skeleton, Rubik's Cube and the body of singer Cheryl Cole. What message would be sent was decided by internet voting. A high-powered digital radio signal containing the 501 messages was sent on 9 October 2008 towards Gliese 581c, a large terrestrial extra solar planet orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 581 by the RT-70 radar telescope of Ukraine's National Space Agency. The signal is expected to reach Gliese 581c early 2029.

Bianca Stigter

Bianca Stigter studied history and writes about film and other arts, mostly for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Last year she published the collection of essays The sprouted Picasso — Travels through art and time. The book was nominated for the AKO Literature Prize. Earlier she published Occupied city, Amsterdam 1940-1945, a travel guide to the Dutch capital during The Second World War.