Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Difficult Cinema

Congratulations to Marilyn Ferdinand (Ferdy on Films) and Farran Smith Nehme (Self-Styled Siren) for the just-concluded Film Preservation Blogathon. The event's aim was to raise money to preserve blacklisted filmmaker Cy Endfield's noir The Sound of Fury (1950). There is still time to donate to this cause: Please see the Facebook page of For the Love of Film. Marilyn and Farran, thank you!

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I've been wondering: What does it mean for a film to be difficult? Are there multiple ways in which films can be difficult? To put the question to myself in a more personal and subjective way: What are some films or filmmakers that I find difficult? And why?

I recently watched Andrei Rublev (1966), a remarkable and quintessential work of cinematic modernism. It can be called difficult for many reasons: it's three and a half hours long; the narrative is episodic and discontinuous; the film is structured in the form of chapters but often there is little idea of how much time has elapsed between them; there are dozens of characters, and the relationships between them are not always clear; to complicate matters, the same actors turn up in multiple roles through the film; Tarkovsky frequently drops narrative and character in order to focus on the elements (earth, air, water, fire) in an immersive, tactile way. In and beyond matters of plot, action, character and psychology, Tarkovsky poses challenges to interpretation, especially given the central theme of the spiritual -- the non-material, the intangible -- that runs through the film.

Robin Wood has a wonderful passage on the subject of difficult cinema in a 2004 essay on Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep. It appears in a section he titles "Confessions of an Incompetent Film Critic." Let me quote it at some length:

For people of my generation, who grew up in the 1940s/50s on an exclusive diet of classical Hollywood cinema (with the occasional British movie), the European ‘arthouse’ cinema always presented problems which linger on even today, a simple basic one being that of following the plot. This is not because the plot is necessarily complex or obscure, but, frequently, because of the way in which the characters are introduced and the action presented. When I grew up there was remarkably little serious criticism available (not much beyond the weekly reviews), and film studies courses in schools or universities were not even thought of. I was seventeen when I saw my first foreign language film (Torment/Frenzy [Hets, 1944], by Alf Sjöberg, from an early but already characteristic screenplay by Ingmar Bergman). I knew from the reviews that it would carry me far beyond anything I had seen previously, both in style and subject-matter, and my hand was trembling when I bought my ticket. I believe I had great difficulty following it (my first subtitles, not to mention extreme psychological disturbance). Fifty-five years later I still have the same problem when confronted with the films of Claire Denis (or Michael Haneke, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien…). The habits acquired during one’s formative years are never quite cast off; when I showed I Can’t Sleep to a graduate film group last year, my students corrected me over a number of details and pointed out many things I hadn’t noticed, although this was their first viewing of the film and I had already watched it three times. A classical Hollywood film – however intelligent and complex – is dependent on its surface level upon ‘popular’ appeal and its action must be fully comprehensible to a general audience at one viewing, covering all levels of educatedness from the illiterate to the university professor. (The same was of course true of the Elizabethan theatre – see, for example, the conventions of the soliloquy and the aside, wherein a character explains his/her motivation, reactions or thoughts to the audience). One of the cardinal rules was that every plot point must be doubly articulated, in both the action and the dialogue; another was the use of the cut to close-up that tells us ‘This character is important’; yet another, the presence of instantly recognizable stars or character actors. All of these Denis systematically denies us. It is a part of her great distinction that her films (and especially I Can’t Sleep, arguably her masterpiece to date) demand intense and continuous mental activity from the spectator: we are not to miss a single detail or to pass over a gesture or facial expression, even if it is shown in long shot within an ensemble, with no ‘helpful’ underlining and no 'spelling out' in dialogue.

It is the particular distinction of Denis’ cinema that sets it apart from – almost, indeed, in opposition to – the work of many of our most celebrated ‘arthouse’ directors: Bergman, for example, or Fellini or Antonioni. Their films are rooted in autobiography – not necessarily in any literal sense, but in terms of personal introspection – whereas Denis left autobiography behind with Chocolat, and even that film is notable for its poise and critical distance, its objectivity. Where Bergman or Fellini seems to be saying to us ‘Come with me and I’ll tell you my secrets, share my experiences – how I feel about things, my thoughts about existence’, Denis issues a very different invitation to the spectator: ‘Come with me and we’ll play a game, albeit a serious one. Let’s see how much you can notice in what I decide to show you, how you interpret what you see and hear, what connections you can make, how much can be explained and how much remains mysterious and uncertain, as so much in our lives remains unclear. I’ll allow you a certain leeway of interpretation, because I don’t always understand everything myself, not even my own creations, though I’ll be as precise as possible…’

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On the one hand, I agree with Wood that filmmakers such as Denis and Hou are difficult. In comparison to (say) popular cinema, the demands they place on us are sometimes of a different order. And yet, when I experience each new work by these filmmakers, the difficulty I feel in making sense of them is counterweighed by the feeling of deep pleasure I take in the very ambiguities, uncertainties and mysteries that make the work difficult. In the end, the overriding impression that lingers is not one of the work's difficulty but of its rewards, and the pleasures it brings.

But there is another, more personal and subjective sense in which cinema can be difficult -- when certain films or filmmakers pose problems especially for us as individual viewers, problems that don't seem universally shared by other film-lovers. For example, even though they strike me as very interesting, I find that I have to work hard to grapple with and 'tune into' the few films I've seen by Jacques Rivette. (Confession: I haven't seen Celine and Julie yet.) Many of the cinephiles and critics I admire are devotees of his films, and this leads me to believe that I've not yet found the secret 'key' to, the 'way into' his work. The films hold me at arm's length; I've not discovered how to 'align' with -- and resonate with them yet.

I recently read Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay on Rivette's films, "Work and Play in the House of Fiction." It helpfully begins with this epigraph from Whitney Balliett:

[Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz] causes earache the first time through, especially for those new to Coleman's music. The second time, its cacophony lessens and its complex balances and counter-balances begin to take effect. The third time, layer upon layer of pleasing configurations -- rhythmic, melodic, contrapuntal, tonal -- becomes visible. The fourth or fifth listening, one swims readily along, about ten feet down, breathing the music like air.

Jonathan adds:

Apart from the brief ensemble passages written by Coleman, there is no composer behind Free Jazz, hence no composition; the primary role of Coleman as leader is to assemble players and establish a point of departure for their improvising.

Rivette's role in Spectre is similar, with the crucial difference that he edits and rearranges the material afterward, assembling shots as well as players. And the assembly is one that works against the notion of continuity: sustained meaning, the province of an auteur, is deliberately withheld -- from the audience as well as the actors. [...] We watch actors playing at identity and meaning the way that children do, with many of the games leading to dead ends or stalemates, some exhausting themselves before they arrive anywhere, and still others creating solid roles and actions that dance briefly in the theater of the mind before dissolving into something else. Nothing remains fixed, and everything becomes ominous.

Although I haven't seen Spectre or Out 1, there are many interesting observations and insights here. I think I may have gathered some clues to help me with my next Rivette encounter.

I'm curious to hear from you: What do you think are some ways in which films can be "difficult"? And, subjectively speaking, are there certain films or filmmakers that you find difficult? And why? I'd love to hear your thoughts on anything related to this large subject.

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A few links:

-- Zach Campbell recalls an Andy Rector post on Joseph Losey's The Lawless (1950) and uses it to comment on the film. Also: Dave Kehr has an interesting review of the newly released Losey noir The Prowler (1951).

-- Jeffrey Sconce brings Christian Metz's film theory to Ida Lupino's Not Wanted (1949) in his post on the "quasi-diegetic insert".

-- From Ignatiy: the new episode of Ebert Presents; and his post "Cabinetry," on the Liam Neeson Euro-thriller genre.

-- Two Jonathan Rosenbaum-related items: a podcast of an interview he did with Colin Marshall; and a newly written introduction to his book on Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.

pic: Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep (1994)


Blogger Ekrem Serdar said...

This is a great one Girish.
Excited to read all the comments, as it's something I've been thinking about too, especially on the individual level.
I actually wrote about a feeling that might be similar (while writing about Ponyo):

"Did you know that Miyazaki also had a regular anime series? It was named Future Boy Conan. I remember seeing it on German TV when I was younger. It was about two children in a post-apocalyptic water world. I remember being very bored by it, unable to grasp it, understand it, unable to stop thinking about it, so much so that even though I never followed the show even then, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Maybe I’m trying to describe the word mystery, but that’s not satisfactory either. It’s a feeling that has happened to me again and again with some things and I’m trying to be more attentive of it, as it tends to tell me of works that I will end up caring for deeply or at least a way of thinking that feels right. It happened to me the first time I watched Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria after a diet of only contemporary blockbusters through my life, and it happened recently with Weeserakathul’s Syndromes and a Century and some of the experimental films I’ve seen. Maybe It’s a step towards what I need to be right, a moment of learning foretold."

I like your use of the word key; perhaps even the recognition of that there is a lock is vital,(which perhaps sounds more forbidding then it is.) That being said, I don't know if the key or lock exists for films you're not really entranced by.

I recently had a great viewing(s) (fell asleep, rewatched it, fell asleep, rewatched it) of "Blissfully Yours" that made me really excited to go back to Syndromes and also excited about his other work too!

February 23, 2011 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

My annoyingly academic tendency is to go after the term "difficult" and not to just answer the question ... but it does seem to me that the notion of a difficult film is in large part defined by what the film is not -- "easy" to follow as a narrative rather than baffling, diverting or entertaining rather than demanding or requiring special concentration, allowing identification rather than alienation. In short, the qualities that are commonly used to summarize a Hollywood film (good or bad) are the opposite of difficult. In some very general sense, no Hollywood film is (or should be) difficult. Difficult films are thus from the realms of experimental and art cinema, so that (going beyond Hollywood) popular films are not difficult films, a sort of tautology, but one that I think fits the general view.

Again, these categorizations don't worry much about quality. A difficult film might be great or awful, and an "easy" film might be either as well. My point again is that the difficult film is only defined by its contrast to a norm understood to be easy. Of course canons of taste are then prone to elevate the artistic difficult above the commercial easy, affiliating difficult films with certain kinds of intellectual pleasure (even veering toward smug self-satisfaction) and easy, popular films with more basic (even vulgar) pleasures. I know, this is all familiar stuff, but I'm trying to think through what the claim of difficult implies is not the case as much as what it might capture directly.

Girish, you allow for personal responses (as would Robin Wood), but insofar as they aren't "easy" (types of) films for anyone, aren't directors like Hou, Godard, Tarr, Rivette, etc. the creators of difficult films for virtually all of their potential audiences. Of course, they will have their followers, who are especially attuned to or accepting of their techniques, but does even that awareness and receptivity tilt a film away from difficulty? Isn't part of the intellectual pleasure of such films the mastery (or illusion of mastery) of their difficulty, which is being affirmed but not denied or reduced? Aren't we proud of having experienced a difficult text, knowing that many will balk or simply won't endure a difficult text (even a film that is difficult in large part because it is unusually long)?

Not very coherent (or difficult!) thoughts, but I'm glad to get a ball rolling. I'm also starting to think of filmmakers I find difficult only because I dislike them, but not because their films post narrative or formal difficulties -- just because I have to (or can't) get past my negative response.

February 23, 2011 4:43 PM  
Anonymous Trevor said...

I must say that, for me, the examples of Tarkovsky, Hou, and Denis (three of my very favorite filmmakers) never seem "difficult" to me because I'm so immersed in the worlds they create that the task before me, to observe, to pay attention, is quite simple and enjoyable. I know some people must find the films these three make very "difficult," but I've never experienced that exactly. Their styles are very compatible with what draws me to the cinema in the first place, the act of looking. In fact, I often think of how strange it is that a film such as Stalker might be perceived by someone as difficult or impenetrable when it's just so immersive; it grips your attention and holds it to the end.

This leads me to believe that partly, it's a matter of our sensitivities and of what resonates with us. But there are some filmmakers who I do find "difficult" in perhaps the way others find Tarkovsky, Hou, or Denis. I'm thinking of Godard, on the one hand, and Bresson on the other hand. Godard's films seem difficult precisely because they resist immersion in a hyper-sensory experience as with, say, Denis. I never slip into a Godard film, even though I'm often engaged and attentive, because they seem like puzzles to me. There's something about a Godard film that feels incomplete without our active mental and intellectual engagement, the process of putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

In another way, I would say that Bresson is difficult because his style is like a language spoken by almost no one else; you have to learn it before you can follow his films properly. I think everyone should have their moment in grappling with Bresson when his style (especially his way with actors) should frustrate and irritate you, because this is part of the process of shedding your own ideas about cinema and coming to understand Bresson's. But then, part of me questions how much what Bresson is doing is somehow "unnatural" and not just unconventional. Whatever the case may be, I now cherish and love (and not just admire intellectually) some of Bresson's films as much as those of any other director.

So I don't know, exactly, if Godard and Bresson are somehow more inherently "difficult" or if it's just a matter of... not taste but something else. I often think about these different reactions and compatibilities in terms of a metaphor with the acoustic phenomenon of "sympathetic resonance." Sometimes, a part of ourselves just comes to life when near a certain creative presence. And in the same way, this would seem to make certain filmmakers just more "difficult" for us, beyond anything having to do with our knowledge or some other form of preparedness.

February 23, 2011 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Andy said...

I think you've identified two categories of difficult: 1) films that are hard to follow, and 2) films with meanings/arguments that are hard to grasp.

You know you've encountered a DF-1 because it requires more work and/or a bigger investment (of time, generally, but this also might describe films like Harry Smith's Mahagonny that are supposed to be shown a certain way) than most films and you know you're probably missing things, but it's pleasurable anyway and you feel like you're getting the gist of it. The presence of a DF-2, on the other hand, is signaled by frustration: I should like this (based on what I've read or heard or on a feeling I have), but I don't.

What's interesting is that the distinction between a DF-2 and a "bad" film is largely external to the film.

Re: DF-1s, unlike Mr. Wood, I grew up with films that are difficult to follow. It is also true that any film I am able to see one time will generally be available for a second, third, fourth viewing. As a result, I tend to regard a first viewing of a film as something akin to a reconnaissance mission: is this a film I will want to return to later? If so, what do I want to pay closer attention to next time? Let me sketch a rough map of the terrain. Etc. I expect that I will not fully understand what happened in a good film after one viewing, and, in fact, this might even factor into my understanding of what a good film is.

Re: DF-2s, I will sometimes see a "great" film like Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (to cite as an example I film I watched recently) that doesn't click with me. But instead of trying to figure out why, I just say "I'll come back to this later." I think this is due in part to the fact that there has always been a great deal of serious criticism available to me: someone, somewhere has surely explained what the deal is with this film, and rather than devote 2+ hours to watching it again, I'll just scan a bunch of books, articles, whatever about Tarkovsky sometime. There's no rush.

I worry sometimes that these two tendencies of mine represent a shortcoming or a limitation of my approach to films.

February 23, 2011 5:03 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I would distinguish difficult films that are a pleasure to follow and difficult films that are a pain to follow (which might simply mean films I like vs. films I don't like). But what I meant to say is that there are filmmakers who make films that I perceive as being "difficult" but that I seek out specifically because of that. Examples would include Tarkovsky, Tarr, Juraj Herz, or Keisuke Kinoshita (who I am currently discovering). These are all directors who's work challenge me intellectually in a very positive way.

The other category is difficult films that don't provide that same intellectual pleasure, for whatever reason that might be (and I am not always sure what the reason is). One example is Kiarostami. Not one single movie of his have I enjoyed and I found them all to be difficult.

Having written that, it just made me think of the following: maybe "difficult" films, for me personally, are films I don't yet have the "key" for. Difficult films that I do enjoy are maybe not "difficult" anymore, but "challenging" or something to that effect.

To speak more specifically about Hou, I found "Millenium Mambo" very enjoyable (while being arguably difficult", while I had a hard time with "City of Sadness". Makes me think that "keys" to filmmakers do not exist. We can only have the key to individual films. Or maybe personal preference/mental state at the time of the viewing etc. play a role as well in this context.

As a last thought, I will say this: to decipher a "difficult" film for the first time is a truly cathartic experience. It is one of the reasons why I love movies and often seek out the "difficult" ones.

Great subject and I'm very curious to read some more answers.

February 23, 2011 5:46 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I wish Wood had explained what it was that his students had understood about I Can't Sleep that he had missed.

There are several different elements that might make a film difficult. For whatever reasons, I have had no problems with Rivette.

It took me a couple of films by Mizoguchi before I really started to like his work.

On the other hand, I saw what is considered a classic Thai movie, Money, Money, Money, and was baffled as to the esteem given to that film. Is my difficulty with that film based on culture, or other reasons?

February 23, 2011 7:51 PM  
Anonymous Tucker said...

Sometimes I wonder if "easy" films are not really so easy as that they have their difficulties hidden. I suppose the hiding could be either intentional or unintentional.

I do not know Denis' films that well, but there are a number of her class lectures on youtube from

Also, I remember seeing the original uncut version of Rivette's "La Belle Noiseuse" in the theatre (without breaks!) and I was blown away. I can see that it would be called a difficult film, but I did not feel as though I was working at understanding it as much as letting it happen to me. It becomes much more than a narrative; it is an experience that works like a long blank verse poem or a lengthy road trip. The shorter version for television was "easier" but disappointing.

February 23, 2011 8:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Victor Morton has been unsuccessfully trying to post a comment here. Not sure why Blogger has not been letting him, so I'm posting it here for him:


I wrote some thoughts on my site about boredom in the context of POLICE, ADJECTIVE, I film I found gripping while being unable to deny that it is boring. Money quote, I think:

"I think what distinguishes the [boring films] I like from the ones I don’t — and obviously there’s exceptions — is that however slow the first list is, there’s usually something that I can call 'tension' running through them. And in the right hands, slowness of pace can even heighten a sense of unease or uncertainty. ...
"In every case, there has been something for me to hang my hat on through the longueurs. I need that; I don’t want what one of my buds calls 'space to wander around in a movie' (you’re the artist — I want to see what YOU have done). Boredom works as part of a system of contrasts, not as a free-standing element, or the 'main event.' Or to put it another way, the fact that silences can be the most deafening music doesn’t mean that you need to pay any attention to 4’33″ or critics who fall for it.""

February 23, 2011 9:12 PM  
Blogger JeanRZEJ said...

I think the most important thing is to define the term 'difficult'. There seem to be a great many different uses of the term, sometimes entirely contradictory. I'll try to list a few: a.) Difficult to appreciate (simple: like/dislike) b.) Difficult to rectify with expectations (for example: when someone attempts to interpret a film where interpretations are not 'written' in the text) c.) Difficult to interpret (with the implicit assumption that there is something to interpret) d.) Difficult to parse (dense)

Now, each of these varies wildly from person to person based on education, experience, expectations, preferences, brain function, approach, and any other innumerable factors. I think Andy's categorizations are a bit hazy: It is often impossible to determine whether a film's meanings/arguments are difficult to interpret or whether there is simply nothing to interpret. This happened a lot with Dogtooth: Because the family is a society, and a closed one, people spent a great deal of energy relating it to North Korea. I think this is simply a matter of difficulties arising from the fortitude of windmills. The expectation of interpretable content seems to be a widespread one, and I know I was taught to expect to find these essential elements inside literature in school, just like I was taught through experience to expect a comprehensible plotline, etc. All of these methods of analysis are merely elements invented to fit on top of existing works, however, so they should only be used when applicable and new methods should be sought or invented where helpful. This is, I think, the main role of criticism: To avoid the misuse of and create usable methods of appreciating films.

Here's the overall breakdown: If a film is difficult to appreciate - there may be nothing to appreciate for some people. To use the term 'difficult' in this sense may be misleading, as a more useful term is 'don't appreciate'. There is no film that is guaranteed to work for every person, so to simply say a film is 'difficult' when it is a lost cause seems misleading. I don't find it difficult to fly, I simply can't. This is highly relative to experience, though, as one person may find slow films intractable at one point and find them rapturous a year or two later. This should be the last step, but I think it's of most importance to not impose any universal idea of 'richness' on subjective experience. Some films simply aren't for everyone at every point in their life. Secondly, if a film is difficult to appreciate it must be determined whether the approach is faulty. Trying to fly by flapping one's arms doesn't help - wings and propulsion work better. Finally, if a film is able to be interpreted or able to be followed and simply requires effort, then I would say it is a truly difficult film, in that it requires effort and rewards effort. This ties into the second point, as well, as an ever-broadening application of methods can often reap ever greater rewards, and it is simply impossible to take every rewarding viewpoint all at once. Some 'easy' films reward multiple viewpoints, as well. I don't think the initial ease matters, in the end, to me. Net result matters far more than initial impression. I prefer a loving marriage to a glowing infatuation. As for those films which are initially 'easy' and end in ugly divorces - that is the price of ease.

February 24, 2011 2:53 AM  
Blogger JeanRZEJ said...

The naivety of believing every film is equally appreciable to every person has its natural and equally silly counterpoint in thinking that one's own viewpoint is universally correct and all who oppose it are simply 'duped' into delusion: 'the fact that silences can be the most deafening music doesn’t mean that you need to pay any attention to 4’33″ or critics who fall for it.' Silly.

February 24, 2011 2:57 AM  
Anonymous Eric Arima said...

There is also a more practical category of difficult films, which is difficult to watch due to material circumstances like availability (Can I see it?), accessibility (Can I afford it?), and runtime (Do I have time to watch it?), to name a few. Last fall I watched, The Traveling Players for the first and second time. Based on the absence of a review in the Reader archives, I don’t think this has ever screened in Chicago and there is no widely available DVD edition (not counting New Star’s +$30 edition). I added the VHS to my Facets queue; a tape came in the mail and after a few days, maybe a week, knowing its runtime was 222 minutes, when I had time to watch it I put the tape in to find that it was tape 2 of 2. A few days later, tape 1 arrived, but it would be weeks before I’d have time to watch it.

Overcoming circumstance first and then later the cinematic difficulties (for instance keeping up with the shifts in the chronology of a country’s history about which I know very little), did directly correlate to the amount of pleasure I got out of the movie (in this case, increased effort = increased enjoyment).

February 24, 2011 5:58 AM  
Anonymous Stephen said...


A very well written post as it refuses to patronise those who can't 'align' with difficult cinema as well as refusing to elevate it simply because it can make demands.

I find a film that requires attention can become very easy (if not easier than 'non-difficult' cinema) once its spell or its atmosphere has been cast. If you have no immediate "in" via more visceral emans, the kind of key you refer to a propos of Rivette (whose films I find refreshingly and wonderfully easy to watch), then it's a struggle.

Due to the fact that plot points are thinner on the ground, atmosphere and rhythm become more important - to be seduced.

I find it harder to follow popular cinema with many characters and fast-moving action because the relationships between them are altered so quickly.

A couple of points on difficult cinema: I think many critics and general viewers try too hard to see intellectual depth in films that are 'slow' and therefore they are made difficult (and hence, perhaps, rewarding) by the expectation/pretense.

I think also that we are not used, in cinemas, to studying people as we do outside in the real world. Hou Hsiao Hsien's films should be looked at and studied like any scene in our lives - given full attention. Much of cinema can be lazy - so maybe we should look at it as normal and easy cinema.

February 24, 2011 7:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Girish, It is a very interesting but "difficult" issue you raise. On first thought, I would say that a "difficult film" would be something different from what we are accustomed to watch. But then, I recall one of the very first Japanese films I ever saw, my first Mizoguchi, which captured me from the first shot and seemed to me so evident, and so evidently clear I had not the slightest difficulty to follow "Ugetsu monogatari", which, on reflection, is objectively a very complex movie. I also recall watching three
times "Gertrud" on its first day of showing, not because I wanted to understand it, but because I guessed it would not last for long in the theatre, and I had been inmensely moved since the first viewing. Then, at night, as I walked home, I reflected that was not a movie I would recommend to everybody (and, in fact, most people found it boring, slow, cold, hard to grasp, old-fashioned), so that I somehow understood it was a "difficult film" for most people. I found quite easy (as opposite to difficult) "Pierrot le fou" or "Alphaville" the first time I saw them, while I find always worrying all of Godard's films since the '80s. They interest me very much, most of them I like a lot, but I need to watch them at least two or three times before I really know what they are about, what may they mean, and I'm never sure I have wholly grasped them, ever. Which is not, in my mind, a negative thing. They remain open.
And then, I discover than a lot of very "normal" films, quite the things we can be most used to, seem so ordinary, so common, so standard, that it is difficult to explain (even to ourselves, not to mention to others) why we like them so much. I'd mention as a perfect example Allan Dwan's unpretentious genre movies, which I find quite extraordinary, but whose greatness remains often as hidden as Poe's purloined letter.
So I'm afraid films are "difficult" for mainly subjective reasons, not only cultural but even based on circumstances (I doubt you can enjoy a Bresson movie if you arrive at the theater just when it's starting, breathless after running from the subway for three blocks, fearing you'll be late) or character affinities which prevent you from "connecting" or help you to "syntonize" with any particular film or with a filmmaker in general. I have no problem with Claire Denis, I find great obstacles blocking my way to a Tarkovskií movie.
Miguel Marías

February 24, 2011 7:47 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone, for these great, stimulating comments! So much to think about here.

I'm in class till 9 PM this evening, but will be able to respond by tomorrow morning. Thanks again.

February 24, 2011 10:10 AM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

Difficult films make you work. Other films satisfy expectations. In that sense there's probably only two types of film. Of course we can debate which is more worthy.

February 24, 2011 8:07 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

That seems a tad simple, Bobby. Another way of approaching it might get us slightly further: "Difficult" films make you work in ways you don't expect to, whereas films you don't consider difficult make you work in ways you're familiar with (though of course some films don't make you work at all ). Which isn't quite the same thing.

February 24, 2011 10:14 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

I think "non-difficult" films don't make you work at all. Cinema-going is de facto passive action. All films should be "difficult" because that means there is something new within them. "Difficult" films wake you up, in a sense.

February 25, 2011 6:15 AM  
Anonymous Dave Johnson said...

Fascinating post and responses, Girish. I wonder if we might also think about the act of writing here as a way for a critic to explore and even dramatize the ease and difficulty of an encounter with a given film. Writing often makes an “easy” film more strange, or, by the same token, allows readers an entrance into something more “difficult.” So much of the cinephilic writings of recent years seem to draw on both impulses, deriving at least in part from Modernist ideas about aesthetic experiences as a way to jar oneself from one’s conceptual habits (eg Russian Formalists’ defamiliarization). The critical response thus becomes an extended dialogue with film and with viewer, attempting to ease certain aspects while allowing for, and even heightening, the difficulty of others.

February 25, 2011 9:04 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all! These responses are so rich -- they bear careful re-reading.

A question occurs to me: Is it really fair and accurate to think of all popular cinema in a static and essentialist way as "easy"? I know we often do this, but I think a popular film's difficulty can be "released" in the process of its encounter with tools and critical-interpretive paradigms (e.g. psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, and so forth). When Robin Wood performs a rich, 30-page psychoanalytic reading of MARNIE, he shows us what a "difficult" and complex film it truly is. (I will admit here that MARNIE is not a typical popular film, and further, as Joe McElhaney has convincingly demonstrated in his book THE DEATH OF CLASSICAL CINEMA, that it is a work very much marked by modernist ideas of cinema.) Still, I wonder if the difficulty of a popular film is somewhat invisible, and only becomes manifest when a critic (as Dave says above) dramatizes its difficulties by writing about it in a way that makes familiar aspects of the film strange, mysterious or revelatory. In other words, perhaps we are underestimating and taking for granted the hidden difficulties of popular cinema.

February 26, 2011 1:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Stephen writes: "I find it harder to follow popular cinema with many characters and fast-moving action because the relationships between them are altered so quickly."

I can relate to this. In the early days of my filmgoing, in my teens, I think I was overly focused on narrative and plot details, and prided myself on putting all the narrative pieces together and obtaining a clear picture of all character relationships -- as if the film were a narrative/character "puzzle" waiting to be solved.

But once I started to become interested in a broader scope of films (including art cinema and experimental film), I began focusing much less exclusively on plot/character mechanics. Other aspects of a film -- formal/stylistic, for example -- more and more began claiming my attention.

This means that sometimes, a fast-paced narrative abundant with incident and frequently shifting character relationships can often pose difficulties for me because I'm less completely absorbed by narrative and dialogue than I once used to be.

An example: I just watched an episode of LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT the other day and its breakneck narrative pace, rapid back-and-forth dialogue and non-stop dense exposition made my head hurt -- and no Hou, Denis or Tarkovsky film has ever managed to do that!

February 26, 2011 2:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr has a new book coming out from University of Chicago Press. It's called When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade. The Museum of the Moving Image in NYC is running a small series of films selected by him.

February 26, 2011 2:10 PM  
Blogger Gregory said...

I’ll give you difficult: After an argument with my fiancee, we decide to relax and see a movie in a theater (a rare treat). There are two problems with this: 1) for some perverse reason, we choose District 9, and 2) we see it at the Regal Cinemas Jack London multiplex in Oakland (where we live). So, with a hangover from bickering, we subject ourselves not only to the visual and aural assault of a ham-fisted apartheid allegory tricked out as science fiction satire, but also the ubiquitous Oakland attendee who sits in the rear of the theater blithely talking on her cell phone in a piercing voice that actually competes with and distracts from the toxic mayhem on the screen. I finally turn around and tell her to “shut the fuck up.” This serves as a trigger for another theater patron a few seats away (we were at a matinee with few patrons), who echoes my sentiments with equal candor. Undaunted, the woman on her cell phone screams at us, trumping our profanity with a few choice racial slurs. This, in turn, causes the other theater patron to stomp up the aisle stairs in order to meet her challenge, but after a brief stand-off, the woman leaves, showering threats of physical violence upon us that, in their richly imagined detail, rival the CGI gore onscreen that by now seems only to be the fevered projections of our misery. I leave with my partner shortly after, having lost the thread of my existence as well as the plot of the film. I would rather watch a five-hour loop of the drunken dancing scene in Satantango.

February 26, 2011 3:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Very thoughtful of Jonathan Rosenbaum to post today in its entirety his essay on Jacques Rivette, "Work and Play in the House of Fiction", which I quoted in my post. I've also edited my post to include a clickable link to it. (Thanks, Jonathan!)

February 26, 2011 6:51 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

I don't think all popular cinema is "easy" but I think a large part of its popularity is its "ease" of assimilation.

Yes, we can always over-read a film and make it complex. Does that mean it is really "difficult" or are we just adding layers of our own?

The difficulty of a popular film is not invisible. Maybe the complex layers of meaning are. But neither discovering those layers nor the fact that they exist make the film "difficult". I think we're conflating terms.

"Marnie" is not a difficult film. In fact, I think Hitch's cinema is conceived in opposition to notions of difficulty. That does not mean his cinema is not rich or multi-layered.

February 26, 2011 8:43 PM  
Blogger JeanRZEJ said...

If I'm using my previous definition of 'difficult' - that being a film where effort to transcend the superficial is rewarded - then there is no reason why popular, or even easy, cinema is excluded. I think it is the goal of studios to make easy films, and it is often the goal of filmmakers working within these studios to make films which are both easy and difficult - they are immediately enjoyable and also reward further thought. It's similar to the way filmmakers have attempted to avoid censors by constructing difficult films that appear on the surface to be simple and agreeable to censors. In the modern case the censor, more effective than ever before in history, is commerce. I agree with you that some people take for granted the hidden difficulties of popular cinema, through whatever avenue, but luckily those people that are quick to dismiss something superficially also tend to be quick to give something credit once a trusted source gives his assent. There is, of late, a massive wave of Tony Scott reconsideration sweeping the internet. I don't know its progenitor, but I doubt it's coincidental. In my experience, open minded people are less swayed by these waves and more likely to find interesting elements in popular films. Still, I don't think it's the best investment of time to go fishing at the local multiplex for hidden difficult films that are simultaneously rewarding. It's not a matter of total absence but more of poor likelihood.

If we take another definition of difficult as films which are the antithesis of easy, as in immediately off-putting but on reflection or consideration of subtext/structure/implication/etc. become rewarding then I would say that their presence in the popular cinema is exceedingly rare, and probably only occurs when the filmmaker has a certain amount of clout. There are innumerable films which are easy, enjoyable, and even rewardingly difficult that are shoved under the rug these days, it's difficult to get tens of millions for marketing for any film. If Nolan covertly turned his newest Batman film into a more ponderous and esoteric remake of Stalker, for instance, I think it would do good business (for a short time). The butler is the Stalker, obviously. Still, it doesn't seem common or likely.

February 27, 2011 1:51 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I think the "difficulty" of a film is entirely dependent on personal experience and expectations. What we are familiar with we grasp quickly; what we are unfamiliar with will challenge us. Consider, for example, how difficult it is for many lay-film goers to watch silent films, though a viewer in the silent era would be seeing what we consider popcorn cinema today.

I know that, personally, I first became interested in cinema because I discovered films which challenged. After watching a particularly difficult film, it would be on my mind for days as I puzzled it out. But today, thousands of films later, there are very few films which pose any difficulty for me, and I am more often than not bored during my diminishing film outings.

So, to respond to your question, I do not think there is anything particular within a film that makes it "difficult"; it is rather entirely within ourselves.

February 27, 2011 10:27 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

I hope I can be forgiven for bringing up a project I was involved in, especially since it has almost nothing to do with the matter at hand, but it should be of considerable interest to many people here: a complete version of Serge Daney, itinéraire d'un ciné-fils, with English subtitles, is now online on vimeo. This is a three-hour interview Serge Daney conducted a few months before his death with the sociologist Regis Debray. If you follow Serge Daney in English, he's been linking to it for the past few weeks, and now the whole thing is up, just look for "Journey of a cine-son". We've included a glossary explaining French terms and names that might not be familiar, which you can download from the vimeo page.
Link to the prologue:

Of course, it's only online for the subtitles, so if you're reading this but understand French, you should get the Editions Montparnasse DVD.

Back to the matter at hand: I'd have to agree with Ian, since he's confirming what I'd initially suggested: the "difficulty" of a film depends on whether you're used to working the way it makes you work. To come back to the Marnie example: if, Bobby, you consider it easy, this implies you don't think Marnie makes you work. Are we therefore to understand that teasing out the complexities (since you acknowledge they're there) on the thematic, formal etc. level is not work of a critical sort? I'd rather argue it's work in a format "classical" cinema (maybe as defamiliarized in ways Dave helpfully identifies) has made us used to.

February 28, 2011 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Going back to Girish's point with MARNIE (via Robin Wood) as his example: I don't know that I would call what indeed can be found -- somewhat surprisingly, sometimes with effort -- in popular cinema "difficulty." I'd make the distinction of "complexity." Other exemplary demonstrations of this might be Raymond Bellour's analysis of a short, often barely noticed sequence from THE BIG SLEEP in terms of its intricate pattern of rhymes and repetitions, or Thierry Kuntzel's elaborate analysis of the credit sequence of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. Neither film is revealed to be difficult -- both remain "welcoming," easy to enjoy films: but each becomes a film of enormous complexity and rich meaning through these critical acts. So what I'm seeking is a distinction between difficult and complex, and allowing that a film might be "easy" AND "complex" though we often treat those as incompatible terms. Kuntzel's point was sort of a "genius of the system" claim: even the most banal Hollywood film might be the result of many intersecting decisions and operations, or have a complex form despite what appears to be its lack of significant meaning.

February 28, 2011 4:47 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Oops -- Anonymous is me: just hit the wrong button!

February 28, 2011 4:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Corey, you make a compelling argument for your distinction...

Nathan, thanks so much for posting that here. I will also put the link in my next post -- and I look forward to watching the film.

Ian, like Nathan, I'm inclined to agree with your proposition.

February 28, 2011 9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think once you have the context of the film, and that is where a difficult film can be rewarding - it will force you to look closer into the context of it, and will demand that you know something about the cultural background, to have a better opinion on the subject.

With Tarkovsky, I never felt that difficulty, but perhaps this is because he works even when one doesn't completely know the context.

Somebody ( I forget the name) Mentioned that Great Art has the capacity to move even people who may not be intellectually very strong, because Great Art will have both the qualities of intellect and emotion. Hollywood films in general kill the intelligence - and they seem to be intelligent only in a limited way - will not work without their huge production support and stars, and concentrate only on the emotion - but an Art film may be more tricky - because one needs to be careful , esp in the 20th century - of what that film is really for. Godard hence becomes problematic! I used to love his work a lot, but I am rethinking about him now. Not that I have come to believe him as a fraudster, but I am more cautious.

March 14, 2011 12:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hello, all! I've been traveling of late, but will get a chance to put up a post next weekend. Take care, and see you then!

March 20, 2011 6:16 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Whoa! I can't believe I forgot to come back to this post which I bookmarked as soon as you posted, Girish.

A very important post. For me, the most difficult ones are the most straightforward, popular ones. These are the films that make me go back to the fundamentals - re-learning as opposed to "learning" that many art films prompt - and ask myself questions like: "Why did I laugh there?" or "what is that trying to conceal or pass off as" or simply, "Why this works so well?"

As you said elsewhere, there's so much waiting to be discovered even in the simplest works of art.

Thanks and Cheers!

March 21, 2011 3:01 PM  
Blogger gcgiles said...

Responding to myself here: regarding the Oakland anecdote above, posted weeks earlier, it was not meant as self-indulgent topic deflation or attention-grabbing rant; my point, I suppose, was that experiences like these are invariably “difficult” to negotiate because—whether we are being adrenalized by an action- and gore-dependent film, or attempting to maintain self-respect in the midst of aggressive personalities—particularly those among us who are part of the 18-34 demographic too often attempt to connect the visceral cheap thrill of a District 9 with quondam life, which, by sad comparison, offers most of its perils and thrills through interpersonal communication: this provokes—for those of us who are employed—the most anxiety in our American lives (I am, of course, not speaking for those of you who are not American, although perhaps the same problem exists elsewhere). To overlay the paranoid schizophrenia of a Green Zone, a District 9, an Inception, or even/especially a Just Go with It upon the complex patterns of professional and casual interaction not only deceptively romanticizes and needlessly terrorizes those interactions involved in our mostly mundane lives, but it also mistakenly perceives a model in a trite pop-culture confection that has nothing more than a shrill voice with which to communicate.

This was not always the case with pop culture films, but it mostly is now.

By comparison, a “difficult” film like Satantango, La belle noiseuse, Goodbye, South, Goodbye, or even Warhol’s Empire resists that penumbra of anxiety by cupping it with sustained quiet or a “plotless” environment where those expectations of violence and mayhem are disappointed. It is difficult to sit there and not “work at it” (to borrow a previous comment’s phrase) when we habitually gird ourselves against an assault we are desperate to connect to our lives. It is difficult to come away from a film that doesn’t immediately inject itself into our fight-or-flight systems, a viewing experience that requires no period of assimilation afterward because the pyrotechnics and broad gestures have infected us before we can think straight.

I’m preaching to the choir, but also attempting to work with Girish’s contention that plot- and thrill-driven narratives are difficult in their own pernicious ways. Most of us here, I would assume, only find the more-typically-defined “difficult” films difficult in the aftermath, when we are vaguely disconcerted by a new experience and often turn to pen and paper, or keyboard and monitor, in order to process those more exquisite feelings into something articulate. This, I would argue, is a healthy deployment of the brain.

If the American zeitgeist were different, then many of us who cannot tolerate more thoughtful, stranger, and subtler cinema (trying here to avoid the word “difficult”) would feel right at home—or “strange at home,” to quote the beleaguered Harold Bloom—in the presence of a cinematic Other. Oddly enough, your average American film viewer has become addicted to what I would term the “difficult”: explosive, humiliating, and oppressive effects hung like rotten bunting on a flimsy scaffold.

I prefer—more than my contagious, infantile anger against the cell phone user (described above)—my fiancée’s reaction to the encounter in the multiplex: she quietly walked out of the theater and requested a refund.

March 24, 2011 6:05 PM  
Blogger D said...

I guess am late for a comment but anyway - great post Girish :)
I surmise, a film become difficult only when the viewer is not accustomed with the style of the film making. Perhaps it is a learning process to get accustomed with movies beyond hollywood of bollywood. Personally, I never had problems with tarkovsky, tarr, denis, or tsai ming. Perhaps I already have the "key" :)

In the other hand I feel pedro costa's films are very challenging.

April 09, 2011 10:16 PM  

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