What I Risk Being Bored For

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-08-31 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

I have, as far as I can recall, only ever walked out of two movies that I paid to see in a theater. The first was Big Trouble — no, not the Tim Allen movie (which is actually decently funny), but the 1986 Peter Falk/Alan Arkin movie, now almost entirely forgotten, and blissfully so. I sat through 40 minutes of this thing, which felt like it had been pasted together entirely from rushed first takes of scenes, before deciding the walls in the theater bathroom looked more interesting. The other was Crash — no, not the David Cronenberg adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel, but the 2004 Best Picture winner that for me was further evidence of how most Best Picture Oscars have shelf lives comparable to room-temperature milk. I didn't walk out of The English Patient, but only because I saw it at home — I sat through a little over an hour of that solemn twaddle parade before turning it off. And I ended up going back and rewatching what I didn't see of Crash when I came across it on TV one night, and it confirmed that I had indeed spared myself the cinematic equivalent of a case of food poisoning.

For the most part, though, I don't walk out of something I took the trouble to get out of the house to see. I'm picky enough about what I see in a theater to generally ensure I'm seeing something I'm at least curious enough about to finish. Very rarely do I bail from something I have already made an initial and sizable commitment to. I stay through mostly to be able to say my sense of the thing is valid.

But books are a different case, and I don't know if that's because of the form factor or because I've tried to read far more books in my time than I have tried to watch films. I bail on books more aggressively now than I used to, because I somehow feel far more acutely how even an only mediocre book (as opposed to a flat-out bad one) is not a worthy investment of my time. I feel more these days that given the choice between a middling or bad book, or no book at all, I'll take no book at all.

Most mainstream genre fiction that gets recommended to me isn't bad, but it's also rarely that distinguished, either. I don't have a problem with it, but I also don't go out of my way for it. And I suspect that's just a by-product of the way publishing is a business with excruciatingly small profit margins, so the smart thing to do is to produce things that are incrementally different from what was successful last season and hope they, too, are successful. But I'm also not a fan of the compulsive strangeness of much small-press work, precisely because it feels, well, compulsive. Of all the books published in a given year, there's maybe a handful that stand out or seem likely to survive, and I'm not sure there's any formula for conjuring up such things. One just has to hunt and peck.

Here's a perverse thought experiment. I sometimes wonder if I would find more interesting things in a world where more outright awful things ended up getting published by big publishers, instead of just festering in the self-published margins. At least then there would be some risk-taking going on, and some of those risks might actually pay off. Most of what comes along that's bad is not bad in the way that roots you to the spot and makes you wonder with morbid fascination how anything like this could possibly have seemed like a good idea. It's just bad in a way that's trite and obvious and nonthreatening, and ... dull. It doesn't even inspire you to try and make a better version of it out of spite. It just makes you want to go find something else.

That said, I don't seek out bad things for the sake of morbid pleasure. I lost interest in MST3K some time back and haven't regained it, in big part because the reissue programs by boutique video labels have ensured that all the genuinely good obscurities of past years can now find an audience, so why deliberately seek out things I know are junk, when my time is precious enough? Sometimes you can make a fascinating case study out of the making of such projects (e.g., The Room), but again, that's orthogonal to the actual experience of watching the film itself, which leaves me enervated. Maybe this has something to do with the amount of wretched, amateurish work I exposed myself to from would-be filmmakers when I was younger. But I have never been able to access the perverse pleasure of watching a bad movie. I just end up feeling angry and unhappy for everyone involved, and I want to go do something else.

So for the most part, I hunt and peck, and try to direct my attention to things that don't benefit from being of the moment. The stuff that really seems worth my time always seems slightly outside of time. A lot of the material from the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, feels far more immediate and relevant than ever. Ditto work by Eastern Europeans after WWII. And so when I hunt and peck, I find lovely things rolling up at my feet. The reissues of all the formerly censored works of the Brothers Strugatsky, for instance, I can't recommend enough. Ditto the proper retranslation of Lem's Solaris, or anthologies of the Coffin Ed/Gravedigger Jones Harlem novels, or NYRB reissuing gems like Tun-huang. For any one of those books I would risk being bored by ten more.

Tags: movies