Art that's worth the effort
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was just trying to convince a co-worker to watch Parks And Recreation. She said she’d tried watching it when it first aired, but found the characters too broad and manic, and stopped watching. “It totally evens out and takes off in the second season,” I offered, but it’s necessary to watch the first episodes to understand the characters and their intentions. Maybe a better example: I felt the same way about The Wire when I first watched it. There’s so much setup and so many characters to introduce that the first three to five episodes of season one are a slog at best. But the time invested in these slow, exposition-heavy episodes is well spent, as the payoff for the rest of the series is exponential.
So my question is: What TV show, book, movie, etc. did you find slow or difficult at first, but were eventually rewarded handsomely for your patience? —Jonathan
The book that always comes to my mind for this kind of question is Watership Down, which I tackled numerous times as a kid, always bogging down in the early section where the rabbits are lost in the woods and considering turning back. For some reason, I always found that preposterously dull, and I kept getting that far and putting the book down. Then I saw the movie and realized how much story was waiting on the other side of that momentary slow patch, and I tore through the novel in no time, and it became one of my all-time favorites. Re-reading it again recently, I couldn’t help but notice that the endless dreary section that stymied me as a kid is basically just a few pages long. To this day, I don’t know what about it seemed so insurmountable. More recently, I periodically stalled out throughout the middle section of Neal Stephenson’s 960-page novel Anathem, which didn’t seem as directed as the hundreds of pages of monastery-life setup that preceded it—but it turned out that was just because I couldn’t see where the book was going. Once I finally hit a stride with it and started to understand what Stephenson was doing, I wound up finishing the last third in a quarter of the time the middle third took me. One of these days, I’m going to re-read the whole thing, and I’m betting that middle passage is a lot more interesting than I gave it credit for at the time.
A few years ago, my buddy Joaquin got after me to sit down and watch all seven seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—the only Star Trek series I’d never seen. Joaquin makes his living by dressing in Ren Faire costumes and teaching middle-school kids how to LARP, so my hesitation was perhaps somewhat justified. Or so I thought; too broke to go out one week, I finally added DS9 to my Netflix queue, and within a couple days, I was a rabid convert. The brief snatches of the show I’d seen during its original run in the ’90s had always made it seem dark, drab, and dull. I was right about the dark part, wrong about the rest. Not only is DS9 the best Star Trek series, hands-down, its complex, brooding subversion of Gene Roddenberry’s socialist-cowboys-in-space vision forms a vast arc that actually concludes authoritatively—though a little sloppily—at the end of season seven. It’s been a while now since I devoured all 176 episodes in a two-month span, during which I came to care deeply about a cast of characters that rate among TV’s best—including the most badass Star Trek captain that will likely ever exist, Benjamin Sisko. I’m itching hard to dive in again.
The first time I tried to read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I nearly didn’t make it through, slowing down to the pace of maybe 10 pages a day for almost two weeks. Susanna Clarke’s novel about a pair of 19th-century magicians is Victorian in nature: flowery (and sometimes superfluous) language, a seemingly endless number of minor characters who weave among the multiple plotlines, and enough footnotes to impress the late David Foster Wallace. These elements, plus the complexity of those multiple plot threads, make for a dense book that at times seems to struggle with finding its footing. But the payoff, if you can stick with it, is immense: Through these characters, asides, and bits of contextual (fictional) history, Clarke has crafted a novel every bit as rich and entertaining as any work of fiction I’ve read in the last 10 years. (And even at around 850 pages, it’s still shorter than Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix.)
I’ll bet I’m not alone in making multiple runs at Buffy The Vampire Slayer before finding a way through the first season or so. Noel and I knew we ought to be watching BTVS at the turn of the millennium, when every geek source we knew was obsessed with it. (I’ll never forget a special Buffy issue of Entertainment Weekly that showed up on our doorstep during this period; if EW, for crying out loud, was celebrating the comic and dramatic intricacies of the Buffyverse, then we were clearly missing out on a huge part of the pop-culture conversation.) I’d seen the silly movie version and readily admit that I couldn’t grasp how that was going to translate into must-see TV. When the episodes started airing in order in syndication in our local market, we set ourselves the task to catch up. But understandably, it didn’t grab us from the beginning, and we reluctantly gave up on it despite our friends’ assurances that it would start to turn awesome in a score of episodes or so. Thank goodness for TV Club Classic, which was custom-engineered for our embarrassing blind spot. Now I finally understand what’s so special about this show, and can’t imagine life without its characters, tropes, and themes constantly circulating in my head. There’s so much meaty goodness past those first episodes that stymied us a decade ago that I’m retroactively ashamed of our too-quick bailout. And I’m grateful to the fans who knew all along, but nevertheless gently welcomed us latecomers into the fold in the comment section of Noel’s weekly write-up — not to mention the debt of gratitude I owe to Noel, who made sure to time his viewing so I could join in and follow along.
I recently began rewatching Deadwood with a friend who’s never seen it, and during the fourth episode, I was appalled to look over and discover that the asshole had fallen asleep! Literally minutes before… Well, in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say what it was right before, but those who have watched the show know that the final 10 minutes or so of the fourth episode is when the series really kicks in, and can probably understand my frustration that he saw fit to sleep through it. (We eventually tried again, and he’s now fully on board with the show, after seeing what he originally missed.) I was so excited at reaching this point in the series again that I overlooked that fact that the first three and a half episodes of Deadwood are—while excellent—a very slow simmer for a newcomer who doesn’t know how and when it’s going to all boil over. Deadwood is brilliant in the way it weaves its characters and storylines together, but it does take a while for the writers to lay down all that narrative thread at the beginning, and if I hadn’t been told what was coming in the fourth episode, I might have fallen asleep myself the first time through. (No, I wouldn’t have.)
Many years ago, a friend gave me the best possible advice about watching art films, particularly ones from other countries. I was a grumpy young teenager at the time, not sure why I was supposed to be appreciating these films that certainly didn’t have stories, and didn’t seem to go anywhere. He’d taken some film classes, and was probably just aping something the professor said when he offered this thought: “These films seem so slow and contemplative not because they’ve failed at telling a story or anything like that, but because they’re giving you space to think and reflect, to consider your own life in the realm of the people onscreen.” Granted, it wasn’t exactly a revolutionary idea (I’ve since encountered it in lots of other places), but it was enough to open me up. I’ve never had to call on it more frequently than I have in recent years with the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who creates great images and great spaces, but would never be confused with someone who creates compelling narratives. I can remember the first time I saw Tropical Malady, which led me to wonder what the hell so many of my cinephile friends saw in the thing when things got blatantly weird. But then around the midpoint, I just… let go and started giving myself the room to move around within what was onscreen. It became a lot more dream-like, and I left the theater in a kind of happy haze. Who knows whether I’d have given it the chance without my friend’s advice so many years ago?
“Huh, more like you-know-what house,” was the disapproving sniff I got from my mother in response to my evangelizing about Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. My parents watched the first few episodes when they came out, but were turned off by the premise, a near future in which the young, attractive, and desperate can sign five years of the use of their body over to the Dollhouse, an organization that’s half brothel and half unrealistically attractive A-Team. A new technology allows for the hotties’ minds (or, debatably, their souls) to be extracted and kept on a literal shelf while their bodies are imprinted with various fantasy personalities of the Dollhouse’s millionaire customers; in exchange, the “dolls” wake up with no memory of the last five years, a huge trust fund, and all their horrible problems taken care of. The tone of the first several episodes (not to mention Fox’s ads for the show, which are mostly a half-clothed Eliza Dushku with bedroom eyes and very little clothing) is off-puttingly sexy for a show with some pretty heavy ethical stuff going on, and not much about those early episodes suggests that the writers intend to even scratch the super-sexy surface. Given that, plus the kind of wince-y one-off adventures Dushku goes on, it’s pretty understandable that people like my mom who hadn’t seen a Whedon show before might have found it stupid or creepy and given up. But the eventual utter, off-the-rails insanity of the show’s back half is almost better for the way it seems to evolve from a mediocre, vapid sexy-spy show. Wish they’d stuck the landing a bit better, but there’s a reason I even tried to talk my mom into watching.
I’ve got a soft spot for what I affectionately refer to as long, slow, boring movies—films that coax and/or force you to adapt to their rhythms rather than doing the work for you. There’s no better example than Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, usually known by its protagonist’s name. Inspired by the mammoth La Region Centrale, by experimental filmmaker Michael Snow, Akerman devotes nearly three and a half hours to the daily routine of a Belgian housewife, masterfully played by Delphine Seyrig. She peels potatoes, shines shoes, and breads cutlets in her tiny kitchen with the ritual air of someone who’s done the same tasks thousands of times. (Akerman drew on memories of watching her grandmother, and drilled Seyrig in emulating her movements.) If that sounds like watching paint dry, consider how many times you repeat the same actions without thinking: the light switch you hit when you roll out of bed, or the complex interaction of tasks that goes into cooking a favorite meal. Jeanne Dielman draws viewers into the character’s world until their internal clocks sync with hers, so that when minor details start to go astray, it feels like the walls are caving in. Of course, Jeanne Dielman’s duration is chump change compared to Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, an eight-part saga that clocks in at just over 12 hours. Ostensibly chronicling Jean-Pierre Léaud’s attempt to uncover a mysterious Balzac-inspired conspiracy, the film is more profoundly an exploration of our attempts to impose or simply invent meaning to harness the inchoate chaos of life, a process that can drive people to madness. (Rivette suffered a nervous breakdown a few years later.) Considering that Out 1 has only been screened a handful of times in the nearly four decades since its completion, attempting to see it is a quest nearly as insane, but very much worth the payoff. Next up: Peter Watkins 14 1/2 hour The Journey.
I was in the middle of a class on George Eliot when we inevitably hit Middlemarch. I’d liked everything we’d read up to Middlemarch—Adam Bede, Silas Marner, The Mill On The Floss, and so on—and I liked Middlemarch, too. But man, was it hard to get momentum rolling on that behemoth in the middle of a semester filled with other classes and the usual distractions encountered by college sophomores. Where I usually read novels ahead of the syllabus, with Middlemarch, I only just kept up. Then one Sunday, I found a quiet space and just read. And read. And read. Eliot’s masterpiece is intimidatingly long, but once you get going with it—and I’ve found this true with all long novels worth reading—you realize it has to be that long to work. Like Moby Dick, a book it otherwise resembles not at all, Middlemarch creates its own world and expects readers to live in it for a while, and the reward of the time spent there understanding the characters who populate it is nothing that could be accomplished with any less space.
For the longest time, Béla Tarr’s 1994 opus Sátántangó had a reputation as the Mount Everest of modern cinephilia, a seven-hour-and-15-minute event that attracted only the most hardcore auteurists, oxygen tanks in tow. It is, by any measure, a punishing experience, from the seven-to-10-minute takes to a complicated 12-part structure that keeps doubling back on itself to a sequence of cat torture that would undoubtedly furrow a few brows at the Humane Society. And that’s even before considering Tarr’s deeply pessimistic view of humanity as a teeming cesspool of greed, avarice, and sloth. Tarr’s portrait of a rural Hungarian town in the twilight of communism immerses viewers in an otherworldly place that the director, working in black and white, renders with tactile beauty and moments of genuine visual poetry. (Gus Van Sant’s similarly austere Gerry is more or less a feature-length homage.) It requires sustained effort on the viewer’s part, but the rewards are substantial in part because it takes such a commitment to get them, one arduous step at a time.
I like big books. I’m not always the best about reading them, but I like the weight, heft, and solidity of long novels, the feeling that when I open that first page, I’m about to be satisfyingly lost for a very long time. Still, I don’t have a lot of free time these days to read whatever I want, so any novel I pick up that isn’t for work and that runs over 500 pages is almost certainly going to be put aside before completion. Such was initially the case with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest a couple years back. I’d owned it for ages, I had every intention of getting through it, but the timing was never right. Until finally I made a commitment and got about 300 pages read. (It’s 1,104 pages long, including footnotes. Many, many footnotes. Bring two bookmarks.) I enjoyed it, although for a long time, it didn’t click with me in the way I need something that gargantuan to click. Someone should do a graph charting the level of personal investment vs. the level of immediate return a work of art provides; there has to be a precise balance where reading a long novel or watching a TV show becomes a kind of self-sustaining activity, when participation becomes easier than letting go. But at some point, I fell off the graph, and I had to review another book, so I put Jest aside. Time passed—enough time so that I’d normally assume I had to pick up Jest from the start if I wanted another go at it. But for some reason, my bookmarks were still in place, and I decided to just start where I’d stopped, and hoped for the best. It worked. This is partly because IJ is an amazing novel, but mostly because of how it’s an amazing novel: While it has a continuous narrative, that narrative isn’t presented chronologically, and the various threads (Hal and Mario Incandenza at the Enfield Tennis Academy, Don Gately and Joelle Van Dyne, a.k.a. the P.G.O.A.T., at the Ennet House, and all the thousands that fall between them) are hypnotically repetitive, as Wallace’s style is so firmly entrenched in the minutiae of living that major events, life-threatening or no, become irrelevant in the huge effort of will required in simply getting by. IJ is a story about addiction, and how it stems from a need to reduce life to the simplest possible axioms: “I need a fix, where is my next fix?” I’m sure I missed important story connections, but that break was worth the loss, because when I came back, the novel made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before. It’s like a six-hour jazz concert riffing on a single theme that somehow never gets old. And talking about it here just makes me wish I had the time to give it another spin.