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 Master of Ennui 

December 25, 2006 
Master of EnnuiSome people would — correction: do — accuse me of having a low taste in films. For example, I got an outraged reaction from the egghead community when I suggested that some of Ingmar Bergman’s earlier films might be much improved if they were colorized. Blasphemy! Today's column is "Master of Ennui" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.One reader (and I can’t actually prove it was Woody Allen, but draw your own conclusions) sent a death threat.

Master of EnnuiWell, why not colorize? I’ve just watched Miracle on 34th Street about ten times, in both the original black-and-white and colorized versions, and I like the colorized version a lot better. Who doesn’t, really? The main reason old movies were usually shot in black and white was economic, not aesthetic: filming in color used to be a lot more expensive and a lot more trouble. Eventually, even Bergman went to color. Today, everyone does. Yet somehow black-and-white is still felt to be more “artistic.”

Master of EnnuiI have one question for these highbrows: Pourquoi? (Some of them won’t answer you if you ask in plain English.)

Master of EnnuiNot that I don’t have my own highbrow side. I’ve always been a big fan of Laurence Olivier, so the other night I stayed up late just to see him in a cameo role. It turned out to be one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen: a war movie called A Bridge Too Far, released in 1977. It’s the sort of movie that isn’t just a movie, but “a major motion-picture event.” With commercials, it ran over four hours, and Olivier didn’t show up until the last few minutes.

Master of EnnuiThe director, Richard Attenborough (you may recall him as a charming actor in such films as Jurassic Park), should be singled out for special obloquy. If Alfred Hitchcock was the “master of suspense,” then Attenborough deserves to be known as the world’s reigning master of ennui, and I’m not forgetting Bergman. I had to prop my eyelids open to stay awake long enough to see Olivier.

Master of EnnuiHow do you make a film as totally boring as A Bridge Too Far? I’ve been pondering this; it takes a kind of genius to put an audience to sleep while breaking their eardrums with volume. Extreme length is only part of the formula. Epic ambition is another: a huge budget and an all-star cast, which all but guarantee a hopelessly muddled story. But the crucial element is explosions.

[Breaker quote for Master of Ennui: The 'Jack's nostril' principle]Master of EnnuiLong ago, someone filmed an explosion for the first time, and it must have been tremendously exciting, even in silent movies. Soon everyone was doing it. The effect was multiplied when sound was added. And it was even more exciting when color film came along, and the explosions burst into glorious red and orange. Finally directors like Attenborough took the idea to what must have seemed its logical conclusion: If one explosion was exciting, what could possibly be more thrilling than four solid hours of explosions?

Master of EnnuiBy that reasoning, the answer seems obvious: eight or ten hours of explosions. But after a few bloated war epics like The Longest Day and The Battle of Britain (which also had an Olivier cameo), even Hollywood producers must have begun to realize that there were limits to the endurance of audiences. Epic violence brings diminishing returns. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell Richard Attenborough.

Master of EnnuiThey also forgot to tell him what Hitchcock used to say. An explosion is much more exciting if the audience knows it’s coming and the characters don’t: if, say, there’s a time-bomb under the table. Such a situation is the opposite of a battlefield, where all the characters are expecting things to go boom.

Master of EnnuiLet me make the point another way. How many characters have you seen killed in the movies? You’ve lost count. How many times have you seen a character get his nostril slit with a switchblade? Once. Jack Nicholson. And you’ve never forgotten it.

Master of EnnuiA little violence goes a long way, if you do it right. If you want to make the audience wince, don’t show them a man being shot dead. Show them his finger being slammed in a car door. The most exciting moment in A Bridge Too Far comes when Olivier lowers his eyes.

Master of 
EnnuiAttenborough is an even worse director than Bergman, because in Bergman’s movies at least the noise doesn’t keep you awake. I certainly wouldn’t want Bergman to add explosions, though an occasional barroom brawl might not hurt.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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