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What Boring Foreign Films Show Us About Good Pedagogy

How long do you need?

How long do you need to think?

How long do you need to think about unimportant things?

Do unimportant things only reveal themselves as important things if you look at them long enough?

How long can you ask someone to look at something before they get bored with it?

How long can you ask someone to look at something before they can really see it?

I could have put all those questions in the same paragraph, but then you would have raced through them. Paragraph breaks tell us to stop. A writer ends a paragraph when he thinks he has said something significant, worthy of consideration. In opening this article with six questions, all of which were given their own paragraph space, I risk looking pretentious and alienating my reader. Am I actually wise enough to ask six questions in a row worthy of stop-and-think levels of consideration? In putting each question on it’s own line, I obviously think so. And how long do I think readers are going to spend reading this article? In putting each question on a different line, apparently I think most readers are going to clear out the better part of half an hour to read this rather short and not particularly sage little essay.

The average American is a bit bored by foreign films because of the length of the shots. Many American action movies have more than three thousand cuts, while the slow and ponderous films of, say, Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski, might have one fourth as many as that. This means Kieślowski often asks viewers to consider what is on the screen for four times as long as an American director would ask you to consider what is on the screen.

People don’t know what to do when they are told to wait. If a film opens with an empty living room, how long can you ask the audience to look at that living room before they become angry? If the audience only sees the empty living room for one second, all they learn is, “This is an empty living room.” It does not take much longer than a second to discern what it is. But if you show the audience an empty living room for five seconds, they might begin to notice the chair, the sofa, whether there is anything hanging on the wall. If the audience is asked to look at an empty living room for one full minute, though, at some point they might have time to work around to the question, “Huh. A living room. I wonder who named it a living room? I wonder why the chair in this particular living room is facing away from the couch. It seems as though whoever sits in the chair does not want to look at whoever is sitting on the couch.” However, no one notices such things if they are only showed a living room for a single second before moving on to another image. The longer a person is asked to look at a thing, the more is required of them. Films with long shots tend to ask more of the audience than a film with many cuts. If the film opens with a full minute of empty living room, the director is saying, “If you’re going to enjoy this film, you have to be the kind of person who can find an empty living room interesting.” Of course, the longer the director holds a single shot (especially a shot in which there is no movement), the more insistent he is that there is something interesting, something more to notice. The longer the shot, the more demanding the director.

The impatient teacher is an action movie director. He knows his audience becomes quickly restless. He shows his moviegoer students an empty living room for a second, a fallen Trojan for a second, a little claim Boethius makes about pleasure for just a second. He might ask his students to read hard books, but he does not ask them to gaze at them for long enough. He does not allow hard books to be hard. He frustrates his students by giving them the impression that everyone else in history has understood these things quickly. He does not ask questions which will take the students an hour to answer.

But there is value in rereading a paragraph two or three or four times before moving on. There is deeper value in examinations made up of a single, rather simple question, in which the student is asked to give a bafflingly long response. Let the student often find the breaking point of his own attention span. His patience for art will grow, but so will his patience for other things.

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