Sometimes, pace Sam Beckett, you just can’t go on, and you don’t go on. Abandoning a book or a film, or an album, or even a play, is something we all do on a regular basis, even if it is often frowned upon or considered shameful by the person that does it. It bespeaks laziness, a mindset that runs contrary to the work ethic that, many hold, binds the creator and the consumer of the work in the same embrace of mutual obligation. There are people - mainly those who work in the film industry - that profess to never walk out of a screening because they can recognise all too well the effort that went into the production of the film. It’s a rather fanciful notion - that to scorn a film, or a book, or a play, no matter how bad, is to disrespect the labour that went into it. It’s as if you are sitting in your future mother-in-law’s dining room for the first time and facing the prospect of a meal you have no desire to finish but you dare not offend by leaving anything on your plate. But even good films and good books are, like the best of meals, consumed in a fraction of the time taken to make them. If one were to apply an ethos of ‘respect’ consistently, surely one should demand that even those books and films you love be read, viewed, studied with obsessive scrutiny, until you can absorb no more from them?
It is not always bad art that is neglected in this way. In a fine blog post published last week, the British novelist and critic Tim Parks admitted he finishes fewer and fewer books and even dismisses an overweening insistence on sticking with every book all the way to the end as ‘childish’. Parks questions whether covering all the ground in certain books is really necessary, if you are actually getting any more out of them if you follow them to the final page. Another reason, of course, why some people feel the need to stay the course, is to get their ‘value for money’, especially if they have spent money on a new copy. (Related to this is the baleful phenomenon of our times of books and films being far too long - few books ought to be longer than 250 pages and few films longer than 90 minutes but consumers appear to want something with extra padding on it, one of the few areas of modern life where the obese is culturally in demand).
There is also an implicit sense among English-speakers - largely derived from Anglo-Saxon empiricism - that one is unfit to have an opinion on a work of cultural production if one has not covered all of its wide expanses, like a farmer mowing a meadow. Film critic Roger Ebert came under fire a few years ago for reviewing a film poorly despite not having watched it beyond the first ten minutes. He later apologised, watched it in full and gave an equally bad review the second time around. I suppose I have to admit that a critic is probably beholden to a little more diligence than members of the public, given he or she is getting paid to appraise things. That, however, is the very reason I have never put myself forward to review films (and in the mainstream press these days, writing on film is more ‘reviewing’ than ‘criticism’) despite the fact that I probably watch as many as most that do it for a living. Having to sit through the stinkers would be just too soul-destroying to justify the salary. I would pledge to sit all the way through the bad films but I’d be damn sure I had the review already written in my head by the time the credits roll so as not to waste any more time on it. Such is the modus operandi of many critics who take the shilling for sitting in the dark.
As it is, I walk out on films on a regular basis. The reasons are several - ambient discomfort, the length of the film, tiredness (I have a tendency to doze off at the cinema - even during very good films), but most often it’s just that the films are bad. Some bad films you are perfectly happy to stick with all the way through (recent ones I watched in full include Inception and Steven Soderberg’s Contagion) and some have a hook that keeps you there most of the way (when Geoffrey Rush’s supremely ridiculous Trotsky had been dispatched in Frida, I knew the film was over for me and I left). There are others that annoy you so much in the first half hour that you can take no more, storming out in resentment at the screenplay’s leaden wit, or in relief that you have clawed back an hour of your time to devote to the far more entertaining book you put down as the film started rolling. I rarely watch the clock at the movies but I have an internal timing mechanism that seems to know it is time to leave at 45 minutes. Just as you nearly always wake up at around the same hour every morning, in the cinema you get physically and mentally restless at the same invisible milestone.
I have upped and left films you couldn’t say were particularly bad either (though I remember being so disappointed with Julio Medem’s Tierra on second viewing on the big screen - I had first seen it and loved it on video - that I walked out). Most recently Wang Bing’s three-hour documentary Fengming: a Chinese Memoir drove me away, despite the fact much about it is brilliant. The film is essentially a single static shot for its whole duration, shot in an elderly Chinese lady’s apartment, in which the titular Fengming recounts her time in re-education camps as a rightist party member first in the early 1960s and later during the Cultural Revolution. The film’s palette is so narrow and its aesthetic so streamlined, director Bing, at one point, has to ask his interlocutor to turn on the light, after several minutes of speaking in the crepuscular murk. Yet Fengming’s narrative is so brilliantly delivered and her story so vivid that you don’t object too much to the boring visuals. And then, when you do tire somewhat, you feel guilty at sneaking out - if this woman could endure years of humiliation, near starvation, the loss of her husband, then can’t you just sit through three hours of her story? So why did I ultimately leave? Well, it was tough going, no matter how gripping it was; I had also just finished a nine-hour workday, and given how much dialogue there was, my eyes were reading French subtitles practically all the time, which put quite the strain on them. I also decided that, after her release from the second re-education camp, there was not much else to be added to the story (and, post-Roland Barthes, ought the viewer/reader not decide these things as much as the author?). This corresponds to much of what Parks says in his blog about not finishing books. I was far from the only one to leave - about five or six had done so before me - and I checked my watch to see how far in it was when I did. I was expecting it to be two of the film’s three hours; it was actually only twenty minutes from the end. In retrospect the film was less gruelling than I thought and I feel a bit curious now as to what I missed. Go figure.
Here's the trailer for Fengming:a Chinese Memoir: