Ever since my wife, Megan, and I received complimentary all-access CineVisa passes to the 1999 San Francisco International Film Festival (a client of the design studio for whom I was working at the time), we’ve gone every year, sometimes clocking up to 20 films if we’re feeling brazen (and caffeinated) enough. We have a cute little ritual of separately marking selections in our respective mini guides and then comparing our lists, culling them down into a single lineup. We usually try to pick films that haven’t found a distributor or been scheduled for wide release as a way to further broaden our screening palette. The process is a crap shoot—mostly because the mini guide film descriptions are barely 25 words long—but that’s also the fun of it. Sometimes the films are great, sometimes we leave the theater shaking our heads asking why anyone would even think to create something as horrifically bad as what we’d just seen. Up until Bullet in the Head, though, not one of the hundred-plus SFIFF screenings we’d attended had ever been introduced as “probably the most difficult film in the festival.”
At 84 minutes, Bullet is short by feature film standards. One could assume that the majority of the audience were cinephiles, but by the 20-minute mark a good third of them had walked out of the theater. No extreme violence, no explicit sex, no brutal language, no schmaltzy “Forrest Gump” moments, even. Instead, what compelled them to leave was that the film had no dialogue. Characters talk in the film, but only near the end do we actually hear words—and only a mere two of them, spoken by one person. The viewer is put in the position of a detached voyeur observing—through windows, doorways, and half-drawn curtains—a stocky, bearded man go about his everyday routine until an unexpected burst of violence interrupts the banality. The camera keeps its distance throughout, treating a carjacking no differently than a dinner party. Unconventional, jarring, and not a dramatic thrill ride by a long shot, Bullet is still a rewarding and thought-provoking film experience for anyone who does stay through to the credit roll. But why were so few—and at a film festival, no less—willing to sit still until the end?
We’re constantly bombarded with slick and sophisticated film media as we increasingly navigate the world through screens of all shapes and sizes. This “navigation” also allows us—almost compels us—to multitask back and forth between all the available content feeds, whether it’s YouTube, Hulu, On Demand, or our Netflix queues. This phenomenon also makes it far too easy to jump away from more challenging material. I’m a devourer of foreign films directed by the likes of Wim Wenders, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and others, but still find myself distracted if I’m watching them on my computer or television at home. The urge to shift my gaze elsewhere is amplified by these films’ pre-internet age pacing that isn’t kinetic enough for the contemporary small screen experience. Where seeing a film in a theater is akin to a long-term relationship, my laptop screenings are a series of non-committal one-night stands.
I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeonly Luddite bemoaning how new technology is fraying our societal binds. But not unlike the theory that social networks are cushioning the blows of adolescent rites that ultimately engender emotional growth, the ability to minutely control our content feeds might prevent us from experiencing films that, though hard to watch, ultimately expand our understanding upon further reflection. Viewing these films in a communal theater setting (as opposed to a private headphone-assisted isolation) further increases the chances of dialogue erupting around them. This is the film festival component that no mobile device-fueled social network could ever really replace.
Megan and I later screened the Dutch film, Can Go Through Skin, a beautiful, yet harrowing depiction of a woman coping with the aftermath of a violent attack. We were in the middle of the small theater’s back row, trapped with the heat generated from the humid, rainy day outside. As the film built towards its climax and the jagged sound design shook the drop ceiling tiles above, a wave of claustrophobia came over me as forehead sweat started to soil my tweed cap’s lining. But I was stuck. There was no getting out. No abandoning my troop of fellow filmgoers without an awkward fumbling over feet and bags in the dark. In hindsight, was the experience pleasant? Not really. Unforgettable? Probably. Art? Surely.
So my simple request to the theater owners and film festival organizers: Lock us in. Lock the theater doors and emergency exits until the last frame of film has run through the projector. Make us all stay until the blissful and/or bitter end. And absolutely no pause buttons, power cord pulling, or keying in new URLs permitted whatsoever, please.