Five great films where nothing much happens

News Owen Davey 27 Mar 2009 - 05:13
The Station Agent

How can a film be great if there's apparently nothing going on? Owen finds out...

Inspired by this month’s example of understated American indie, Wendy And Lucy, I have decided to list my top five films where nothing much happens.

This is an oversimplification, of course, as, taking the above-mentioned film as my example, the ‘nothing much’ is often a kind of literal veneer under which something profound perhaps happens to the characters who instigate it, an emotional journey that is hoped will penetrate such a veneer and translate to an audience who will inevitably compare it to the conventions of event-saturated media entertainment.

I take to these films quite easily, as they cast a strange contradiction of catatonic acceptance and heightened emotional engagement over me. Mind you, I feel almost the same thing when I come home drunk and can’t be bothered to go to bed or change the channel after finishing my kebab in front of the telly (that film, Keeping The Faith, about a love triangle between Ben Stiller’s Rabi, Edward Norton’s Catholic Priest and a strangely blonde woman who I’ve never seen in any other film seems to be on every time this happens. I’m not even sure if it really exists or if it’s just a recurring hallucination constructed from the bad jokes and drunken sexual frustration of the proceeding evening).

But, like Keeping The Faith, these films definitely aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. I can think of at least one example of a close friend fervently demanding two hours of their life back after watching every film in this list, and I suppose it’s not too much to ask for a film to provide some kind of tangible evidence, some kind of quotable scene or recitable action that can justify its existence, but I guess some people are easier to please than others – the people who want evidence or the people who don’t, I can’t decide.

It is therefore hard to explain the satisfaction gained from such films without sounding like a pretentious snob who ‘gets’ these films that others don’t, but as long as I’m aware that such differing understandings are not differing understandings but differing preferences, I see no reason why these films should be neglected by my own desire to not seem pretentious.

Wendy And Lucy is an ideal catalyst for this list because it literally embodies what most of the following films have in common. First of all, it is American or, more precisely, ticks some of the iconic boxes that constitute Americana:one-horse-town, railroad tracks and, these days, convenience store. It is about a girl, Wendy, played by Michelle Williams, and her dog, Lucy, played by a dog.

From the very beginning, this film seems to both embrace and subvert the basics of narrative construction that have become, in many of ours minds over the last century, the basics of American narrative construction. The ‘stranger walks into town, solves problem, leaves town’ DNA of story telling cannot be heard today without seeing images from the Wild Western legacy of Hollywood that harnessed the formula so successfully, and it’s this now American formula that is reapplied in Wendy And Lucy. They’re on their way to Alaska, they get stuck in a little town for one banal reason or another, they figure out the reasons and leave again for Alaska. Like First Blood, but with no violence.

But what would be the point of First Blood with no violence, you say? And again we’re back to the argument of what a film should deliver.

What films like Wendy And Lucy and the others in my list try to do is to reclaim, strip back and expose the American dream that has haunted the western world’s evolving cinema and psyche for the last century, to tell the ‘drifter’ story that so embodies the ideals of freedom and the struggle to manifest destiny without the action of Die Hard, the cosmetics of the Western or any of the clichés or embellishments that have conventionalised the setting and the telling of such a simple story.

The risk, though, is that the pay-off of these films doesn’t match the undeniable satisfaction of seeing John McClane walk off into Christmas morning to "Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!"after killing many, many men, but I believe that they can, for some people, provoke a different but equal satisfaction, in a less eventful way, with the same basic story.

It is, I have to say, purely coincidence that my five best films where nothing much happens has become five depictions of the American Dream, but that parallel now seems inevitable to me. If Wendy And Lucy’s subversively banal re-telling of the Western story has provoked anything other than my immediate emotional response, it is to have highlighted, more simply than any other film, the obvious link between this formula and another form of American tradition, the road movie.

The Western formula, as demonstrated quite literally by Wendy and her dog, is simply a detour in an unseen road movie, and so, like the road movie, the narrative needs little more than for the terrain to again start rolling in order to feel consequential. It is inevitable, therefore, that ‘nothing much’ can be said to occur in many road movies, that five road movies will occur in my list of films where ‘nothing much’ occurs, and that those five road movies, in their ‘nothing much’ness, will reflect the intangible nature of the American dream.

Aguirre: The Wrath Of God
Dir. Werner Herzog, 1972.

I believe this film is based on the diaries of a monk, Gaspar de Varvajal, who accompanied conquistador Gonzalez Pizarro into the Amazonian jungle in search of El Dorado, but Herzog’s a master of making lies seem real and reality seem false, anything to further the story. And what an uneventful story it is, floating down a river on a raft to a fantasy land of gold, powered only by the conviction that one man has in his own destiny, as if you’re watching the very first American dream stripped down to the bare bones.

Some things do happen in order to reach such a point: an unbelievable, unadulterated opening shot of two mountains with an ant-line expedition precariously following their contours, a decision to send an expedition party down river by raft, a mutiny in which Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre takes over the party. But, for the most part, this film is nothing but the stifling sound of the jungle, the implied feverous heat, the moving riverbank and Kinski, on a raft, burning a hole in the screen. It’s 100 minutes of suspense, before one triumphant shot, which adds no more to the narrative and yet resolves the film.

Like the discontent Jim Jarmusch leaves us at the end of Broken Flowers, all that is needed to finish a film where nothing but Klaus Kinski happens is a confirmation that, yes, that’s what you’ve been given, an ending never taught in the books for fear of sounding insane, but genius, nevertheless.

Lost In Translation
Dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003.

This one’s very popular amongst some, and probably, therefore, even more infuriating for those unimpressed. As my best mate said: "Nothing fucking happens!"

I have to admit that I really like this film and, as with many other road movies, find it easy to watch over and over again, which is strange really, as you’d imagine they’d get boring. But perhaps this says the most about the feeling that individuals take away from these films, almost as if we project our own desires into the space left in the narrative to have them played out and bounced back at us as justification for its scarcity.

Not a road movie, you say? Well, I don’t think the characters have to necessarily be ‘on the road’ in order to fall into the genre, and I think this definition would explain the warm and fuzzy sense of destination and satisfaction that this film leaves many people at its climax, if you can call it that.

It helps, of course, that the two central characters are aliens in an interesting land that seems not to need to be passed through in order to move and develop. It also helps that those characters are the ever watchable, for whatever reasons, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. And it helps, as it has with many uneventful road movies, that this film is young and cool, in its soundtrack, its creator, its setting and its actors (Murray isn’t young, but doublecool) – things are always coolest when they look like they’re not trying.

The Station Agent
Dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2003.

Released in the same year as Coppola’s coolness, and all the more overlooked because of it, is this confident joy of a film. Again, there’s little plot and almost no movement, but again the mood and setting overcompensate to make you feel like a journey is underway.

Finbar is a reclusive guy who moves into an old signal box on the edge of a small American town, left to him by his dead boss at the model train shop. Apart from being an outsider, he is insecure about has dwarfism and is therefore in danger of becoming one of those weird, solitary hermits that every small town has. But he makes a couple of friends and…well, there’s not much to describe apart from that.

Yet this film is perhaps one of the most satisfying and enjoyable films I can regularly watch. The dusty, long summer days and ever present railroad tracks that surround the highly sympathetic characters seem to easily extract both a journey and a nostalgia from me and, with little more to say about it, this debut feature from Thomas McCarthy achieves what many veteran film-makers never quite manage- a big effect with a little cause.

Badlands
Dir. Terrence Malick, 1973.

Actually, quite a lot of stuff happens in Badlands – lots of people die – but it feels like nothing at all does. This is not as a result of the film’s ineffectiveness but more a testament to Malick’s masterful signature ability to combine truly photographic composition, sculptural control of actors and visionary choice of score in order to create a day dream state in both the film and the audience, as if all that happens, happens without consequence; as if it exists only for the sake our witnessing it.

Again, though, a good friend of mine demanded I explain why I had wasted a little bit of his life and money with promises of milestone Americana and rewards of emotionless dilly-dallying. I didn’t know what to say. Critics have often said ‘poetic’, as they have on the poster of Wendy And Lucy and do for many films where nothing much happens, but I’ve never really understood what ‘poetic’ means in relation to cinema. I’ll call it meditative or open-ended, two rather dull and unhelpful phrases that, whether you like what they imply or not, require a lot of balls to rely on.

The Straight Story
Dir. David Lynch, 1999.

And so here it is, the depiction of an old man driving across a quintessential American state on a ride-on lawnmower in order to see his estranged brother.

I’m a Lynch fan, but you really don’t have to be one to like this, because it’s nothing like a nightmare. It is just what I have said it is. He stops and meets a few people along the way, and there’s always the chance that he’ll never quite get there, but it pretty much does what it says on the tin. So who would want to see that? Well, nobody, until you see it. In fact, despite the film’s shocking sobriety next to Lynch’s other work, it’s hard to think of anyone, apart from maybe Herzog, who would be crazy enough to take on such an uneventful story.

But the result, in its aged pace and childlike telling, is ever gripping and manages to fill me with both contentment and a sense of loss, a bit like watching the last ever American dream.

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