This post is based on a viewer request, which is being filled due to a donation to the Secular Student Alliance via my fundraising page during Secular Students Week (June 10-17, 2015).
I don’t think there is any idiom more often used in the discussion of bad films than the classic simile, “like watching paint dry.” There is no other universal image that so perfectly captures the frivolousness, agony, and boredom that many people experience while watching a sub-par movie. It really describes everything a conventional movie shouldn’t be: static, passive, un-engaging, and without thought.
Sure, there are some exceptions to this rule: some art films have been made with the expressed purpose of inciting the feeling of boredom, But as far as the general public consciousness goes, if a movie is “like watching paint dry,” it is because something has gone horribly wrong.
I consider myself a sort of specialist at watching bad movies. Given how often this experience is compared to “watching paint dry,” I assume I will be able to handle the task of, basically, watching paint dry on a surface. But how similar are the two activities, really?
It takes a fair amount of willpower and determination to suffer through a movie like “The Maize” or “Daniel Der Zauberer,” but is that the same kind of endurance necessary for the classically menial task of watching paint dry? I will say this: I have watched a pot boil. I don’t know why I did it, apart from the fact that I wanted to prove that I could. That brings up a whole different question of how similar watching pots boil and watching paint dry are, but my point is this: I have challenged the traditional wisdom of idioms in the past, and I have been victorious.
Now, there are a lot of ways that I could theoretically watch paint dry. In fact, there are more than you might expect: there are numerous YouTube videos varying in lengths of a few minutes to 10 hours, a live webcam of paint drying, and even a flash game created around the concept that gives you achievements for how long you continue, ranging from a few minutes to an entire day. Alternatively, of course, I could go buy some paint and put it on something.
For the sake of time, I decided to go with a 10 minute YouTube video, done by the channel “10minutesofyourlife,” which you can see below.
First off, I appreciate that they decided to use an eye catching color. Can you imagine if that were gray or beige? On to a negative: what are they doing with that tripod? There is an awful lot of camera movement for a video whose expressed purpose is *watching paint dry.* You don’t need to operate the damn thing, we’re not looking for creative angles, here. On the flip side, it does provide a little bit of welcome variety for a monotonous activity.
One thing that becomes clear very quickly while watching paint dry is that you become acutely aware of your other senses. Not only am I focusing on the background noises in my apartment (various mechanical hums, electronic buzzes, and cat sounds), but also on the curious background of the video itself. For whatever reason, I initially assumed that the setting of this video was indoors, but the details start becoming clear quickly: the stained wood at the bottom of the frame must be a deck, and the amount of background noise leads me to assume that there must be nearby traffic. That does beg the question, though: is this person planning to paint their house in this vivid green color? I’m not sure if that would be more weird or awesome.
Around minute five, I started thinking more about the form of the piece. The consistency of the paint is a bit odd, in my opinion: somehow thicker, and more plastic-like than I expected. It looks a little like “Gak,” for those of you who remember what that is. Also, the shape of the paint’s pattern is bizarre: there’s clearly no reason to it, but it also clearly wasn’t done haphazardly. Note, there are no splatters, so it wasn’t just slung against the wall. However, there is also no sign of orderly brush work, and the edges and smooth and pristine. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how they managed to do this. Even the pooling at the base seems surreal, as the quantity seems oddly high, and it has clearly already been allowed time to creep its way across the horizon between the wall and the deck. I feel a little cheated, as if someone tore the first chapter out of a book. How did the paint get this way? I am missing some crucial developmental information about the paint and its relationship / experience with the wall. I understand the realistic style of telling a story in medias res, but I feel like the purpose of watching paint dry is to get the completest possible view of the experience, from beginning to end. I’m not here for a highlight reel, I’m here for a full ride.
There is a message on the ground, partially obscured by the pool of wayward paint (which oddly does not seem to perceptibly expand over the course of the video). “_________ _______ MUST BE INSTALLED.” It is clearly the sort of industrial message one would find on a work in progress, and isn’t something you would ever see on the exterior of a finished product. This is something that we, as casual observers, are not supposed to see beneath the surface of our surroundings. But these messages, surely, are in buildings we enter every day: internally facing, and invisible to pedestrians. The paint serves to hide these messages from us, both in this video, and in our everyday lives. What “must be installed,” I wonder? We may never know, not without chipping away at the dried paint. And then, what was the process all really for? Maybe it was too late to install this mysterious object/program all along, and it is for the best to just leave it alone.
The video ends abruptly, and I was honestly jarred by it. You can’t help but sink into the process of watching paint dry, because it is so difficult to perceive the progress. With watching water in a pot boil, there are definite stages: you feel the heat rising, the bubbles begin forming at the bottom of the pot, there is a brief simmering pre-boil. Watching paint dry lacks any of this structure, so you are left completely on your own. In my case, my mind was desperate to find something to focus on, and I was able to find it in analysis of the minor details.
So, how does this tie back to movies? Well, there are two points worth making.
First: structure is vastly important to maintaining an audience of any kind. It doesn’t have to be traditional, but it needs to be present in some way to keep people engaged. This is one of the worst ways a movie can collapse, and it typically happens in either the editing or the initial screenwriting. We, as audience members, are conditioned to expect a certain kind of structure in a film, to the point that it is unconscious within us. When looking at screenplays, many people use a shorthand of “expecting x event by y page” to gauge whether it will play with audiences, because that is what we expect. When a movie is written without those important beats to keep us all on pace, the result is that, generally, people get bored.
Inexperienced writing and non-creative editing are usually the key things to blame when these structural things go wrong. For cases of the latter, give a watch to movies like “They Saved Hitler’s Brain” or “Monster A Go Go”: both incomplete films that were finished long after the fact and stitched together with minimal thought or care for the editing process. For some examples of the first, I would point out any popularly failed attempts to adapt television shows to the big screen: “The Singing Detective” and “The Last Airbender,” for instance.
Television show plots are usually (not always) structured differently than films, with miniature arcs and developments over the course of individual episodes combining to create a greater arc of a season or a series. Movies typically have one, distinct arc. Here is a visual way to think about that:
So, in order to turn a TV show plot into a movie, you have to do something to fill in the valleys. In the case of “The Last Airbender,” this was done with brief sequences of exposition acting as transitions, which was apparently the best way they could figure to stitch the story together in a cinematic way. Obviously, that didn’t work out so well.
So, back to paint drying. Part of the reason that the experience is so awful is the lack of a perceptible structure. Another way to look at this is by comparing it to distance driving. An 8 hour drive through flat territory with no landmarks is awful, because there is no perceptible demarcation to indicate progress, which helps us break down the experience. However, an 8 hour drive between, say, Cincinnati, Ohio and Birmingham, Alabama features a number of urban areas as landmarks: Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee, for instance. This helps us digest the whole experience better, just like we do with any experience: memorizing numbers, distance driving, watching movies, or watching paint dry.
As I mentioned before, there are two points I wanted to make about the parallel of movie watching and watching paint dry: the second is the similar importance of being an active observer in the experience. For sitting through the experience of watching paint dry, I had to dig around the details of what I was watching to keep myself entertained and focused on the task. That is pretty much the same thing I do with especially dull movies: close reading and analysis is a different experience than just watching something unfold before you: it is about minor details, and appreciating the entirety of the experience. In the case of watching paint dry, this meant noting the sounds in the background, paying attention to the shape the paint was taking on the wall, and even reading the obscured message on the ground and coming up with a bullshit theory. With a movie (particularly a shitty movie), this might be noting the positioning of the actors in a shot, paying attention to the repeated use of colors and specific objects, keeping track of the continuity of scenes, and coming up with bullshit theories to cover up gaping plot holes and errors. Honestly, I think it is easier to do close readings of bad movies, because there is rarely anything else worth paying attention to on screen (y’know, kind of like paint drying). It is a good skill to have, and it is something that most people are taught to do on some level in literature or English classes in primary school. Watching films as visual literature and art in addition to entertainment is part of what makes it so cool for so many people. It can also theoretically help you watch paint dry, so there’s that.
All in all: yes, there are significant similarities between watching paint dry and watching bad movies. However, I think bad movies can be a little more constructive: in many ways, you can reverse engineer a lot of the elements of what makes a good movie by diagnosing how bad ones ultimately fail. With watching paint dry, you aren’t going to get a whole lot out of the experience, apart from really odd bragging rights.
If you want to make me do a review of literally whatever you want (even watching paint dry), make a donation to this page (of any amount) by June 17, 2015. I will cover any request you have for as low as a $1 donation. Really. Also, enjoy my (God)Awful Movies BibleMan franchise marathon as part of Secular Students Week, and check out the excellent work of the Secular Student Alliance.