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Soporific Cinema

[1]2,127 words

I like to fall asleep in front of the TV, and I’ve established a ritual for it. After a hard day of writing inspirational articles for Counter-Currents (under various pennames), I mix myself a drink that consists of vodka, soda water, lots of lime juice, and lots of ice. I thought I had invented this carb-less drink until, to my embarrassment, I discovered it already had a name: “The Skinny Bitch.” Apparently, it is also enjoyed by rail-thin rich bitches sitting poolside at the country club (like that mother on Arrested Development). Having mixed the Skinny Bitch, I then recline on the couch and begin my late-night viewing. This usually starts with some YouTube videos: segments of Tucker Carlson’s show, something by PJW (when he posts a new video), Jackson Crawford, an old Dick Cavett interview, and so on.

But when the hour gets very late and the drink has been consumed, it is time to switch to some kind of viewing that will really knock me out. Some program that will be reliably sleep-inducing. Over the years, I have discovered a number of films and television shows with powerful dormitive properties. The majority of these, oddly enough, are actually good (a few, as we shall see, are also quite bad). At a different time of day, I could enjoy most of them, and even find them engrossing. Late at night, however, their slow pace will usually work like magic to send me off to dreamland.

However, it is not just their slow pace that my soporific films have in common. Usually, there is something about each of them that I find vaguely comforting. Sometimes they hark back to an earlier, happier era. Sometimes they remind me of my childhood, when I was blissfully ignorant of all the world’s horrors. In any case, falling asleep to them feels like slipping into another, better world for just a little while. It is these two qualities – slow pace, and something vaguely “comforting” (which is purely subjective) – that are the principal criteria by which I choose sleep-inducing films.

If you intend to follow my example, I advise you against films that start off slow, but then build to dramatic and or even shocking scenes. Simply put, these will wake you up. And depending on what you wake up to, you might even stay awake (or be permanently scarred). The Shining starts off slowly enough, but imagine suddenly waking up in the middle of that scene with the woman in the bathtub. To take another Kubrick example, Eyes Wide Shut is ungodly slow. But you don’t want to wake up during that weird orgy scene. (We’ll hear more from Kubrick below.)

Without further ado, here is a list (in no particular order) of the films that have worked best over the years to knock me out cold:

  1. Ludwig (1972). Luchino Visconti’s four-hour biography of mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria is a treat for the eyes and the mind. Mostly shot on location in and around Ludwig’s actual residences, this film is beautiful to look at, and the dialogue is also remarkably intelligent. Trevor Howard makes an amazing Wagner, and Romy Schneider is delightful as Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Helmut Berger is remote, but believable as Ludwig. However, the film moves at a positively glacial pace. Visconti’s camera lingers on his sumptuous locations, with no consideration whatsoever for the patience of even the above-average filmgoer. It is as if Visconti set out to make a film as grand and self-indulgent as any of Ludwig’s palaces. An added bonus (for our purposes): the film is filled with long, long dialogue scenes. You can’t get sleep like this anywhere else.
  2. Ivan the Terrible, Parts One and Two (1944, 1959). What an embarrassment of riches! A two-part film with about as much action as you would find in your average waxworks. Sometimes the gratuitous eye-rolling is the only way you can tell if the actors are still alive. Talk, talk, and more talk. This is one of my go-to films whenever I’m really having difficulty falling asleep. If all else fails, I tell myself, go to Ivan. It doesn’t matter which part; it’s hard to say which is slower. And yet, if you catch these films in the middle of the day after imbibing a great deal of caffeine, you will find that they are actually quite fascinating. Directed by the celebrated Sergei Eisenstein, with a score by Prokofiev, Ivan the Terrible makes absolutely no attempt at realism; it is highly stylized, sometimes outrageously so. You get points for falling asleep to Part Two, since it was banned by Stalin and only released after his death. (Stalin had cottoned on to the fact that Eisenstein’s Ivan was him!)
  3. Solaris (1972). Another Soviet film (Russian cinema is highly dormitive), this is Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction masterpiece, supposedly inspired by Kubrick’s 2001 (see below). Filled with long, dramatic pauses, laconic characters and beautiful images that linger . . . . . . . . . . . and linger . . . . . . . . . . . and . . . . . . . . . . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. This is a beautiful, intellectually stimulating film that will entrance you if you catch it in the afternoon. Catch it at night when you are tired and you will find it is better than Valium. If the Russians could bottle this film, Switzerland would be plunged into recession.
  4. Any silent movie. Perhaps the sleepiest I’ve ever gotten was during Birth of a Nation (1915). The blackface kept me awake and laughing for a while, but then Mr. Sandman came calling. The Golem (1920), Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), The Holy Mountain (1926), Sunrise (1927) – it doesn’t matter which one. They’ll all put me to sleep if the time is right (I turn down the volume on the often-silly musical accompaniment). But I love all the films I’ve just named. It’s just that there’s something about the lack of dialogue and the usually slow pace that does it for me. Stay away from silent horror. I (accidentally) fell asleep once during Nosferatu (1922) and woke up during this scene [2].
  5. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). This is now widely hailed by some people as the worst movie ever made, and I’m not going to argue with them. Manos: The Hands of Fate [3] (which means “Hands: The Hands of Fate”) was the result of a bet made by a local El Paso businessman, Harold P. Warren, that he could make a horror film entirely on his own. He succeeded, but at what price? Well, at a very, very low price – in dollars; a high price in the loss of his dignity. This film is so astonishingly incompetent it makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles, his hero. (Wood’s oeuvre is not good for sleep, by the way – for me at least; his films are bad, but generally busy.) Yet there’s something about Manos I find comforting. Perhaps it’s the loooong opening sequence in which the camera travels through miles of completely uninteresting Texas roads, set to dull and out-of-place pop music. Perhaps it’s the long interchange with the bizarre “Torgo,” from whom a man (played by Warren himself), with wife and child in tow, inexplicably requests lodging for the evening. Try nodding off to this tonight. It’s free on YouTube [4], and the Master would approve.
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Who needs benzodiazepine when we’ve got Kubrick? Don’t get me wrong: I love 2001, and it holds up remarkably well after fifty years. Only a few of its special effects shots seem really dated now, and the production design is still remarkable. It is also one of the most mysterious and intellectually stimulating films I have ever seen. I’m one of those people (of whom there are a few) who think this is sort an “end of history” film. The modern-day segments depict utterly bland and boring people manipulating fabulous technology. It seems like human evolution needs another kick-start, so the black monolith reappears. A fascinating film from start to finish, yet I’ve often turned to it to put me to sleep. And if you’ve seen 2001, I think you can immediately understand. Those brilliant apeman sequences at the beginning are sooooo slow. And The Blue Danube is sooooo relaxing. I emerge from sleep like the Star Child at the end; born all over again, and maybe just a wee bit smarter, for having slept through it.
  7. The NBC Mystery Movie (1971–1977). This was one of those ’70s American “wheel shows” that rotated several programs – all crime dramas – within the same time slot. These included Columbo, McMillan and Wife, and McCloud. All of these series are now available on DVD or streaming. Columbo is deservedly the most celebrated of these programs. It was not a “whodunnit” but a “howcatchem”: the beginning of each episode shows you who the murderer is and exactly how he (sometimes she) does it; the mystery is how Detective Columbo (Peter Falk) will figure it out. Because each murderer has a very, very clever plan and Columbo’s sleuthing is even cleverer, the writing on this show was usually highly intelligent and imaginative. But because it is fairly slowly paced, it will often lull me off to sleep. Besides, it reminds of my childhood. I want to go back to the ’70s (especially the early ’70s), which now seems like a golden age in comparison to what we’ve got. McMillan and Wife is a different kettle of fish. People remember this show (which starred Rock Hudson and Susan St. James) like it was a “classic” or something. Actually, it’s dull and poorly written. I’ve started every single episode, and drifted off midway through. I’m proud to say that I’ve never remained conscious through an entire episode of McMillan and Wife. I haven’t tried McCloud yet, but I have high hopes for it.
  8. The Wrecking Crew (1969). This was the last of those godawful Matt Helm spy movies [5] with Dean Martin, and the second-to-last film of Sharon Tate (who actually gives a performance in this one). I’ve been falling asleep to this film for years. Something about its cheesiness and late-’60s setting is oddly comforting. An added plus is that it’s just not that interesting. One key to choosing films for sleep, by the way, is to choose films with which you are already familiar. While any of the above titles will probably render you unconscious within minutes, don’t go for a film just because you think it might be soporific. Your mind could become too involved if something is brand new to you. One of the reasons I keep going to The Wrecking Crew is just that I’ve seen it so many times (starting in my childhood, when I actually thought it was good). The dull routine of the film will usually do the trick for me.
  9. Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979). Of all the films discussed here, this one is probably the most intellectually interesting. However, it is also very slow and has a curious sort of “detachment.” The film is an adaptation of Gurdjieff’s “memoir” of the same name (part truth, part fiction). Gurdjieff was a sly devil, and made no bones about it. Clearly, much of what we see here is just tall tales (though perhaps with a meaning). But the filmmakers and the actors don’t reflect much of the gleam in Gurdjieff’s eye. Meetings is earnest to a fault, and sometimes just plods along. Take care with this one, as it could possibly stimulate your mind and keep you from sleeping. But if you’re tired enough, it will likely put you out. (Try showing this one to unruly toddlers.) Meetings has recently been reissued in a new director’s cut, with a good deal of the flab removed. For purposes of sleep, you should obviously try and get ahold of the original version.
  10. Anything by Coleman Francis. The films of Coleman Francis were recommended to me by James O’Meara [6], with whom I have had many profound discussions concerning soporific cinema. (Though, strangely, he seems to find the topic amusing.) O’Meara recommended Francis’ trilogy The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), The Skydivers (1963), and Red Zone Cuba (1966), promising that it would provide the very best sleep. Indeed, Francis does not disappoint. His films are so dull, so monotonous, so repetitive, so lacking in any images, dialogue, or performances of interest that there is almost nothing to keep one awake. Dub these films into French and they would be hailed as genius. In their present form, they are most definitely the answer to insomnia. Exercise caution, as these films are a powerful, Schedule One narcotic. Indeed, despite my glowing recommendation, I seldom actually turn to Coleman Francis. It feels like an act of desperation. Like Michael Jackson needing anesthesia to fall asleep.

There you have it. If you’re having trouble sleeping, I hope I have helped. Feel to share with me your favorite soporific films in the comments section, if you have any.

Pleasant dreams!