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Movies That are (Almost) Literally Unwatchable
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Movies That are (Almost) Literally Unwatchable

What does it mean for a movie to be “unwatchable?” Often, it can be as simple as the film being lost to time, a piece of lost media that has yet to, and may never, resurface. Other times, the film may be available in some form, but not as was originally intended. Sometimes, we simply use the term figuratively to describe something we hated. Other times still, a film may actively present impediments to make the viewing experience uncomfortable.

It’s perhaps this last characteristic that is so fascinating about art and experimental film. These films, so different from what we think of when we think of movies, are intentionally difficult to enjoy in the traditional sense. These aren’t movies to watch passively, but rather experiences to meditate on larger themes like time, capitalism, and humanity.


The Clock (2010)

Christian Marclay

The Clock is a 2010 art film created and directed by Christian Marclay. In The Clock, Marclay and his team cut together 24 hours of footage from film and television past, using only clips containing references to time. Wherever The Clock is displayed, it’s synchronized with local time so that the time on screen is the same as the time off. But what emerges is not just an assemblage of disparate clips; rather, as said by the UK Tate Gallery, it “is the story of time and how it progresses throughout the day.”

As the subject suggests, Marclay is using this piece to reflect on temporality. When speaking with the Los Angeles Times, Marclay said “I’ve always thought of this piece as a giant memento mori.” The filmmaker argues that films are traditionally meant as entertainment, distractions, dreams on screen that obfuscate the reality of time’s brutal progress. The Clock, though, attempts to highlight this reality. Marclay continued, saying, “You’re constantly reminded that you’ve wasted an hour of your time, and you’re constantly reminded about this thing that you’re trying to figure out: time.”

Empire (1965)

Empire movie by Andy Warhol
Warhol Films

Where films like The Clock are strange and nonsensical, those like Andy Warhol’s Empire are kind of like watching paint dry, but in a hypnotic way, nonetheless. Empire is eight hours and five minutes of footage of the Empire State Building taken from the 44th floor of the Time Life Building across the street. The camera never moves; the subject never changes.

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But in watching the stationary building, viewers find themselves noticing the smaller details around the building: the slowly darkening sky, the floodlights igniting, the flash at its top indicating the passage of each hour. Films like Empire are about utilizing these details as a means of meditation on the passage of time.

Blue (1993)

Zeitgeist Films

Derek Jarman’s Blue is not unwatchable for its length like some of the other films here. In fact, it’s only 76 minutes long. What makes Blue a difficult watch is that there isn’t anything to watch, but that hardly means it has nothing to say. Derek Jarman was just one of the many victims of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s, and complications from the illness rendered the filmmaker partially blind. Just months after Blue’s release, Jarman died.

Blue is, for its entire runtime, a blue screen. Over this monochromatic backdrop, Jarman layers narration of his reflections on his life and what became of his body as it was ravaged by AIDS. Jarman narrates some of the film with other portions read by friends and collaborators John Quentin, Nigel Terry, and Tilda Swinton.

What seems like it would be a rather boring hour and change becomes a gripping narrative of a man struggling with his untimely and unfair demise. Without the typical visual stimuli, the film forces viewers to listen to a struggle they may have no direct experience with, but that they must understand all the same. For the curious viewer, this one is available on YouTube.

The Flicker (1966)

The Flicker movie from Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad

While most of the films on this list are at least partially unwatchable for their length, Tony Conrad’s The Flicker takes a different approach. Coming in at just 30 minutes, The Flicker is quite short, and yet is perhaps the most difficult of these films to watch.

There are technically just five frames in the film (films are generally 24 frames per second), though viewers mostly see two: one black, one white. The film consists of two frames alternated back and forth at various speeds until eventually making a strobe effect. Optical illusions abound, as colors, lights, and patterns seem to appear in the film but are only a result of the flicker on the viewer’s eyes.

This one may be literally impossible for some viewers if they struggle with harsh visual stimuli. The Flicker is captivating for its effects and its place in the world of experimental film, but viewers should go in knowing themselves and their limits.

Logistics (2012)

Logistics 2012 movie

Logistics is the longest movie ever made, and that’s saying something considering its company on this list. Directors Erika Magnusson and Daniel Andersson wanted to ask “Is it possible to get to the source of the things we consume?” What resulted was a “37 day-long road movie,” as the filmmakers put it, that takes place in real time.

Starting from a store in Stockholm, Logistics takes the audience on the reverse journey of a pedometer, what the filmmakers call the “anonymous clutter that everyday life is full of.” From Stockholm all the way back to the pedometer’s birthplace in a factory in Bao’an, viewers can expect to watch a lot of freight doing a lot of nothing.

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Logistics is not watchable in the sense that we normally think of for movies. It simply can’t be. Logistics is an art piece about time, and the fact that viewers literally cannot sit through the entire thing is part of the point.

Matrjoschka (2006)

Hoerler Matrjoschka
Karin Hoerler

Like several of the other films on this list, Karin Hoerler’s Matrjoschka has an extremely long runtime and nothing much in the way of narrative structure. In fact, very little actually happens in Matrjoschka. The film begins with a single photo of a boy riding a bike around a neighborhood. Slowly, so slowly that it’s nearly imperceptible, the image transforms, out of which new images are created.

95 hours of this doesn’t make for particularly compelling content on its own, but Hoerler’s vision reaches toward a curious concept all the same. The film’s title references what are commonly referred to as Russian nesting dolls, the little wooden figures that open to reveal a smaller, similar figure inside. The film, too, functions in this way, albeit far slower: each image unfolds out of the others. Matrjoshcka is a reflection on time, more specifically the way time tumbles unceasingly forward and often without our awareness.

The Longest Most Meaningless Movie in the World (1968)

The poster for The Longest Most Meaningless Movie in the World.
Anthony Scott

The movie with perhaps the most honest title on this list, The Longest Most Meaningless Movie in the World was, at one point, the longest movie in the world. At exactly 48 hours, this movie is precisely the test its name implies.

Nothing was shot for this film; instead, filmmaker Vincent Patouillard repurposes footage — stock footage, newsreels, outtakes, even strips of undeveloped film — into a veritable hodgepodge of unrelated sounds and images. The Longest Most Meaningless Movie in the World does what it sets out to do, but that doesn’t make it the kind of thing that’s worth spending your time on.

La Region Centrale (1971)

Michael Snow

Surprisingly for a movie that’s as long as Avengers: Endgame, La Region Centrale is one of the shorter films here. La Region Centrale is 180 minutes of landscape shots from a mountaintop in a remote location in Quebec. The camera is always moving, always changing something to reveal a new perspective of the seemingly unchanging landscape.

There is somehow always something to see in La Region Centrale, even if it isn’t obvious at first glance. It might be something moving in or out of frame that hadn’t been there before, including the shadow of the camera. Director Michael Snow had a camera specifically engineered to create La Region Centrale, one that could be programmed and controlled remotely. As the sun goes down, the camera’s shadow is revealed to the audience, hovering ominously over the landscape.

Writing for the Art Canada Institute, scholar Martha Langford describes the experience of watching La Region Centrale as “vertiginous, hallucinatory, and defining of the technological sublime.” The camera twists and turns to reveal perspectives previously unseen by the human eye, and the fact the slow revelation of the camera as the driving force puts into perspective the way modern technology would come to loom over the natural world.