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Soporific Cinema

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.
  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 (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, 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 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, 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!

24 Comments

  1. Dominic Gauden
    Posted July 31, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    A film which my late Mother, who incidentally brought me up on American, not quite early silent movies-was one l stumbled upon The Blue Light or Das Bleu Light in German. Directed & starring Leni Rhensteil.
    A beautifully filmed rural setting in Austria, of a beautiful witch L.R. Who gets blamed for enticing young men to their early deaths/disappearances but they are enticed by the blue moonlight that shines through a cave onto the valleys below. Co-incidentally my Mother videoed Leni Rhensteil’s Olympia, prelude to the 36 Olympic games.
    She directed Triumph Des Willens, to see the Fuhrer emerging out of the sky.
    One of the troubles about getting older is you have seen most films..

  2. Mad Celt
    Posted July 14, 2019 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Any film based on a Neil Simon play will cause a coma.

  3. James J. O'Meara
    Posted July 11, 2019 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I recently watched a “Family Guy” episode that had a bit about “Those movies from the 80s you loved but now seem unbelievably slow.” The one in question was Stripes. “He’s driving the cab. Now he’s on the bridge….GET IN THE ARMY ALREADY!” If you recall the opening half hour of Stripes, it’s dead on.

    • Posted July 11, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      But you also don’t get reviews like this anymore: “Stripes will keep potential felons off the streets for two hours. Few people seem to be asking, these days, that movies do more.”–Time

  4. Dale Gribble
    Posted July 10, 2019 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    McMillan and Wife made waves on its debut because the program showed the married characters sleeping in the same bed. Otherwise it was not a remarkable show.

    McCloud was interesting. The main character is a cowboy cop who somehow transfers duty to the New York Police Department. He keeps his horse too.

  5. Cyril
    Posted July 10, 2019 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I took my wife to see Godfather and Godfather II (3x each) and she fell asleep every time. Must be a record

  6. George Kerby
    Posted July 10, 2019 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I’d try GWTW, w/o vodka & lime

  7. BroncoColorado
    Posted July 10, 2019 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    If I can be permitted to be a bit cheeky, impertinent even, and recommend a late night film that will not induce narcosis. The film is ‘Man in the Middle’ (1964). The script even perks up the usually somnolent Robert Mitchum, who is ably supported by fine acting of Keenan Wynn, Barry Sullivan, and Trevor Howard. The plot revolves around an American officer murdering an NCO and the determination of top brass to sabotage the defense. While in the stockade the murderer, played by Keenan Wynn, passionately blurts out what he thinks WWII is really all about and what the aftermath of the conflict will be. Two minutes of prophesy!

  8. nineofclubs
    Posted July 9, 2019 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    The original 1937 version of Lost Horizon with Ronald Colman is a beautiful looking, mystical film. I watched it on TV as a kid during a bout of fever and while feeling a bit trippy. Ever since then, seeing it makes me want to sleep and dream of mountain Shangri-La’s.

  9. GMT
    Posted July 9, 2019 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    It made me chuckle to see Manos on the list. I was introduced to the film in high school, from another student who made $20 bets that his friends couldn’t finish the film. I was the first one to win that bet against him; that film is truly as bad as it gets.

  10. Posted July 9, 2019 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article. Using your criteria, films I rate highly, but that move at a very slow pace, would include:

    Diary of a Country Priest (1951): I could include other Bresson films.
    Umberto D (1952)
    Ikiru (1952)
    Carnival of Souls (1962)
    Antonioni’s ‘alienation trilogy’ (as well as “Red Desert”)
    Persona (1966)
    My Night At Maud’s (1969)
    Solaris (1972)
    Heaven’s Gate (1980)
    Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959): 1st Resnais film
    Last Year at Marienbad (1961): 2nd Resnais film.
    McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
    The Tree of Life (2011): I could include some other Malick films.

    BTW, I recently watched all 4 Matt Helm films and found them great, throwaway fun. (Then again, I love Dino & anything remotely related to James Bond).

    • Jef Costello
      Posted July 10, 2019 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Excellent choices! The Antonioni films are guaranteed sleep. As is “Marienbad.” I should have included that one.

  11. Vigilante Jesus
    Posted July 9, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    The four-hour long 1982 opera film, Parsifal, directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, based of course on the opera of the same name by Richard Wagner. Until recently, this could be viewed in full on YouTube. Fortunately for me, I had the presence of mind to download a full copy before the poor chap’s YouTube channel was deleted. If getting hold of a copy is proving too difficult, just listen to the Parsifal opera on audio and allow yourself to be transported to the halls of the gods as you doze off.

    • James J OMeara
      Posted July 10, 2019 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      Neville, the mid-century mystic whom I’ve written about from time to time, was taken to the Met by his guru, the “black Ethiopian rabbi” Abdullah:

      “The first opera I saw, Abdullah took me to it. It was Parsifal.

      “Five hours, and I’d never seen one before. It seemed it would never come to an end. Of all the operas to be introduced to opera, through Parsifal. Good Friday it was, too… you go on Good Friday in New York, he said, when you go to Parsifal, and you sit there, and think “My Lord, is it ever going to come to an end?” And he is drinking it in, every little note, he understands every little point, and he’s so in love with it. And I’m sitting because I’m next to Ab, just waiting, hoping… but nothing happens… it goes on and on and on and it’s five hours later, and then… that’s it.

      “Any other questions, please?”

  12. Esoteric Du30ist
    Posted July 9, 2019 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoy watching “The Lion in Winter” with Peter O’Toole when I need to sleep. Or at least that is what I did when I had cable TV. Turner Classic Movies used to play that movie seemingly non stop.

    • Vigilante Jesus
      Posted July 9, 2019 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Very good film. He also played King Henry II four years before that in Becket alongside Richard Burton who played Thomas Becket. I felt Becket was the more enjoyable of the two films. As for more soporific, that I don’t know.

  13. Stronza
    Posted July 9, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    A sure-fire handful of sleeping pills, Foreign Language division:

    L’Avventura

    I have tried and tried and tried to watch this to the end and haven’t succeeded yet.

    Most-Loved Amerikan Films division:

    Miracle on 34th Street
    It’s a Wonderful Life

    Never seen either of these to the end, in spite of my several attempts.

    And in the Biggest Hits of All Time division:

    Star Wars

    I fell asleep at the theater with this one.

  14. Dazz
    Posted July 9, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Interesting idea for an article, when it comes to Tarkovsky I’d say ‘Stalker’ is more sleep inducing, I’ve seen ‘Solaris’ past midnight and been entranced, while I’ve never saw ‘Stalker’ without at least the desire to sleep, regardless of time.

    Also I doubt Tarkovsky was inspired by ‘2001’, at least not in desiring to make the film, the Soviets and Eastern bloc were well versed in sci-fi, and Kubrick himself obviously took ideas from a Czechoslovakian adaption of another of Lem’s works ‘Ikarie XB-1’ (The Magellanic Cloud) for ‘2001’.

  15. James J. O'Meara
    Posted July 9, 2019 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    “Wood’s oeuvre is not good for sleep, by the way – for me at least; his films are bad, but generally busy”

    There’s also the recurrent thunderclap/lightening stock footage, which I believe appears in every film (a trademark touch of the master, like Hitchcock’s cameos)

  16. Posted July 9, 2019 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    2001: Space Odyssey is like watching paint dry, but the paint is in love with the smell of its own farts.

    • Posted July 9, 2019 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      If we were in the same room right now, I’d throw an inkpot at you, Satan.

      • Posted July 9, 2019 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        You know what’s less interesting than the long-awaited Morgan vs. Jeelvy nerdy slap-fight?

        2001: Space Odyssey

  17. Petronius
    Posted July 9, 2019 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I LOVE this!!

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