ReelThoughts: October 31, 2008

"The Surreal Month"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

This has been a weird month, and I'm not just speaking as a film critic when I say that. It has been strange in so many ways that cataloguing them almost feels like an impossible task. But that won't stop me from trying...

Perhaps first and foremost is the economy. If one uses the stock market as a barometer (and whether it's a leading indicator, a trailing indicator, or not a "real" indicator at all doesn't make much difference to those who look at the final numbers on the nightly news), October has offered a roller coaster ride wilder than anything it's possible to get in an amusement park. I suffered significant paper losses in October, as my 401(K) crashed and burned, but it's not something that worries me in the short term. I won't be touching that money for 20 or 25 years and, by that time, these temporary dips and surges won't make a difference. For my parents, though, who are retired, it's another thing.

The contortions of the stock market are reflective of a wildly uneven economy, with the housing market still an anchor. I'm not an economist but I was going through the sell/buy property grinder at this time last year, and it was no fun. Eventually, after all the trips of potential buyers through the house and all the reductions in the sale price, the process became dispiriting. And things have gotten worse since then. My house was only on the market for about 100 days before it sold, which is extraordinarily good in these times. There was no secret to the quick sale. I underpriced to start with then slashed and slashed until it moved. One of the reasons many houses aren't selling is because the owners have yet to take a cold, hard look at what the market price is.

Has the economy impacted the movie business? Not that I can see. Ticket sales have held up, and they are especially strong considering how weak the October roster has been. Blu-Ray sales topped the half-million mark for the first time with Iron Man and looks headed to double that in early December with The Dark Knight. I have two ideas why the movies haven't been hurt by the economy's downward spiral. First - the primary audience for films is teenagers, and the level of residual funds involved in spending $10 per week on a movie ticket has not been impacted. Yard work, lawn cutting, working at a fast food restaurant - these all pay well enough for a Friday or Saturday night at the movies to be affordable. Second, the worse the times, the more people need to escape, and movies (whether viewed at home or in a theater) offer a few hours divorced from reality at a reasonable price. Compare a movie ticket or a DVD rental to a sporting event ticket or a live theater ticket. Which films are doing the best? Comedies and action flicks - the lightest and least thought-intensive fare. There's not much in the way of heavy drama out there, and what there is has stumbled. Is it a surprise that in this environment several supposed Oscar-bait titles (The Soloist, The Road) have been shifted to next year? The last thing people want to experience now in a theater is a downer. They can get that by looking at their bank book.

How about the website? Revenue is down a tick from last month, but I'm not sure whether there's a direct correlation with the economy. It is partially a result of my having cut out the pop-unders and intra-text ads. A moderate increase in click-throughs on the Google ads has not entirely compensated. Traffic is up a little, which indicates that some readers who ditched the site because it had become too commercial are finding their way back. My gut feeling is that the reason things aren't going so well this month is because there's so little in theaters to excite movie-goers. ReelViews traffic has always paralleled the enthusiasm of the Internet crowd for a film. What were my two biggest periods of 2008? The weekends when Coverfield and The Dark Knight opened. It's not that the October roster has been full of bad films - it's that few of them have generated much in the way of anticipation. What is the Internet community waiting for? Bond, and then The Watchmen.

Adding to the overall strangeness of October had been the Phillies' postseason march through the NLDS, NLCS, and World Series. I was 7 years old when I became a baseball fan. Living in the metro New York area at the time, I latched onto the Mets. That attraction lasted about two years, then King Kong and Dracula took my unfaithful attention in another direction. My family moved to a community outside of Philadelphia, so when I rediscovered baseball at the age of 16, I gravitated toward the Phillies. No lingering affection for the despised Mets was retained. Unfortunately, I became a true baseball fan in 1984 - the year after the Phillies' eight-year winning period. I jumped on the bandwagon as everyone else was leaping off. I stuck with the team through losing season after losing season, becoming a season ticket holder in 1991, the year after I finished graduate school. The commute from my apartment to the stadium was 2 hours each way. October baseball became something mythological. I experienced it once in 1993 but it would be another 14 years before it would arrive again. So when Brad Lidge threw the final pitch of a game that lasted 49 1/2 hours, the first, immediate reaction was not jubilation. It was stunned disbelief. That didn't last long, of course. And a nice little byproduct of getting to the World Series is that it's only 3 1/2 months until Spring Training instead of the regular 4 1/2.

Television sucks. I have lost interest in pretty much everything I used to watch. It's as if the writers don't care or have given up. I'd like to say I'm looking forward to the return of 24, but the bad taste from last year lingers. The series has to prove something to me in its first few episodes, or I'll turn my back on Jack and his sack. There's always Battlestar Galactcia, but its return in January will herald its final departure. By late March, it will be a memory. My TV diet in October consisted of baseball and politics. For an election that, at least at this point, doesn't seem all that close, it's amazing how much coverage there is. That's because there are so many news networks with so many hours to fill. The closer the election, the better the ratings are, so there's a vested interest to downplay any widening gap. No one wants to make it seem like Obama is going to run away and hide. That's the reason that even the most liberal network (MSNBC) does its best to boost McCain's electoral chances, if not his image. The result is a stark contrast between the way the election is represented on television versus how it is covered on-line. I still enjoy the coverage on TV, though. It's great political theater, and far more entertaining than the average scripted show.

Then there's the weather. It snowed in October. Not a lot here but for those willing to travel a couple of hours north and west, more than a foot blanketed the ground. The locale where I lived 12 months ago got three inches. Looking back on my 41 autumns, I can only recall one other year when the first snowfall occurred in October. (I don't know the exact year but it would have been between 1979 and 1983.) I'm not foolish enough to believe this augurs a particularly nasty, stormy winterů but one can always hope.

With a Phillies celebration in Philadelphia that has wiped Halloween off the map in this small corner of the world, October comes to an end. It's hard to imagine a November that's as active. Maybe James Bond will bring enough excitement back to theaters that movies will again become more than the footnote that they were rendered by the most chaotic, surreal month to have come along since September 2001.


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