ReelThoughts: April 01, 2011

"Movies, By Any Other Name"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

"James, you take movies too seriously." Those words (or ones nearly like them) were spoken to me 24 years ago by my college girlfriend, Tracie. They were true then and, if anything, they are truer today. Ironically, her theatrical experience (among other things) dwarfed mine. Back in the '80s, I attended movies only when I really wanted to see something. That limited my annual multiplex consumption to about a dozen titles per year, with many of them coming during the summer. Tracie, on the other hand, was closer to two per week year-round, or an annual 100. Still, despite consuming about four hours of cinema each week, she had developed a cavalier attitude toward the industry. Films had about as much meaning to her as TV programs, and inspired little in the way of lasting devotion. Even when she liked a movie, it rarely stayed with her. She went, she saw, she forgot. And it was rare for her to be excited about a particular title, even (and sometimes especially) if it was accompanied by tremendous buzz.

I have obsessive tendencies. This has always been the case. When I start something, I explore it to depths that some might consider unnatural. I applied this behavior to many of the individual titles I saw in the '70s and '80s, Star Wars and Star Trek in particular. I was a repeat viewer. Instead of seeing a new movie, I would return and see something familiar a second, third, fourth, fifth time. My father couldn't understand it; he never watched a movie twice (except maybe James Bond films, which ABC repeated incessantly on Sunday nights). "You've seen it once. You know what happens. Why see it again? It's not as if the end is going to change."

I compensated for not seeing many new movies by lavishing undue attention upon those few I loved. In the pre-video era, that meant pirating audio tracks (using my portable cassette recorder) and listening to those tapes until I had the dialogue memorized. (At one point, I knew every line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and, 29 years later, passages are still stuck in my memory.) It meant seeing the film at least once in every local theater in which it was showing (to check out the myriad minor differences in projection quality and the overall experience). It meant buying books and posters and trading cards. It meant speculating about the sequel long before any hard evidence was available. After purchasing the Star Trek: The Motion Picture photonovel, I can recall lying on my bed and following along with the soundtrack. It was almost like seeing the movie in a crude way. That's how fans did things before the popularization of home video. It seems primitive in 2011, but it had a certain charm in its day.

It's not as if I never saw anything other than the big, fanboy-oriented movies; I just didn't see them often. God forbid I stumbled into a theater showing, for example, Annie Hall. I knew what I liked and, unless my friends were talking about a movie, I wasn't planning to see it. I needed to be excited about a title to put out the effort to see it. Before I could drive, that meant pleading to get a ride both to and from a theater - a process fraught with potential frustration. As a teenager, I saw more than one movie with my parents simply because going with them, as un-cool as it was, eliminated the transportation problem. (Things might have been different had I lived within walking distance of a theater or had my older friend been more aggressive about getting his license.)

At first, I accompanied Tracie to the crappy little duplex (or was it a triplex?) on campus because it was a way to spend some time with her. It fell into the category of "I'll do something you like, you do something I like." Tit for tat, so to speak (one can read that as literally as one chooses). Much to my surprise, I discovered that I liked going to the movies and seeing things outside of my comfort zone. Not at first, but it didn't take long. We had entered the video era by this time so, during my vacations, I rented movies that my friends weren't interested in. I got one of them to watch Spartacus but saw Chaplin's City Lights by myself. I was so moved by that I made a copy of it so I could show it to Tracie. When it was over, she had tears running down her cheeks, but I don't think she ever mentioned the movie again.

My growing obsession with movies hit a snag during graduate school - there simply wasn't enough time to solve complicated problem sets, study, spend long nights in the lab, and see movies. I missed movies but not to the point where I felt compelled to see them. Once in a while, I would indulge for a break on a Saturday afternoon or during a vacation. Movie-wise, 1990 was a lost year for me. Then I graduated and the Ferris wheel slowed almost to a halt.

The biggest change associated with the transition from college life to working life was the abundance of free time. Being a dedicated student can represent an 80-hour per week commitment (or more). My newly-minted engineering position required 37.5 hours per week. That give me roughly 40 hours of time - about 33% of my waking time. What to do with all those minutes? See movies, of course. Unlike when I was 15 years old, I now lived within walking distance of a multiplex. (Of course, I had a car and could drive, but why bother when it was only about a mile away?) For a few weeks, I would go nearly every Tuesday and Thursday night. I joined a "film club" that met on Mondays. Eventually, I transitioned to watching two movies every Friday night and one on Saturday so I could see things as they were released. I wrote only one review in 1991, but I had seen enough films that a Top 10 list didn't seem unreasonable. At the time, my #1 selection was Dead Again. #2 was Beauty & the Beast. Star Trek VI (the title for which I wrote the review) didn't crack the Top 10.

Writing about film was a natural extension of seeing movies. Initially, it was a matter of scribbling a few sentences explaining why I did or didn't like a movie. At some point, I added structure and had the makings of an amateurish review. Ego took hold and I started posting to the Usenet newsgroup. One thing about authors - they may write for themselves but they always crave an audience. I got one. And then seeing movies became as much about writing the reviews as it was about sitting in a dark room watching bright images projected on a screen.

Do I still get a thrill from movies? Not the way I did during those early years of discovery with Tracie or during the days when I enjoyed my job almost as much as I liked the Friday evening personally selected double bills. Even after Michael's arrival, I still see quite a few movies - more than the average American, to be sure. Half of what I see, I see primarily to write the review. The other half represents titles I have some interest in or curiosity about. The DNA of that teenager who got up for big cinematic events is still within me.

I suspect a lot of movie-goers are like the 15-year old James Berardinelli, albeit without the transportation issues. They go to theaters when there's a big, enticing spectacle to be seen. Lately, Hollywood hasn't been doing very well in that department. The box office was down in 2010 - not disastrously, but down nevertheless - and I don't know anyone who was truly excited about last summer's movie menu. 2011 doesn't look much better. 2012, on the other hand, looks fabulous. To capture the attention and money of the fickle spectacle hawk, the movie business has to return to 2008 and 2009.

There are the casual movie-goers like Tracie, who see films as commodities to be consumed. She died too young, just into the video era. If she was alive today, she'd be like so many other American adults - generally avoiding theaters and waiting for the DVD (or Blu-Ray or streaming video). That has become the preferred avenue for the over-35 crowd to see non-spectacles. Multiplexes are kept alive by families with young children (who are now getting screwed by the 3-D surcharge), teenagers, and college-age movie-goers. Venture into a non-art house theater on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon and count the number of patrons with gray hair (even a few strands). You won't need your toes. Hollywood is making it easy for the impatient home video viewer. The theater-to-DVD window, which was stuck open at 6 months for a seeming eternity, has now closed to 3-4 months (even less for box office bombs). Don't want to go to a multiplex in December? You can see it in your living room in March.

There are the cineastes, the Roger Eberts of the world, whose love of pure cinema leads to a belief that its inherent beauty will never die. They generally stay away from multiplexes but populate art houses. I wish I had their optimism. I wish I was less of a philistine. Unfortunately, that 15-year old kid still clouds my choices and some of the greatest expressions of motion picture "art" bore me to death. I can't stand opera or the ballet, either. I love stories, well-developed characters, and clever dialogue. If a movie lacks one of those elements (or all three), it's unlikely to enrapture me. It's more likely to put me to sleep. But God bless the cineastes. I'm just not good enough to be one.

The bottom line for most of us is that we attend movies to be entertained. Those on a quest for art are in a minority. Those looking for enlightenment have gone astray in their journey. What constitutes "entertainment" is different for each person. That's where the battle is being waged. The studios have come to the conclusion that explosions, special effects, and loud noises are at the forefront of what audiences want. It's nice to have an interesting, original story, but that's not the primary requirement. Risk aversion, understandable with huge budgets, leads to recycling. That's why sometimes the more enjoyable movies are the ones that don't cost as much.

The reason why the "average" person goes to a movie today is different from what it was 30 years ago, just as it was different in 1980 from what it was in 1950. Still, while we crave big, bold, visually stunning entertainment - something more dramatic than what we could get elsewhere - Hollywood has come to the mistaken conclusion that spectacle is enough. On the other hand, we (they paying audience) want it all: emotional involvement, well-developed characters, an engaging story, and a lot of stuff to "shock and awe." Many movies that excel at the box office exhibit all or most of those characteristics, not just the last one. And 3-D does not gloss over deficiencies in story and character. If anything, it exacerbates them. Viewers are not as enamored with this toy as the studios and multiplexes are. Most audience members see it as a thinly-veiled excuse for higher ticket prices. The benefits are exaggerated and, in too many cases, the 3-D experience is worse than the 2-D one.

3-D is an interesting case of a manufacturer pushing a product that the consumer isn't thrilled about. One of three things will happen: (1) the product will go away (New Coke, for example); (2) the product will change to come more in line with consumer expectations, or (3) consumers will adapt. (1) is unlikely - there's too much money involved. (3) is possible, but if consumer indifference to 3-D develops into antipathy, Hollywood's continued advocacy could result in a major box office downturn. (2) is the most likely - 3-D will be restricted to animated films (where its current acceptance is the highest) and the surcharge will fall to a more modest $1 or $2 per ticket.

As home theater set-ups continue to advance, however, it will be interesting to see whether theaters can find new ways to attract customers. Is the giant screen enough? Is the social experience of seeing something in a packed auditorium sufficient enticement? Some would argue that the latter is a negative rather than a positive. For those whose primary reason for seeing a movie is to get out of the house and have something to do with friends or a date on a Saturday evening, the multiplex beckons. But for those who care more deeply about what's on the screen than what surrounds it, home options increasingly provide the best approach to enjoy a motion picture.

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