31 December 2013

Reflections on My Recent Cinema Binge

I saw as many films in theaters in the past two months of 2013 as I did in the first ten months of the year. This is directly attributable to Hollywood timing the release of their best films to qualify for awards season and so that the films are fresh in the minds’ of award voters. What it means is that American cinema can generate barely two month’s worth of decent films a year.

Here are some reflections following my recent binge.

One of my favorite memories comes from my most recent trip to the cinema. I was in the ticket buyer line of Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. This line is in the lobby and roped off. Two women were outside the ropes checking the movie times. There was a very old man behind me (I think he worked in the Coolidge administration). With him was his equally old -- I wanna say -- wife although it could have been his partner or lover or paramour or even his sister. Anyhoo the old man suddenly barks at the two women: “get in line! get in line!” They were either oblivious to him or rightly ignored the old codger. His -- I’m going to go with -- wife scolded him saying “you can’t tell people what to do.” He insisted that he could in fact tell people what to do and she contradicted him again. This went on for a bit until they finally both ran out of steam. Was I looking into my own future?

Previews. Oh boy previews! Coming attractions! Trailers! Some theaters give you a taste of what’s coming others drown you with endless clips from endless movies and do so for -- I timed it once -- 27 minutes. Enough already. I saw the trailer -- the same exact one -- for something called August: Osage Country with an all star cast featuring Meryl Streep six times -- that I counted. I’ve got parts of the movie memorized. I didn’t want to see the damn thing after the first time I saw a preview now I hope this is the last time I ever have to think about it. Twice I saw a preview for a film called Lone Survivor. I can guarantee you this is bad cinema. Anytime you have the director talking about it and the man whose experiences the film is based on talking about it you know its not only not an art film but that its propaganda. One reviewer tweeted that it is a jingoistic snuff film.  The director most recently did Battleship which also tells you plenty. I twice watched (read: sat through) a trailer for a Jack Ryan film (he’s a spy character who’s to James Bond what Arby’s is to fine dining). Chris Pine (oh boy Chris Pine) plays a slick handsome spy. There’s a beautiful woman an evil villain a wise mentor explosions high rises and hand-to-hand combat. I bethcya it makes a bunch of assholes a lot of money.

What makes sitting through an abundance of trailers even worse is that they are often preceded by advertisements. I already paid to get into the damn theater I thought that bought me the privilege of avoiding commercials. Yeah I get it movie theaters couldn’t survive without them. Maybe if people starring in and producing films didn’t have to own five houses two yachts and a goddamned island we could be spared ads. Movies and sports are classic examples of how regular working folk are being gouged by the already rich. No wonder there’s a huge income gap in the US. Don’t get me started here....

I have the privilege of living walking distance from the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley where I can see reasonably priced films with no ads or trailers and no one eating popcorn or candy or sandwiches or three course meals at their seats. Do you see what people spend half their paycheck on at movie theaters? Huge tubs of artery clogging buttered pop corn and barrels of diet coke a substance which is just this side of battery acid. Small wonder we have an obesity epidemic in this country. No food or drinks allowed in the PFA which means patrons are spared the sound of loud pop corn chewers or people rummaging through a grocery bag to find a sandwich the wrapper of which they have to rip off. Sometimes other people are the worst.

I saw The Wolf of Wall Street the day after Christmas in the middle of the afternoon in a multiplex and the theater was packed. Within my line of vision four different people got our their cell phones at one point or another during the film. It’s not as bad as talking but it still detracts from the movie going experience. But then being aware and considerate of others is so passé.

Fortunately amidst all this nonsense I saw some really good films. I am so particular about what I see that I rarely end up sitting through a film that I don’t end up liking. (The same can not be said of what I rent where the stakes aren't as high.) If I’m going to I shell out $8 or more for a movie I want to be damn sure I’ll like it. As noted in my annual top ten I especially enjoyed Nebraska Inside Llewyn David and Frances Ha (which I saw via Netflix instant). This was a very good year for very good films but not a great year for great films. Few are. Frankly there are already enough great films out there for me to discover or re-watch that I don’t desperately need more. That said I’m more than happy to see something to add to the pantheon of greats. Also it is often upon the second viewing of a very good film that I elevate to a loftier status. One can’t always know which film will really resonate after a second viewing. We spend so much of a first viewing dealing with what happens that we don’t always notice how its told or the subtler messages of the film. There are several from this year that I look forward to re-visiting.

The movie-going experience has changed significantly since I was a lad. You used to get a double feature in a theater with one huge screen. Ushers might help you find seats especially if the film was playing and it often was when you entered. People would come in during the middle of one feature -- you got two movies -- and watch the rest of it the other offerings (there were a few trailers cartoons and a short often in the form of a travelogue) the next film and when they reached the point in the film that was playing when they walked in they'd utter those oft repeated words:  "this is where we came in" or the variant in question form: "is this where we came in?" Looking back coming in the middle was not an ideal way to watch a film so I'm glad that died out. Everything has gone up so movies cost more but the increase is not out of line with inflation (the same can't be said for sports tickets which are ridiculously expensive).

Of course a lot of movie watching is done from the comfort of one's own home. When I was growing up and even into college if you wanted to watch The Maltese Falcon (1941) you had to wait until it showed up on TV and then watch it interrupted by commercials. Today you might own your own copy or rent it from Netflix or record it from TCM or watch it on your computer. But then you miss the experience of some centenarian barking commands. The guy was a hoot I tell ya....

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