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March 02, 2006

Watching (Almost No) Movies

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't need to convince you that it's very good that Michael set up this blog and churns out post after post after ...

Better yet, he has a broad range of interests. Far broader than [ahem] mine.

For those of you who don't keep score, I have not written a single post about movies. And for good reason: I almost never watch them any more.

As best I remember, these are the movies I saw in theaters over the past two years or so:

  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • The Incredibles
  • Master and Commander
  • Spiderman 2

Not a long list. Thirty or 40 years ago, it would have been a lot longer.

I was never what might be called a film fanatic, but my viewing habits were closer to the norm until I was in my mid-20s.

As a kid I saw most Walt Disney movies and those classic John Ford/John Wayne U.S. Cavalry movies plus a lot of other age-appropriate stuff. In the mid-50s MGM released its pre-WW2 library to TV, and I was able to see The Thin Man and other classics on the tube. Towards the end of high school and into college I saw a fair number of foreign art films. This was easy because Seattle had a handful of art houses even back in 1960. One theater (the Varsity) near the University of Washington campus tended to show lots of English movies, which for me meant not-so-arty "Carry-On" fare and Alec Guiness comedies. And in other theaters I got to see some Fernandels along with the more intellectually-respectable Jacques Tati. Not to mention a lot more Ingmar Bergman films than anyone in his right mind should be subjected to. Maybe I figured art films were like distance-running; you have to break through a pain threshold (sorry, Bergman fans ... they were pretty boring to this 20-year-old, though I did sit through them till the end).

I continued seeing movies when I was Stateside in the Army because (1) there wasn't a lot else to do and (2) post theater prices were dirt cheap -- 25 cents, I think, back in 1962.

My spiral away from movie-watching accelerated during the 80s partly because I was was now a free-lance consultant and didn't have much discretionary money. On the other hand, my TV-viewing also tapered off a lot during this same period.

Fast-forward to today. Why don't I go to see many movies and how do I select those I do see?

Partly it's price. I'm not inclined to bet even $10 against a movie I'm not sure I'll like. So if I have some doubts, that's usually enough to nix the deal.

Another factor is time. Like price, I try to weigh whether a movie is worth 2-3 hours out of my life to see. This means there are actually two costs -- a monetary cost and a time cost. Combined, they rule out nearly all movies for me these days.

What does it take to over-ride these costs?

I like movies that are entertaining, escapist, not stressful, humorous, have an interesting "concept" and that are intelligently done.

I'm not fond of slapstick comedy any more (used to love it when a kid). I avoid scary movies of all descriptions. Ditto psychological and emotional dramas; life itself presents enough stress, thank you. Nor will I knowingly go to a movie that wraps propaganda in supposed entertainment. Even if a film is acknowledged as a "work of art" and perfectly-crafted I'm not likely to view it if it has the defects and lacks the virtues (in my mind) that I just listed.

There are exceptions, of course. For instance, I've seen Fritz Lang's Metropolis and would likely see it again along with a couple others of his famous UFA films.

And I suppose if, like Michael, I had technical knowledge about movie-making from scripting to editing then I'd be likely to see more movies and view them as a technician, not as an entertainment-seeker. (I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I tend to look at paintings more as a technician than a casual viewer.)

The same applies to acting skill. I'm almost totally ignorant about the techniques applied in a performance. I suppose I might notice a bad job of acting, but to me a good job would be "invisible" because the characterization would be convincing. And in that case, my interest would then fall back to the subject matter, etc. of the movie as mentioned above. What this boils down to is that I never go out of my way to watch a movie for its acting alone due to its invisibility (to me).

To some of you I've just laid out a strong case that I'm a philistine. Maybe I am. But over time I have seen a number of movies that fall into my negative classes. Been there, done that, have other fish needing frying.

This is not to say that I'll never blog about movies. But if I do, it will be from a very limited perspective.

Thank heaven we have Michael to write about movies.



posted by Donald at March 2, 2006


I haven't seen many movies in theaters in recent years, but every now and then I'll rent a DVD. My main interest in watching movies is a little weird - I enjoy looking for bloopers and posting them on :)

Posted by: Peter on March 2, 2006 10:13 PM

Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would have been worth paying for, but Sturgeon's rule has guided me to the local library for free rentals.

For example, although Resident Evil 2 was a mediocre movie, being free and starring Milla Jovavich made it worthwhile.

Posted by: Ed from Florida on March 2, 2006 10:45 PM

Being relatively penniless and way out here in the far territories (both by choice, I hasten to say), I find myself living off the dregs of society and liking it. What I mean is that I buy $5 remaindered books from Hamilton or Daedalus, the books that didn't sell in the stories, and find that the selection is exactly to my taste.

Likewise, I buy DVD's and old video tapes used or remaindered from places like Pamida, the rural division of ShopKo. My best finds so far have been "Zelary" -- about a modern brilliant woman forced to hide during WWII by marrying a big inarticulate woodsman in the mountains -- "After the Harvest" which is a Canadian movie from a famous novel up there, starring Sam Shepherd, and "Two Women," the still amazing Italian WWII movie. Also, I have a very au courant Hollywood friend who loans me movies. The one that just blew me away last year was "The Sea Within" about a quadriplege who wants to commit suicide if he can just find someone to help him do it. (I'll bet you $10 that Clint Eastwood was impressed by that one.)

Of course I subscribe to Netflix and am watching my way through all the Masterpiece Theatre I've missed over the years. I was in love with the Chicago based "Forum" movies, but they were so sloppy about shipping and so on that I gave up on them.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 3, 2006 12:55 PM

I'm with you, Donald. Most movies don't do much for me and I'm not willing to spend the time to separate the gold from the dross. Also, I find the experience of spending even more of my day sitting in a dark room and staring at a screen enervating. Maybe if I worked outside with my hands all day I would enjoy relaxing in a theater, but I don't and I don't. It doesn't help that I have the impression that many of the writers, producers, directors and actors involved in movie making have contempt for my values and for the people and ideas I most respect. I repay the favor by mainly avoiding Hollywood products.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 3, 2006 01:10 PM

At least you saw "The Incredibles" and "Master and Commander," two of the better recent movies I can remember.

I'm critical of movies -- there just aren't many really good ones -- but I can't say I particularly like dissing an entire art form. I am a big novel reader and whenever someone comes on this forum and disses novel reading or contemporary literature (we're in a Golden Age, I tell you), I think "what a douche."

Posted by: jult52 on March 3, 2006 01:56 PM

The way I choose to spend time and money on movies goes roughly in these stages:

(1) Trust in a few screenwriters, who have produced at least one work that couldn't reasonably be a fluke. I've rarely been more than slightly let down. (Great screenplays find talented directors these days, even if they're likely to be produced on the fringes. The converse is far from true.)

(2) Look for analyses by up-and-coming critics that hit on subtle virtues in the films I love. Trust these people when they love something.

(3) Sometimes give in to one of three friends whose standards I respect, in cases where a film seems not to meet criteria (1) or (2).

Don't most of you do something like this? Why need it be so hard?

Posted by: J. Goard on March 3, 2006 04:14 PM

Go see/rent Crash. If your not thinking about it two days latter, your brain dead. HOw that for a movie review.

Posted by: rico on March 4, 2006 12:45 AM

If you want to learn what makes movies tick, Donald, I recommend these easy reads:

Backwards & Forwards by David Ball - a very short book on how scripts work.

Audition by Michael Shurtleff - a casting director gives 12 guideposts for good acting.

When The Shooting Stops by Ralph Rosenblum - the editor of Annie Hall and The Pawnbroker explains how all those little bits of film go together to make a movie.

Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut - a book length interview of the Master, takes his films apart and puts them back together again.

The Liveliest Art by Arthur Knight - the most enthusiastic history of film ever written, it focuses on the early days when the basic techniques were being invented.

While you're at it, watch the documentary Visions of Light, which is about cinematography, and maybe pick up Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema, which is sort of a Peterson's Field Guide To The Film Directors. (Just ignore his sometimes boneheaded opinions.)

The best films I saw last year were The New World, The Island, Batman Begins, and Red Eye. Runners up were Cinderella Man, Sin City, Good Night & Good Luck. From 2004, Eternal Sunshine and Downfall.

Posted by: Brian on March 4, 2006 06:18 PM

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