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March 05, 2006

Moviegoing Note

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Donald's recent posting about how he barely bothers with movies these days has got me thinking about my own movie-watching habits.

I think it's natural for movie-watching rates to decline with passing years. Energy flags, for one thing. Plus, many people find that they lose some of their appetite for fiction experiences as time passes. My theory about this: To some extent, fiction is play -- it's both fun and rehearsal for life. The love of fiction is also, to some extent, a function of self-exploration. With age and experience, "fun" per se becomes less important, the rehearsal period comes to an end, and the self recedes in importance. Real life becomes more pressing, as well as more fascinating. Result: a lot of older people reading history and watching nature documentaries on the Discovery Channel.

Still, even allowing for age-related changes, the advent of digi-tech is having a dramatic impact on my movie-watching life. Back in fizzy youthful celluloid years, FvB and I were college-buddy movienuts, in love with the medium, gobbling up its history as quickly as we could -- absorbing "the movies" the way a 3 year-old kid absorbs language. Most weeks we managed to see 5 to 7 movies; it wasn't unusual for us to take in two or even three movies in a day. (And this in pre-video days! We both owe a lot to college film societies.) During my young/mid-adult years, I was on screening lists, was buddies with film critics and journalists, and continued to make it to two or three movies a week.

These days I'm in a different phase entirely. I love movies, but not in the old ravished-by-the-experience way. I'm curious and comfy where I was once passionate and headstrong. I'm off screening lists, and I'm barely in touch with the filmbuff world.

The velocity of my moviewatching has declined a little. But the bigger difference is in where and how I watch. I barely go to movie theaters at all -- probably fewer than a half a dozen times a year. Instead, I rely on the DVR, on Netflix, and on finds from the bargain-DVD bins at Amazon, Blockbuster, and Virgin. (Once the price of a DVD I'm curious about sinks to lower than 10 bucks, I have a hard time resisting the purchase.) God bless big screens. If you're a devoted film-nut, a high-quality TV isn't a luxury, it's an investment.

Donald's posting and the comments on it woke me up to a consequence of my new movie-watching habits. It's this: Because I no longer bother with seeing movies at theaters, I no longer follow movie coverage in the newspapers or in the magazines. Picking a movie to watch for me has become a matter of scanning suggestions, links, sales, and IFC schedules. I don't take my lead from what's being released. Instead, I follow my tastes, my interests, and my whims, and I pull the movies I might want to watch from databases.

Result: As a practical matter, I've lost all touch with new movies. In fact, I'm barely aware of the movies that have been released during the last three years. Harry someone-or-other? A comedy about guys who pick up girls at weddings? Korean movies are the latest hot thing? I've barely heard of the movies that are vying for Oscars tonight. And gay cowboys? What's that about?

The big fear many arts-people have concerning the impact of digital technology on culture is that digitization results in a shared culture that's an inch thin and that is all present-moment. As immediacy, accessibility, and impact become paramount, history and depth evaporate.

But so far as movie-watching has gone for me, the impact of digi-tech has been the exact opposite. DVD libraries have made much of movie history instantly available, and because of that the present moment in movies has disappeared from my radar screen.

The pile of movies I riff through when I'm deciding what to watch next ends in the early 2000s. When I look at my bulging Netflix queue, I see zero movies -- zero! -- from 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. I'm so ignorant about movies from the recent past that I wouldn't know which movies from these years I might feel a twinkle of curiosity about.

I wonder if this experience is shared by others. Not a big tragedy, of course -- except for Hollywood executives hoping to sell us new product. Still, I'm curious about other people's experiences. I'm also curious about what I've been missing the last few years, and I wouldn't mind sampling a few recent pix. Can anyone recommend a movie or two from the last 24 or 36 months?



posted by Michael at March 5, 2006


Though I'm often Contrary Mary, I seem to be following your path, Michael -- watching old movies I didn't have a chance to see at the time, but also old TV movies and series that I didn't see. (I don't have TV feed.)

There are a couple of differences: I'm tending to rewatch movies. Partly this is because a Netflix movie comes on Friday and I can't stick it back into the mail until Monday morning so it's just THERE. Even rather trivial movies yield interesting things once one has the plot in hand and can watch the background or subplots or thrown-off lines missed the first time.

And some movies which impressed me deeply in childhood turn out to be worth rewatching now, for instance, Renoir's "The River," about girls in India, Rumer Godden's book. For me it is a deep reference text. Which brings me to the second factor, seeing movies again with a much richer historic and cultural background -- not just for the content of the movie but also for the circumstances of its making and what impact it had on the world. I guess I'm getting more head-trippy in a way.

But what still entices me on into new experiments in watching is the feeling of having broken into a new world where I never was before. Might be a foreign country, might be a sub-culture. Not usually available in a mainstream movie. I guess that's the temptation with erotica or even porn -- that it might throw back the curtain on a world unsuspected, never imagined. It's in religion, too, or even architecture.

I'd love to hear what you think of Almodovar's "The Sea Within."

And I'm not watching movies less. I was an addict in the late Fifties in Chicago while at school and I'm still an addict. I would watch four or five movies a day if I didn't ration myself.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 5, 2006 1:39 PM

My favourites from 2005 are A History of Violence and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

As for The Sea Within, it's Alejandro Amenábar, not Almodovar.

Posted by: Felix on March 5, 2006 2:25 PM

One rule I follow when browsing through the DVD's at the local video store: don't rent anything that has pictures of the actors on the DVD cover.

Posted by: Peter on March 5, 2006 2:36 PM

My own interest in movies has declined as well--perhaps with age, perhaps in disgust over the shenanigans one is exposed to every day here in Movieland.

I do love the movie palace immersion experience still; I just go to the matinees now. (First show for horror movies, as there are still hours and hours of cleansing daylight b/w me and potential nightmares.) My real aversion these days is to crowds, I think. Ihad a much higher tolerance for invasion of personal space in my youth.

As for the last 36 months, while I haven't seen nearly as much as my rabid moviegoing friends, I've seen a bit. I can personally recommend Capote, The Matador, Pride & Prejudice (which I have, on my website), and additionally recommend Good Night and Good Luck, which has received universal raves from moviegoers whose taste I trust. Do not miss The Squid and the Whale--it hearkens back to the great 70s era of filmmaking. If you want to catch up on the phenomenon that is Vince Vaughn, Dodgeball is silly fun and again, Wedding Crashers has been recommended universally, if in a somewhat qualified fashion. I loved his performance in Thumbsucker--he the film from under poor Tilda Swinton without even trying. Vaughn has the ease and confidence and charm of a great, old-fashioned movie star.

For docu, The Corporation is also really worth a look, although it's ungodly depressing. Supersize me is fun fun fun.

The movies I see the least now, sadly, are the foreign films. Just last night I saw some Rohmer film in the new releases that I don't remember even reading about in the paper (and remember, in L.A., you read about *every* movie in the paper!). Most of the foreign flicks show at the art houses even here, and their first show puts me in too much rush-hour traffic to deal.

Good god...I am getting old...

Posted by: communicatrix on March 5, 2006 2:46 PM

Movies replaced church and family connection as the place to go for indoctrination in proper dating and mating behavior.

So, when we are young, we troop off to the movies, not just for a date, but for instruction in the proper way to relate to the opposite sex. When we are young, we are eager to go to the movies to learn how to be properly sensitive, urbane and politically correct. We learn to be completely fashionable in our outlook on sex. Young men are particularly eager to do this, in order to win the hearts of liberal young women.

This function of the movies become irrelevant as we get older and, inevitably, more conservative. In fact, the movies become something of an irritant for many of us. Many friends have encouraged me to see Brokeback, but why would I pay 10 bucks to sit through two hours of PC propaganda for gay marriage? I don't need to prove to some lady that I'm properly sensitive and liberal. I'll watch the movie when it's free on TV, if it's not too annoying.

If I do watch a movie now, it's entirely for pleasure. Start the PC preaching and I'll turn the damned thing off. For instance, I started to watch Philadelphia the other night, but I bailed 15 minutes into the story. Looked to me like just another attempt to blame hetero men for the AIDs epidemic.

Even Million Dollar Baby turned me off. I don't care about the Big Issues, even when the director is Clint Eastwood who I admire. Tell me a good story, like Unforgiven, and I'll sit through it.

In my 35 years in San Francisco and NYC, I've heard and listened to, probably, 7 billion plans to save the world. Please, I'm exhausted. And, I no longer care whether my sexual mores and outlook are hip and fashionable.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 5, 2006 3:37 PM

so i guess i'm at that 'self-exploration' stage.
at any rate some suggestions: Match Point (Woody Allen) was probably my favorite this year. The Squid & the Whale comes in as a close second for me and Capote is pretty good too. Probably my favorite recent movie was the Best of Youth. It's really long (6 hours) & in Italian, but it's fantastic. What I'd skip? The French movies--really overrated (e.g. The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Cache). I also thought Eternal Sunshine was utterly overrated. My two cents.

Posted by: bit'snpieces on March 5, 2006 4:16 PM

The digital media are surely changing movie-watching habits. For better or worse? As usual with new technology, I suppose, the answer is, for better and worse.

For some, movie digitalis does cheapen and trivialize the experience. Have you ever been invited to watch a film in someone's home with a bunch of people, who comment on it all the way through? It's like the movie itself is only a launching pad for their own alleged witticisms and observations. This sends me crazy. Maybe that's why nobody invites me to watch movies with them in their living room anymore.

Now, I gather, they are promoting movies on iPods. And I'm sure a lot of young people will think that's the coolest thing ever, to "see" a movie on a peephole-size screen.

The positive side is as you've noted. Given a decent home theater setup, we are liberated to watch whatever movies suit our mood, from almost any era, with DVDs often made from better prints than we used to see in tatty "revival houses."

I hope, and there seems to be some evidence that this is happening, that the moviegoing public is becoming less obsessed with whatever the industry is throwing at them currently, and more interested in discovering worthwhile titles from the back catalog. Not just acknowledged classics, but good movies that they've just never caught up with. Who's got time to read all the reviews of what's on in theaters, much less go see everything that's promising?

I do not record movies from the TV networks, because DVDs have made anything other than high-def unacceptable to me, but Netflix has been a godsend. Even movies I thought I'd "seen" before from broadcasts or VHS tapes are a whole new experience thanks to DVDs, my HDTV, and my Dolby Digital system. Another beauty of it is that paying only a monthly fee, rather than a per-disc fee at the rental store, makes it more likely you'll take a chance on a movie you're not sure of, which sometimes can be rewarding.

For whatever it's worth, my recommendation for a recent film is 2046.

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 5, 2006 4:29 PM

I rather liked these:

_You, Me and Everyone We Know_ (2005)
(especially the "walking down the street" scene and the "talking to the camera" scene)

_The Aristocrats_ (2005)
(be sure to stay through the credits!)

_Code 46_ (2004)
(though for the architecture and cinematography more than the plot)

Posted by: Glen Raphael on March 5, 2006 5:42 PM

Thanks, Felix. Quite right. The Almodovar I saw was "Bad Education," which I didn't like. And once was enough.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 5, 2006 5:58 PM

I barely saw any of the movies nominated this year, but I did think Good Night, and Good Luck was rather good.

Other movies worth seeing:
Born Into Brothels (2004) documentary
Batman Begins (2005) If you like this sort of thing, this is the best Batman movie to date (imo).

Thirteen (2003)
Hero (2002) released later in US, I saw it in 2004.

Posted by: claire on March 5, 2006 6:04 PM

Like you, I tanned by the light of rep house screens through college and my twenties. Now I rarely go to the movies except with the children. For whatever reason, though, I saw four movies at the cinema this week:

1) Jarhead: much more enjoyable than expected. Overly beautiful, like a feature-length advertisement.
2) Chicken Little: Had the seats been less uncomfortable, I would absolutely have fallen asleep. I may have anyway.
3) Casanova: A wonderfully entertaining bagatelle (got that Donald?). We sat in the front row of a packed 600-seat room with a big screen, which was just about right. A confection.
4) Nanny McPhee: A pretty odd role for Emma Thompson, who I believe wrote the film, too. More than bearable children's fare.

But the best thing I saw all week was on TV this evening: the first half of the latest edition of Michael Apted's 49 Up. Apted has been interviewing a dozen or so subjects from every walk of London life since they were 7 years old. I hadn't seen it since they were 28, and found my affinities had shifted a lot in the past 21 years. It's very much worth the time, particularly if you've seen the earlier editions.

Posted by: robert on March 5, 2006 6:43 PM

I am happily retro and own no DVD or even VCR (despite the fact that I used to work in film and TV). So I always am conscious of what is at the theatres. There used to be a lot of double-bill revival movie houses in NYC--now down to only one, the Thalia/Symph Space.
What I find perversely fascinating is the American obsession with the Oscars. I find the Acad Awards extraordinarily boring, and couldn't care less what anyone is wearing. Content to read the results the next day in the papers. What do others think?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 5, 2006 7:10 PM

Shouting Thomas, that point you made about kids getting dating clues surprised me because I hadn't had that thought in ages. And it seems spot-on. Well, it was for me. Hmm. Is there any way to sue Rock Hudson and Doris Day or, better yet the studio, for giving a naive kid some not-too-realistic ideas about courtship? (Actually, their flicks were most popular and enjoyable at the time. Must look for a DVD to see how they hold up these days.)

Question: Do today's teens still use movies for behavior coaching or do they (shudder) use other media?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 5, 2006 7:11 PM

You think seeing movies in a theater "probably less than a half a dozen times a year" counts as "barely go[ing] to movie theaters at all"? The last first-run movie I saw in a theater, and (I'm pretty sure) the last movie of any kind I saw in a theater, was Beavis & Butt-Head Do America. And that was only because the cheap motel in Cullhowee, VA, where I stopped on the way home for Christmas in 1996 was next door to the Cullhowee II Theater ("two big screens!"). Plus I'm a big B&B fan.

I saw a fair number of movies on-campus in college (1971-75), probably one a week, whatever the film society was showing. These were just the kind you might guess a "Great Books" school like St. John's (Annapolis) would show: lots of Bergman, Kurosawa, and Fellini. A few exceptions: I was almost thrown out of Rosselini's "Socrates" for jeering too loudly -- it was so bad it ought to be on Mystery Science Theatre.

Anyway, as a bookish loner, I haven't seen a lot of movies since then until the last few years. Between TCM (when I can afford cable), DVDs, and UNC's generous non-student lending policies for DVDs, I've been making up for lost time. But I don't usually bother with anything recent. Just since Christmas, I've seen Spartacus, Smiles of a Summer Night, Bringing Up Baby, and The Third Man for the first time in 30 years, and Le Corbeau, Diabolique, The Browning Version, Pickup on South Street, The Ruling Class, The Revenger's Tragedy, and Scotland PA for the first time ever. Also about a third of Kwaidan, before I got bored. And I don't even have HDTV. I'd never seen an opera until 4 1/2 years ago, when I was living in Manhattan, but have since been addicted. Again, DVDs help a lot.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on March 5, 2006 9:18 PM

Moviegoing would be more tolerable if theaters didn't show commercials as well as the incessant "coming attractions." If I want to watch advertising I can get that for free on television.

Posted by: Peter on March 5, 2006 10:03 PM

Oops. Emend 'Cullhowee' to 'Chilhowie', a name of deep significance in a Kinky Friedman novel.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on March 5, 2006 10:09 PM

We don't go to movies much anymore. I can't handle the rudeness of the other theatre-goers. Cell phones. Giving away the plots. Talking.

Mail rentals and DVRs do just fine. The more compromised dimensions of one's home and the subtle intimacy thereof more than make up for the wow factor of the megatheatre experience. But then I'm 77 and content within my own skin. Yes, a bit tired too!

Posted by: citrus on March 6, 2006 10:23 AM

You put your finger directly on it, Michael! I've been thrashing around since I started my blog trying to articulate what the hell's going on with me in this regard, and you stated perfectly. (I knew it had something to do with age, the but mechanism eluded me.)

The whole post applies, but the paragraph containing "My theory about this:" puts it in a nutshell.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 6, 2006 11:27 AM

I don't know if it's age. Ingmar Bergman is 87 and apparently sees everything that comes out. He's got a theater on that island of his. Kubrick was the same way:

He loved Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman, Carlos Saura, Edgar Reitz, Felini.... Oh he liked lots of films. He was very knowledgeable and in fact he saw everything. I also know there were a lot of films he would give up after ten minutes. We had stacks of prints in our projection room and many times he would only see reel one because if reel one somehow leaves you totally cold, the risk is too great to go on and waste another hour and a half. He was an ardent film lover.

Maybe you should install a screening room?

I think I mentioned in Donald's thread that the ones I liked last year were The Island, Sin City, and Red Eye, all of which you've seen, plus Batman Begins, The New World, Cinderella Man, Good Night & Good Luck (for the photography), the penguin movie, The 40 Year Old Virgin, plus Eternal Sunshine and Downfall and Melinda & Melinda from the year before last. I hated Match Point until the last half hour, Capote left me cold, and The Brothers Grimm and Kingdom of Heaven have led me to boycott their respective directors until they apologize nicely.

Posted by: Brian on March 6, 2006 1:08 PM

The Kubrick link is here.

Posted by: Brian on March 6, 2006 1:09 PM

I think you can't beat the movie theater experience, and I still go to 20 or 30 movies per year in theaters, but I have a second run theater where admission is $2, which tends to lower my standards, I'll see a lot of junk at that price.

Some recent movies you might like -
Grizzly Man (documentary)
Walk the Line (very entertaining, not to be seen if you don't like bio pics, musicals, or johnny cash)
The New Land (this may need to be seen in a theater)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
King Kong (I know, kinda lowbrow, but its extremely well done and even when I have reached the point of special effects fatigue, I found it visually spectacular)
Pride & Prejudice (Keira Knightley is a knockout in this)

Posted by: pw on March 7, 2006 2:13 AM

Pure wisdom: "With age and experience, "fun" per se becomes less important, the rehearsal period comes to an end, and the self recedes in importance. Real life becomes more pressing, as well as more fascinating."

Posted by: jult52 on March 7, 2006 10:16 AM

"The Aviator". It's good. "Pirates of the Carribean" was great.

Posted by: annette on March 7, 2006 11:26 AM

I have one account but three usernames on Netflix that allows me to have three queues (one queue with a limit of 500 titles wasn't cutting it) which I use for westerns, television shows and regular movies. Also living in Southern California gives me access to Eddie Brandt's video store which has basically every film ever released on VHS as well as thousands of movies that were never released to home video but were taped off of TCM, the old AMC, and even the Z Channel.

So with all that I rarely go to the theater anymore. However I recently saw "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" which turned out to be the most enjoyable new film that I have seen in years. Michael Winterbottom is the most adventurous director working today but while not all of his films work ("9 Songs"), the ones that do are really good ("24 Hour Party People").

The star of Shandy, Steve Coogan is a comedic genius and although he is a big star in the U.K. he should by all rights become a huge star in the U.S. as well.

Coogan's and Rob Brydon's dueling Al Pacino impressions at the end of the film is a particular highlight.

Posted by: grandcosmo on March 8, 2006 4:04 AM

I just thought of another one, Michael. Since you go for psychological suspense and Euro-exploitation, Cache seems to be a good combination of both. Michael Haneke directs, Juliette Binoche stars. I ain't seen it, but I hear it's good. (I might go see it tonight, actually.)

Posted by: Brian on March 9, 2006 5:16 PM

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