(Foreword: My heart goes out to the victims of the Connecticut shooting. Please send them your empathy, prayers and love. They need it.)
Like an Illinois winter, when weeks of unseasonable warmth plummet to sub-zero in an hour, then revert, Check the Reel has fallen into a familiar pattern: weeks of stillness broken by a staccato flurry of posts followed by more stillness. I don’t intend to alter this rhythm; inactivity will come and go as life demands it. At the least, you can expect in-depth articles on amateur filmmaking, the teenage film genre (John Hughes, Perks of Being a Wallflower), and TV comedy before New Years passes, if the Mayans be so merciful. Also, make room in your tabs for Festival of Films: it’s not only a fantastic source for free movies, documentaries, and news courtesy of passionate, talented film writers, but I have recently had the honor of joining as blogger and reviewer. Check out my first two reviews on the site, for the Wreck-It Ralph short “Paperman” and Rise of the Guardians. They’re nice under-1,000 word bites of analysis, less likely to suffocate first-time readers than anything on this blog.
What else do you need to know? Hm… The semi-regular feature, “Trailer Thrash,” an uphill battle from the start, has ceased to struggle and accepted death peacefully – I will no longer post my impressions of new trailers in an omnibus format. Rumors that Matthew Vaughn will direct Star Wars Episode VII have flared into near-confirmation with stray remarks by Jason Flemyng – this excites me, and I almost forgive Vaughn for abandoning the Kick-Ass and First Class sequels. You should see the new Man of Steel trailer.
Perhaps you want me to talk about the elephant in the room, or, rather, the Hobbit in his hole. At this moment of writing The Hobbit premiered in many US theatres an hour and fifty-three minutes ago (Eastern time). Tolkien fans are still seated, watching Ian Holm’s Bilbo trek across Middle Earth with Gandalf and his band of dwarves. For many this is the first time since Skyfall, or The Dark Knight Rises, or Avengers, they have left the comforts of home – Netflix! On Demand! Blu-Ray! – to enter the dark room where mouths masticate popcorn, suck red-striped straws, and whisper hushed excitement at what their eyes see on the screen. Who’s to say some of these viewers haven’t been to movie theatres since Return of the King in 2003? Who’s to say some haven’t been ever?
I haven’t seen The Hobbit yet, and I’m not the person to ask about it (I was a Narnia kid myself). What I have to say deals tangentially with the film proper and partially with how it will be seen, at least for the next month. These are stray thoughts, mostly anecdotes, more sleepy dream-musing than news or argument. It shouldn’t take too much of your time.
The Hobbit is Hollywood’s newest gambit against the television, web, and “Cloud” industry, another coup de grace in an increasingly lopsided duel that movie theatres won with Gone with the Wind, then lost against TV; won with Star Wars but died fighting VHS; recovered briefly under Titanic only to collapse, heart stricken, when it faced the World Wide Web. Theatres will never again draw the numbers they commanded in the 30s when 80 million, or 60% of the American population, went to picture shows weekly. The reasons are many: people are lazy and watching movies on your couch is lazy entertainment, ticket prices are higher, indie cinemas are fewer, it takes fifteen minutes of ads to reach the movie (If I had a dollar for every person who grouched “Another one!?” at a green-band), and diversity in multiplexes, a venue designed to accommodate more options, is distinctly lacking. It’s not “Chicken or the egg” but many eggs, and many chickens, conceiving one another and in the process conceiving themselves.
Studios have maneuvered this dusty, suffocating cobweb with the short-fix philosophy of “Just stay afloat,” using opening weekend to make the bank and coast along on theatrical releases. Thus the glut of sequels, comic adaptations, safe bets, and everything that makes critics giddy with doomsday proselytizing.
None of those complaints matter, of course. Nostalgia kills analysis. You can dress it up with statistics and Latin-based words but in the end it’s just a game of how I, the first-person, fell in love with film, remote from all other experience and infinitely selfish. Whether you watched Breaking Dawn, Part 2 its first weekend and had fun, or you’ve torrented Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest auteur-epic from your dorm room, you are participating in film, sustaining it, and carrying it, vitalized, into the future. I would never in a thousand years take that from you.
I am blessed with the means to attend the cinema on a regular basis and experience a broad spectrum of film, from the mainstream to atomic, and I understand not everybody is so lucky. So long as people continue to watch film, the medium will evolve, and ten years from now the industry might have a better understanding of how to deliver films to the largest number of audiences.
That’s the one thing that will stay constant. Wherever you watch it and however seemingly isolated, you experience film as an audience, a participant, a member of communities that makes it possible to enjoy motion pictures. When you call yourself a film buff what you really say is: I am legion, for we are many, and you’re possessed not by demons but the kindred spirits around the world, all enraptured by celluloid.
This year, I’ve seen Moonrise Kingdom and Wreck-It Ralph four times each in theatres, more than any other 2012 release and certainly more than I’m apt to in any other year. I knew from my first viewing of Moonrise Kingdom that I would be revisiting this film in the same context – darkened room, cluttered with bodies focused on a flickering box of light. Wreck-It Ralph took me by surprise. You could say it revisited me, as friends invited me to see it again, circumstances foiled other movie plans, and wherever I meant to go I found myself instead watching the same Pac-Man jokes, exactly as I saw it before, down to the last Power Pellet.
Some people despise repeat viewings. Without any novelty the film lacks suspense; the emotional beats telegraph themselves far ahead, when on your first viewing they shocked you silly. On the opposite end of spectrum some viewers hate surprise and seek spoilers to avoid the dreaded nail-biting that comes with ambiguity. You have a right to either stance.
I didn’t mind. It might have been my second, third, or fourth viewing. These two films could have been replaced by different films, either greater or inferior, and the effect would remain the same.
My experience changed because the people around me changed.
Call up your earliest memory of film, perhaps the film dearest to your heart for reasons of nostalgia or wonder. Chances are it’s associated with some familiar faces: friends, family, even the vague, shadowy fragments of bodies looming over you in the surrounding theatre seats, still barely clinging to the memory. Someone recommended it or you watched it settled on their lap or it’s the occasion of a date gone horribly, utterly wrong (or wonderfully, gloriously right). Loners can’t escape it. Generation X can’t escape it. Even these Internet babies grow up thinking of film in a context, and people – not robots, not computers – but living, breathing people create context, because they also create the films.
With Wreck-It Ralph and Moonrise Kingdom, I progressed from opening weekend and packed houses buzzing eagerly to near-empty rooms. In the case of my last Wreck-It Ralph viewing the theatre was barren save for three friends and myself (plus one server – this was a dine-and-flick place). We had nobody else’s laughter except our own, and the back of our heads itched with the awareness of lifeless air blowing through the rows behind us. Afterward, I left the theatre close to skipping, nearly floating. Three friends and a movie was all I needed to savor the experience as if it had been the first time.
One friend (who hadn’t seen the film) laughed so earnestly despite the silence he compelled us to join in. Another leaned over and described the creative sex life that would ensue from Fix-It Felix and Sgt. Calhoun’s height gap. On the drive back we dissected the film with faux-nalyses spanning feminist, queer, Marxist, deconstructionist, and historical theory, alluding to Jean-Paul Sartre and the 80s crack epidemic so fervently the highway slipped beneath us and we’d arrived home having talked of nothing else. I didn’t regret the $20 I paid; it gave me one of the best nights of my life.
Inside the theatre, outside the theatre, within the film, without the film; during and before and after and however you approach film, there exists people. They exist in your head or physically around you. At the very least, they exist as flat recreations of real people moving on a screen in a bid to amuse you. In theatres you hear them as grunts, gasps, blown noses, baby babble, the roar of a standing ovation when individual and collective reaction merge in blissful synchronicity. Crane your head and they’re shadows with dimly lit faces and expressions you can almost make out. You associate them with movies and vice versa, and after watching a new film it often happens that you think without thinking, before you know it, “I know who would like this.”
Why is this fall the most exciting time for motion pictures? Because alongside so many breathtaking films like ParaNorman, Dredd, End of Watch, Life of Pi, Hotel Transylvania, Cloud Atlas, Wreck-It Ralph, Rise of the Guardians, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, The Master, “Paperman” … I’ve cemented my ties to a community I knew all my life and yet only just discovered. Of course something special enters into the formula, a will to enjoy myself more, when I attend films with family or friends. We often forget that spark also exists with strangers.
Imagine someone you’ve never met who shared a movie theatre with you, a child experiencing the cinematic art for the first time three rows down, moved by the same sights, struck by the same transcendent beauty of it all, and in that shared moment they’ve decided they want to make movies. I like to think I sat by a few. Hell, why limit it to children? I visited LA for the first time last week and caught a restored print of Robert Bresson’s The Devil Probably, a scathing, bitter French New Wave film about disenfranchised teens rebelling against the system and each other. My dad accompanied me and hated it. It had no life, he said. A lot of teenagers might agree – it’s slow, philosophical, deliberately polarizing. I left the theatre for a bathroom break and, passing the last row, overheard a pair of sixty-something men rapt in conversation, discussing the lead character’s suicide and the significance – not just in the film, in our world! – of someone taking the conscious step to end their life.
And though they talked frankly of death I only thought of living. Call me naive: the more we remind ourselves we aren’t alone when watching film, the greater our capacity to appreciate that experience; the more that experience links with someone else’s, the deeper our respect for all humanity. If I grieve one part of America’s fading filmgoing, it’s the chance to watch anything, the grand and the obscure, with crowds of eager peers willing to risk disappointment. For crying out loud, I watched in LA an eight-minute film of baby cockroaches being slaughtered with twenty other people. They cringed, laughed nervously… We shared something. You can share it also on Netflix Instant Watch. Just browse the user reviews or summon some of Mama’s ol’ home cooked empathy. Even when there are no bugs and no three friends to keep you company the ride home, use your imagination. Turn on your memory.
Remind yourself: movies aren’t islands unto themselves but Asia-sized continents. Inside them are the hundreds of people who made the movie possible and the billions upon millions more who gave it meaning by packing those theatre seats, wearing their Tolkien t-shirts, conversing in Elfish, cheering when Ian McKellan first appears. The modern film industry might disenchant you, but the instant you distance yourself from other film buffs and the notion, friends or not, their experience affects yours – that’s when cinema loses its magic.
One last anecdote, a brief one: I went to see Cloud Atlas a second time for the purpose of writing an article for Festival of Films. I had previously seen it opening weekend with my sister in a decently filled theatre that responded with the usual dose of gasps and laughter at the appropriate spots, even exclaiming “Wow!” when the credits illustrated the number of transformations applied to the actors across the film’s six stories. Flash forward three, four weeks and the film is on its way out of most major multiplexes. At my local AMC, Cloud Atlas was only screening at 3:00 PM. Skyfall and Life of Pi had rapidly supplanted this three-hour bulk of a sci-fi financial failure and the number of people present reflected its slow death: one man who quietly watched the film, another who entered the theatre twenty minutes late and left ten minutes early, and a teenage couple who sat at the very back and responded with the most enthusiasm, albeit a passion still dulled by the lack of reciprocation from their fellow audience.
As the credits rolled, I went down the stairs. The couple walked in front of me with their faces turned away so I couldn’t see. I felt curious. I asked them what they had thought of the film. The boyfriend (who from behind sounded and looked like Adam Driver on HBO’s Girls) sputtered jumbled praise: “It was great… Loved it…” The girlfriend had already seen it before, as I had, and she loved it. “It still makes me cry,” she said. I complimented her on sharing the film with her boyfriend and from there had little else to say, so I shut up.
They walked faster ahead of me, down the hall in the direction of the bathrooms. For a second they took each others’ hands, swinging them to let off the pent-up enthusiasm, goofy, careless, the whimsy of young lovers together. Then, breaking off in unison like a molecule splitting, they disappeared into their respective restrooms.
Beaming, I exited to the parking lot and slid inside my car. The memory of their swinging hands, their silhouettes in the dim hallway, their synchronized parting, kept me company the ride home.