Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why watch new movies?

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)
I find myself musing daily on the so-called “paradox of thrift” – on how our collective economic well-being depends on our willingness to go out and spend money, but our individual interests are surely best served by avoiding unnecessary consumption and saving all we can. Commentators lament the lack of consumer “confidence,” although when applied to such foregone expenditures as electronics and replacements for perfectly functioning automobiles, “recklessness” seems as appropriate a term. This is what worries me most, that the world we’ve built for ourselves isn’t just straining against our best interests; it’s in direct, fearsome contradiction to them.

Forget Your Troubles

I’m just here to talk about movies. But there too, I find myself musing along roughly parallel lines. For those of us who love cinema, the medium’s health surely depends on our getting out and investing in its present and its future. But more and more, I feel our individual interests are best served by its past. By which I mean, although it’s satisfying and in some way relevant to watch new movies, it’s seldom as fulfilling an experience as engaging with the almost innumerable peaks of previous decades. The one big distinction ought to be that only contemporary films can directly illustrate the very specific challenges of the here and now. But as I’ve been writing a lot lately, movies are doing a poor job with that. So, frankly, to take just one of dozens of available examples, Jean-Luc Godard’s diagnosis of the 60’s and 70’s has more to say about the present, albeit by extension, than any of the “serious” films that contended for this year’s Oscars.

Now, of course, that comment overlooks the pleasure of actually going to the movies. One of the year’s few upbeat business stories from the US so far is the 16% attendance increase, making $100 million hits out of such unpromising items as Liam Neeson’s thriller Taken. “It’s not rocket science,” says one commentator. “People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.” Maybe so. But it seems to me a movie lasting a couple of hours isn’t a very effective way of forgetting one’s troubles, and it’s certainly not a cheap one; as those troubles ratchet up, where easier to save twenty or sixty bucks? So I’d guess this box office surge is partly fluke, partly a function of a culture adapting to a new paradigm, not sustainable for long. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s awfully easy to be right nowadays just by being pessimistic.

Real Art

The communications industry’s current problems (fragmented audiences; plummeting advertising volumes; unsustainable cost structures etc.) have been widely reported. The democratizing impact of technology means almost anyone can make a movie and “distribute” it in the sense of putting it up on YouTube (check out my own opus about my dog, titled Scenes of Pasolini). But real art has mostly always required real funding, and you can’t help being pessimistic about the prospects there. Likewise, many or most of the greatest filmmakers found their creative selves through some (in some cases many) early failures or minor works, a facility that likewise doesn’t seem as available now. No doubt some people will always find a way through all this, but in such a crowded environment, they may be difficult to identify or locate (most serious cineastes’ list of the best current filmmakers would bear little resemblance to popular perception, even of the relatively informed variety). Right now, the film festival is the main window into this activity, and maybe it’s the best there is, but shouldn’t that really be a high-profile showcase (and to some extent a sieve) for a thriving year-round network of films getting shown and engaged with, rather than (as it is for many movies) the only shot they ever get?  

Back To The Future

More and more, I’m tending to view it as a bonus if there’s much good new stuff, and focusing my primary consumption on what already exists. DVD, of course, has been a marvel for making material available. Turner Classic Movies and other networks are a daily treasure trove. These aren’t free, of course, but compared to the cost of movie going, they’re not too damn bad. And if you look at it that way, then even from my fairly random viewing of the last few months, virtually every recent high-profile movie finds itself caught in another’s shadow: 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Maybe some found it instructive to muse about the consequences of aging backwards; Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 The Passenger is a much more distinctive and yet truly mysterious meditation on living outside the framework set for us.

Doubt Strong characters in a concentrated setting with religious overtones; the application of belief in an environment of pervasive uncertainty. How about sampling ol’ Ingmar Bergman? Most of his movies even contain some Streep-like female acting.

The Reader A reprehensible Nazi past, along with kinky sex? Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist remains startling and daring in a way Stephen Daldry’s film couldn’t imagine. (In other news, also superior to The Reader: just about every even vaguely war-related film ever made).    

Revolutionary Road The repressed underbelly of 50’s suburbia? Why not get it right from the horse’s mouth, via the still amazing, incredibly expressive dramas of Vincente Minnelli or Douglas Sirk, or Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet?

The Wrestler Mickey Rourke was great, but the younger washed-up boxer played by Stacy Keach in John Huston’s 1972 Fat City provides a more directly troubling reference point for most of us, and the film as a whole has a much more acute existential agony.

Frost/Nixon is the acid test in a way – it’s interesting enough to watch, but how many people would care about Frost or Nixon if the movie wasn’t placed before them, and it’s tough to glean much from the picture beyond the diversion of the thing itself. So why not seek out great films on subjects or themes that actually interest you? Whatever that may be, I guarantee they’re out there, more of them than you ever imagined.

Well, I could go on of course. And you know, this mindset does sharpen your appreciation of new films that really do seem fresh and directly relevant (Wendy and Lucy) or that at least take a brave approach to previously unexplored subject matter (Che). Obviously it’s easy to diminish contemporary efforts by citing the high-points of past years. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a true or valid exercise. Ultimately, throwing money at the latest box office bauble is more about helping Hollywood handle its own troubles than managing your own. In this particular paradox of thrift, the only rational course is to save your money, and let your reckless neighbours save the industry.

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