Saturday, May 11, 2013

Home movies

I was reading an interview with the film blogger Girish Shambu, and paused on the following passage:

“Finally, scale of the image definitely matters to me; it’s hard for me to appreciate a film on YouTube. I saw a terrific transfer of Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers on YouTube recently. It’s a great, complex, nuanced film, but I’ve already forgotten most of its images. I doubt that would have happened if I’d seen it in a theatre or on a large TV.”

I went and looked for myself, and indeed, there it was. It’s exactly the kind of thing I love finding online – one of the less well-known films by a great director, one I’ve never seen before, and not readily available otherwise (there’s no North American DVD of it). And while I don’t know the legality of such things, I guess I could easily convince myself that YouTube is a highly visible and law-abiding concern, and that if anyone had a legitimate concern about the film’s presence on there breaching a copyright, then it would have been removed. So I watched it too, and enjoyed it a lot, and didn’t care in the least that it was on YouTube rather than on a big screen. I watched it on a pretty large desktop, and sat up real close, which was enough for me to feel immersed in it.

Submitting to the conditions

It seems to me that to be in love with cinema is also to spend lots of time agonizing about that love, and if you avoid one kind of agony, you submit to another. Shambu sets out various other reasons why he prefers to view films in a movie theatre – for example “I enjoy submitting to the regime of viewing conditions in a movie theatre... I like it that I can’t pause the film, get up and take care of something mid-film, or wait until later to finish it” – but while I generally like that too, over time I feel it more and more as, indeed, a submission. It’s not so much the constraints of the specific experience – although as I get older, I see others in the audience less and less as fellow contributors to a mutually reinforcing mass pleasure, more and more merely as sources of distraction – but of everything that surrounds it. If The Terrorizers played anywhere in Toronto, it would likely be at the Bell Lightbox, in just one or two showings, most likely on a weekday evening, thereby disrupting other stuff I value just as much as cinema. I used to do it – fifteen years ago there were periods when I was at the Cinematheque Ontario for several evenings in a row, even doing double bills some evenings, because there was just no other way to see those rare Fassbinder films, or whatever it might have been.

But that only gave me another version of Shambu’s problem with forgetting the images – my appreciation of the movies was perpetually being chewed up by the movie coming right after, by the logistics of scheduling and traveling and eating around it, by sheer fatigue. It’s the same reason why I stopped going to the film festival a few years ago. Although I know cinema inherently depends on our relinquishing control, I’ve become accustomed to controlling the conditions of my loss of control. For me this easily justifies the trade-offs on image quality and other matters, which I don’t think inherently bother me as much anyway. I’ve occasionally been completely immersed in films on flights for instance (albeit always on my own laptop rather than on the in-flight system).

Trade-offs of movie viewing

I do admit my experience of a film sometimes suffers for taking too many pauses in the course of watching it, but it’s just another trade-off – if I only embarked on watching a movie when I was assured of finishing it in the same sitting, I wouldn’t experience even a third as many films as I do. I guess I’m a believer that the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

Those fifteen-year-ago Cinematheque audiences were awfully thin at times, and while the new Lightbox may have changed that, I doubt it. Take how I found out about The Terrorizers, on the web from someone I don’t even know – if you extrapolated across the globe, you’d imagine thousands of people must know about it by now. But actually, as I write this, the film has only been viewed some 3,600 times, in over eighteen months! That’s derisory really, but that’s just how it is – only a tiny number of people care about foreign films beyond what’s new and current (if that), and even if they do care, they don’t have time to dip in more than infrequently. Experiences like The Terrorizers – even as opportunities you can tap into for free, without leaving the house - are already all but crowded out by the noise of the new and the necessary and the prominent and the easy. If we stipulate further that the experience is only fully realized when it happens in a movie theatre, then we’ll only slowly kill off what little space such experiences still possess in this world. So we have no choice but to retrain our faculties – to love and to own and to fight to remember that image floating on the desktop, or on our laps, or at whatever confined distance it might be, as if it were as high and inescapable as the sky.

The Terrorizers

As for The Terrorizers, it’s one of only eight films directed by Yang, who died in 2007: his best-known is the last, Yi Yi, which is on a Criterion Collection DVD, and I did pay to own that! The narrative follows several intertwining stories, but ultimately focuses primarily on an unfulfilled hospital researcher whose wife, a novelist, leaves him for another man – an event he finds impossible to accept or to rationalize. Although there’s some violence in the film, I take the title to evoke much more than that: the terrorizers might be the people who play thoughtless, destructive pranks, but also encompass chilly, soul-destroying work environments; those we can’t help loving even as they make us despair; and just the whole human infrastructure and its traps, and the toll of trying to navigate within it.

The film’s excellent climax first fools us into thinking it might have been one kind of story all along, while then revealing it was always a much quieter and sadder one. Yang controls the film exquisitely, holding everything in balance; afterwards you remember both the film’s many difficult silences and its sharp eruptions of danger. Whether or not you retain its images, I’m certain you’ll be influenced by the journey, which is all I ever hope for. And what a miracle, really, to live in a time when one can take such a journey at home, without paying a thing for it.

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