(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)
For me, watching movies is a matter of considerable planning and strategy. I have an ongoing aspiration to be someone who can comment at least semi-articulately at any given time on almost any notable film, as though the encyclopedia of world cinema were lodged prominently in my cortex. Given the number of pages in the encyclopedia, this is an impossible object, involving not only seeing the major new releases (I’m using “major” here to denote artistic interest rather than commercial prominence) but also constantly visiting and revisiting films from the past. One could easily watch three or four films a day and barely crack the surface of this task; since I have a full time job and a wife and a dog, such a commitment is clearly impossible. So as a compromise, I’ve long aimed to watch a film a day on average, from all sources.
Movies all the time
As I write, I’m doing rather well on this year’s target – I’m actually ten or so films ahead. I can’t fully explain how this happened, although it helped that I acquired a laptop that plays DVD’s and I thus have additional flexibility in cramming movies into otherwise unproductive time. For example, on a recent trip to my parents’ house in Wales, I watched The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in bed across a succession of early mornings. That aside, the average week might take in two or three new films in the major chains, a couple at the Cinematheque or other repertory venues, with the balance coming on DVD or video, usually in fifteen minute or half hour chunks here and there. Some people can’t watch films this way, and I wouldn’t say it’s ideal either, but for me it’s a matter of logistical necessity.
It’s a little puzzling that I’m watching so many movies this year, because I’ve been spreading myself potentially a bit thin. Work takes up nine or ten hours a day. I do these weekly columns of course, and I also wrote an article in the current issue of CineAction. I’ve also been writing a novel (you’ll probably never hear of it again) which is nearly at 50,000 words. I spend half an hour a day studying French and have been exercising diligently. My wife and I eat out at least twice a week. I’ve been socializing more than in years, in some weeks scheduling something for virtually ever night. I’ve read more books so far this year than I usually do (albeit mostly books about cinema, which I was trying for a while to avoid), as well as numerous magazines and papers and the ever-growing roster of websites I visit regularly. And I did all my share of the dog walking and my other designated household duties. And much else. Before you ask, no, I don’t sleep a lot, and it’s getting to be less.
Money in the Bank
You can probably see from this that I don’t spend much time doing what people term “nothing.” Of course, some might say that seven movies a week is a big investment in doing nothing, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Most of my days are like relays, the baton constantly being passed from one activity to the next. But I don’t think (not that it’s completely in my power to judge) this makes me one of those highly-strung perpetual motion types. I walk fast, sure, and I make decisions fast, but most of the time I feel pretty laidback. In the middle of this hurricane of activities, I like to claim there’s a peaceful eye.
And not the least of the reasons for this is that I’m on a real movie high this year. I think I may have seen a better quality of films this year than I ever have before. Virtually everything I watch is just thrilling. In the last few weeks alone, for instance, I’ve watched films by Bunuel, Dreyer, Resnais, Kurosawa, Antonioni and (courtesy of MoviePix) seven by Hitchcock. This is all like money in the bank. Many of the new movies have been good and diverting – the six hour The Best of Youth, the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare, the German Head-On caught at the Goethe Institute (unfortunately that one didn’t get a wider release).
Just as you sometimes appreciate simpler food as a contrast to a series of high-end meals, I’m also finding heightened pleasure in the second-tier films I’ve been watching. For example, I watched Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan for the first time in twenty years. The film looks cumbersome and rather laborious now, and the progressiveness of its sexual politics is certainly compromised. But the central axis of a bored housewife breaking out of her prison through identification with another more self-defined woman still seems fresh and exciting. It’s a film in which every element seems culturally and politically intriguing.
I actually went to see Monster in Law, for Jane Fonda of course, and although I could certainly see all the weaknesses and idiocies that some critics were so vituperative about, I regarded the movie with general goodwill (any review I might have written would have been somewhat wet and bloodless, which is why I didn’t bother with it). Fortunately for my future prospects in this space, I found there is a limit to this wellbeing, and I reached it with Paul Haggis’ Crash. The film received some terrific reviews (The New Yorker thought it the best American movie since Mystic River) and some damning ones that saw it as an absurd preachy fake (albeit well-orchestrated). That’s pretty much my own view.
And yet, watching Crash was a scintillating experience, and my wife and I discussed it solidly for at least half an hour afterwards. With so much to choose from, there’s no excuse for anyone watching a movie that’s at least stimulating and interesting. And the network of decisions and inputs and compromises and tensions underlying a failed or unsatisfying movie can be at least as interesting (and often more so) as those underlying a conventionally successful one of limited ambition. It seems to me that everyone would acknowledge that on some level, and yet given the choice, I’m always surprised and dismayed how people choose to opt for something simple and reassuring, without concern for how this marks them as puppets of mass commerce.
When I was growing up in Wales, I latched on to films fairly early as a central means of self-definition – I desperately wanted to transcend my surroundings, to be the kind of person who could get out, and cinema helped me acquire the expanded parameters to accomplish that. I suppose I feel more settled and fully defined now, and yet every time I watch a movie, or rewatch a good one, I feel something meaningful is added. Chasing movies may sometimes be arduous, but I’ve never seriously doubted the validity of the investment. I wish more people realized the richness of what’s available to them, but I also know how much I’m ignorant of in areas I don’t pursue. I wonder, truly, if I could expand my range of activities a bit, if I could get by on half an hour less sleep a day...