Sunday, August 28, 2016

Anything but movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

People keep accusing me of being movie-crazed. I deny it as a matter of policy, but it’s a shaky denial. I try to watch a movie a day on average – is that madness? It’s certainly tiring, and means a lot of other ambitions get squeezed to the margins. And sure, in an ideal world I’d be more well-rounded. But I do my best. Let’s take an inventory.


I have a feeling I’ve written at least twenty articles by now where, in the course of discussing a movie based on a book, I felt bound to admit it was something I hadn’t read. The fact of my pointing out these instances probably illustrates I feel a bit guilty about them – or at least regretful. There’s no question that (to name a few recent examples) About Schmidt, The Hours and Nicholas Nickleby would be fuller viewing experiences if, in addition to engaging with them on their own terms, I were able to critique them as adaptations. Not (I hope) in the dutiful way of merely noting similarities and differences, but as a way of identifying alternative portals into the work. I know that Chicago, derived from a stage musical that I’ve seen twice, seemed to me different (probably worse, actually) and more intriguing than it would have otherwise.

I used to read a lot, but it’s the old story – as your work gets more demanding and you pick up other commitments (walking the dog being a big one), something has to give. For many people, movies are the something that has to give, but I was never going to cut the cards that way. I still spend what seems like hours a day on newspapers, various internet websites and several magazine subscriptions including Variety and The New Yorker, but vacation reading aside it’s surprising if I finish even two books a year. Since the vacation reading is always non-fiction, it ended up that a decade went by without my reading a novel (except a few that I read in French as a learning exercise). Then last year, for reasons obscure even to me, I broke the drought by reading Jerzy Kosinski’s Blind Date. I thought it was pretty awful, so I guess that’ll be it for another ten years.

The irony is that I do read book reviews and I have a pretty good retention for titles and authors’ names, so I can fake my way through a conversation pretty well. My wife reads a lot, and I choose most of her books for her based on what I’ve picked up from reviews etc., but she doesn’t really care about names and titles, so I have better knowledge – in that superficial sense – of what she’s read than she does. Anyway, I’m thinking maybe I’ll catch up when I retire. Except by then I’ll have forgotten what most of the movies were like, so I’ll have to watch them all again. And that’ll be very time consuming.


Last Christmas, my wife gave me a Macintosh ipod. This is one of the cool-looking little gadgets which carry close to 1,000 songs, either downloaded off the Internet or from your own CDs converted into MP3 format (2016 note – that’s right, that’s how old this article is, it seemed necessary to explain what an ipod was). I’d often admired the ads (I think Apple is the only company whose advertising consistently works for me – I bought one of the ill-fated cubes as well) but frankly I didn’t think I’d ever use it enough, so I showed some restraint. But she got one for me anyway, and it turns out I use it all the time – walking the dog or to and from work, on the subway. At least one and a half hours a day, and that’s on a slow day. I absolutely love the thing. And it made me realize how long it’s been since I just listened to music. It’s always been in my life, sure, as I worked on the computer or read the paper, or whatever, but I never drive any more, and that wiped out a large block of pure listening time. With a few exceptions, I haven’t gotten to know the CDs I bought in the last ten years as intimately as those I bought earlier. I regretted it, but it just seemed like another one of those things.

But now, with my head full of music as I follow the dog round the park, I’m hearing subtleties I never knew about, and they’re just thrilling me. This really came to me when I was wandering around in the dark early one morning, listening to The Band’s recording of The Well, from The Last Waltz soundtrack. I must have heard it at least fifty times, but it had never struck me, as it did then, what a truly wonderful arrangement it has. I could make a similar point over and over again with different examples. My current ipod wandering-in-the-dark favourite is Joni Mitchell’s latest album Travelogue. Played at home on the stereo, it’s more interesting than actually good – a somewhat overblown symphonic reinterpretation of her own songs (and not generally the best ones either). But on the ipod, it sounds staggeringly haunting.

I guess my taste is pretty wide, although no more so than a lot of other people. I guess I just don’t look the type. I also have on there Barbra Streisand, The Sex Pistols, John Coltrane, Neil Young, Quincy Jones, the soundtracks to Will Rogers Follies and Sunday in the Park with George, Pink Floyd, Charles Mingus, Prefab Sprout, Bobby Womack – maybe you’ll concede me the point about the wide taste. My big blind spot is classical music. I know it’s a crazy generalization even to put it that way, but it’s simply not what I enjoy.


Here’s another medium in which I easily manage to exceed average activity, even if that isn’t saying a lot. I probably see around five plays a year – about half of them here, the others in the course of a vacation to somewhere or other. But I’ve never been to the opera or to the ballet, and the best guess is I never will.

And once in a while I go to an art gallery or a photo exhibition. So what’s the big picture? Even if I say it myself, for someone who spends so much time on movies, I’m not a total wipeout in other areas. So recently there came a weekend with only one new film I wanted to see – usually it’s two or three. I love movies, but I actually thought this was great. I’ll have all this extra time, I thought to myself. So what did I end up doing? I watched three other movies on tape.

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