Yes, movies matter
I’ve been thinking about writing a variation of this essay for some time now, but could never quite figure out what I wanted to say or how to say it. But now, after my the news of the video store closing, and what’s been having with movies in general, both in their content and how they’re distributed, I’m finally at the point where I need to get this off of my chest. Forgive me if this comes of as incoherent; I’m obviously in a very confused state right now, and the closing of the video store means a lot of things in terms of the neighborhood, as well as what it means in terms of small businesses in general and in New York City in particular, but to me, there’s also the question of what movies, and art in general, mean anymore.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I was exposed to movies growing up, though through a limited filter – being my parents being overprotective of me, the oldest child, I didn’t see my first R-rated movie until I was 17, being my father not liking much culture-wise after 1960, or anything violent, I was mostly exposed to 30’s and 40’s comedies (silents as well, though mostly Chaplin) and musicals of that era and afterwards, and I’m old enough to remember when video rental stores were a new thing, and we didn’t get a VCR until I was in high school, and didn’t start renting until later (we had videodiscs, but they became obsolete pretty quickly). It wasn’t until college, and especially the summers in between, that I became a serious movie fan. At college, during my downtime, I’d watch movies on HBO at the various residence halls I lived in (as well as movies we’d rent from the local store), they showed a movie every weekend (Friday night and Sunday night) at one of the school auditoriums, and I took film-related courses in college (“Music in Film and TV”, which obviously talked about the score and how it can be used in a movie or TV show, as well as a history of composers, and “Literature and Film”, which talked about how the two related, and we talked about adaptations of literature into film). During the summers, I would go to the theater every Friday when a film opened (sometimes Saturday). Obviously, my taste then wasn’t quite what it is now (I’m afraid I was one of those who didn’t watch foreign movies at first, though I did change that later), but even back then, I was taking movies seriously, and even though I wanted then to be entertained (and still do), I was still looking for something that wasn’t going to insult my intelligence.
In the 20+ years since then, a lot has changed in how movies have been made and distributed, both in theaters and for home use, in ways I certainly wouldn’t have imagined. In theaters, of course, there was the whole “indie-film” movement (given that if you ask 20 different film people what an “independent film” is, you’d likely get 20 different answers, there’s no denying there was a movement that changed things), and the way the Internet helped changed marketing both those indie movies and blockbusters, among other things. As far as home video went, technology has marched on, from videodiscs to VHS tapes to laserdiscs to DVDs and, currently, streaming, as well as with the home video systems (flat screen TVs, stereo stystems, and so forth), making it easier for people to watch movies at home.
There’s also the current debate about film vs. digital, about whether digital really enhances both the filmmaking and filmgoing experience, or actually does more damage in the long run, particularly in the area of film preservation. Now, anything that enhances the experience of watching films, whether at home or in the theater, is definitely a good thing. But I feel there’s something else going on here that shouldn’t be ignored.
At the end of the year, when it comes to making out my top 10 list, I always manage to find at least 10 movies that make going to the movies worth it, and while there have been good movies made in the Hollywood system, most of the ones I like the most lately seem to be indie and foreign films. This means, of course, there are good movies if you know where to look, and at first glance, it seems like both the indie film scene and the foreign film scene are thriving, but that’s deceptive. It’s getting harder to see a foreign film or indie film in theaters these days (unless there’s a big name attached, and even that’s no guarantee), and while there’s video-on-demand or even Internet distribution, it’s still too soon to see if either of those will have a real impact. Meanwhile, industry gladhanders like David Poland aside, the studios seem more interested in movies that aren’t franchise or event pictures – films that can be marketed easier because they’re sequels or based on earlier movies, books, TV shows, video games, or even toys and board games – or, if they do bother making so-called “prestige” pictures (or what some would call “Oscar-bait” movies, though I loathe the term), they tend to also be easily categorized, so as to not scare off audiences. This doesn’t mean challenging movies don’t still get made, but it becomes so hard for directors not only to fight to get them made, but to also get them distributed, and the directors of those movies generally tend to be the people the studios and media label as “trouble” or “difficult”. And that even extends to movies available to watch at home. When DVDs still reigned supreme, there were still plenty of classic or foreign titles being released in that format, and many of them in remastered prints with special features galore. Now, however, while Criterion and Kino are still going strong, many of the labels distributing indie or foreign films have, like the indie studios, gone under or have been swallowed up (though New Yorker Films does seem to be making a comeback). And with the advent of streaming, while there are some hard-to-find titles available for streaming, there are still many movies from the classic studio era, or from the second golden age of cinema (the 60’s and 70’s), both foreign and domestic, that are still unavailable on VHS or DVD (unless it’s a bootleg), and while there may be rights issues to deal with, by and large studios seem indifferent to releasing any of these movies (the fact Netflix, the leading online renter of movies, has dropped the rights to many movies and seems more interested in TV shows these days also doesn’t help).
Now, there’s a segment of the population – and probably most of the studio executives and many of the major media covering movies these days – who will tell you none of that really matters. Movies are a business, they say. The fact is, given the state of the economy these days, the fact most of the movie business these days is overseas, and the fact movies are so expensive to produce and market these days, it makes sense to rely on proven formulas that generate money for the companies and the people they answer for (stockholders and such). And given the fact the audience in the U.S. for movies these days is in the 18-45 age demographic, and they are the ones who seem to respond to only the tried and true, it makes even more sense to cater to that. Even if all of that is true, the simple fact is even within that business model, Hollywood runs a lousy business. Most of those so-called “tried-and-true” movies end up being flops in the theater (though they eventually make their money back overseas and on DVD), and the accounting practices at the studios are dicey at best (which is why, for example, Peter Jackson had to sue the studio for profits he didn’t get from the Lord of the Rings movies). But all of that is generally symptomatic of a larger issue; mainly, that studios and the media covering movies these days see movies merely as a product, and since, to them, that product isn’t performing as well these days, given declining profits, it’s best not to give it too much focus.
Now, all of what I’ve written is pretty common knowledge to people who know movies, and admittedly, as I said in the beginning of this, I’ve written this in a roundabout manner, but I’ve written all of this to make one major point, so big that I’m highlighting it:
Actually, it’s not just movies – art, in general, which I would include books, poetry, music, painting, TV shows, and so on – but since that’s my beat and my passion, it’s what I’m most concerned with, so I say again – movies matter.
I’m not a big fan of the movie Dead Poets Society; it’s too melodramatic for my taste, particularly near the end. But there’s a passage early on that has always resonated with me, a speech Robin Williams’ teacher character gives to his students. He’s talking about poetry, but he could be talking about movies as well:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
I certainly get how, if you’re working long hours at a crappy job, your first instinct would be to seek out something entertaining that, for a few hours, will take your mind off of all of that (again, as long as that doesn’t insult my intelligence). But movies are an art form. Art, at its best, taps into our souls and reminds us of what it is to be human in the first place. And while the studios and the media covering them don’t always want to admit this, movies are an art form, and should be treated as such, not as merely product to sell.
One last thing; as the number of quality television programs has risen in the last decade or so, so also has risen the notion of movies ceding their cultural and artistic importance to TV. Make no mistake, it’s great TV has made such strides in the last decade, and I value shows like The Wire and Veronica Mars; in fact, I’ll be writing about them from time to time. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact movies, at their best, can still deliver the passion and beauty we stay alive for. If nothing else, I hope I’m able to convince people of that with this blog. Thank you for reading.