by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
I opened the Flixter app on my iPhone to find something that might be worth a couple of hours and ten dollars and found not one new release that compelled me to drive to my nearest (or even nearby) multiplex and part with a double sawbuck for a ticket and popcorn. (Yes, my diet is generally free from complex carbohydrates, but I do love movie popcorn, especially if I scatter Peanut M&Ms into the bucket.) Granted, I found some good movies -- The King's Speech turned out to be a sublime piece of filmmaking, the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit was at least on par with the original starring John Wayne and Kim Darby, and Black Swan, though I really can't say I enjoyed it, compelled my respect -- but (1) I had seen those already and (2) all were released before January 1, 2011.
What did that leave?
Really, not much.
Well, if I was willing to let Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw assault my eardrums for nearly two hours, I could sit through Country Strong. Natalie Portman seemed willing to throw away all of the good will she earned from her performance in Black Swan to play alongside Ashton Kutcher in what looked like a painfully unromantic and unfunny romantic comedy. Even if I had not heard such awful things about The Green Hornet, its trailer looked wretched enough to ensure I would find better things to do during its run. Ditto The Rite, which probably shreds what is left of the reputation of Sir Anthony Hopkins. I had seen a press screening of The Mechanic, Simon West's remake of a great Charles Bronson vehicle, and hated that, and thought Season of the Witch so jawdroppingly bad that I walked out of the press screening for that about twenty minutes in.
What the hell was happening? I wondered. Had movies really gotten that bad?
And then it hit me: it's January, a time when, traditionally, the pickings for quality movies tend to be slim. The studios have released what they consider to be their best work in time for Academy Award consideration, and so have made the beginning months of the New Year, often right through April, to release, to put it kindly, substandard product.
For movie fans, this is a pretty bad time. Hungry for new material, we scan the newspapers or Fandango website for something that will prove even moderately bearable (if ultimately forgettable), and often cannot find anything that serves as passable throwaway entertainment: thrillers that seldom thrill, romantic comedies bereft of either romance or comedy, family dramas unable to engage viewers in the same way as a middling episode of The Days of Our Lives or General Hospital. And if that wasn't bad enough, we now must endure the plethora of remakes of such "classic" horror movies as Happy Birthday to Me and Prom Night. It's the equivalent of getting dregs of a bottle of wine. What's a cineaste to do during this fallow, infertile period?
Quite a bit, actually.
It's often at these points that the best course of action turns out not to look to the future, more specifically the summer, when movie theaters begin to show some signs of life again (however ersatz), but at the past. In these lean cinematic times, energies are best served by catching up on the things that I kept meaning to see but somehow managed to miss, or by exploring the medium's odder, lesser known byways.
This replenishing used to be somewhat challenging. Television was an option before the 80s (and in my case it was pretty much the only option), though it was often a frustrating one. Yes, the black-and-white twelve-inch screen perched on my dresser in my mother's Houston apartment provided my initial exposure to some classic genre movies (Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Robinson Crusoe on Mars), a couple of masterpieces (Casablanca, though I was too young to understand it at the time, Some Like It Hot, and Howard Hawks's The Searchers) and lots and lots of guilty pleasures (one of the Houston stations played Japanese monster movies from twelve to two every Saturday afternoon, which, when coupled with Saturday morning cartoons, pretty much meant my morning was booked). However, watching a movie on television meant sitting through commercials carelessly scattered across a movie's running time, breaking up a movie's rhythm and disallowing a full appreciation. Cable was available but expensive, but even in those homes that had it, one didn't see many movies more than ten years old.
One often relied on revival houses, college campuses, and conventions (I first saw Roy Rowland's The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T at an Armadillocon in 1988 or 1989) for older movies uninterrupted by commercials. Many colleges ran film programs featuring a mixture of old and new movies, and were open to the public for a fee. Until the late 80s, many theaters would stay open past midnight on Friday and Saturday nights to run more esoteric fare (which is how I first saw Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo and David Lynch's Eraserhead).
So options were available if you were a serious moviegoer in need of a fix before the summer began.
And in the 80s, all of that changed.
I was thirteen and in a Kroger across the street from our condominium in Houston when I realized that things were about to be very different. As I was wandering the aisles (more than likely with a couple of paperbacks I'd found on the racks), I came to a shelf protected by a clear sliding plastic door. Sitting on the shelves were rows of rectangular objects in paper covers with what looked like movie stills and titles. These, I learned, were Betamax tapes of movies, which you could rent from the store. And most of these movies were things I had heard of at one point (for fun I used to read film books), things which I had never seen on television, or had but in an edited form. As a budding film geek, the concept of renting movies to watch at home, on one's own time, seemed like such a cutting edge idea that I found it difficult to get my head around it. Difficult, but not impossible; Blockbuster Video's rise and dominance of the movie rental market (now using VHS tapes) seemed as natural to me as breathing.
Despite Blockbuster's huge success, though, I always preferred smaller independent stores. In Austin, I often frequented Vulcan Video and I Love Video because their staff was knowledgeable and had a love of movies entirely absent from the teenagers at Blockbuster, and they were willing to share that knowledge. And their selection was better, allowing me to explore foreign cinema unavailable at the huge chains. Needless to say, during the fallow period, I was in these stores a lot.
Today, the act of renting a movie from Blockbuster (or Vulcan Video, or any other brick-and-mortar shop) is about an archaic a notion as listening to music on vinyl. The creation of the DVD caused the implosion of the VHS market (anybody seen a VHS player outside of thrift shop?), and was the bellwether of the collapse of traditional video stores, because it laid ground for the rise of Netflix. And now even the DVD is becoming an endangered species. With content available on Amazon on Demand, iTunes, and Netflix Instant Watch, even the blu-ray disc is beginning to look pretty pale.
Bad for moviegoers, yes, because we lose the conversations and relationships we develop from interactions with the staff at a movie rental store.
Good for moviegoers, in a way, because it means that one can weather this fallow period better than ever before.
Today I search for movies I have not seen and set my DVR to record them. Often I have a huge backlog of titles such as Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid, Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. My Netflix Instant Watch queue is effulgent with Criterion Collection selections -- The Wages of Fear, Kurosawa's High and Low and The Hidden Fortress -- genre classics like Gojira, Them (and no, I had not seen either until recently), and David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, and childhood favorites like Smokey and the Bandit and Time Bandits. Even my Netflix DVD queue will take a while to get through. I recently finished the little known These Are the Damned from Hammer Studios and Ken Russell's campy, perverse, and incredibly erotic Lair of the White Worm, and await the arrival of Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers.
Fallow period? On the contrary. From a moviegoing standpoint, my spring is overfull.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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