In many ways now is the best time imaginable to love movies. More movies are available to you than ever before. Through DVDs and online streaming, a person can see silent, foreign or rare movies that were simply unavailable to a regular person a generation ago. These movies can be watched when you want to, on your television or your computer screen. According to a commercial I saw, you can give your awful toddler a cell phone and let it watch a movie so you can grocery shop and not have to talk to it. These are positive advances.
However, the drawback of today’s film-friendly consumer culture is that it has largely removed the communal aspect of watching a movie. Because you can watch something at your home on your own time, it isn’t necessary any more for you to watch a movie with a large group of people. Of course, first-run blockbusters still attract crowds but that’s not exactly what I’m referring to. It used to be on college campuses and in art museums, film societies would exhibit a movie and hold a discussion afterwards. Some of this still exists, in the last 3 years I’ve seen Grand Illusion at the Los Angeles County of Modern Art and Casablanca projected upon the side of the Des Moines Art Center, just to highlight two museums with active film series (in fact, in LA and New York, at least, one can see nearly any movie they want in a theater on a given night). National revivals of classic movies, once a staple of regional theaters, are all but extinct. It’s been nearly 15 years since Gone With The Wind was last re-released, approaching the longest time that movie has spent out of theaters. True, The Godfather was put back in theaters this year to celebrate its 4oth Anniversary (for one day, on a Thursday. Nice job, Paramount. Casablanca also saw itself in theaters for one day and Lawrence of Arabia, a re-release favorite before the age of home video, is scheduled to have a 24-hour reissue in June) but the distributors spent so little on marketing that these are hardly events in and of themselves. And true, many movies are being reissued having been formatted for 3-D but as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace yielded disappointing box office, I find this unlikely to become a fixture, especially as 3-D becomes less popular (to be fair, it’s not surprising that people passed on The Phantom Menace, it’s bold enough to ask people to see a bad movie another time, let alone when there’s crap popping out at you. The business for the upcoming Titanic 3-D will be more telling). The point of this is while home theaters are nice (and some of them can be very nice), watching a movie with people is the best way of absorbing a film. But more than that, film societies and re-releases were ways of informing a curious film lover which movies were important and worth seeing. The discussions afterwards could steer people towards further movies and thereby laying out a road map to film enlightenment. Now, with so many choices, marketing has taken over and one doesn’t get recommendations so much as they are bullied into seeing a movie, leaving less-championed masterpieces unseen.
I can bemoan the disappearance of film societies till the cows come home but they’re not coming back so it’s best to just move on. However, we still live in enviable times because of the wealth of movies at our disposal. In many ways, film societies were like professors, incredible sources of information. Today, we are like students dropped in the middle of a university library. All the material’s there, but it’s up to you to know where to go.
Because watching bad movies isn’t going to help anyone. Everyone’s brain creates a line of quality where every movie above that line is a good movie and every movie south of it is bad. Movies are constantly going from one side of the line to the other as you become more informed about what a movie can be. Take, for example, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. If you watched that movie, and you’d never seen a movie before, it would immediately become the greatest film you’d ever seen and you’d say “That is a great movie. It was loud and people said things that were stupid but I guess that’s what movies are supposed to be like.” The moment you saw literally any other movie, Revenge of the Fallen would cross the line and become the worst movie you’d ever seen because at that point you would have been introduced to motivation and mise-en-scene and continuity. It also works for the movies not on the extremes. Imagine a movie you liked a lot as a kid or a young adult. As you watch more movies (and more importantly, better movies) those movies you loved sometimes can slide towards the quality line or even pass over it. It can be sad to find out that a movie like Commando is actually pretty bad. It still occupies a place in your heart, but it can’t be considered good anymore.
This works in reverse as well. A person exposed to Persona or Last Year at Marienbad too soon is liabel to find them stupefying, obtuse, or over indulgent. But with the right number of titles under their belt, when they return they will find how wonderful those great films are. See, you just don’t like The Tree of Life YET.
This isn’t about everyone arriving to the same critical conclusion. Some people may never like a certain movie, or stop liking another. Everyone’s quality line is different but the principle holds true universally. The issue is you won’t raise that bar by watching bad movies. It’s only when aware of the possibilities of the medium are you discouraged by mindless, autopilot unoriginalities that unfortunately command much of the influence on your eyeballs. Studios make a lot of noise for their terrible movies in a effort to get you in the door and turn a profit before you even realize you’ve been duped. There are more than 4000 movies released every year, it’s impossible to see them all and that doesn’t even address the idea of classic and old films. So without the guidance of film societies, who can you trust to steer you in the right direction?
The answer is lists. Lists are typically asinine and are designed to frustrate (“Arggh! How can this idiot think this movie is three spots worse than I think it is!”) but in terms of independent study they can become valuable. You can’t watch every movie because you have to go to your crummy job or your awful toddler won’t watch his cell phone and now you have to raise it. But angry, bitter people like critics and columnists watch all the movies for you and at the end of the year they tell you which ones were the best. Mostly, if these people are still lucky to be drawing a paycheck from a newspaper, they are trusted sources. Others are fairly obvious studio schills. Some of these people are actively trying to infuriate you for the sake of page visits. But all of them have value as a way to introduce you to a movie you may have missed, or make you reevaluate a movie you already passed on or get your movie brain fired up. Year-end lists are invaluable tools for making sure you see the best films.
Lists are even more valuable in terms of seeing the best movies from the years before you, your parents or even your grandparents were born. A list like the American Film Institute’s Top 100, while deeply flawed, is a wonderful introduction to the pillars of 20th century mainstream American movies. Add to that the most recent Sight and Sound poll or even all of the Sight and Sound polls and you have a road map to seeing the very best movies. Roger Ebert’s Great Movies (around 350 titles and counting) are much more hit than miss and I’ve never regretted watching any of them, even if I don’t share Ebert’s affection for some. The New York Times has a list what they call the 1000 greatest movies ever made, which is severely limited by its exclusion of silent movies but is a valuable resource as well. As is the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die, which is much more populist and likely to include Ghostbusters and Top Gun. Combined there’s nearly 1700 movies to choose from. Read about the movies you see, ask yourself honestly what you thought about them. Movies can be mindless diversions, and sometimes they are best that way. But they are also meant to be analyzed and discussed. Make a list of movies to see this year both of new releases and classics you haven’t caught up with. You’ll be better for it.