Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Random exposure

Question: What one thing do the vast majority of movie fans have in common?

Answer: They see almost exclusively movies they think they have a good chance of liking.

But if you get paid to see movies, it's a little different. Full-time working critics get their movies assigned to them, which means an equal likelihood of seeing crap as seeing something good. This is what gives them credibility when they submit lists of the year's best movies -- or, more to the point, the year's worst. If you're a super serious critic, you also make your best effort to see the movies you weren't assigned -- though of course that's also a function of to what extent your eyeballs are fried. (On a related note, if I had one question to ask Roger Ebert, I'd ask him the most prominent film he hasn't seen. I'd be really curious about the answer.)

I am not a full-time working critic, but I am working on my year-end list, which I will finalize on January 22nd, the morning the Oscar nominations are announced. More often than not, the movies I see in a given year are, in fact, movies I really want to see. That's in part because I usually won't pay movie theater prices to see crap, and by the time my self-imposed deadline rolls around in January, only the films that were released in September or earlier have made it to video.

But I'm no less interested in my list being a fair representation of what was in theaters that year -- good and bad. So I want to see as many of these bad movies as I can. I want it to mean something when I've selected a film as the worst of the year. With some people, their worst movie of the year is really more like the 12th best movie they saw. But when you see over 80 new releases each year, the worst really means something.

Question is ... how do you build up the requisite enthusiasm to actually rent such movies? Well, I'll be honest -- if there's a reasonable chance I'll get to review one of them, it really helps.

But there's also the random exposure, and that's what I want to talk about today. (Especially because I was randomly exposed to two movies today, hence the inspiration for this post.) I'm defining a "random film exposure" to be any film a person sees without consciously selecting that film to see -- or, selecting it from a list of equally unlikely choices. The extreme example is the thing that I always imagine will happen to me sometime, in my fantasy world: I'm holed up in a cabin in the woods with only a single DVD available to watch, and so it's either that or ... read. (Ha. I do sometimes read. Really I do.) My favorite example occurred when my wife and I were staying in a hotel last New Year's Eve, and we wanted to watch something. Except the buttons on the remote were broken. So after we pushed them blindly and repeatedly, all the sudden it said, "One moment please, your film is starting." That's how we ended up seeing Balls of Fury -- and I must say, we were pleasantly surprised by it.

Before I let tangents get the better of me once again, let me discuss some other common avenues for random film exposure, and the 2008 films I saw because of them.

Home sick, and this is what's available On Demand. When I decided to call in sick today, I thought it'd be a perfect opportunity to watch a couple more 2008 movies as I speed toward finalizing my list. The thing is, I hadn't recently replenished at the video store, so I decided to let On Demand dictate it for me. There were four films I found with 2008 release dates: Over Her Dead Body, Diary of the Dead, Doomsday, and Definitely, Maybe. Many of you would have gone right for George Romero, but let's just say that in my weakened condition, I preferred the rom-coms. I hit the first and the fourth from that list. Over Her Dead Body was flat, but Definitely, Maybe had a definite spark of originality.

Watch what they're showing on the airplane. There are pretty much only two reasons I won't watch an airplane movie: 1) I've already seen it, or 2) It's a red eye and I really should get some sleep. But nowhere are you more a captive audience than on a plane, so I always take these as a great opportunity to catch up on things I didn't see in the theater -- usually because they're bad romantic comedies. Neither of the ones I saw on my Christmas trip home fell into that category, though: Bottle Shock (liked it) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (didn't like it, might have liked it more if they'd provided the 3D glasses).

You have a surprise couple hours free, and have to see whatever's on. In early December I was unexpectedly given a couple hours off in the middle of the day, so I could work that weekend without going into overtime. (I know, great company I work for.) I have a friend who sees movies on his lunch break with some regularity, and this always intrigued me. So I went to the closest movie that was playing at a convenient time and had a short enough running time: Four Christmases. And yes, it turned out to be a bad decision. But as a "random exposure," it was just the ticket.

You miss the movie you were supposed to see, so you have to choose something else. A few days before Christmas, my wife and I decided to subject ourselves to Australia, even though we'd heard terrible things about it. (She's Australian, which explains our interest.) However, sometime after I'd checked two days earlier, they'd moved forward its start time by one hour. She was having a stressful day and just went home. Me, I decided to see Yes Man. Jim Carrey, that Red Bull bit might have been funny in 2002. (This also happened with Religulous -- I was supposed to see Role Models but somehow got the wrong theater -- but I had been planning to see Religulous anyway.)

Let someone else choose the movie. I definitely would not have prioritized Sex Drive, but a friend of mine and I wanted to go out to the movies on a Friday night, and he was a fan of the film's writers. Result? One of the funniest comedies I saw in a year jam-packed with good comedies.

Borrow screeners from a friend. Though most of what I borrowed was stuff I would have otherwise seen, that's not the case with Changeling. And though I find Clint Eastwood hit and miss, and Angelina Jolie mostly miss, I thought this was three-quarters of a really good movie -- followed by 30 minutes that should just never have been there.

Attend free screenings. Like the one above, probably easier to do if you live in Los Angeles. My wife responded to invitations to two screenings of movies that came and went: Towelhead (which was excellent) and Choke (which had its moments but was overstuffed with quirks).

You can probably think of countless others. But here's one everyone can do: Rent movies from the library. It's free, and hey, you're just choosing the best of whatever's there. You never know what you might discover.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

You and I have had numerous conversations about this. I really don't seek out movies that I know I'm not going to like. In many of the options you've listed, I would rather take a nap or read a magazine (probably about movies).

Life's too short for crappy cinema.

Though I do leave myself open for other people to expose me to movies that I would have otherwise not chosen to see.

This is a fundamental difference between you and I. Perhaps that fact that I have two kids and limited time has something to do with it. Or maybe, I get exposed to too many crappy movies before they actually become crappy movies.

The world may never know.

Vancetastic said...

One other difference -- You're not trying to eventually see every movie that was ever made. I am.

Granted, I will probably not succeed.

Don Handsome said...

First of all let me say that the Random Exposure phenomenon you discuss is an important part of being a film fan. But I think that its possible to over-rely on random exposure to round out our viewing. I'm that Lunchtime movie offender that you refer to, and this nasty little habit has driven me to randomly see a variety of films that I never thought I'd see. However, only a small fraction of these are films that I would actually say that I liked or was glad that I’ve seen. So while the random lunchtime movie often drives my year-end viewing totals well into the 100s, I'm not sure that my list and rankings are made any more meaningful by these random exposures. The impressiveness of seeing 100+ films year after year is diminished when I can look at some of my previous lists and draw a dividing line at film #25 and say that everything under that line is, to me, a bad movie.

In the last couple of years, I have had various degrees of success in an endeavor to see only movies that I think have potential to be decent. Even with this conscious effort, I have seen some great films and some shit-cinema that easily fills the bottom of the list – and truth be told, I haven't been overly selective or anything as I see potential in movies that I probably shouldn't see potential in (Willard, anyone?) – but the difference is that I am invested in all the movies that I see. I make a concerted effort to skip the [Insert Generic Genre Here] Movies of the world, and all of a sudden I believe that I have a more dynamic year-end list, one where the worst movies of the year are equally interesting to me for their failures as the best are for their successes. And one where that dividing line is closer to the middle of the list than the top of it.

I think that in a perfect world, the worst movie of 2008 would be something like the Wrestler and I would STILL have 100 movies ranked as better than it, but outside of this magical dream world, there ARE bad movies that we just can’t help seeing, but I've come to think that seeing crap just to have a well rounded list does a disservice to all the good movies that I haven't seen (or can't see). In constructing my year end list of films for 2008 (and I'm on the same schedule as you are) it is clear that 10,000 B.C. will occupy a place at or near the bottom (more evidence that I MUST redefine "potential") – but at least I actually wanted to see it, and can (in a discussion outside of this already too long comment) tell you why I thought it MIGHT be good.

By the way…I’d like to suggest that the staff at The Audient Film Blog give its readers a chance to publish their year end lists on the 22nd.

Vancetastic said...

The main difference is that I am trying to approximate the experience of a full-time film critic, who's as likely to review Firehouse Dog as Slumdog Millionaire. I agree that a person who isn't compensated for seeing crap movies should avoid them. However, a person who does get paid for them has a slightly different agenda, and I will likely review both Definitely, Maybe and Over Her Dead Body. (Firehouse Dog is also available if I should ever find myself in a position to watch it. And lo and behold! It's available On Demand right now!) I agree that your guys' standards are good for you -- and mine are good for me. Don, I'm very glad that your days of getting Big Momma's House 2 on your list are behind you!

Don Handsome said...

Big Momma's House 2? I didn't see that...oh wait...Its true. I did AND it wasn't the worst movie I saw that year. Still, you fight dirty.