Monday, January 18, 2010


There are countless reasons a person could/would write a post about Lars von Trier's highly controversial Antichrist.

The one I'm choosing is pretty low on that list.

Antichrist, which I watched on Friday night, was another Vancetastic milestone, the kind that only an obsessive like me would even know had passed: It was the 2,000th film I've seen on video.

I suppose I should define my terminology here. A movie seen on "video" is any movie that I saw for the first time somewhere other than a movie theater. VHS and DVD are the two most obvious subcategories, but "video" also includes the similar subcategories of On Demand, pay-per-view, cable movie stations (such as HBO and Showtime) and even commercial TV -- though that's rare because I try to avoid seeing edited versions of movies. Of course, I will see edited versions of movies on an airplane (the whole "captive audience" thing), which is another subcategory of video, as is movies seen on a bus, of which I saw maybe a dozen on the Boston-New York route I regularly rode while visiting a girlfriend in 1999 and 2000. I've never actually watched a movie on an ipod, but if I had, that would count too. The last, hardest to define category of "video" are those movies presented on a large screen, but not in a conventional theatrical setting -- such as the movies they showed for free (or a very minimal charge) in lecture halls on campus back in college, or movies we've seen broadcast on the side of a building at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (You sit in the grass on a blanket and bring a picnic dinner. It's a lot of fun.)

It might seem simplest to say that "video" means any film not seen in its initial theatrical run, but that's a bit too restricting, because it doesn't include films you saw in the theater on a re-release. When I went to see Buster Keaton's The General in college, in a theater that specialized in pairing silent films with a live organist, I could hardly call that "video," could I? The real difficult one was when my wife and I went to see Lawrence of Arabia a couple years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and yes, it was my first time seeing this classic. The "theater" where they screened it was not exclusively used to screen movies, but because it was set up like a conventional theater and had quite a large capacity, I labeled that experience a theatrical viewing. They charged us around $10 for the tickets, so that made the designation a little easier.

So "video" is defined more by what it isn't than what it is. In that way, video is the "anti-theater," making Antichrist an appropriate film for this milestone.

I started keeping track of this theater-video distinction as a "what the hell?" once I had my movie list loaded into Excel, and could easily keep track of additional stats about each movie (such as whether I liked or didn't like them, as I described here). I figured it would be easy enough to remember whether I'd seen a movie for the first time in the theater or on "video," so I went back through the list and marked each film with one designation or the other, and have been doing so ever sense. At the bottom of that column I've kept a running total of how many are in each category, and have been ticking that number upward by one with each new film I see.

When I hit 2,000 videos on Friday night, my theatrical total stood at 913.

Let's consider that for a moment. I've seen more than twice as many movies on video than I have in the theater -- for some time now, in fact. And the number gets even larger when you consider the total number of distinct video viewings -- movies seen for the second, third and sixteenth times on video, regardless of where they were originally seen. (I've also seen some movies more than once in the theater, but that list is less than 20).

This shouldn't be surprising, when you think about it. It's obviously far easier and less expensive to watch movies on video than in the theater. But only 25-30 years ago, it wasn't even possible. Can you believe there was a time in our lifetime -- depending on how old you are -- when the only way to see a movie was to wait for it to get re-released in the theater? I distinctly remember waiting for Star Wars to come back to the theater so I could see it again. And for some reason, I also distinctly remember that Ghostbusters, released in 1985, was one of the last films that made a second theatrical run before video stores, VHS and (back then) laser disc made that practice null and void. The cable movie channels, of course, also played a significant role in limiting the need for theatrical re-releases.

Before video and cable, you did have the one video subcategory of commercial TV available, but you had to be prepared to watch it exactly when it aired (there weren't yet VCRs), and only a limited selection of classics that usually didn't have to be edited for content were widely available that way. As for the movies of lesser quality and sketchier content, once they were gone from the theater, it's like they entirely ceased to exist in any practical way.

Then again, I'm definitely a kid of the video generation, as I probably saw 50 movies at most in the theater before I saw one on video. Strangely, I think I remember what that first one was. My friend Jed's family had the first Betamax player I'd ever seen, and I still remember watching a mostly animated, partially live action children's movie called Water Babies at his house. Water Babies was in theaters in 1979, so this might have been 1980 or 1981 -- but certainly not much later, because Jed and his family moved to Colorado soon after that. We might have seen The Black Hole before Water Babies, but I saw The Black Hole in the theater, so it wasn't my first movie seen for the first time on video. Congratulations, Water Babies, that honor goes to you. Since I was born in 1973, and I'm pretty sure the first movie I saw in the theater was Star Wars in 1977, it might have been far fewer than 50 before Water Babies -- it might have been fewer than 25. It might have been fewer than ten.

Now, 30 years after Water Babies, I've seen my 2,000th. Which brings us back to Antichrist. Which, for the record, was a movie I splurged on, paying $5.99 through On Demand (I guess On Demand and pay-per-view are the same thing these days) in order to get it on my 2009 list.

You know the director of Antichrist, Lars von Trier, for his films Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, if you know him at all. (You may know him from other films. I'm just listing the ones I've seen.) The famous thing about Lars von Trier is that his female characters get used, abused and spat out, which have led to charges that he may actually hate women. It's an interesting line he walks -- as his main characters are most often women, you could actually say the opposite, that he sympathizes them, or that if he does subject them to constant dehumanization and degradation, it's to demonstrate how they get treated in a misogynistic world. But there's nearly a sickness to the way these women get treated in his films, which is why you have to wonder. You also have to wonder if he's just trying to push buttons, which is distinctly possible. The man is known for having an inflated sense of his own greatness, and accusations that he tries to discomfit people just for kicks are easily understood once you've watched a couple of his films.

Antichrist is no different. Following in the footsteps of actresses like Emily Watson, Bjork and Nicole Kidman, Charlotte Gainsbourg takes her turn acting out von Trier's awful fantasies of female destruction. Which is why I could have written a post about how violent is too violent, or how pornographic is too pornographic, to show in a mainstream movie. There are really two moments of mutilation/grotesqueness in the movie that have caused it to gain the notoriety it has gained, and I probably could have spent a whole post just talking about whether it is artistically justifiable to show them. Though, for the record, knowing they were supposed to shock me ended up making them a little less shocking when I finally did see them. That's the opposite of the Suspiria effect, where I spent the first ten minutes watching that movie in white-knuckle terror because I knew something f**ked up was going to happen. And so I could have also written a post called "The anticipation," about how anticipating something you know is going to be horrible is an exquisite experience in itself -- for people who aren't squeamish, that is. (And since I didn't know I wouldn't be as shocked as I thought I might be, the film did have that impact on me.) Lastly I could have written a post about the discrepancy between the beautiful and ugly in a film, as there are many shots and sequences in Antichrist that are delicate and gorgeous.

I like the fact that I spent the majority of this post not talking about those things. Just a little FU to von Trier, the self-stylized enfant terrible, a director who likes having people talk about him for deathly serious reasons rather than utterly trivial ones.

1 comment:

Don Handsome said...

Its funny because I remember your family having the first beta-max...I remember me and Jed watching The Black Hole at your house.

As for von Trier, I think he's just trying to push buttons. Sometimes he's successful, sometimes not. I'd say mostly not.

I was sort of ashamed that I paid $12.50 to see Antichrist in the theater - even though those delicate and gorgeous shots you refer to are almost reason enough to see this thing a on a big screen, I felt somehow that my money was feeding von Trier's inflated sense of self importance. So thanks for trivializing him as you have in this post. I hope he reads it and throws a temper tantrum...