Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A depressing pursuit

As I was driving down Ventura Blvd. toward the Arclight theater in Sherman Oaks yesterday, I was thinking, "Do I really want to see Nine?"

And as I circled the parking garage looking for a parking space, I was thinking, "Do I really want to see Nine?"

And as I boarded the escalator bound for the theater, I was thinking, "Do I really want to see Nine?"

And as I shelled out $14.50 via credit card on an automated ticket-buying station, I was thinking, "Do I really want to see Nine?"

And as the movie was starting, and here I was, seeing Nine, I thought, "What am I doing here?"

It was a depressing feeling. And I don't think I ever recovered from the funk over the course of the rest of the day.

Stuffing your rankings to get in as many movies as possible from the previous year can be a depressing pursuit.

It's like this every January. On Oscar nomination morning, which is February 2nd this year, I finalize my entire list of films seen in the previous calendar year, from favorite to least favorite. That morning arrives three weeks from tomorrow -- about ten days later than last year -- so it's officially "crunch time." Which means a lot of half-hearted trips to the theater and perfunctory rentals from the video store.

Yesterday, I had a little of both.

First off there was Nine. Nine was fine. The general argument by critics is that it's hard to identify exactly what's wrong with it, but there's nothing about it that argues strongly for its existence. (Oh, and that the songs are not the least bit hummable -- I agree, with one exception: the song "Be Italian," which plays during the trailer.)

Still, there were good reasons why I wanted to see Nine, maybe more so than the average moviegoer. The main one was that I loved Chicago, which was also directed by Rob Marshall. Nine looked quite similar to Chicago -- musical number fantasies interspersed with realistic scenes of plot development -- so I thought there was a decent chance I'd find it similarly charming. Plus I thought the material from Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, on which the original Broadway musical was based, is fruitful subject matter: A film director catalogs the influences the various women in his life have had on him, while vainly trying to come up with a script for his ninth movie, which will begin shooting any day now.

I also tried to tell myself that the main reason I didn't want to see it -- that it had gotten middling to poor reviews -- was not a very good reason. I have a personal creed of staying true to my initial interest in seeing a movie, regardless of what other critics have said about it. I am trying to recreate the conditions that would exist if I had been assigned to review the film as a new release, without the benefit of any previous reviews to influence me.

But as much as I have that shining ideal in mind, I'm a pragmatist as well. And as I was electronically feeding $14.50 into the coffers of the Arclight yesterday afternoon, all I could think about was all the other ways I might have spent that $14.50. It was easy for me to see the exact cost associated with adding one movie to my year-end list. And it didn't seem there was any way it was as valuable to me as the amount I was spending on it.

See, what I'm really going for with this list is a good representation of the films that were released in 2009, from January through December. The ones from January through September are easy -- you can get them on DVD. However, you have to pay theatrical prices for films released between October and December. So every year there is a film for which I half-heartedly shell out $14.50, just for that intangible value of ranking it. Last year, it was Revolutionary Road, which I believe my wife and I also saw in this theater -- I guess we were randomly up in the San Fernando Valley that time as well.

Yesterday itself probably had something to do with my mood, with making it a bad day to see a movie about which I was less than enthused. I was tired from staying up too late on Saturday night, and drinking too much wine, then getting up before 9 on Sunday morning to get ready for the morning playoff football game, which I watched at a friend's house in the Valley. The Baltimore Ravens slaughtered my New England Patriots -- it was 24-0 after one quarter -- so that kind of set the mood for the day. But if Nine had been a movie I really felt like I was seeing for the right reasons, I wouldn't have cared -- I didn't watch much football this season, and losses don't linger with me for very long these days. But combine all the factors -- tired, lost football game, pointless movie, then it almost being dark when I finally got home -- and it left me in quite the funk.

Of course, the trip to the Blockbuster didn't make things any easier.

I also wanted to pick up a 2009 movie on my way home, even though we already had one store rental -- the dolphin-clubbing documentary The Cove -- unwatched at home. But I had an in-store exchange burning a hole in my pocket, so I stopped at a Blockbuster I used to visit more when I lived in my old apartment. It was here that I became yet more dispirited.

I could tell right away that something was different. There were fewer rental aisles than I ever remembered there being, and in their place were bargain bins of previously viewed movies, a display selling a random assortment of books, and just plain unused real estate. I guess they were probably in the midst of moving things around, or had just done so, as there was a guy affixing category cards reading "DRAMA" to the top of one of the aisles.

Maybe that explained the denuded quality of this particular Blockbuster, but I suspected that the changing face of the rental industry also had something to do with it. I still like the spontaneity of going to a brick-and-mortar store and just picking out a movie, but that's no longer a supportable business model. It doesn't make sense for them to have any but the most frequently rented titles, or the newest releases, stocked in the store. And in fact, because of the poor returns on much of what is offered at the physical Blockbuster stores, Blockbuster has revealed that it will close a number of its locations. Yesterday seemed to be my first preview of that inevitability.

While this made me glum -- I'm an old-school guy who mourns every such change (the closing of the music stores hit me particularly hard) -- my inability to find the first two movies I was looking for made it all the worse.

The other thing I am trying to accomplish this month is to re-watch some favorites from the last decade, in order to come up with a best-of-the-decade list. Toward that end I wanted to bring home Hustle & Flow, my favorite film of 2005, which my wife had just endorsed watching again with me. Needless to say, I could not find it yesterday at Blockbuster, and their new method for stacking the DVDs made it difficult to tell whether they even carried it anymore. This seemed strange -- Hustle & Flow struck me as a highly mainstream title, which won the Oscar for best original song only four years ago (and had a best actor nominee that year for Terrence Howard as well). But here it wasn't, unavailable at this Blockbuster. I scoured the drama section multiple times before giving up. Seeming to anticipate this very moment of customer dissatisfaction, there were signs throughout the drama section that read "Can't find the drama title you're looking for? Don't be sad. We can mail it to you. Over 95,000 titles available." So there they are, openly acknowledging that it no longer makes sense to stockpile inventory. The times, they're always a-changin'.

It was looking for my second movie, Big Fan, that made things even worse. I had seen Patton Oswalt appear on Conan O'Brien almost a week ago, last Monday, to promote the upcoming DVD release. So I had assumed it was coming out the next day -- DVDs almost always release on a Tuesday. Yet it was nowhere to be found among Blockbuster's new releases, and it was also not advertised up on their Upcoming Releases board. I took this as a really bad sign -- that Blockbuster wasn't even ordering all the new releases anymore, even ones that feature a performance that may receive an Oscar nomination. (Upon getting home, I discovered that the movie wasn't actually being released until tomorrow, so Oswalt just went on Conan's show unusually early. Maybe he needed to get on before Conan started becoming surly about his future at NBC.)

So instead of Hustle & Flow, instead of Big Fan, I rented Woody Allen's Whatever Works, starring Larry David. Another film I have not heard great things about. Another perfunctory rental.

I guess what really bothers me is that I don't know any other way to be. I love movies and I love making my list. I wouldn't trade it. Of course, if either one started really troubling me I could just stop doing it. I wouldn't stop going to the movies, but I could do what most people do -- only see the ones they really want to see. The list of yearly rankings could just fall by the wayside if I really started to find my own standards too tedious to meet.

Obviously, the answer is that I would never do either of these things. I just have to understand that it isn't always a joyful pursuit -- sometimes it has a trudging, mechanical quality to it. Sometimes you just have to do "whatever works" to get the job done.

Three more weeks. Eyes on the prize, Vance. Eyes on the prize.


Don Handsome said...

I hear you on the depressing aspect of cramming in movies during this month...last night I watched the Asperger Romance called Adam. Ugh. The things we do to pad our numbers...

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Life is too short to invest time and money on movies just for the sake of watching them. Enjoy what you're watching.