Saturday, July 2, 2011

Reconsidering the theatrical imperative

There, did I get your attention with my highfalutin, graduate-thesis title? Hope so.

Okay, on with the regular post.

It was pretty unlikely that I'd see Lukas Moodysson's Together even once, let alone twice. Yet last night it became the 429th movie I've seen more than once.

I owe both viewings to a random decision to see it in the theater ten years ago, in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Making it possibly my most unlikely theater-going experience ever.

I wish the idea of seeing a small Swedish film about life on a commune in the mid-1970s in the theater didn't seem so, well, foreign to me. But it's come to be so.

However, let's step back a little bit and consider the conditions under which I saw Together, known as Tilsammans in Sweden.

It was the summer of 2001, and I had only just moved to Los Angeles. Late summer, I guess, since I see that the U.S. release date of Together was August 24th. I was trying to earn my living exclusively as a critic back then, and had no job keeping me pinned to a desk during the day. That period of my life, with too much freedom and not enough pay, lasted only the first year I lived here. But during that year, I really could see a movie whenever, wherever I wanted.

The "wherever" part is the part that really interests me when it comes to Together. It wasn't playing in many theaters, pretty obviously, it being a small Swedish film. In fact, it was probably playing in fewer theaters than it would be today, since there's been something of a boom among theaters that show independent films in Los Angeles in the last decade, perhaps exemplified most in the growth and expansion of the Arclight brand. So to see Together, I had to drive to Pasadena -- which is closer to where I lived then than to where I live today, but still pretty far. Mapquest puts the drive at about 19 miles.

Not so far to go for a film you've been hugely anticipating that might be playing in limited release, but pretty far for a film you know nothing about. That's the thing -- I can't for the life of me remember how Together was even on my radar. It must have been the recommendation of a fellow critic, either made personally to me or something I read, but I just can't remember. But even if the film had been recommended, it still takes a few other factors to go from "hmm, maybe I'll see that" to "I'm buying tickets right now." One of those factors would likely be geographical convenience. Another might be money, and since I wasn't making much of it, I didn't have much of it.

Yet there I was, on a Thursday (let's say), driving to Pasadena and plopping down for the mid-afternoon showing of a delightful little movie about human beings living in close proximity, displaying behavior that runs quite contrary to their idealized philosophies of the world. And leaving feeling absolutely charged by its qualities as a film and the sensation it left with me.

Those were simpler times.

Today, my theatrical imperative has changed entirely. Never mind the fewer opportunities to go to the theater, which go hand-in-hand with my transition from a single freelancer to a married 9-to-5er with a 10-month-old. It's the type of movies I see in the theater that have also changed.

Nowadays, one of my post important criteria for seeing a movie in the theater is whether it will look significantly worse on DVD. You could call it the Avatar Theory. I knew (or at least suspected) that Avatar might not be a great movie, but if I was going to see it at all, might as well see it right -- on an IMAX screen in 3D. Even if there were a couple dozen films I didn't see in the theater in 2009 that deserved it more than Avatar, Avatar got the slot because of the uniqueness of its visual properties.

Now, Avatar may not be such a great example, since it was a bonafide ground-breaker that changed many of the rules. The problem comes when you start to apply Avatar logic to lesser films, whether its lesser visually or lesser in terms of plot. Like, "I better see Battle: Los Angeles in the theater because it won't look as good on TV." Turns out, it didn't look that good in the theater either.

Unfortunately, however flawed it might be, this has become a guiding principle for me, something I still follow today. Sometimes it leads me to smart viewings. For example, with The Tree of Life, I caught a non-blockbuster that needed to be seen in the theater in order to be fully appreciated. But sometimes it leads me to dumb ones, such as Tron: Legacy, because I know that the shred of sensory fulfillment I get from it will only be possible on the big screen. However, in the case of Tron: Legacy, I did find 20-30 minutes of sensory enjoyment to be worth the price of admission. Which, unfortunately, only reinforces my current theatrical imperative.

But last night's viewing of Together made me realize that I don't want to spend all my movie ticket money on loud, visually bombastic films that don't deserve it. I want to reward small movies from Sweden about communists trying to live together in harmony. I want to reward movies that make me leave the theater feeling joyous and fulfilled, not half-satisfied, trying to come up with the appropriately middling terminology to describe my experience.

Because let's face it, Together would never pass my current litmus test. It has a kind of muddy look (I think that's intentional) and it's not shot in a memorable way, though it's more than competent. Practically speaking, it's the kind of movie that's just as good small-screen watching as big-screen, as my wife and I discovered last night, when I was reminded how wonderful it was and she discovered that for the first time. But no movie is really as good on the small screen as the big, and in some cases, we don't even give them that opportunity.

So I hereby commit to changing my theatrical imperative. I hereby commit to not missing out on the Togethers of this world, just because they don't have explosions or aliens. Sure, I may have to commit my next couple theater-going experiences to the likes of Harry Potter, Cowboys and Aliens and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but I hope also to fit a Submarine, a Beginners or a Terry in there. Or something a lot less well-known, something I may not even know about right now because I'm concentrating only on seeing 20-foot-high CGI.

As for Together in particular, I feel like I should say a bit more about it, since it's currently available on Netflix streaming and you'd be well suited to seek it out. As discussed previously, it concerns about a dozen Swedes who live on a commune in 1975. The event that triggers most of the plot is when the sister of one of the commune's residents leaves her abusive husband and moves into the commune with her two kids, aged about 13 and 10. These three become our surrogates, newcomers to the daily commune existence as we are, seeing for the first time a host of colorful characters whose desire to live according to a political philosophy is outweighed only by their human foibles that make that impossible. The film simultaneously celebrates the post-hippie joy of their situation and their decidedly post-hippie tendency to argue and become frustrated with each other's shortcomings. Moodysson does a brilliant job developing his characters and ingratiating them to us, giving them all arcs that resolve in satisfactory ways, without the film ever seeming splintered or aimless. The best evidence of his humanistic approach is that even the man who hits his wife, causing her to seek refuge for herself and her kids in the commune, is essentially a sympathetic character just trying to rise above the things that make him human. The film is funny and sweet and satisfying.

And without a random Thursday afternoon trip to the movies ten years ago, I might never know this.

1 comment:

Don Handsome said...

Just wanted to add an additional supportive perspective to your already valiant vow…

Its becoming more and more clear to me that seeing the Togethers of the world in the theater transcends the personal fulfillment that you describe (don’t get me wrong, this is significant and important) and has now become an important moral (at least cinematically moral)imperative.

I’ve always been one of those vote with my wallet guys, wanting to support the “little” films with theatrical viewings as well as similarly supporting visually splashy blockbusters. But recently (as in a month ago) a theater near me that just so happens to be where I saw Together (and countless other underseen gems) closed down for ever. Out of business. The theater was junky to be sure, but they showed decent films and I went there often. I wasn’t the only one, but there were seemingly only a few of us. It’s a big loss for film lovers outside of LA and New York to lose access to any theater like this – or any theater at all. Our chances to see small-but-good films in their intended form are drying up and by voting for them with our dollars while we still can, we are playing a small, but important part to preserve the medium and our access to it.

Great post. And yeah, Together is a wonderful film that everyone should watch.