Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The big decade?

There's a scene in David Frankel's The Big Year in which the characters played by Rashida Jones and Jack Black take a break from their frantic cross-country birding to meet up in Boston. They're both intense birders and they both drop a fortune on travel in pursuit of that passion, but there's a difference: Black is doing a "big year," which means he's trying to set the record for the most number of bird species seen in United States in a calendar year, while Jones is just doing it out of a simple love of birding.

"I love that you're not doing a big year," Black says. "There's something so pure about that."

"How do you know I'm not doing a big year?" Jones teases. (She isn't.)

It got me thinking. I've kind of been doing a "big decade." And I'm wondering if there's something impure about that.

You see, The Big Year was a milestone movie for me -- it was my 3,500th movie. And it was just a happy coincidence that a movie about setting a record ended up being that milestone movie. (Unlike my 3,000th movie, which I carefully orchestrated to be Mr. 3000, as discussed here.)

Every time I cross another threshold of 100 movies, I like it to be random what that 100th movie is -- I want it to be whatever I was "planning" to see anyway. Of course, I usually know I'm approaching the milestone, so there have to be some decisions made that result in me watching the movie I watch. There's every possibility of my much-cherished randomness being corrupted.

In this case, however, I can genuinely say it was totally random. It had been a week since the last movie I hadn't seen previously (it's been a busy time over here), so I had forgotten I was sitting on 3,498 when I went to the Redbox kiosk Saturday morning and picked up The Big Year. (The movie was a priority mostly because I have a friend who is a birder and works in the greater birding industry.) I planned to watch The Big Year while babysitting for some friends who were going out to see The Hunger Games on Saturday night. And even then, in order for it to be that 3,500th movie, my wife and I had to watch the wonderful documentary Marwencol that afternoon while our son was taking his nap. That was a chance viewing, one we were only able to do by getting home early from an activity we expected to take much longer.

But the fact that I even know it was my 3,500th movie is the result of two things: 1) The list of all the movies I've ever seen, which I have been maintaining for something like 22 years, and 2) The list of the order I've watched my movies, which I have been keeping since February of 2002. In fact, I had been planning to celebrate ten years of knowing the exact order of every new movie I've seen in the form of a blog post, but I simply forgot.

The thing that started my list, which I keep in a Microsoft Word document called "movie order" (creative title there), was watching my 1,500th movie on February 22, 2002. It was the Hughes brothers' documentary American Pimp, of all things. It's always easiest to start new ventures once you've reached a milestone, and voila -- a new obsessive list was born.

Ten years, one month and 20 days later, I have reached my 3,500th movie -- which means just over a decade to watch 2,000 more movies. That's an average of 200 new movies a year for ten years.

Do I need to check myself before I wreck myself?

I find myself thinking about that comment Black's character makes to Jones' character about the purity of her pursuits. As though there's something kind of gross about what he's doing, by comparison -- he's trying to "win." It almost doesn't matter that he truly loves birds, as well -- so much so that he can identify hundreds and hundreds of species just by their song. By introducing the concept of "being the best" and "winning" into the equation -- in other words, by trying to beat the record held by Owen Wilson's character -- he's somehow tainting the whole activity.

So switching from the obsessive seeing of birds to the obsessive seeing of movies, is there something crass and inelegant about my inexhaustible and unquenchable desire to watch more movies?

My first, defensive instinct is to say "no." I mean, I'm a certified film buff. Watching movies is what we do. I have always shown signs of being a film buff, it's just that there were times in my life when I had other priorities that prevented me from binging on movies. There would have been no other decade in my life when it would have been so easy for me to watch two thousand movies. Even if the available time has been there after the end of college (1995), the ease of watching these movies has been significantly lower until recently. With the advent of streaming video, you can watch a movie totally without premeditation.

But I do wonder if the mere act of recording your movie-watching milestones doesn't create a hunger to pass other milestones. Actually, I don't have to wonder -- I'd say it does. I recognize that behavior more in my year-to-year movie-watching pursuits than over the course of a decade. When I rank my new releases each year, which makes me keenly aware of how many current year movies I've seen, I'm always noting how I've done relative to myself in other years, and relative to others who are doing the same thing. (One in particular, though he always beats me by a huge amount so it's really no contest.) You could say that each year I watch movies is a "big year" for me. I'm always going for "the record," even if the current record holder is me.

And yeah, if I were just a couple away from the record before my deadline, you better bet I'd jam a few in, not because I necessarily want to, but because the record compels me. When Black, Wilson and Steve Martin are this close at the end of their big year, but it'll take a last-minute trip to some remote part of Alaska to get them this much closer, do you really think they want to? No, but the record compels them.

I guess the real way to determine whether this is a problem is whether I feel like I am merely compelled. Whether I watch movies out of duty, or out of love. And that really provides our definitive answer. I crave watching more movies because I love watching movies. And I love watching movies because movies offer entertainment, insight and emotional truth. And I'm always craving more of those things.

And if I'm always going to recognize and be aware of approaching milestones, so be it. That's the way I'm hard-wired. I'm a list maker and I love statistics (explaining also my love affair with baseball).

And every once in awhile, a little miracle comes along to remind me that I'm still a human being involved in pure pursuits.

Like, temporarily forgetting I was on the verge of watching my 3,500th movie.


Nick Prigge said...

Such a great and timely piece. I feel as if there have been a number of "why do I blog?" sort of confessionals going around. And this one falls in line with my sort of feeling.

Like this: "I crave watching more movies because I love watching movies. And I love watching movies because movies offer entertainment, insight and emotional truth. And I'm always craving more of those things."

Also, I sense you sort of liked The Big Year. Yes? No? I sort of liked it, despite my problems with it, because like you I think I could relate in a way.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Nick. Indeed I did like The Big Year. It's slight, but I thought its heart was in the right place. A main complaint about it is probably that its intentions are quaint, or that it does not speak to an easily identifiable demographic. Personally, I'm pleased that in the year 2011, someone could still make a movie about competitive birding. I celebrate that the world has not become so oriented with profit and the bottom line as to crush a little movie like this.