Thursday, May 1, 2014

Movie Diet: postmortem

I have now finished slightly more than three months on my Movie Diet.

Now, I can officially pig out again.

But first I thought I should look back on a) how I did, and b) whether it ultimately meant anything to be on a reduced movie intake for the past 97 days.

Let me remind you what it was I set out to do. Starting Monday, January 20th and ending Sunday, April 27th, I vowed to watch no more than two movies per week, with one exception: I could exceed two at my wife's insistence, if she wanted to watch a movie together and I had already watched my two for that week. I also vowed to review every movie I saw during that period, ultimately revising that to all movies I was watching for the first time (and ultimately cheating a little bit even on that).

First, let's look at how I did on sticking to two movies per week. Feel free to skip over this part if you just want to get to the meat of my analysis.

Week 1
January 20th to 26th
Watched: Phar Lap (1/26)
Cheated? No, and in fact I actually watched under my allotment.

Week 2
January 27th to February 2nd
Watched: The Hunt (1/29), Finding Nemo (rewatch) (2/1), This is Not a Film (2/2)
Cheated? No, because my wife initiated the Sunday afternoon viewing of This is Not a Film, which was interrupted and stretched to that evening.

Week 3
February 3rd to 9th
Watched: Imitation of Life (2/5), BMX Bandits (2/9)
Cheated? Nope.

Week 4
February 10th to 16th
Watched: Another Year (2/13), Bolt (2/14), Ruby Sparks (rewatch) (2/14), Wreck-It Ralph (rewatch) (2/15)
Cheated? Yep, I had a little binge there. But the only actual cheat was Bolt, because I already knew I had been planning to watch Ruby Sparks on Valentine's Day to show it to my wife for the first time. Since I was the driving force behind watching Sparks, there's no way I can chalk that up to her initiation. She did initiate the viewing of Wreck-It Ralph, which I'd actually borrowed from the library for my son to watch. That was the same story with Bolt, but since I hadn't seen Bolt before myself, I did sit down with him to watch it that morning, mindful of the fact that it would push me into the cheating zone.

Week 5
February 17th to 23rd
Watched: Side by Side (2/17), The Inbetweeners Movie (2/19)
Cheated? No ma'am.

Week 6
February 24th to March 2nd
Watched: Nebraska (2/24), L'Atalante (2/28), All That Jazz (3/1)
Cheated? Yes, my second cheat. But it was a crime of opportunity. My wife was sick that Saturday night and retired to the bedroom at barely past 8 p.m. I simply couldn't resist a wide-open evening to watch whatever I wanted, and I'm glad I didn't, because All That Jazz was just about the best movie I saw on the whole diet.

Week 7
March 3rd to 9th
Watched: Monsters (3/7)
Cheated? No, and you could say I made up for the previous week's cheat by watching only one. Of course, that allowed me to excuse a slight cheat in the following week ...

Week 8 
March 10th to 16th
Watched: Amelie (rewatch) (3/10), A.C.O.D. (3/10), Non-Stop (3/11)
Cheated? I don't consider this a technical cheat, because Amelie was watched to pass the time while I couldn't sleep in preparation for a fantasy baseball draft starting in the U.S. at a reasonable hour, but at 4 a.m. here in Australia. I thought of it sort of like a late Sunday night viewing from the previous week.

Week 9
March 17th to 23rd
Watched: Double Indemnity (rewatch) (3/18), Hard to Kill (3/23)
Cheated? No I did not.

Week 10
March 24th to 30th
Watched: Strictly Ballroom (3/25), Touchy Feely (3/30)
Cheated? Negative.

Week 11
March 31st to April 6th
Watched: Powder Blue (4/1)
Cheated? Another under-consumption, but ...

Week 12
April 7th to 13th
Watched: Turbo (4/7), Noah (4/8), The Lego Movie (4/8), Mystery Road (4/11)
Cheated? ... I started watching Turbo on that Sunday morning, but my son lost interest and I actually had to finish it on my third sitting on Monday night. So this doesn't count as a cheat for Week 12. The viewing of Mystery Road was entirely instigated by my wife.

Week 13
April 14th to 20th
Watched: Mr. Nobody (4/17), Vanilla Sky (rewatch) (4/19), Where the Wild Things Are (rewatch) (4/20)
Cheated? No sir ... well, not really. I put the idea of watching Where the Wild Things Are (for our third time) in my wife's head, in the abstract, and she ran with it on that particular night. Half-cheat.

Week 14
April 21st to 26th
Watched: The Grand Budapest Hotel (4/21), Deep Blue Sea (4/24), A Dangerous Method (4/27)
Cheated? Nope, because A Dangerous Method was entirely suggested by my wife (though I was the one who borrowed it from the library). I actually thought I'd wrapped this diet up, and had even started on writing this post, when she gave me one last movie to review with David Cronenberg's 2011 film on the diet's final night.

Fourteen weeks of controlled cinematic intake. I never thought I could have done it, and at the start, I was a little scared about the prospect. But it turned out fine, and I only had to legitimately cheat twice. The other two were gray areas. In fact, they were all sort of gray areas ... there wasn't one time when I had a cheat that I couldn't rationalize. (Of course, any diet worth its salt is completely undone by rationalizations.)

Now let's turn our attention for a moment to the films I reviewed.

Of the 27 new movies I've seen since January 20th, I reviewed 24 of them, either in straight reviews or as part of my Australian Audient series. I skipped All That Jazz because the draft I had been writing was lost, and I didn't have the oomph in me to start over. I skipped Powder Blue because I wanted to write something different that was inspired by the movie, and I didn't want to write about it twice. And I skipped The Grand Budapest Hotel because I had already heard multiple reviews of it on podcasts, and I wanted to use the occasion of seeing it to rank Wes Anderson's movies.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Now, the real question:

Was it worth doing?

I can't answer that with one simple answer, because there were two distinct parts to this Movie Diet. One part was following strict rules that governed how many movies I could see, and the other was reviewing all the movies I did see, to see how much love I still have for writing straight reviews. I'm going to answer the second part first.

At first I really enjoyed the challenge of forcing myself to craft reviews of about 1,000 words for each motion picture that was new to my eyeballs. During my decade plus writing for All Movie Guide, I regularly wrote 300-word capsule reviews, and grew to love that format so much that I didn't really want to write in any other. Knowing that this was a bit of a unique length that I wasn't going to find everywhere, I welcomed the opportunity to write 10 or 12 longer reviews in the final year or two of my time writing for the website. Some of those reviews are actually my favorite I've ever written, for three different publications over nearly 15 years.

So around the time of The Hunt and Another Year, I was really grooving on finding interesting entry points into the movies and composing something I felt really proud of. Eventually, though, my commitment to reviewing everything I saw -- even when it was drivel, or worse, boring drivel -- began to feel tedious, and I began to notice some of the things I don't like about the long-form review rearing their heads.

You see, the thing that was nice about those 300-word All Movie reviews is that they were only reviews -- they needed to include no plot synopsis, as a plot synopsis could be found on the tab right next door. Sandwiching in a plot synopsis has always felt inorganic at best. What usually happens, very predictably and very boringly, is that you start with a paragraph or two that gives an insight into your overall impression of the film, then follow that with one big chunky paragraph that gives the reader what they need to know about the plot. Then you finish with five or six paragraphs of praise or scorn.

The really good writers can weave the plot synopsis in more seamlessly, can intertwine analysis with exposition ... and that might be part of the problem. I'm starting to worry I'm not one of those who can really do that. And in the absence of being able to do that, am I really living up to my own critical standards?

I also started questioning all my own rules for style and tone. Do I try to keep myself out of the reviews, steadfastly refusing to use the word "I" or even the phrase "this reviewer"? Which is in keeping with my traditional ideas about how a person should review a movie? Or do I allow myself a more conversational style where I frequently do make it about myself, since that's the way criticism seems to be moving in the digital age?

Clearly I will continue to wrestle with all this stuff.

Overall, I'll say I'm glad I did it ... but I'm also glad that reviewing movies on this blog will become the exception, rather than the rule.

Now, as to what I got out of the experience of restricting myself.

Was there value to refusing to yield to my every impulse to watch movies? Sure there was.

Was it good to know that I can delay gratification and (mostly) stick to what I said I'd do? You betcha.

Did I use the time that I wasn't watching movies to better my life in some definable way, as I said I planned to do?

Absolutely not.

And granted, part of that was because I had set myself this task of reviewing all the movies. So instead of gaining some downtime from movies, all I really did was shift my movie-related interfacing from one type of screen to another. Instead of watching movies on a TV screen, I was writing about them on a computer screen.

However, part of my failure to write the next great American (or Australian) novel, or some kind of novel about an American living in Australia (yes, I was actually entertaining this), is mitigated by the fact that I did accomplish something during this Movie Diet: I got a job.

Since March 13th, I've been working on the service desk for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. (DEECD for short, though no one one says the second E because it's just too tricky -- try saying it quickly and you'll see it doesn't flow.) It's not exactly the job I pictured myself having here, and it doesn't pay as much as the job I had in the U.S. But in certain ways it's better. For one, I'm working, in a broad though very real sense, with the goal of educating children. That seems like a nicer calling than working for a steak restaurant chain (my first IT job) or a party rental company (my most recent). Then there's the fact that I never take work home with me, which is just what my family needs at a time when we have two young children (3 1/2 years and 4 months). We're in Australia in the first place so my wife can pursue her own career aspirations, and I am only too happy to support those.

I started my Movie Diet in part to push myself out of the funk that might have been developing over many months sitting at home, in a new country, not "doing anything," and certainly not feeling like a productive member of society. You'd be amazed at how just getting a job instantly gave me so much of that sense of purpose I had been seeking. To be sure, it doesn't get me to the top of Mount Career Satisfaction, and that's a journey I do want to continue at some point. But it also means I'm no longer -- let's say it, because it was probably true to some degree -- depressed. Now, movies don't feel like the crutch that's keeping me from moving forward -- they feel like the reward for a hard day's work.

And yes, I do still want to start noodling around with some long-form writing, or some new hobbies/artistic pursuits, or reading more, or a hundred other things I imagined I'd do when I was watching only two movies per week. But I no longer need to prove to myself that movies aren't preventing me from doing those things. When I get an idea of something to write about, I'll try to write it. After all, you can't jump into a long-form writing project if you simply don't have the ideas.

So I'm free to pig out now, and I'm already on pace to watch more than two movies in my first week off the diet. It's Thursday night and I've already got two under my belt for the week. In fact, by the time the weekend's done, I may feel the need to loosen that belt.

What I won't feel the need to do is set up any more arbitrary restrictions as a means of getting the best out of myself. My best self has a way of fighting its way to the surface, without all that.

After all, a diet can only be a short-term thing, anyway.

It's no way to live.

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