Thursday, August 12, 2021

Back to the Movies

A funny thing happened when COVID encouraged us to be at home through most of 2020. I didn’t watch many movies at home and saw none in a theater after last year’s True/False Film Festival. The latter is probably no great surprise--did going to the movies seem like a desirable or smart thing to do?--but the former would be deemed unusual based on my previous viewing patterns. And then a funny thing happened after I got the second dose of the vaccination in April 2021. I was in no rush to go back to the movies. 

Before the pandemic uprooted some of my habits and routines, I could be counted on to go to the movies a lot. Seeing three or four films per week in theaters was fairly common, especially with an AMC A-List membership that tempted me to get the most bang for my buck. My attendance suffered mildly when I started a new job in late 2019, primarily because I had less time and energy, but even if I were “only” seeing one or two a week, such a pace would surely put me among the top percentiles of moviegoers. At the start of a largely homebound life last year I just wasn’t in the mood to watch movies and may not have had a suitable attention span for much of that time.

So why wasn’t I eager to go back to movie theaters once it was seemingly “safe” for me to do so? Fundamentally I still felt (and continue to feel) that I’d prefer to be cautious. I wanted to see Christian Petzold’s Undine, but I checked the seating chart for the one small auditorium where it was playing in town and decided that I wasn’t enthused to see it in such close quarters, especially when I could rent an HD stream for less than the price of a ticket. I don’t think my hesitancy can be chalked up purely to guarding my health, though. I just didn’t feel like I had to go.

I pushed myself to return and saw In the Heights in mid-June, nearly two months after I was vaccinated. Still, I purchased my ticket with a plan, choosing to see it in what I thought was (and previously had been) a Dolby Cinema theater--meaning it was about as big of a room as exists in Columbus--and at an off-peak time with as few people as possible present. Success! Only one other person shared the theater with me. I wore a mask throughout and expected to have the experience remind me of why I have been such a dedicated theatrical viewer. But that didn’t happen. Maybe it was the film, which I thought was fine but didn’t wow me, or maybe it was the uneasiness of being out in public like this for an extended time, even though I nearly had the screening to myself. 

The next two weeks I ventured out to see The Sparks Brothers and A Quiet Place Part II. Edgar Wright’s rock doc unspooled, or whatever the equivalent term is for a digitally projected file, before me alone. To my chagrin there were maybe seven or so people at A Quiet Place Part II but I could deal with that. Neither the films nor the experiences renewed my previously voracious appetite for going to the movies.

AMC paused all A-List memberships when the pandemic hit, but as talk of things returning to normal picked up (even if they really haven’t), they resumed billing in July. If I am going to pay for it, I am going to use it, although making three per the weekly maximum allowed might be pushing it. Nevertheless, I took in ten features for the month, which surprises me in retrospect. Raya and the Last Dragon and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions were effectively private screenings. Zola nearly was, as only one other person bought a ticket when I saw it. Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Black Widow, and Space Jam: A New Legacy were pretty sparsely attended and also played in a massive auditorium. F9: The Fast Saga, Pig, and The Forever Purge were in smaller rooms but not packed at all. The most I pressed my luck was an opening weekend Saturday night screening of Old, but the crowd was at most half the size of what it would have been the previous evening. I suppose my curiosity, coupled with not wanting everything to be revealed on Twitter before I got to it, got the best of me that night.

So far in August I’ve viewed The Green Knight, Jungle Cruise, Annette, The Suicide Squad, Nine Days, and Cruella. While the quantity of films I’m seeing might seem like I’m more or less back to normal, I can’t say that it feels like I am. The films I’ve liked I can judge as being fine, and those I’ve not liked have ranged from so-so to somewhat irritating. Whether good or not, they haven’t been particularly sustaining, just pleasant (or not) diversions. It’s been nice to get out of my apartment and do something, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. 

The closest anything has come to eliciting that blown-away reaction is Leos Carax’s weird, art-damaged musical Annette. Unlike most of the other films I’ve seen in theaters in the last two months, a strong artistic vision is stamped all over it. Even though it can be pretty aggressive in trying to alienate the audience, at least in some stretches, Annette feels vital in a way that a lot of the studio products don’t, even the good films. (Now seems like the time to chime in to say I’m not a fan of Zola, which annoyed me and may be a type of provocation where I tend to break from critical consensus. The Green Knight has a lot going for it, but I’d feel more enthusiastic about it if I had read a primer or the epic poem it’s based on before seeing it. I know Pig has its strong supporters, and while I liked it, I wasn’t dazzled.) 

So again, is it the movies, or is it me? I suspect it’s both. Many of the franchise films (or films in the franchise mold) feel made-by-committee, just this year’s model, sometimes with quirkiness added to give the patina of individual spirit in the work or the auteur smuggling in something more personal to the corporate widget. I had a good enough time with the family adventure film Jungle Cruise, but the climax has zero emotional credibility. How fitting that it is based on a ride because it was satisfying enough for the time being and hasn’t occupied my mind since it concluded. I  thought The Suicide Squad was put together reasonably well, but while I wasn’t bored with it, I never engaged with it either. In comparison, Old, which I would not describe as great or rank among M. Night Shyamalan’s best, takes some big swings. Although the end result doesn’t fulfill all of Shyamalan’s ambitions, I prefer seeing something that feels like it is its own thing, not just another waystation from one film to the next.

I expect I’ve changed too. How could I not with everything in the last year and half? I’ve developed new interests and revisited older ones for which time wasn’t available with all those trips to the movie theater. I probably was seeing more than was advisable, so if I’m no longer omnivorous (or as close as is realistically possible) when it comes to new releases, that’s not a bad thing. Fifteen months without going to the movies demonstrated that something I previously did multiple times a week wasn’t as missed as I might have once thought. (To reiterate, though, I saw ten films in theaters in July. This hardly qualifies as abstention.) And to be fair, these are still strange times to be in. I haven’t worked in an office since March 2020 and, per current expectations, won’t return to one until October. That’s probably going to be feel different as well. 

This is all really just some throat-clearing--or what people think of as blogging in general, right?--than the wind-up to some big announcement at the end. I have found rewarding viewing this year, like the online Elia Suleiman retrospective and working my way through all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films via Blu-ray, and I’m sure there is more to be done with a mental list of films I want to watch. I look forward to being able to return to film festivals. I hope more films I see in the theater will impress me to a greater degree than what I have been seeing. The Filmbound podcast is not kaput. I’ve just been stuck in not having the motivation to edit the recorded episodes in the can, which will then allow for making new ones. But for now things are how they are, and the perspective gained in getting here isn’t such a bad thing to acquire.