December 14, 2009

I am not a movie buff

This was a shocking revelation for me. I think I realized it after reading my fourth "Avatar" rave. I am so utterly, completely not interested in "Avatar" that the whole acclaim and hype surrounding the thing is making me seriously annoyed. Like, it's pissing me off. Why is some dumb movie that I don't even want to see pissing me off so much? Is it because everyone likes it and/or wants to see it except me? Is it because I think it looks like shite and I'm annoyed that my fellow moviegoers are falling for it's superficial and empty charms? Is it because everyone's proclaiming it the movie revolution of the century and pretty much demanding that anyone who calls himself a movie fan must accept "Avatar" as teh greatest thing evah? Is it because I'm still grumpy that people keep mistaking "Titanic" for the "biggest" movie of all time (hint: adjusted for inflation, the biggest movie of all time is still "Gone with the Wind")?

I'll tell you what it is not: It is not me being a hater of CGI or fantasy/sci-fi or big budget popcorn action movies. Shameless confession time: I actually LIKE "Van Helsing." Like, not in an ironic way, either. I like that movie. I always watch it when it shows up on TNT.

My favorite movie(s) of the decade so far is "The Lord of the Rings." I will go to my grave with LOTR as one of my top movies of all time. The "Spiderman" movies -- I love. "Narnia," PJ's "King Kong," pretty much all superhero stuff -- good. I love fantasy. I'm a big fan of sci-fi.

But I think "Avatar" looks lame. The story looks cliche, the aliens/avatars look weird and unappealing, and I'm just not that impressed with the world Cameron has created. It doesn't do anything for me. Give me the White City of Gondor or the Mines of Moria any day.

And then, amidst all the "Avatar" praise and hype I finally realized: I don't like many movies that come out these days. I don't go to see many movies in the theater (I mean, I see several a year in the theaters, but not anymore than most people do). I'm almost entirely uninterested in the Oscar bait movies at the end of the year and during the summer I usually look forward to the latest Pixar movie and a Harry Potter flick if there's one coming out and that's it. Maybe if Tarantino has a new movie, that'll get me excited (i.e.: "Inglourious Basterds" is my second favorite movie of the year so far after "Up").

But otherwise, I'm just not that into movies. Right now, as it stands, the only movies I anticipate are the ones that are based off of fantasy literature that I love (the Harry Potters, the Narnias, the Hobbits, etc.). Everything else? Eh, I could take it or leave it (mostly leave it).

At first, this distressed me, this realization that I was not, in fact, a movie buff. I mean, really, when you tell people you're a movie buff, that usually entails actually, you know, going to the movies a lot. And watching all the big movies that come out during the year. And being excited about movies. And obsessing over the latest movies and the buzz and the whole shebang. But for the most part, if it's not animated, or it's not based on some British author's fantasy world, I'm not excited. I'm kinda meh on the whole movie thing. I don't actually go to see a lot of movies at the theater and I don't rent new movies when they come out on dvd (I probably rent less new movies than the average person).

At first, when I realized this, I freaked out: My whole identity as a person was a lie! My one distinguishing character trait was a charade! My entire reason for living was gone! (ok, well, maybe not that last one)

But after two seconds of freak out, I suddenly realized that I didn't care. Looking out over the film landscape of the last ten years, what's there to be a fan of really? What's there to get excited about? My love of LOTR stems really from my being a fantasy buff more than anything. My love of Pixar is really just the same as my love of old movies -- Pixar is the only major studio today that makes entertaining, thematically rich movies for a general audience just like the old movie studios used to do back in the golden age. Really, what is there in cinema to even care about in a fanatic, movie buff sort of way?

Movies today, for me at least, kinda suck. Even if they're mildly diverting, they're not the kinds of things that stick to the ribs and stay with you. They're disposable. More disposable than TV even, which is why I care about current TV shows much more than I do current movies.

I am not a movie buff. The majority of movies today are soulless. They are stupid. They are dull. They have nothing wondrous to offer. There is no thrilling strangeness in today's movies.

This is the truth I discovered today: I am not a movie buff...

I'm an OLD MOVIE buff. The realization hit me with such crystalline clarity I felt liberated. There is a difference and the difference is immense. The difference is the difference between light and dark, between life and death. I won't besmirch the movie buff of today's cinema, the person who loves and is fanatic about movies from the last few decades. They love their movies and are always excited about the new stuff on the horizon. That's good. It's pretty normal and natural. I've got no problem with them or their passion.

But an old movie buff is something different. Those who truly obsess over old movies are on a different wavelength from their regular movie buff brethren. We obsessives are traveling on a different movie orbit around a white dwarf sun we call "golden age cinema." There's something positively alchemical about the world of old movies. It's not easy to explain, except to say that being an old movie buff is like having access to a magic silver elixir made of black & white and three-strip technicolor, and it slides down our souls and coats our brains and gives us the vision of a more perfect, more real, more sparkling, more broken, more honest, more deceptive, more heartbreaking, more musical, more witty, more wonderful, more human world, a world out of time and yet of another time, a world that once was and never was.

There's all kinds of talk about new the technologies in filmmaking and how these new advances are bringing us closer to the bright, wondrous "future" of cinematic storytelling. The new technologies still yet to be discovered are out there somewhere and it's all an adventure to see where these things will lead us.

But for the old movie buff, the adventure is in the past. The old movie buff isn't the astronaut blasting off into the unknown outer reaches. Like I said, I have no qualm about the new movie buff and his thrill of the new. But the old movie buff is a time traveler and I've always liked time travel more than space travel. The trip into the past is both a trip into the forgotten mystic once-was as well as a trip into the strange and unknown. We think we know the past, but the old movie buff, with each new (old), dust-covered gem he sees, finds he never really knew the past at all. It's a world that's constantly unfolding and changing before our eyes. The minute we think we have a beat on the old movies of the past, they throw something unexpected and unusual our way. It's a paradox. It's "old stuff" but it often feels fresher, newer, and stranger than the new stuff.

It's as new and unsettling and strange as any far off planet, and perhaps even more so, because in the end, the past is us, it is who we've been, where we've come from, who we still are in some way, buried deep inside and forgotten. It's like looking into a mirror and seeing a face both familiar and new at the same time, and this face is always vacillating back and forth so that it's never clear which is the now and which is the then. It's the discovery that people used to be just like us and so much different from us all at once, that the world of the past could be filled with the same dangers and loves that we face today and yet it's not our world, it's an older place, a place removed, a place out of time and yet a reflection -- however distorted or faint or glossed over or perfected or imperfected -- of a real time, a real place, a place that once was even if it all seems so unreal to us when viewed from seventy years of distance and the black & white keeps getting in the way.

But the movies of the past tell us a truth: This is the way people of the past dreamed. No one's arguing that a Fred and Ginger musical was in anyway a reflection of real life in the 30s, but it was a reflection of what Hollywood wished real life could be. It might have been Hollywood make-believe, but they believed it. Or at least they wanted to. At least they were capable of dreaming it. Today, dreams are almost dead.

And after awhile, the black & white doesn't get in the way for the old movie buff. The old movie buff starts to see reality in the black & white and fantasy in color. Color is the facade, the unreal. Black & white is how the world once was, or at least, how it should/could be (hat tip to Ty Burr who got me thinking on this). This is the world of the old movie buff and it's so different from being just a regular movie buff. Black & white, snappy fast-talking dialogue, melodrama, romanticism, swooping orchestras, bigger-than-life movie stars -- there's a lot of artifice in old movies. There's a lot to get used to for a modern movie watcher who only knows two extremes: "Boring, arty Oscar-bait dramas" and "CGI superhero blockbusters."

Old movies are a lot stranger and weirder and harder to get into than the current blockbuster spectacles or art house/indie films of today. So the old movie buff has to train his cinema muscles. The old movie buff has to work hard; he has to think, to see things in a new and different way so as to unlock the pleasures of the old movies. It takes a lot of work on the part of the viewer to fully enjoy a great old movie.

And that's why, just because I'm an old movie buff, it doesn't mean I'm automatically a new movie buff. I've been making that mistake myself for years now, but I've finally realized my error. The old movies and the new movies share a lot in common (I mean really, narrative storytelling in cinema hasn't changed in almost 100 years), but the things that separate them are what make all the difference. The old movies have their own personages, their own styles, their own genres, their own flourishes and eccentricities that make them infinitely more interesting (for me, at least) than the new movies that come out in the theaters today. And it takes a lot of work to find one's way into that world. It involves training different muscles from the ones I would train if I were a new movie buff. And I think it has a lot to do with being a history buff too. The old movies are another way to journey into the past and wander around like an archeologist exploring ancient ruins. Being an old movie buff means being passionate about the past, a passion that's not required of the new movie buff. It's a different frame of mind.

But whatever it is that makes me an old movie buff and not a new movie buff, I'm glad I am what I am. What distresses me, really, is why aren't there more like me? On the one hand, I know exactly why: Old movies are old, for one thing, which means most people aren't interested. It's the way of our modern world that the New is the only thing that matters and that the Old is "boring" and "dumb." Also, I'll admit it, old movies ARE kinda weird. They take a lot of getting used to for a modern audience. So, I get why there aren't more old movie buffs out there.

And yet... and yet... The old movies I'm talking about -- the classic Hollywood stuff from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s -- aren't exactly "art house" affairs. These aren't highbrow films that cater to a limited, elite audience. These movies were for the masses. They were made to be entertaining and to make money and to be seen and enjoyed by millions. They were strictly medium/low brow stuff (for the most part). They were meant for everybody and in those days, everybody watched and enjoyed them. Really, what we're living in now are the dark days -- compared to the 30s, hardly anybody goes to the movies anymore, if you look strictly at theater attendance and ticket sales (this is why I say "Gone with the Wind" is still the biggest movie of all time -- no other movie has sold MORE TICKETS than GWTW). So why aren't old movies still popular? They were meant to appeal to a wide audience, so why doesn't a wide audience still watch them? Why is Turner Classic Movies still a niche, boutique channel with a small but devoted audience instead of a hugely popular, widely watched, mega-successful, on-the-same-level-as-HBO movie channel?

Yeah, I guess I'm asking these rhetorically. The "why" is explained simply by saying "Tastes change." Or "audiences evolve." Or "we've outgrown them." (I bet some people would say "audiences are too sophisticated now to enjoy that simplistic old stuff", but those same people would be dolts and morons, because if you ask me, today's movies are the ones lacking in sophistication, not the old movies.) But yeah, I know the answers, even if I'm frustrated by them. So, I keep asking the same question of "why?", keep pounding away at the joys of old movie watching, keep evangelizing to try and swell the ranks of the old movie buff society. Because for me, being an old movie buff is like being a prisoner who's finally broken out of her soul-crushing prison (some might say modern life, modern entertainment, the prison of the Now) and escaped into a wild, beautiful, delightful, strange new country just waiting to be explored.

So I'm not a movie buff. I'm an OLD MOVIE buff. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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