Monday, July 18, 2011

No Surprises

I love films.  All sorts – classic, foreign, avant garde, silent one, early talkies, Eighties squeakies, anything Seventies, low-watt action films, Last Year at Marienbad, Shadow of a Doubt, The Bourne Identity, Die Hard, Lone Wolf and Cub, When Harry Met Sally, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Bananas, The Great Dictator, El Topo, Cassavetes’ films, Die Hard 2, 3, & 4, Harvey – just can’t get enough.  And with the advent of Netflix, I’ve finally a means of watching all the so-called cerebral arthouse (specialty) films and documentaries that the local stores don’t carry simply because they don’t have the space, nor can they recoup the DVD’s cost, let alone make a profit.  So Netflix is often used for my harder to get viewings, things I want to watch but have to work myself up to do so.  I mean, watching a seventeen-hour doc on New York or one of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales is certainly gratifying, but you don’t just lazily gaze at those sort of films, not if you’re going to make it worth your time.  Things need to be remembered, challenging dialogue often requires a good deal of wading through.  It’s part of the process, part of the joy. 
But sometimes, when I just finish working for ten hours or have the flu or just remembered how much I spent (and owe) on my flimsy undergraduate degree, I need something a little more willing to meet me halfway, if not sidle over to the couch and heave the heavy popcorn into my sagging jaw for me.  That’s when I need some two-ply Hollywood fare.  No subtitles.  No grain, that is, smooth and glossy and ever so linear.  And most of all, no surprises.  Not to sound too smug (if not worse), but I can usually tell you who did what and why within the first five minutes of any contemporary Hollywood movie.  They don’t usually verve off the beaten path, which these days flanks you more like a trench.  But that’s just fine; it’s sorta the point.  It’s known terrain, it’s safe.   The murderer will get his, the corrupt politician will end up serving time (or like the villain, plunge to his death), and the innocent will be vindicated.  These are to sort of films I find refuge in when things start to weigh on me, or when I’m only running at half speed.
And for many, nothing is safer and more comforting than the romantic comedy.  With its endless optimism and antiseptic ponderings, the romantic comedy offers an absolute intellectual and emotional barrier to the real world.  Its mannered dialogue and reductive reasoning hypnotizes the viewer for the duration of the film (and for perhaps a couple hours afterward) into believing that it’s all really so simple: just call her and tell her you love her, or that you’re sorry, and she’ll come back; stand up to your boss, because he’ll either respect you for it and give you a raise and offer you his daughter, or you’ll start your own practice and be wildly successful in a few short months and still manage to land the daughter; and a brief stint of chemo, where at most you get bangs beneath your eyes for a few minutes of montage, and good sex cure everything else.  No wonder the studios pump out these movies like the brain does endorphins amidst a freefall.  The world is complicated, and scary, and horribly ambiguous, if not often meaningless.  Of course people are going to eat these easy answers up.  They’re addictive, terribly so, and it’s no surprise that those hooked on them begin to apply them to their actual lives.  I myself, while worrying about a friend’s recent hospital stay, indulged in The Proposal.  And, sure often, within fifteen minutes all the bad was exorcised from the room and I was out like a light.  Thank you, Ryan Reynolds. 
            But here is the real reason I felt prompted to write this entry about films: though I live in a relatively populous area in Chicago, there is no longer a single video store where I might rent any of the aforementioned balms at a moment’s notice.  But I’m not just bemoaning the loss of my ability to rent fluffy Hollywood when my spirits are low and I need the world to appear a little softer and a touch more purposeful.  It’s more than that.  I can no longer go grab something scary because Halloween is drawing near and my wife has again worked up my nerve to view something featuring a fiend that is all but unstoppable.  And though I sometimes went to Blockbuster, I preferred my local mom-and-pop because, first off, you gotta shop local, and because their selection was a lot less mainstream than the conglomerate’s.  So there was the possibility of stumbling across something wickedly B-film, camp in its truest form.  By which I mean, the director nor the actors were being tongue-in-cheek -- these weren’t the products of a John Waters who knew the boundaries and then ostentatiously pranced over them feathered with a pocket full of excrement.  As far as they were concerned, on that set, with those borrowed and second-hand cameras and the measliest of budgets, these novice directors and tyro actors were creating masterpieces on par with Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard (or perhaps Freaks -- to each his or her own).  And I would watch these films not because I wished to mock them, but rather to root for its players, to look past their ingenuous deliveries to their intent, and because so often in my own life I’ve also been motivated by such noble intentions, only to have years later come across the artifacts from these endeavors and been moved to blushing and laughter while at once pitying and loving its naïve creator(s).
            But now it’s over.  The stores, the mega-shop and my modest local one, closed in the same week.  I’m in a desert now, often sitting beside my mailbox, awaiting the carrier like I had at four-years-old for the delivery of my box-top redeemed Star Wars figure. And now I always know what’ll she’ll bring, what I’m getting. I’d chosen it days if not weeks ago while arranging my queue.  But I’m not sure if that’s what I want to watch now.  Too late, it’s been decided.  My film viewing life has taken on a Calvinist tinge. 
            I miss the perky schlubs at Blockbuster, and the odd, bordering on rude guy with the Hawaiian shirts and the Aerosmith hemp necklace at the independent shop.  I miss the requisite stains on the formers’ dark blue shirts, their canted heads and quizzical expressions when I asked if they’ve a copy of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I miss the latter’s ignoring my question all together because he’s so immersed in whatever he’s watching on the wall-mounted TV with the faded bar running across the center of the screen (or he was just flat out ignoring it, a job perk).  I also miss repaying his slight on occasion by renting the very movie he’s in the middle of watching, which was often followed by his sneer and then touché grin.  
Most of all I miss impulse rentals, the ability to fall into great things, to indulge in the worst, on a whim.  Fair well.  God Speed.  That is, until everything is digitized, of course.  Offered online.  But that’ll still be it’s own thing.  Then you’ll be offered everything, not just what the owners managed to fit into the confines of their slim stores.  No longer will your selection be guided by the limits of the physical world.  After flopping onto your couch, safe and immobile for the rest of the evening, you can spend an entire evening pursuing the online selections, never bothering to start a film, instead just reading synopses and the attached amateur reviews.  There will be no more battered boxes or sticky tabs to pull from the self and float with over to the checkout counter. 

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