Rock Island, IL
Never at any age did I clamor to be amused; always and at all ages (where I dared) I hotly demanded not to be interrupted.
—C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
It is futile to dispute tastes and impermissible to speak ill of forms, yet I would do both. I would say a word against movies and movie-going. It seems to me that an appetite for movies is a sign of bad taste, and ill-nourished is the man who feeds on them.
This can’t end well for me, but why should today be different?
Front Porchers Kauffman and Beer, good men both, have served me a ration of abuse for never having seen Hoosiers. No amount of explaining–that I simply do not care for movies–answers the charge. Localists and basketball players have seen this movie and like it. This is Sanctioned Localist Opinion. I of all people ought to know.
Their moral outrage has been most impressive, and I almost feel myself diminished in some degree for having been on the receiving end of it.
But all this has changed. I have now seen Hoosiers. I have seen it and I want my hundred minutes back.
Nothing against Hoosiers, mind you. The road to Hoosiers is paved with good intentions. It’s just that almost all movies leave me feeling robbed of time: time, whose wingéd chariot ever at my back I hear—time, that subtle thief of youth, that running grave that tracks you down.
I’m quite sure I haven’t seen any movie that came out in the last decade. I remember how treasonous it was that I hadn’t seen ET. It was ill-breeding and lack of intellectual curiosity that kept me from seeing Matrix. I once heard someone call Fight Club a “must-see,” an epithet that resounded in my ear like an interdiction from God not to see it, so I didn’t.
But I do remember making a grave error once. I allowed a student to write an essay on American Beauty, and this, like most mistakes, led to a second: seeing the movie. American Beauty is far and away the most puerile flick I know of—and, of course, it won Best Picture. Not even Kevin Spacey’s line about the couch could redeem it. I find it hard to believe that anyone not suffering a severe rectal-cranial inversion could utter a single unaccented syllable in its favor. It is, plainly and simply, a P.O.S. But that’s just the technical term for it.
And of course I didn’t see—hell’s bells, I don’t even know what else it is I haven’t seen. I know only that I won’t be seeing it. I don’t have any plans to see anything.
The reason is that movies are by nature, and in principle, boring—and I can’t see the sense in parting with my money to bore myself.
(I once went to the movies under compulsion and made my buddy, Scott, pay my way. I also made him pay for my dinner beforehand. I was that serious about not accompanying him and our wives to the movies.)
But my boredom–and this is the part so few people understand–is only natural. If you go to the movies and look around you, what you see are people who are bored out of their minds. That’s why they’re there. Why else would anyone sit—without the benefit of a body condom—in a seat that God-knows-how-many teenagers have copulated in? Nothing but boredom could make a grown man do this. I certainly won’t do it.
Nor do I have an account at any video store. Netflix I’ve heard of but can’t get excited about, and I certainly won’t use “netflix” as a verb—as in “I netflixed it.” (That is what we call an abomination unto the Lord.) I’ve never had cable television. Only last year did I cave in to familial pressure and buy a DVD player—only to find that it wouldn’t hook up to my antediluvian television set: proof from above, as if proof were needed, that movie-watching is a colossal waste of time.
And so it is—due respect to Kauffman and Beer, who are otherwise good guys, and also to everyone who has written about movies on the FPR. (The Porch is big, and there’s room for lots of people on it, but only one of us can be right all the time.)
I would not, however, be regarded as a fundamentalist. Zum Beispiel: Several years ago I taught a course that featured five novels and five films. Those films, if I remember correctly, were Winter Light, The Seventh Seal, The Mission, Jesus of Montreal, and … and, well, I can’t remember the fifth. Blackrobe maybe? Babette’s Feast? I’ll allow that each of these, and the mystery fifth, is good so far as films go. And I’m sure there are others of which I am unaware—just as there are others I have managed to cultivate an affinity for: Jaws, for example, which I first saw when I was twelve and hobbling on crutches. I was scared to take a shower for weeks. Or Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, with William Katt and Tom Beringer (not Redford and Newman). Or . . . well, I’ve run out already.
I know there are some well-made movies out there. I don’t deny this. I have probably seen some of them. What I deny is that you can reach a certain age and still be addicted to this form of entertainment, that you can “go to the movies” intending not to see something in particular but intending simply to “go to the movies” or “take in a movie” or, because it’s Friday, “rent a movie.” At a certain age you must come to prefer your book and a chair by the fire, or the pleasures of argument with friends over beer; otherwise, I own, you must admit some unflattering things about yourself.
Let it be said—and then let us be done with the matter—that movies are inferior to books and conversation. If I allow that bad books are inferior to good movies, or that good movies are more to be desired than dull conversation, I hasten to add that movie-watching is never the same as reading—and it is certainly not as strenuous as engaging in dull talk. Movie-watching is like Gilligan’s exercise regimen: lifting bamboo poles weighted with empty coconut shells.
Moving-watching is to reading what phone sex is to sex.
Hank Devereaux in Straight Man says that, like everyone else, he just wants to be entertained. Well and good. But Hank finds real life (which is free) plenty entertaining. The lesson is: train your lens on the follies of those around you. If that becomes wearisome, entertain yourself with Straight Man instead of Rain Man, with Jayber Crow instead of Russell Crowe.
But if you must go to the Multiplex, for God’s sake practice safe cinema and wear a garbage bag.
Postscript: One of the most delightful movie-going experiences of my life occured the time I hoofed it through the snow in my little Michigan town to watch A River Runs Through It at the old Sun theater (pictured above). I paid two bucks not so much to see a good flick—though it’s a pretty good one—as to walk into town in a snowfall, to warm up a bit in a classic movie house, and then, after a spell, and with something to think about, to walk home again in the still falling snow. Take away the small town, the Sun theater, the walk, the snow, and what are you left with? A movie, and that is not enough.