Arts and Culture

No, Movies Don't Suck

Sure, Hollywood's mostly do. But here's why I can't agree cinema is over.

By Dorothy Woodend 16 Feb 2013 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee twice a month. Find her previous articles here.

When I read Shannon Rupp's piece "Movies Suck" in the Tyee last week, I thought, "She has a point." There are plenty of films that suck, profoundly, from stem to stern. But there are just as many that do exactly the opposite. Before you blurt out "You mean they blow?!" Stop. You may have seen one too many Adam Sandler films, and, really, even one is probably too many.

Yes, it is true that a great many films emerging from mainstream studio production are simply, irreducibly terrible. But to maintain that movies suck on the basis of only seeing what is playing at the Cineplex is like maintaining that all food sucks because you only eat at McDonalds. McDonalds is fine on occasion. It's tasty and cheap, and that's fine, but no one would maintain that a steady diet of the stuff is a good idea. Look what happened to old Morgan Spurlock. I'm sure his liver still hasn't forgiven him.

Hollywood is a greedy, ravenous Megalodon that swallows huge chunks of money and attention and burps up Ryan Seacrest. It swims and eats and markets itself as relentlessly as a shark. But it is only one part of the great cinema kingdom. If you want to see what other offerings are available, you have to leave the Cineplex and venture further afield. The world is stuffed with great films, as rich and dappled as wild tree fruit, brimming with Vitamin Cinema. Foraging among festival fare is the most obvious route, but there are other places where films pop up like wild mushrooms. Vancouver still has a few remaining video stores, Blackdog Video in particular is fine example, where the staff are irascible and hilarious and apt to offer up any number of filmic suggestions that are furry and flavourful.

If you really wish to fully indulge your movie hunger, luckily enough there is a 24-hour film orgiastic event about to unfold this weekend. The Movie Marathon is an all-you-can-watch buffet that begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 16, and runs until 10 a.m. the next day at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver. If the notion of sleeping over at the Cinematheque sounds like the greatest pajama party ever, there is more! The films themselves are secret, although a few titles have leaked out. There's no Caligula on offer, but there will be "13 Movies about the Movies" including Robert Altman's The Player, Francois Truffaut's Day for Night and a rare screening of Buster Keaton's classic Sherlock Jr. Tickets are only $40, and what promises to ensue in the wee small hours of the back row might be worth the price alone. A mass movie make-out maybe? All things are possible when you love something.

Snap, crackle, pop

But before you get too excited, let's return for a moment to the question of film suckage. My esteemed colleague Ms. Rupp, in her usual smart and funny way, makes the point that it is modern cinema that disappoints most profoundly, whereas the classics still hold hard and fast. This is true.   

There is a reason that people return time and time again to the films that they first fell in love with. These films are like other countries inside of you, distinct and palpable as a scent. You watch them, but you also feel them, remember them, put yourself inside them and vice versa. It's mysterious, almost alchemical process that takes place deep inside your brain, where the synapses snap and crackle like downed power lines. Sometimes, I gauge how much I like a film by how much I want to return to the specific locale it offers up. It doesn't actually matter if the place is terrifying or comforting. The idea of hanging out in the Arctic waste with R.J. MacReady is as pleasurable a thought as being transported back to sun burnt sexual sublimation of Gidget.

As Melanie once sang, "I wish I could find a good book to live in." Swap out book for film, and you get the idea. But no one should live permanently in the past. It's not good for you. Also you're missing out on some of the keenest of pleasures, namely that of discovery. 

Good reps

To return to the current world of movies, there is much to love here as well. It just takes a bit more effort to find and access it. Rep houses such as the Cinematheque and Vancity are holding their ground, but actually laying hands on more obscure items can pose a challenge. But really, isn't that part of the thrill of the new, and more importantly the opportunity to share one's discoveries with other people? There is so much out there, ripe and lovely and madly insanely gorgeous, you could groan from the sheer wonder of it. I often find myself doing precisely that. I saw had the privilege of previewing a Danish documentary recently that was one of the most ridiculously beautiful things I have ever seen. Not simply gorgeous, but funny, weird, and profound all at the same time. I wish I could tell you more about it. Perhaps I can one day soon.  

As a programmer for DOXA, Vancouver's documentary film festival, I find myself in the curious position of seeing dozens upon dozens of films every week, and not being able to talk about them to anyone outside of a narrow circle of folks. It is a curious feeling, since the very first thing you want to do when you see a film that you really love is tell people about it. And show it to them, because cinema love demands to be shared. It's polyamorous, but not in the gross way. When you hear people telling other people on the bus or walking down the street about a film they just saw, you know that love is in the air. I noticed this last spring when I kept overhearing folks telling other folks about Searching for Sugar Man. "I just saw this film, you should go see it," was repeated over and over again.

Tough love

The other day I sat in a room with a dozen different people as they talked about films that they loved. This wasn't unconditional love, but thought out, articulated and critical. It is interesting to ask people 'Tell me what you love and why,' because the answers are as varied as the films themselves. Beauty, mystery, information, knowledge, empathy, but it all comes down to love. 

So often that is what is profoundly lacking in many current movies. It's not even a question of quality, since everyone and their weird dog loves bad movies, but for lack of a better word, something genuine. Often times there just seems to be so little of anything there at all. Nothing to love or loathe, but simply an expenditure of time and money, a commercial transaction. This occurred to me while watching the most recent Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Don't ask me why I was there; I'm not exactly sure myself. The theatre was huge, and there were roughly a dozen people scattered throughout, all wanly, listlessly watching. When the lights came up, the audience filed out like they'd been caught doing something faintly embarrassing. Which perhaps in some way we had. I felt a tinge of it myself, the soul sickness that comes from doing sordid stuff with a few other sad sacks. Contrast this with a film where people laugh and cry and carry on like their pants are on fire.

If you really want people to see films that you think are the greatest thing ever, then find work at a film festival or a rep house. It is the ultimate display of cinematic passion, because it means sharing the things you think are the most lovely and wonderful and profound with as many people as possible. I'm sure my fellow festival folk would agree with me that there is really nothing better than showing a film to a packed house and watching them erupt like someone lit fireworks under their seats. Why else would you work and sweat, stay up late and scream and cry and tear your hair out trying to get the films that you most love if it wasn't fundamentally driven by the need to share and ultimately a need to connect with other people?

If you need a full immersion in movie love, to drown in the stuff, dive in, splash around until your hair and your clothes are soaked, pack your baby-doll nightgown and a teddy bear and head down to the Cinematheque. I am more interested to see the cinephiles emerge the following morning, staggering forth drunken on movies, gorged to repletion, and connected with their fellow cinema-goers in new and mysterious ways. We might still be stranded in our own heads, but we are also together in the movies. 

Maybe it's best to say with a film.


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