curated: “The Movies Are Back. But What Are Movies Now?“

AO Scott in The New York Times goes long on what I was trying to get at with my Question of the Weekend from July 3rd, when I asked, “What are movies for anymore?” (He doesn’t seem to know, either.) Choice excerpts from Scott’s essay, “The Movies Are Back. But What Are Movies Now?”:

Franchised blockbusters sucking up the theatrical oxygen as smaller, more idiosyncratic films fought over a dwindling share of the market; daring movies from festivals buried in Netflix algorithms or marooned in the video-on-demand hinterlands; a shrinking cultural footprint for art in an expanding universe of content: Is that the normal we want?

And this:

Global blockbusters, engineered to appeal to the widest possible mass audience, are conversation-stoppers by definition, offering vague themes and superficially complex plots rather than food for thought. The franchises are in the business of fan recruitment and brand extension. And the logic of fan culture — the strenuous defense of favorites, the shaming and shunning of haters, the ascendancy of feeling over argument — extends into the most esoteric reaches of online cinephilia.

Meanwhile, the broad middle ground that defined popular cinema’s glory and potential — the pop-cultural amusements that are worth taking seriously, the things everyone at work or online seems to be talking about — continues its migration to television. If that’s the right word.

And perhaps most importantly, this:

As art becomes content, content is transmuted into data, which it is your job, as a consumer, to give back to the companies that sold you access to the art.

The whole thing is worth a read. It’s simultaneously incredibly depressing and a bit exciting: where is this all going?

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Wed, Jul 21, 2021 4:03pm

Now that I’ve starting spending more of my life back in the physical world, it seems to me that the central force driving this transformation of the cinematic experience is not Covid, but some of the fundamental differences between virtual and physical space. Scott touches on this point when he writes:

“When everything is accessible — and I know it’s not literally everything, and not equally accessible to everyone — then nothing is special… I fear that movies are becoming less special and more specialized.”

Humans are curious creatures, they often don’t know what they want until they see it. In the ancient times of my youth, although everyone had their favorite aisle in the Barnes and Noble, Tower Records, and Blockbuster, we were still were forced to physically walk past entertainment products that we never would have otherwise explored, and even more importantly, we saw people who were interested in those other genres. Of course, large chains did their best to promote popular, mainstream products, but it was comparatively easy to see something interesting, walk over, and try it out.

In virtual spaces, we are teleported instantly to the product we’re looking for. Because everything is accessible at once, and the goal is to keep eyeballs on screens for as long as possible, the range of products shown to us is intensely curated to match our previous purchases and professed preferences. The “people” whose comments we read are most likely interested in the same genre, or worse are just hired or pro bono bots building hype or promoting a specific political position. Can people, in theory, “browse” virtual catalogs as if they were in a physical space? Yes, but the corresponding physical space would be enormous, and the freedom of movement severely curtailed.

Imagine walking through a Costco with an area of several square miles full of moving shelves programmed to slide in front of you whenever you tried to explore a different section of the store. In order to see and experience the other sections, you are forced to climb a ladder out of the comfy, curated pit built specifically for “people like you,” look down from high above, then climb back down, and even then the relentless, robotic shelves of the original section will chase you down and greet you at the bottom of every ladder. It’s a very different sensation than seeing something or someone out of the corner of your eye and deciding on a whim to walk over and read the back of a VHS case or a book jacket.

The entire internet is structured like this out of financial and practical necessity – if everything was truly equally accessible, how would we find anything, and isn’t it nice that when we like something, there’s someone or something there to suggest similar things we might enjoy? However, this structure stifles our innate curiosity and makes unique, special discoveries more and more unlikely. Dating sites are another prime example. What’s more special and romantic, selecting a potential sexual partner by scrolling through pictures and presorted profiles as if you were rummaging through vegetables in a bin, or seeing someone in a physical space that catches your eye, walking over, and starting a conversation with a person with whom you never would have interacted if they were presented merely as a list of physical and socioeconomic characteristics?

That’s the secret sauce of movies at the theater for me. The length, type, and quality of the content is important from a business and critical standpoint, but on a personal biological level, the level on which most moviegoers operate, the essential difference between films at the theater and streaming movies/shows at home is that watching a movie at the theater opens the possibility for romantic exploration and rewards our curiosity with surprises, both positive and negative. If you don’t like a movie or a date initially, you are forced to stick it out and sometimes rewarded for it in a physical space. In a virtual space, you can duck out immediately and will never know the pleasure of a bad experience turning into something magical. It’s the same reason grocery stores, public libraries, and going to a physical campus for college are more pleasurable than shopping on Amazon and watching online lectures. Physical spaces that force us to see and socialize with people with whom we wouldn’t normally interact build empathy and maintain the social glue.

Of course, as a lover of movies, I want to see high quality stories being told, and the trend toward “fan recruitment and brand extension” in genre films certainly stifles creativity as does the dumbing down of scripts for international markets, but the presentation of a “broad middle ground” is not why theatrical movies exist as a special, distinct medium. It’s the broad range of content playing simultaneously in a single physical space that makes theaters valuable and essential. Movie theaters could just as easily play the top twenty streaming shows, and they would still serve the same social purpose.

As long as different genres of movies don’t become so homogenous as to be indistinguishable (and therefore attract a narrow range of viewers), the theatrical experience, like all physical spaces will always offer something that streaming content, and virtual spaces can never replicate – interaction with people you wouldn’t normally see, and exposure to art you wouldn’t normally consider. The battle we’re witnessing is not merely a struggle between theaters and streaming companies, but is part of the ongoing struggle between biology (innate human curiosity) and a malignant form of capitalism that seeks to suppress any natural instinct toward free, mental exploration (haha, you thought you had escaped my ire, Capitalism? Think again you unfettered fiend!).

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Thu, Jul 22, 2021 11:39am

if everything was truly equally accessible, how would we find anything

Arguably, this makes critics even more necessary: to help you navigate all that choice.

But one big problem I have been having over the past year+ is that I barely know how to choose which films I should cover nowadays! In the Before Times, there was at least the curation of each week’s new theatrical releases… though even that was getting overwhelming, with often 10, 12, or more new movies being released theatrically each week in New York, Los Angeles, and/or London. But now, with so many streaming services all offering their own exclusive features, “overwhelming” doesn’t begin to cover it.

I’m trying to figure out how to curate for myself, but I also have an intense FOMO about all these new movies. :-/ I want to see *everything,* but of course that is impossible. So I get paralyzed by all the choices.

isn’t it nice that when we like something, there’s someone or something there to suggest similar things we might enjoy?

It *is* nice. It could become a problem if you get stuck in your little niche, though. Surely even diehard fans of the most narrow subgenres get bored of that after a while, and need a change at least occasionally…

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 23, 2021 5:29pm

That’s true, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a critic trying to keep up these days. I suppose on a practical level, you have to find away to divide your time evenly between big budget mainstream multiplex movies (to drive traffic) and smaller streaming and independent shows that are more in line with your personal taste.

The mainstream half is easy since you’ve been doing it for decades, but the glut of streaming shows and constant premature cancellations makes the second a lot trickier. Your strategy of aligning content with certain themes like “Movies for the Resistance” helps. Perhaps if you came up with one or two more categories it could help narrow things down.

Personally, I’m always looking for scifi films/shows with female protagonists, magical realism with some Borges/Calvino/Kafka flavor, Cartoons/anime of the mid 80’s to mid 90’s, and movies about sleep/dreaming. I know it’s important to stay on top of recent releases, but to recharge your batteries, you could pick some classic eras/genres of film that you’ve always enjoyed and review them on as regular schedule as possible.

One thing I’ve noticed about the modern internet economy is that the quality of the material is secondary to its regularity. Large groups of people will spend enormous amounts of time consuming mediocre content if it’s released on a predictable basis. There’s something about the overwhelming pace and isolating anonymity of modern society that makes most people (myself included) crave a steady drip of mindless, tranquilizing words from a familiar personality.

This is bad news for people with our personality who care about quality, are quickly bored with routine, and tend to procrastinate when overwhelmed until we hit a breaking point after which we work in a hyperactive flurry before running out of mental energy. The best solution I’ve found is to somehow create routines that have built-in variety, and to make hard limitations and deadlines with real consequences for noncompliance.

For example, I mentioned before that I have a “productivity prize wheel” full of creative and practical tasks on my to-do list. I create imaginary deadlines for myself with painful consequences for failure (I can no longer do something I really wanted to do) – the following example would be extreme for someone in your profession, but my browser has a timer that forces a shut down after I spend an hour online every day. In fact, one of the prizes on the wheel is an “Internet Free Day” which means I cannot use the internet for any non-essential work reason. One is a “Buy Nothing Day,” (public transportation excluded) – you’d be surprised how creatively energizing it can be to spend an entire day without purchasing anything.

Regular productivity strategies don’t work for people with our personality type, because our whole being fights against routine and external control, and we’re very easily distracted and launched on associative flights of fancy – which is more or less the main hook of the internet. Without a tightly controlled environment, imposed productive habits, and temporal limitations, INTPs are doomed to waste most of their time with inefficient (but still sometimes fun) planning, starting, pondering, and wandering. The trick for us is to invent creative routines with variety, and then become disciplined and dedicated enough to stick with them until they become habit (reminding yourself of long-term goals in the morning helps with this). Of course, there’s no shame in relaxing now and then – one of the prizes on my wheel is “Ignore the Prize Wheel Today.”

Try not to waste too much time beating yourself up – focus on slow, steady improvement and stick to that creative routine even on days when it sucks. I still only exercise about once a week (it depends on my prize wheel luck), but I’m way more healthy than I was a year ago, and it happens more naturally now that I’ve built the habit. I just had to find a form of exercise that allowed for some fun variety. Brainstorm a little, and I know you’ll think up some creative, mental exercises and routines that will work for you. Good luck!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Jul 25, 2021 6:01pm

Your strategy of aligning content with certain themes like “Movies for the Resistance” helps. Perhaps if you came up with one or two more categories it could help narrow things down.

I already have several ideas along these lines that I hope to implement very soon.