Saturday, February 6, 2010

Is it me or is it the movies?

I love the movies. I've seen quite a few of them. At a rough count lets say 5000 or so. Started having disposable income around the age of 14 and like most at that age had plenty of motivation to escape reality. Hey, at least it kept me away from drugs.

I used to cut school often and take the L into the Loop and get off at Washington. The Loop of those days was quite different. Not quite the shiny tourist mecca that it is today, but it didn't lack for movie theaters. Within minutes walking distance you had the Chicago, State and Lake, Woods, Oriental, United Artists and McVickers.

These were the days of double, and sometimes triple, bills. The first showtime often started at 8am. The fare certainly wasn't highbrow. We're talking The Master of the Flying Guillotine, Bruce Li and the Tool Box Murders. But there were also plenty of middlebrow choices. Whatever Hollywood decided to release for better or worse could be found in one densely packed movie mecca.

For the highbrow you could walk a few blocks and you had the Water Tower and Fine Arts. For the truly obscure you had the Parkway on Clark which had a different slate of films each day. Then the VCR came along, HBO, Blockbuster. Long story short, my film tastes were omnivorous and I certainly didn't lack for choices. I'd watch almost anything. When the AFI releases those lists of Top 100 this or that I've often seen between 60 to 90 of the films on any given list. This is not meant to be me bragging about how much I've seen. Just that I used to go to a lot of movies and the movies I would sit through cut across a pretty broad scape of genres and styles.

Until recently. Now weeks could go by without me seeing a single film. Might not seem like a big deal to most, but remember that I am someone who has probably averaged about 3 films per week for the past 35 years or so. Something changed. Is it me?

I am not a fan of nostalgia. Always been distrustful of the longing for the past. As they say the only thing certain in life is change. Sorry, but things were not always better when you were a kid. Popular and creative tastes go through cycles just like everything else.

Nor am I one to bash Hollywood for releasing commercial films for the lowest common denominator. Might come as a shock to some, but film making was always about finding the broadest possible audience. Films are far too expensive. They require far too many people to make. The average Hollywood film costs around $100,000,000 to make. Quite a bit of that is creative accounting, but that's still an awful lot of zeros. If you were putting up that much money you'd want some guarantee on your investment as well.

But something has changed. I first noticed it a few years ago when I started watching films on my PC. I'd start watching a film and then at some point, usually around the same time into the film, I'd start playing Freecell or Minesweeper. One eye on the film and one on the game. Okay. So some of that might be middle age ADD and some part of it is just simply that most films follow a fairly common structure. They even teach it in Film School. By page such and such, such and such thing must happen to advance the plot, etc. You watch enough films and that pattern gets kind of burned into your psyche and at some subconscious level you know when you can get up and go to the bathroom without missing some important plot point. Its not necessarily a bad thing. Its like meatloaf. No matter what you do to meatloaf it usually comes out the same usually. Its predictable and comfortable and I still like it.

The other thing I noticed is film previews. If you go see an animated film the film previews will almost all be for animated films. Romantic comedy, action, drama, the same. And even within that they'll be almost all the same.

Films are no longer just films. They're product. To some degree they've always been product, but now it seems like they're product first. Like a can of Coke. They're slotted for a specific audience with specific tastes and tug on specific emotional wavelengths. Nothing wrong with that in a way. I like Coke, but the films themselves seem to have become secondary. You don't start out with a film and then find an audience. You start with an audience and then create a film for that audience. Its like if you were making Coke now, you'd start with the can. Not with what's in it. Its about the packaging. Not about the content.

Then again, maybe I've just seen too many packages.