February 19, 2010
Looking Gift Horses Straight in the Mouth: Not a Review of Shutter Island, Rather, a Discourse on Moviegoing
Last night I was lucky enough to see Shutter Island, the latest Martin Scorcese/Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration, a day early(!) thanks to the kindness and generosity of Friend-of-Culturephiles Patrick. (Thanks for the tix, Patrick. All Culturephiles should, and must, support the Mustache-A-Thon!!!)
But, in my effort to look the proverbial gift horse squarely in the mouth, here's the trouble with these "sneak preview" or "special screening" shows: they attract a rabid type of fan I am totally unfamiliar with in my general life, as someone who reacts to new releases of movies in the following sequence:
1) deciding to wait for the crowds to die down first,
2) trying to find that rare and beautiful scheduling nexus when either my wife or at least one friend is also free and can be motivated to go with me,
3) realizing that I have waited too long and the new release is now only playing in a frighteningly remote movie palace somewhere in the wild unknown wilderness of the Chicago suburbs, a group of regions I have only rarely visited and could not identify by name or direction,
4) resigning to wait for the DVD,
5) forgetting completely about the new release altogether.
I don't end up seeing a lot of movies.
So seeing a movie BEFORE the scheduled release date is obviously far from my typical modus operandi. In fact, had it not been for another sneak preview that I recently attended, run by the Ain't It Cool News website, I wouldn't even be writing this post at all. But a few months back, I got tickets for a special screening of the sci-fi apartheid parable (and newly minted Academy Award Best Picture nominee) District 9, and the experience ended up being surprisingly similar to the Shutter Island event last night, which is the only reason I'm even discussing this whole sordid affair.
As I started to say above, crowded movie theaters are, in many ways, my kryptonite. I suppose there is something thrilling about the excitement of being among the first to see a new and exciting release in a packed theater, humming with anticipation, shaking with glee. Yet that thrill is all but lost on hermits and misanthropes like myself, who would just as soon see movies on their couches, or not at all. Rare is the movie that I am compelled to go out to a movie theater and see. Avatar is the perfect example, actually; I would never have rented that movie in a million years but loved it on the big screen, larger than life, technically amazing. On the other hand, I have no reason whatsoever to see Meryl Streep whoop it up as Julia Child on a screen the size of a strip mall; that will work just fine on a tv screen -- sorry, Cahiers du Cinema subscribers. On my couch I avoid the inevitable person sitting behind me saying the most incredibly stupid things out loud so everyone can hear (oh yes, friends, she was there last night, she was there in spades!), I get to start & stop the movie for my own personal conveniences (bathroom break, drink refill, more hankys to cry into), and I get to choose where I sit.
Now we arrive at the crux of the matter. At that first special screening I went to (District 9), just like this one last night, we were herded down past the huge, prime swath of "reserved" seats to the front three or four rows: you know, the rows where nobody ever sits, ever. (Why do they even build those first three or four rows in a movie theater? I understand they need to squeeze every last dollar out of the space, but seriously...if I can touch the screen from my seat with an outstretched arm, I am too close.) This is my critical moviegoing turnoff, that scenario I avoid at all costs: I can't choose where I want to sit, and/or the place is jam-packed full of idiotic commentators. In the case of last night, both. Again, as a recipient of a FREE ticket for a SNEAK PREVIEW screening, I realize I have NO RIGHT to complain about ANYTHING; my fellow Culturephile/cinephile James and I had a perfectly good time, thankyouverymuch. But I will avoid sneaking any previews of any films in this way in the future: free or otherwise, it's just not worth it. District 9 actually made me nauseous and I had to leave early (which might creep into my top 10 Most Embarrassing Experiences, the other nine of which I will leave to your imagination, and/or your comments).
Shutter Island didn't make me sick, thankfully, though I had some trepidation. But from the third row it was impossible to actually SEE the film, at least in its entirety. At best I could see perhaps 2/3rds of the screen, effectively negating the point of seeing a film in a nice theater with a big screen. I literally experienced Shutter Island in a makeshift "pan-and-scan" format, by physically panning and scanning with my head: "Oh, who's coming in the door onscreen? Let me turn my head to look." Or: "I would like to know what Mark Ruffalo is doing right now in this shot, but since Leonardo DiCaprio is talking I guess I have to keep looking at him over there." The great irony of this is that if Scorcese himself only knew, he would be the first to freak out! Scorcese HATES the critically-reviled pan-and-scan format more than anyone!!! It was like watching a widescreen TV with your nose placed onto the glass (plasma?).
Further, waiting in huge lines, being tartly bossed around by yahoos with walkie-talkies, and excluded from the good seats by velvet ropes segregating them off for people who never show up at the theater really hits a special, virulent, anti-authoritarian nerve I usually keep hidden. My ruggedly individualistic, macho American self doesn't take to being cow-prodded in a particular direction and caged in a certain area. (This makes me feel perhaps I would fit in with "regular Americans" at a Tea Party?!) I especially don't like the tart things I say (or, more likely, have to swallow) to those people bossing me around and shoving me towards the front row. It's not the ticket-taker's fault that the event is set up in the way it is; but man, it's hard not to tell her exactly how I feel about it, pointlessly. It's an unfortunate personality quirk of mine that I'm sure I share with many red-blooded Americans; I'm aware of it; but I prefer to avoid situations where it may be raggedly exposed.
All in all, I hate to suggest that moviegoing is changing for me the same way the bookstore is changing, or the newspaper is changing, but it's probably true. With DVDs, movies on demand, downloads from Amazon or iTunes, and streaming from Netflix -- unless your movie is Avatar or something like it, I really have no need to go to a theater. The things that I like about theaters: big screen, immersive environment, shared experience, are often outweighed by the things I dislike: most people. So it's probably better for everyone that I keep my judgemental, critical, sensitive soul in my own house, where it belongs.
PS: It would be impossible for me to review Shutter Island without totally and completely spoiling it and ruining the film for anyone ever interested in seeing it. So naturally, I will put a mini-review in the comments if anyone is so inclined. But don't say I didn't warn you.