Thursday, April 7, 2011

Movies Are The Art of Our Times: A Memoir

The last Supper (1995)

Years ago I was at a dinner party somewhere in the Midwest. I was there for work, and was attending the dinner in my capacity as "the visiting artist." It was far enough from from New York City that I felt a bit like Odysseus, oar in hand. The presence of an artist was a very exotic event for my my fellow diners. New Yorkers do not find artists exotic. Here we are more like pigeons than peacocks. The only mysteries surrounding our lives, is, like pigeons, why you never see baby artists and why are our feet so ugly. But that night I was a visiting dignitary, a representative of a profession, for my land locked companions, I was the proverbial oar.

It's not that my hosts were rubes, this happens at any great distance from the city. Around the same time, I attended a super posh wedding at a chateau outside of Paris where I was seated at the main table across from Salman Rushdie, simply on the merit of being an artist (they assumed we would have lots to talk about, but I've never read any Rushdie, so he and I exchanged blank looks all evening - it was a little uncomfortable). But at the Midwestern party, I was seated next to a very nice young accountant, who knew less about art than I know about Satanic Verses, but he was determined to find out about what I do. He asked, "What do artists talk about when they get together?" I got the sense he was waiting to hear real mystery unfold. "Movies." I told him. "What do you guys talk about?" I asked. The answer was, of course, that he and his friends talked about movies too.
My Dinner With Andre (1981)

We all talk about movies. That is the central reason they are the art of our times - and too be clear: I do not mean films, art house or experimental high brow stuff, I don't even mean classics or "great" movies. I mean movie-movies; going to the movies; matinees; midnight shows; opening weekend; popcorn movies. And when I say "talk about" I don't just mean casual conversation. Of all the arts, from dance, to music, to painting, installation, sculpture and performance art, it is movies that are the art form we discuss in fine grained particularity. We weigh the effectiveness of the score, nit-pic the editing, babble excitedly about the use of lens flares and other nuance of cinematography, question set design and wonder about the meaning of the color palette - on and on. I am not talking about cineastes, I mean all of us.

Forty Years ago this was not the case however. It would have been an absurdity to discover a group of parking attendants arguing about their favorite directors in 1960. To have overhear a couple discussing the amount of money a movie grossed over breakfast in a Midwestern cafe would have been unthinkable until very recently. No one kept track of that sort of information back then. Weekend returns didn't become widely discussed until after I was out of high school, until then movies were either hits or flops. In his book, The Drifters, James Michener points out the generational disconnect between a Hemingway-esque expat who thought of movies in terms of their stars - The Maltese Falcon was a Bogart movie; The Green Berets a John Wayne film - and a young Boomer expat wanted to know, "Who directed that?" We, all of us today, are far more sophisticated about movies, and we are only becoming more sophisticated the more we time we spend watching them together.
Green Berets (1968)

Shortly after the Tom Cruise film, Collateral, premiered I went and saw the film and afterwards the director Michael Mann spoke about the movie. I walked into that theater with low expectations. "Didn't Mann do the TV show Miami Vice?" I worried. I walked out of that theater with a very different attitude. Mann was my new hero. I liked the film a lot, but that is not why Mann impressed me. The entire time I was watching something niggled at my consciousness about the cut of Tom Cruises pants. I kept seeing flashes of his socks. When Mann got up to speak he said something I had always believed and found very frustrating that no one else I had ever met would concede, much less affirm independently: Mann said "Today's audiences are much more sophisticated than film audience twenty, or even ten, years ago."

I had waited my entire adult life to hear Mann say those words. I have always puzzled over cultural critics, pundits, professors, and close friends who breezily proclaim that attention spans are getting shorter, movies are being dumbed-down, and today's audiences for art of any kind lack the sophistication of those of the past. Whenever I hear that pessimistic brand of common-sense I find myself wondering if I am the only one who has been watching James Bond movies all these years. Early Bond film are so dull - and I don't mean that I am easily bored and get distracted. I mean dull as in dull witted. Everything moves so slow, each point is spelled out and repeated again and again. Its like being talked to like child,  and that is exactly what it was, baby talk.
Collateral (2004)

Film audiences (and filmmakers) of the 1950s and early 60s were not as sophisticated when it came to visual story telling. Movies were no longer static theater pieces re-staged on sound stages, but directors had to make sure things were clearly spelled out for audiences unversed in the leaps, sweeps and zooms lighter cameras and other technological improvements allowed them. So that important plot points not would be missed by an out gunned audience the equivalent of a huge neon arrows were required: "Remember James, Pussy Galore has a Gun!" "That's right, Gold finger's henchmen all carry guns." "Yes, and Pussy Galore is one of Gold Finger's henchmen!" [those exact lines were never spoken in Goldfinger, but those sorts of lines litter movies of that era.] Some films are still made that way, especially if they are intended for a broad international release (Crimson Tide was ruined by a script larded with neon arrows. But even in those films, the arrows have gotten smaller .

At his talk, Mann went on to say that because today's audiences are so sophisticated, it is now possible to use the subtlest of visual cues. "For instance," he explained "We dressed Tom's character in an expensive European suit, but we had it poorly tailored - that tells you something about the character, who he wants you to think he is and who he really is." [While I did not locate a transcript of Mann's talk, and Mann's quotes are reconstructed from memory, unlike the Bond mis-quotes, they do get to the gist of what Mann said that night.]
Goldfinger (1964)

And of all the variety of art produced and consumed today, movies are also the most modern. I do not mean that the stories movies tell somehow best capture the zeitgeist of our times in ways that other art forms don't, or even that cinematography is more modern than photography which was more modern than painting. I mean that the place movies hold in our culture; the ways they are made, the devises that are use to communicate with us and especially the ways we watch and enjoy them together are what make them the most modern art form.

My entire adult life I have been hearing obituaries for movie theaters. The death watch probably began with the introduction of TV, and I am sure resumed again when color TV was introduced. What I remember personally is the morbid predictions around the time VCR's and cable boxes became household necessities in the mid-eighties. We were informed at the time, that this time, we all really were going to stay home. Indeed I can remember  a time in the mid 80s when old movie palaces like the Chicago were going out of business after very long declines and new theaters were few and far between. But as we all know, "movie going" is more lively now than than any time in its history.
Videodrone (1983)

I saw The Empire Strikes Back with my father in one of the last old movie palace left remaining on Chicago's near north side. He and I stood in a long line for hours and got seats in the balcony on the far left side of the house. My dad is not at all a pop guy. I grew up listening to classical music announced by ancient scholarly hosts that seem intended to bore me into a stupor. He also disapproved of TV. The "boob-tube" was rarely turned on for anything but the news (again his tastes would tolerate the only the most arid programing PBS had to offer), and forget the movies. I can only remember going to the theater with my dad a handful of times (my mom was WAY more game, she and I would tuck into matinĂ©es together at the drop of a hat), so seeing Empire was not just a cultural event, it was a personal EVENT. But what made it extraordinary, so that I can remember my body in space, is that we were packed together in a crowd, sharing a moment that was simultaneously intimate and entirely public. 

I remember my dad laughing and booing along with the crowd when Darth Vader made his entrance. "HO! HO! HO! Oh yes! Boo! Boo!" You have to understand, there was nothing informal or casual about the man in those days. He always wore dark, three piece Brooks Brother's suits. He was a solid 6'4", 200+ lbs (for the non-Americans out there - that is really big guy). At church, he was a full head taller than everyone else. His deep voice a couple of octaves deeper and a full measure louder. His singing could always be heard above the choir. So you have to picture that all the excitement of that opening night crowd at finally seeing Luke Skywalker, and rising over the high pitched cheers of teenage boys was my father's baritone: "HURRAH! OH HURRAH! Oh dear yes! HO, HO!" 
Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Years later, after I had moved to New York I saw the premiere of Independence Day at one of the last great movie palaces left in mid-town Manhattan - the Ziegfeld. It is a massive screen that rivals any I can remember from my childhood (My dad's apartment building had an awesome Modernist designed big screen theater that was later divided into small theaters to disastrous effect, but before it was I saw Time Bandits there at least a dozen times and was blown away by the re-release of Lawrence of Arabia). The night I saw Independence Day I met a group of friends for a quick drink for a quick cocktail at a nearby hotel bar, then stood in line with hundreds of other excited movie-goers. A buddy and larded up on popcorn sodas, goobers, Twizzlers and other such concession standards, while our dates got the seats. We ended up very close to the screen on the far right hand side of the house.

I have seen the film since but nothing has ever come close to that first time at the Ziegfeld [Spoiler alert] when the aliens blew up the White House it was cool, when they blew up the tower top rave in LA it was cool, but when they blew up the Empire State Building we all completely lost our shit. I don't mean my friends and I, I mean EVERYONE in the theater, all at once. One moment I was sitting watching a movie with a huge tub of popcorn in my lap, the next I was on my feet with a thousand other New Yorkers cheering the destruction of one of our metropolis' most beloved landmarks. (When I spoke to a friend who had seen the film opening night in LA, he told me the moment the crowd let loose there was when the reporter asked Angelinos to please stop firing their guns at the space ships.)
Independence Day (1996)

I cannot begin to tell you what it was about - it was years before the September 11th attacks, and there was something guiltlessly cathartic about it. With that crowd of strangers I experienced a visceral joy that was too large to be contained by the viscera of my body alone. Too intense to be sparked by the bodies of my friends. It was a mass pleasure that only those who have run riot with mob or otherwise lost themselves in a huge crowd can understand.

That is the stuff movie-going is made of - movie theaters are not just idealized windows through which we are passively watch - it is an idealized window we peer through together. Skyscrapers and museums are not the cathedrals of our times, cineplex are. For a time during the 80s massive movie palaces with their huge screens once seemed like dinosaurs but multiplexes with stadium seating are everywhere. And while very few movie palaces like the Ziegfeld made it through the thin years, IMAX screens are a fast growing breed. With movie studios once again wringing their hands about the future of ticket sales (this time sparked by HDTV and Blu-ray players), I am  confident that movies don't need 3D or other gimmicks to compete with improved home theater options - the viewing experience at home remains private, we go to the movies to watch in public.
3D glasses is not what is important about this picture, its the packed house. 

The example of the sorts of theaters that have disappear is instructive, because they are also private. Unlike big screens which continue to thrive, drive-ins and porn theaters are all but completely dead. They were killed two generations of home theater technology ago.

Drive-ins couldn't compete with VCRs and cable because the experience of watching them was too close to the environment of our living rooms. My family went to drive-ins when I was a boy, I remember the excitement of getting to hook the big 1940s looking speaker box on the lip of the window and adjusting its ebonite dials. In high school my friends and I would head out to the far suburbs with bottlles of Southern Comfort, cases of beer and a couple of knuckle heads into the trunk in order to avoid paying to get in. When I moved to the West Coast, I joined my hippy neighbors at the local drive-in. I didn't have small children to coral and no longer needed to hide my drinking from my parents, the projection was too dim to account for any aesthetic reasons for going, we were all doing it out of nostalgia - the lamest of all reasons to seek out art.
Grease (1978)

What is most telling in retrospect is that I can't remember a single film I saw at the drive-in. The experience of watching a movie at a drive-in was novel (movie in a car!), but the size of the audience was totally conventional. Those memories blends too easily with nights watching movies with friends at home. The critical mass needed to experience the kind of excitement that creates a memory of exactly where one was seated (bacony, left side of the house), much less find ourselves jumping to our feet without understanding why (house left, close to the screen), is a dense crowd of hundreds of strangers. additionally there is something about the intimacy we are able feel with the actors projected in front of us combine with the place in the anonymous crowd that is important to the movie going experience.

I have never been to see a pornographic movie in a theater. The first time I saw a porn movie was probably late night on cable - because of an accident of birth,  I came of age at a time when watching porn was something that could be done alone. I didn't need to set up a projector in the basement without my parents noticing, much less try and talk my way into a theater - both WAY beyond the capabilities of my 9 or 10 year old self. But cable and VCRs had become household necessities. My first glimpse of porn was on an scrambled cable channel (something only a 9 year old boy would have the patience to indure). I got a clearer  view of porn a few years later when VHS tapes of Deep Throat made the rounds. The tragedy of the introduction of home theater technology is that it crushed porn as a mass event. The documentary, Inside Deep Throat, tells the story of America's brief flirtation with porn as a mass audience event. There was a summer when men and women stood in line together to watch sex at the movies, but I was two at the time.
Deep Throat (1972)

I have a single memory of watching porn with a group of boys and girls in high school. Someone had brought it to a house party and we squeezed together in a den not much bigger than a family station wagon and watched it together. It was awkward. We laughed a lot made fun of the actors and did our best to be cool, but we were not cool. Movie audiences are very sophisticated about the devises used to tell stories, but they are still not cool when it comes to watching sex together. Our chance to become comfortable with sex on movie screens was lost.  To lift sex out of a low-overhead porn world and the low overhead art house film world, to make it part of going to the movies together was lost to an acceleration of technology that dusted our opportunity to acclimate as a group. To learn as a public what we could watch together, but also to build the large visceral memories that only movie theaters allow, was lost to future shock. The span of time between the moment equipment needed to make a film cheap and below the radar of moral authorities, and the moment when audience could afford equipment to watch those movies in the privacy of their own homes was to brief.

Had there been a decade or two instead of a year or two between those developments I probably would have gone opening night with a group of friends to see a pornographic film in a packed theater projected on a huge screen. I would have called my friend in LA and told him about the moment the New York audience all leap to their feet and cheered and he would have laughed and told me about the moment the Angelinos exploded with joy. Its hard, but entirely not impossible, for me to imagine that I might of even had a memory of listening to my father laugh over the cheers of other theater goers. opportunity lost. Private joy is wonderful, and so is the fun we have with small group of friends, but the pleasure and excitement we share with massive dense crowds is the most uniquely modern pleasure we have. These are uncanny experiences, their intensity and even their full meaning can never be fully recalled because they are shared by the entire crowd.
A Room In Rome (2010)

Pornographers has good reason to fear HDTV spoiling their low-rent sex videos - the intimate visceral viewing experience is made way too intimate when pimples enter the picture. Perhaps the novelty of 3D sex movies will prove enough to lure movie goers to a theater to watch sex together, but nothing can save drive-ins. Those suffering from 50's nostalgia are not a demographic. Movie viewers can now get that sort of viewing experience with a group of friends in the comfort of their own airconditioned homes or even while driving their cars. The trend in offering VIP sections in theaters, and making high priced screening rooms that mimic living rooms complete with barcaloungers is a lame brained dead end. It shows that theater owners misunderstand what we are buying when we stand on line for an hour for a fifteen dollar seat wedged between our friends and a bunch of strangers. We are paying for the press of the crowd.

I like James Cameron's scheme to project Avatar 2 at double the standard frame rate, but it misses the point as well. Movie makers have nothing to fear from 3D-HDTV. Going to the movies is not about a sitting in front of a big screen with a super clear image. It is about sitting infront of a screen big enough that hundreds of people can watch together. Movies are different from all past mass entertainment because the picture is big enough that large audiences can experience the complex back and forth between intense close ups, swinging perspectives, carefully choreographed settings and scores cheek to jowl with hundreds of other people. It is a unique blending of the private and the public, the intimate and the anonymous.
Avatar (2009)


  1. My response is coming soon. I'm gonna let you bask in this glory for a little while, because I'm nice (er, and have to work tomorrow). But I still disagree with you. More soon.

    And WTF was it with "Deep Throat?" It was like the inauguration of porn for kids our age. So Andy Warhol.

  2. I had the same WTF thought about Deep Throat, but the documentary Inside Deep Throat movie explains a LOT about why we all got to see it as kids (and is pretty fun besides). Deep Throat was the one porn movie our parents and their friends were likely to have seen, so it was the one that we, as kids, were most like to get our hands on.

  3. I had the luck to , ehem, watch a bootlegged version of Machete. It was a Limewire download and was camera-shot in a packed theater. There were several moments when the audience erupted and I felt really close to them. It was strange. Even more exciting was when a guy got up to go to the bathroom and I was waiting for him to return. Maybe bootlegged movies are the new theaters. It dawned on me too that somehow movies don't use laugh-tracks.