Showing posts with label Essays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Essays. Show all posts

June 16, 2017

Midnight Oil Is Back with a Vengeance

Midnight Oil performs at Webster Hall in New York City on May 13.

There’s a unique sense of anticipation that comes right before a band hits the stage. You can just feel it in the crowd, especially in a more intimate space. That excited mood was on full display last month in New York minutes before the return of Midnight Oil to the stage. Fans had waited nearly 15 years for the five Aussie guys to reunite after their abrupt end in late 2002. Standing in the throng at Webster Hall, I couldn’t believe this moment was going to happen. My favorite band was back, and they would prove once again why they’re the best live act on the planet.

Way back in 1990, I visited a local record store with my brother as a 14-year-old that was just getting into music. I’m not sure why, but I picked up a cassette copy of Blue Sky Mining from Midnight Oil. Maybe I’d seen the video for the title track on MTV, but the reasons are fuzzy. Regardless of how it happened, I was hooked on the politically charged music of Peter Garrett, Jim Moginie, Rob Hirst, Martin Rotsey, and Bones Hillman. Within the next few years, I’d snatched up their past work and become a devoted fan. I caught them live in 1993 at the Riverport Amphitheatre in St. Louis as part of a local radio station’s festival. They sounded great, but the giant venue (and some unexcited friends) made it a less satisfying night.

During the 1990s, Midnight Oil spent more time in Australia and slipped out of the mainstream here in the States. They kept releasing albums but didn’t return for an extended tour until 2001 and 2002. I caught them at six club shows around the Midwest during that time, and the concerts were so much fun. During the last few concerts in mid-2002, I did notice that the guys weren’t as excited by the experience. I wasn’t shocked when they decided to call it quits later that year. With Garrett immersed in politics, it seemed unlikely they would officially reform again. The guys might play a few benefit concerts in Australia, but a full tour was a pipe dream.

The marquee for the Midnight Oil concert at Webster Hall in New York City.

The Announcement

February 17, 2017. Sydney Harbour. Midnight Oil had offered hints about an overseas tour, but we didn’t know if it would be extensive. Sitting on a boat in front of local media, the guys revealed The Great Circle Tour — an ambitious trek around the world that would occupy most of the year. Here in Missouri, I could barely hold back the anticipation as I watched the live online feed on my phone. Where would they play? I knew the guys wouldn’t make it to St. Louis, but would the tour dates work for me? I was determined to attend multiple shows if possible, but I’m not in a phase of life for a long trip. With young kids at home, this would be a quick weekend trip to get as much of the Oils as possible in that short time.

My plans crystalized when the band announced a second show in New York. I could fly there and catch two concerts on back-to-back nights on May 13 and 14. I also have friends in the area that had never seen the Oils live, so it was an easy sell. I bought the tickets just a few months away from the concert dates. Questions were flying around in my mind. Would the Oils still be at the top of their game? Garrett is 64, and the other guys are just a few years younger. What songs would they play? I knew it would be fun, but I was trying to keep expectations in check.

The acoustic set for Midnight Oil playing live in New York City at Webster Hall.

Night 1 – The Power and the Passion

Any doubts about the Oils’ return were gone before they even hit the stage. The female trio BOYTOY opened with a solid 30-minute set, and the anticipation just built during the break. When “Waru” from the legendary Warumpi Band blared through the speakers, the impact of this moment really hit me. Without much fanfare, the guys strolled onto the stage to a huge roar. They blasted into “Sometimes”, the type of song that would normally close a set. This choice set the tone for the night; the Oils were going for broke right from the start. The night’s third song was “Don’t Wanna Be the One”, a fiery anthem from 1981’s Place Without a Postcard album. The oldest tune of the evening, this performance hearkened back to the Oils’ early club days.

After a significant career in politics, Garrett is well into his 60s. Even so, you could barely notice as he lumbered all over the stage throughout the night. There were a lot of smiles from the guys, who clearly enjoyed playing together again. Garrett threw some barbs at Trump (including “dumpster”) as expected, but the general vibe was quite positive. He even took a shot at the difficult range needed on “Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something”, which the band hadn’t played live since 1988. Songs like this one built the sense that anything might get a turn in this set.

Hirst grabbed a drum and moved to the front of the stage for an acoustic middle set that lost none of its power. In particular, a stripped-down version of “My Country” made that track from 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon even more powerful. The bass-heavy “When the Generals Talk” morphed into a dance tune while retaining its cynical look at world leaders. The appearance of B-side “Ships of Freedom” also made an impact with its timely look at the plight of refugees. The Oils have a rare ability to discuss complex, tough issues with catchy rock melodies.

The main set closed with a joyous run through some of the band’s hits. After a refreshing “Arctic World”/”Warakurna” combo, Hirst started hitting the water tank and signified the funky “Power and the Passion”. Easily one of my favorite Oils tunes, the early gem included an incredible solo from Hirst as its centerpiece. By this point, the crowd was full of adults in their 30s and 40s (if not older) bouncing up and down like teenagers. Even critic David Fricke from Rolling Stone was singing along and swaying up in the balcony. It’s hard to beat the massive sing along at the start of “The Dead Heart”, but the guys tried with a closing trio of “Blue Sky Mine”, “Beds are Burning”, and “Dreamworld”.

Standing on the floor in the middle of the action, I loved looking up at the balcony to see people losing their minds and singing along. What could be better? In the encore, the Oils even recalled their 1990 Exxon Protest show in New York by covering John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!”. The night closed with the epic call-and-response of “Best of Both Worlds” from Red Sails in the Sunset. How could they top this show? Heading into night two, I hoped the band could at least match this intensity. Amazingly, this was only the warm-up for an even better concert.

Setlist: Sometimes, Bullroarer, Don’t Wanna Be the One, Bedlam Bridge, Stars of Warburton, Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something, Now or Never Land, My Country, When the Generals Talk, Ships of Freedom, Luritja Way, Arctic World, Warakurna, Power and the Passion, The Dead Heart, Blue Sky Mine, Beds Are Burning, Dreamworld. Encore 1: Instant Karma!, Sell My Soul, Forgotten Years. Encore 2: Best of Both Worlds

Peter Garrett and Bones Hillman of Midnight Oil perform in New York City at Webster Hall.

Night 2 – A Dream Setlist

It’s a challenge for me to write about seeing the Oils live without just saying words like “awesome” and “incredible” over and over. It’s even more difficult when describing the second New York show. The first night included eight songs from Diesel and Dust, the band’s most successful album. Even so, I still loved it because they incorporated a variety of eras. Going into this show, I had a mental list of other songs that I hoped to hear. They played all of them. “Progress” and “Redneck Wonderland” were part of that group, and they opened the night. The former was also a key part of the Exxon Protest, while the latter is a scorching title track from the band’s 1998 album. Both set the stage for a more intense and varied performance in night two.

Amazingly, the Oils began their second concert with nine songs that hadn’t been played during the previous night. A highlight was “No Time for Games”, which occupied the early career spot of the show. That song includes a guitar solo from Jim Moginie that was possibly the pinnacle of the entire show. “Only the Strong” and “Read About It” rank among the band’s most powerful anthems, and both appeared during the early segment. The slower Blue Sky Mining tracks “Shakers and Movers” and “River Runs Red” offered a short break from all the mayhem.

The acoustic set again included “My Country”, but it deserved another play given our current political climate. That song connected well to “US Forces”, a stinging 1983 tune that remains so relevant today. This portion closed with everyone singing together on “Kosciusko”, which shifted back to the full band in the middle. It was another example of how the Oils didn’t take the obvious route with songs that already worked. This didn’t feel like a money grab or stale greatest-hits performance. The power emanating from the stage never slipped, and the many setlist changes just added to the impact. The result smashed my already high expectations.

The final run began with “Put Down That Weapon” and “King of the Mountain”, which weren’t played on the previous night. Both could easily anchor a set and show just how deep the Oils’ catalog extends. The last four songs matched the previous night (in a slightly different order), but the hits seemed even stronger on their second appearance. The encore began with “Whoah”, another deep cut that hadn’t appeared live since 1994. A welcome appearance of the more recent “Say Your Prayers” followed, and the classic anthem “Forgotten Years” closed the first encore. I expected the Oils to return for one more song, and I hoped to hear “Hercules”. Amazingly, the guys played exactly that to close the evening. It was that kind of night.

Setlist: Progress, Redneck Wonderland, Tone Poem, Truganini, No Time for Games, Shakers and Movers, Only the Strong, River Runs Red, Read About It, My Country, US Forces, Kosciusko, Put Down That Weapon, King of the Mountain, The Dead Heart, Beds Are Burning, Blue Sky Mine, Dreamworld. Encore 1: Whoah, Say Your Prayers, Forgotten Years. Encore 2: Hercules

Peter Garrett, Rob Hirst, and Martin Rotsey of Midnight Oil perform live in New York City.

Just Getting Started

During the February press conference, the Oils hinted that a new album might happen down the road. After seeing them live, I have no doubts that it could happen. They seemed thrilled to be together on stage once again. More tour dates keep appearing on their schedule, and the variety in set lists has been astounding. It feels similar to the reunion tour for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in 1999 and 2000. Following that glorious run, they entered the studio and recorded The Rising. I could foresee a similar approach for the Oils, though likely on a smaller scale.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying we “need” the Oils because of the awful situation in the Trump era. A recurring theme of their music is the idea that history repeats itself and we must have a short memory, to quote their classic song. The Oils’ message connects in any era where governments and corporations take advantage of people and destroy the environment. I also hesitate to pigeonhole the Oils as a political band. Their songs are powerful statements, but they aren’t just educational pieces.

In simple terms, the Oils are the best live band that I’ve ever seen. The second concert in New York stands at the top of my concert rankings, and I’ve seen hundreds of shows over the years. The power and the passion still rings true 41 years after the band initially formed in Sydney. Four of the five original members remain, and Hillman has been with them since the late ‘80s. The catchy hooks, soulful harmonies, and singalong lyrics come together in a potent mix. Midnight Oil has no equal on the live stage, and there's still more to come very soon. I can't wait.

October 29, 2016

Watching: The New York Times’ New Recommendations Website

A selection of moods from the New York Times' new recommendations site Watching.

Back in the olden days before the Internet, movie recommendations largely came from two places — newspapers and word of mouth. I attended high school and college in the ‘90s, and my guides were local critics, Siskel & Ebert, and Entertainment Weekly. The Internet was just getting rolling and not yet a prime spot for film info. We’re in a different stratosphere today. The problem isn’t lack of details but an overwhelming cacophony of noise.

Streaming services now dominate the pop culture landscape, but their suggestion tools have limitations. No single provider holds enough films and TV to fulfill our wants either. We need a service that can sift through the crowd and find the gems. Entering the fray is the new site Watching from the New York Times. Its simple purpose is “to help you make decisions about what you should watch next.” Instead of presenting everything, experts narrow the focus to movies and series that you must see. It’s a tricky balance to include great options without piling on too many possibilities.

I’ve spent the past few days testing Watching to see if it works for my interests. It’s the kind of site that will likely evolve and grow. We’ll continue to see new providers join the field, and this system allows for regular adjustments. It’s an interesting combination of a recommendation engine and a blog spotlighting the best films and TV. There’s also an option to receive a bi-weekly newsletter that will offer top choices for people with little time to navigate the site.

A sample of features in the New York Times' Watching tool.

The Main Page

Watching’s hub uses a simple design that seems fitting for tablets and phones. Even without using the Discover tool for recommendations, you can learn plenty about what’s happening. The “Recommendation of the Day” makes it easy to find a solid choice. The site currently lists Jane the Virgin, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Mountains May Depart among their daily picks. Each one includes a short blurb plus reasons to watch or skip it. Not everyone will want to dive into Chef’s Table (last Monday’s pick), so it’s good to have some background.

Other helpful aspects are timely articles that connect to the day and time of year. For example, readers looking for haunted house movies this weekend should enjoy the list of streaming possibilities. The picks from Scott Tobias include classics like The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill (the original versions, thankfully) along with such recent fare as The Innkeepers and Crimson Peak. Other articles provide helpful info about shows leaving Netflix and answers to reader questions. It’s easy to use and packs a lot of good material into a small space.

The Discover Tool

Watching’s centerpiece is its ability to provide specific choices based on our preferences. We begin by choosing what we’re in the mood to see. The 28 options include “Character-Driven”, “Bloody”, “Strong Female Lead”, and just “Explosions”. You can only make one selection, however. I’m surprised you aren’t able to pick several moods. I suspect that set-up would be too complex. The next screen gives suggestions but lets you select a genre and narrow the results. There are 12 streaming providers listed, with the glaring omission of HBO GO. Some picks also offer sub-genres to narrow the search even more. By that point, you typically only have a few options remaining.

An unfortunate restriction is the inability to eliminate films that you’ve already watched. Particularly with TV series, there were plenty listed that I’d seen. The danger in offering this option is giving zero recommendations. For example, picking “Dialogue-Rich” and “Action” only reveals Justified. I’ve caught the entire series, so it doesn’t work for me. There is definitely some trial and error involved. Watching also provides a search function to investigate further and a watchlist to save your choices.

An example of results from specific picks in the New York Times' Watching tool.

Testing the Model

My enjoyment of Watching mostly came from trying out different combinations and seeing what clicked. I’ve listed some examples below where I chose the mood and genre. I should also note that I restricted my streaming services to Netflix and Amazon Prime to match what I use most regularly. Checking other providers like Hulu, iTunes, and VUDU would definitely expand the list. Let’s see what results showed up for my various picks:

  • Witty, Fantasy — Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Stylish, Comedy — Clueless
  • Brainteasing, Documentary — Dinosaur 13, Room 237, Exit Through the Gift Shop
  • Bloody, Action — Daredevil, The Walking Dead, The Pacific, Sons of Anarchy, Band of Brothers
  • Joke-Heavy, Comedy —26 recommendations
  • Strong Female Lead, Drama — 41 recommendations

As you can see, the quantity can vary dramatically based on your selections. Larger categories like Drama and Comedy deliver more than smaller ones like Fantasy. The sub-genre option is important for the broader groups. Here are three examples from the above test but narrowed down with an additional sub-genre:

  • Bloody, Action, Soapy — Sons of Anarchy
  • Joke-Heavy, Comedy, British — Catastrophe, The Trip
  • Strong Female Lead, Drama, Legal — The Good Wife, Damages

The results were TV-heavy for me, but that relates more to what’s offered by Netflix and Amazon. Both are focusing on grabbing the biggest TV series instead of the top movies. The streaming model is also built for binge watching shows in this era of peak TV.

A tweet from Scott Tobias about his work on the New York Times' Watching tool.

An Expert Presence

The greatest benefit of having Watching at the New York Times is the way it involves such intelligent voices. Scott Tobias and Margaret Lyons are two of the many smart writers involved with the site. The site can also link to reviews from the New York Times’ regular critics and provide short videos about the movies. Integrating the two sites is crucial to selling the value. I suspect that some cinephiles will grumble about not having more obscure movies listed. It should work for most visitors, though. I’ve seen thousands of movies, yet I still found good options listed.

The challenge for Watching going forward is to provide a valuable service that meets each person’s needs. I like where it’s started and love the critical voices they’ve included. No matter how much Netlix tweaks the algorithm, their suggestions rarely connect. I’m hopeful that Watching can do more than just list popular shows and movies. If the writers continue to provide quality content and the technical aspects improve, it should succeed. The foundation is in place for a helpful tool in the increasingly complex Internet age for pop culture.

Watching is available to both New York Times subscribers and any registered users. Learn more by checking out the Watching site. 

June 17, 2016

A Year Without Movies?

The abandoned Paramount Theater
Photo by Steve Snodgrass
Last week, I sat down with my two girls (7 and 3) to watch a Blu-ray copy of Zootopia. I enjoyed the movie and family time, but I had an interesting realization while the credits rolled. Amazingly, this was the first 2016 theatrical release that I’d seen. This was no conscious effort to set aside movies for other pursuits. Somehow an avid film guy and movie blogger had basically missed half of 2016. This article’s title is a bit misleading; I’ve still watched quite a few older movies this year. Even so, I didn’t expect to find myself in this position when the year began. More surprising was this fact: I didn’t feel that bad about missing the latest releases.

2016: Year of the Weird

To provide some background, this has been one of the stranger years of my life. We’ve made three trips to the ER with our daughters for completely separate ailments. Our longtime cat also passed away last week. This isn’t a “woe is me” article, but it does help explain why movies haven’t been so prominent. It’s hard to worry about missing a mindless blockbuster when you’re spending time at the hospital. At times, I’ve felt like a character in the Final Destination series. Whatever we do, there’s always another challenge. Obviously, I don’t believe the end result for those characters is coming here.

A public domain photo of a python
Not the actual snake, but this one is a lot more frightening.
The year’s craziest moment happened about two weeks ago. My older daughter was bitten in the ankle by a copperhead snake. This didn’t happen during a camping trip in the wild. We were just strolling along a paved trail in a park that provides nature for city people. You might spot a deer near the path, but it’s hardly a rough environment. My daughter is great now, but she spent two nights in the hospital after the venomous bite. It was a scary time. There are fewer than 100 reported snake bites in Missouri each year, so this was quite a random occurrence.

Have you ever felt like a dark cloud was hanging over your head? I’m not referring to the targeted rain in The Truman Show. It does sometimes feel like we’re in a similar manufactured environment, however. I’m not a very religious guy, but there do appear to be other forces at work here. This isn’t on the level of Hurley being cursed by the numbers on Lost, thankfully. It’s just a weird sensation when so much happens in a short period of time. It hasn’t been all bad, however. We stayed at a ridiculously nice resort at Disney World in January, and there have been great times along with the challenges. It does relegate pop culture to the background, though.

A Limited Crop

This experience in missing the 2016 releases has made me wonder about a few issues. Have I lost interest in most of what Hollywood is producing? I do plan to see Captain America: Civil War pretty soon, but I don’t view skipping Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or even X-Men: Apocalypse as a big deal. The biggest omission thus far has been Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. He’s one of my favorite directors, and I’ve heard raves about his new film. I’m sure that good movies are still coming, but it doesn’t feel essential to see them right away. Even with the extenuating circumstances, this trend has existed for more than just this year.

These feelings do induce guilt about not supporting theaters. I don’t believe that home viewings can match the big screen, particularly on streaming services. Even so, the convenience of not setting aside three hours and getting a babysitter is hard to skip. I was once a regular visitor to the theater, so I’m essentially a reason that some venues are struggling. Part of the change is just getting older and losing the need to stay on top of things. I still listen to podcasts and read reviews, but there’s less connection with the super fans. This isn’t a new feeling but has grown this year. I do plan to write more on this site and engage better with the cinema culture. Even so, I’ll probably make only a handful of trips to the theater this year. Whether this is an aberration or the new normal is still in question.

May 21, 2015

An Indefinite Vacation


After several months of consideration, I've decided it is time for the dreaded “going on hiatus” post. I started Public Transportation Snob four years ago, and it’s been rewarding to connect with so many great people through the site. I’ve traveled out of town to meet fellow bloggers, welcomed them to St. Louis, and chatted for countless hours on podcasts. It’s been awesome, but sometimes it’s time to tackle a new challenge. I’ve made adjustments and tried to keep myself engaged with writing about movies. Even so, the best move at this point is to take an indefinite break from this site.

This choice relates to my “Pop Culture Decluttering” plans described last month, but that isn’t the only reason. I love digging into films and they're messages, and my mind won’t stop that activity. The ratings and short reviews will continue on Letterboxd, and I’ll try to give more reactions on Twitter as I go. They just won’t be put together in full reviews on this site. My posting frequency has gone way down in the past few months, and it makes sense to say something official. There are so many different tasks that occupy time at work and home, and this blog will exit that list.

I’m calling this hiatus indefinite because there’s still a small chance I’ll re-appear on the site periodically. I may get inspired to write about the second season of Deadwood (when I finally watch it) or to dig back into revisiting Stargate Universe. If Michael Mann directs another film, I’ll have to discuss it somewhere. It won't be the same posting frequency as in the past, however. Regardless of whether this is the last post on this site or not, I’ll still remain active in the online community. In a strange way, I may actually watch a few more films because there’s no concern with writing about them here. Guest posts may still happen down the road too. The possibilities are endless, but it’s time to step back. I’ve written more than 750 posts since March 2011; it’s hardly been a quiet endeavor.

To anyone who’s read, commented, or passed along a kind word about this site, I’m eternally grateful. Thanks to all of you for making this such a fun project!

April 25, 2015

Pop Culture Decluttering: A Simpler Plan


Anyone who moves into a new house knows that feeling. You have the luxury of space that was never possible in a small apartment. It’s amazing, but this bliss is short-lived. Little by little, the stuff
accumulates. The closets and cabinets fill up, and boxes conquer the basement. It only takes a few years to transform a serene haven into a frustrating mess. You aren’t ready to go on Hoarders, but the clutter can increase the stress in your busy lives. There’s an entire industry built on saving us from ourselves. Books and online articles with titles like “10 Creative Ways to Declutter Your Home” draw heaps of attention. It’s a fixable problem, but choosing to make the time and solve it isn’t easy.

We’re currently following this process at our house after living there for seven years. It’s been rewarding to eliminate stuff that has just occupied space for a long time. This process has led me to undertake a similar project with pop culture. When you write a blog about film and TV, it creates a drive to stay on top of everything. You’re essentially fighting a war on multiple fronts. New movies and shows arrive each week, and thousands of worthy titles from the past remain unseen. This push to cover all the bases can lead to amazing discoveries. It’s more likely to create an overwhelming sense of failure, however. The constant noise builds to a dilemma where there aren’t enough hours in the day to even scratch the surface.

The problems I cite are definite first-world problems. The technology that makes all this content available is incredible. Can't we just enjoy the ride? That’s the ultimate goal, but it’s hardly that simple. Maintaining a work/life balance is a major challenge for nearly everyone. For pop-culture obsessives, there’s another layer of obstacles. Even in a mid-size city like St. Louis, interesting cultural events happen nearly every night. When you add those concerts and film screenings to DVR and Netflix backlogs at home, it’s quite a pile. Books, podcasts, and magazines also scream for attention. Intellectual curiosity is a great thing, but it can lead to disappointments.

The library is an amazing resource, but it can almost be too much of a good thing. 
It’s thrilling to discover a lesser-known movie or band that blows you away. I haven’t given up that pursuit but have simplified the approach to getting there. In a similar way to decluttering a house, I’ve developed a more linear approach to pop culture. If I’m watching the fourth season of Game of Thrones, I should finish it before tackling five other shows. I borrow DVDs regularly from the library, and they’re usually available for a week. Taking out five at once makes no sense; it’s a waste of mental and physical energy. Having a stack of unread books waiting on the shelf also just leads to disappointment. This approach has helped me to focus on what really excites me.

Before continuing, I should clarify my positions a bit further. This isn’t a manifesto that everyone should follow; it’s more of a personal mission statement. Some film bloggers watch 400-500 films in a year and write about most of them. I marvel at their dedication and love the idea of their singular passion. It takes resilience for even the most ardent cinephile to follow that schedule. Most are not writing about films as a full-time job, so this quantity is mind-boggling. I’m not criticizing those achievements. What I’m seeking is the right amount of material that fits within my life.

"You know that Shakespearean admonition, 'To thine own self be true'? It's premised on the idea that 'thine own self' is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if 'thine own self' is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, *not* to be true to thine own self?" - Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman), The Last Days of Disco

Having an obsessive personality makes it even more challenging to lessen the pace. When I'm asked to appear on a podcast or write for another site, my first inclination is to say yes. It's a challenge to recognize my limitations even when the opportunities sound enticing. It's only when I think about all the different obligations that I realize the flaws. Last fall, I decided to try and post every day on this blog. I wrote during lunch breaks and pushed myself to expand the audience. It wasn't a satisfying experience. Writing became less fun, and that frustration showed in the final product.

Life changes, and that's okay.
Another factor is my current place in life. I’m 39, married, and have two amazing daughters (6 and 2). When I was 23, paring down my pop-culture activities would have sounded ludicrous. I gathered heaps of DVDs, CDs, and books to consume down the road. Life changes, and that’s okay. This doesn’t mean that being excited about pop culture is immature. Back in 2012, I wrote a piece on “Appreciation vs. Obsessive Consumption”. I’d been writing this blog for a year and was battling the push to see everything. Three years later, I’m building on that premise with my life. I’m asking “what do I really love doing?” and focusing on those activities. Writing is on the list but not as high as it once was. After sitting in an office all day, spending my nights in front of a screen feels restrictive. Playing tennis, taking a swim, or going for a walk often beats turning on the computer or TV.

It's important to recognize the opportunity cost for any decision. If I decide to play tennis on a weekday evening, that activity replaces another option like watching a movie. Leisure time is a wonderful thing, but there isn't an infinite supply. The amount of hours is the same, and we can't have it all. Pop culture decluttering allows me to recognize the most rewarding use of my time. The wealth of options sometimes makes the process feel like work, particularly for bloggers. Even if we love writing and running our sites, it's easy to start treating them like a painful chore.

This is just a small portion of our collection, but it would take months to watch it all.
While I’m focusing on habits, there is also a physical aspect to these decluttering goals. My DVD and Blu-ray collection isn’t as robust as some film fans, but it does contain unnecessary copies. For example, I’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train multiple times. It’s a great movie, but I don’t have plans to revisit it anytime soon. When I’m ready to re-watch that film, locating it will be easy. I cite this example because it isn’t a bad movie that’s easy to eliminate. It reveals the limits of needing such a large collection. It’s like the Seinfeld question where Jerry asks George about why he keeps so many books. If I’m not planning to watch the movie, is it just a prop to show off to visitors?

This project is going very well; I’m enjoying the experience more and not getting stuck in old patterns. There is a lingering question that hangs over these changes, however. How do I still write a film blog when I’m less absorbed in the medium every day? If I’m not as engaged by writing movie reviews, what do I write about here? It’s possible that this site has run its course, and that’s okay. I started Public Transportation Snob as a writing project and way to dig into unexplored corners of the movie world. My interests don’t seem to fit with that model anymore. I’m still in the midst of my pop culture decluttering, so where I land may determine the site’s future. For the moment, I’ll continue this journey wherever it goes.

March 3, 2015

Film Criticism: Where My Journey Began

Orson Welles stands on piles of newspapers in Citizen Kane, released in 1941.

What has to happen in a person's life to become a critic anyway?” – Riggan (Michael Keaton) in Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about what motivates me to write about movies. While I wouldn’t label myself a film critic, the act of writing criticism is still attractive. A recent viewing of Birdman revealed an unflattering portrayal of a theater critic with a different agenda than discussing the art. While the argument between her and Riggan is heavy-handed and obvious, it got me thinking about how I started down this path.

Peter Labuza’s The Cinephiliacs podcast frequently covers this topic with critics, and there’s no standard route. My road began in 1993 with a choice between two classes during my senior year in high school. My options for an art elective were music or an introduction to film. I’m not sure why I picked the latter choice. I enjoyed movies but mostly as casual entertainment before that point. This decision would completely change my outlook on cinema.

In the fall of 1993, the rise of DVDs and the Internet was still years away. Laserdiscs were available, but most viewings for me came via movie theaters and VHS. I’d watched some older films, but the idea of digging into the themes within the content was non-existent. When I stepped into my first film class, I had no idea of how much it would shatter the way that I viewed films. The teacher was an oddball with a giant mustache and beard who would chain smoke between classes. This was a private Catholic high school, so he wasn’t your normal instructor there. The guy was hyper-enthusiastic about movies, and that excitement was infectious to a certain type of student. I had done well in school but was never obsessive about studying. Most work came pretty easily, and a lot of it was boring. This class was something different. I looked forward to it and didn’t find the academic approach to movies dull at all. In fact, it was the most thrilling part of each day.

To provide some context, my senior year also included calculus, theology, and physics. Having the chance to watch movies and write about them was amazing. Our textbook was an introduction to film genres, and the syllabus progressed through each major segment. We screened Stagecoach for westerns, Double Indemnity for film noir, and The Bride of Frankenstein for horror. This was my first experience with all of these titles. We also spent a lot of time discussing Citizen Kane. More recent pictures like Bonnie and Clyde and Unforgiven also were a revelation. I can’t think of a better way to gain a film education. I might have caught all of these movies on my own, but the push within school brought them to the forefront through conversations on their impact and meaning.

Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta grab a score in Goodfellas

Beyond just seeing these great movies, this experience caused me to see them differently. I spent classes scribbling countless pages of mostly illegible notes, which made me look a little crazy to other students. I couldn’t help myself! An invaluable resource like IMDB did not exist. I tried to capture everything and ensure that I could explain my thinking. I also loved doing it.

When our teacher assigned us papers on modern films, I wrote long essays about Goodfellas and Aliens. The writing was terrible, but the important part was considering the movies beyond their basic text. The idea that an action thriller like Aliens was really about corporate greed was mind-blowing to a 17-year-old. Scorsese’s use of music and editing in Goodfellas was like nothing I’d seen. I wanted to decipher more than the plots, and I haven't been able to turn off that side of my brain for more than 21 years.

For the spring semester that followed, the same instructor taught a Modern American Literature class that focused on movies for about half the time. There was no doubt that I had to take this course. He considered films as literature and screened The Godfather, The Searchers, and others during class. It built on my enjoyment of the previous course and ensured that I wouldn’t stray from becoming obsessed with movies. I studied Journalism and English in college and used electives for additional film classes, including one on German film. That class included a completely silent and sleep-inducing viewing of Faust plus the great work of Wenders and Fassbinder. I wasn’t sure where all this time would lead, but I had no choice. Part of me wishes that I’d majored in film studies, though burnout would have been more likely. Taking a smaller group of classes kept the studies enjoyable while still providing a diverse look at the medium’s history.

Film criticism has evolved considerably since it piqued my interest more than 20 years ago. There are so many online bloggers and podcasters that are trying to build an audience. It’s difficult to stand out, and putting yourself out there is difficult. How does anyone find a unique voice within so much chatter? I’ve considered stopping the blog and writing much less, but each time the drive that inspired me back in high school returns.

When you’re drawn to any artistic pursuit, the goal is rarely just finding readers. The question is whether the passion for film criticism is enough to keep going. I’m unsure of where this site will go down the road, and changes will likely occur. Maintaining the excitement along with all the other aspects of life is a major challenge. For the moment, I’m just taking a minute to remember where the fun began. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess.

October 31, 2014

The World That I See: State of the Blog Edition

Wong Kar Wai's 2046

During the past month, I’ve slowed down the posting frequency for this blog and spent a lot of time pondering its existence. Like most creative endeavors, the site has morphed into something much different than where it began. It’s been thrilling to discover great films and connect with so many intelligent people in the online film community. I had little understanding of what the site would become and didn’t expect to enjoy blogging so much. I started posting four to five times a week, and keeping up with that pace was a constant goal. Somewhere along the line, the site reached a tipping point and started feeling like a job. I want to continue this project but must change to make it worthwhile again.

Although I’ve never considered the blog as a stepping stone to being a professional critic, it’s hard not to look for validation. There have been three times this year where I hoped to expand my online presence. The first example was applying for the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), which seemed like a no brainer. It was a long process to get a juried response, and the reasons for the rejection were all over the map. I also inquired about participating in the Criticwire Survey, which gives online critics a chance to respond to a timely question about the movie world. This seemed like a long shot, but the lack of any answer was disconcerting. Finally, I hoped to cover the upcoming St. Louis International Film Festival by reviewing screeners prior to the festival. I located the right contact through a Twitter acquaintance and sent an inquiry. This request also was met with no reply, and that dismissal surprised me.

I mention these examples not to gain sympathy but to offer context for my thinking. That outreach was part of plans to strive for something more. Instead of bringing new opportunities, the results raised questions about the entire effort. My writing has improved, but there are thousands of similar sites. When you add in a full-time job, friends and family, and just trying to enjoy life, more time in front of a screen was less exciting. Beyond the external audience, was watching movies and writing about them still satisfying? That is the most important question in this endeavor. I don’t have an easy answer, and I’m definitely not ready to quit. Instead, I’ve decided to enact this solution:

Stop trying to be a film critic.

This choice may sound like I’m retreating, but it’s actually the exact opposite. I’ve often felt pressure for not seeing the movies that I “should” see. There are hundreds of worthy films released each year, and catching even a portion of them is difficult. When you add in trying to review them, it becomes impossible. This environment has led me to put together short reviews that have solid writing, but say very little. If I’m going to continue this blog, I must recognize that it’s okay to bypass obvious trends.

Once Upon a Time in the West

What’s strange about writing a personal blog is setting up deadlines that seem essential, but are really just markers. Instead of exploring a movie, I’m writing to meet an arbitrary date. Creating a schedule is important to keep the site flowing, but it can constrict the posts. By choosing to follow the rule above, I’m hoping to focus more on content. Why not take the time to do a more detailed post instead of a quick review? I’ve already moved in that direction by not having ratings and avoiding plot summaries, but there still are boundaries keeping the pieces in a certain format. This leads me to my second solution:

Slow down the writing process.

It’s important to get my thoughts down quickly after watching a movie. However, that doesn’t mean that publishing should happen soon afterwards. There’s a term called Slow Blogging that refers to a choice to ride against the stream of constant information. It’s hardly a new idea; the New York Times wrote a story back in 2008. Even so, the approach seems just right in my current stage of life. I have two young girls and want to spend as much time with them as possible. I’ve also been working to get healthier, and cramming in a quick blog post around other activities rarely works. It diminishes the quality of my writing and leads to stress and disappointment. It’s time to create a better balance.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes

When I think back to my favorite posts on this site, most of them are detailed essays that I spent weeks putting together. The short reviews barely register; it’s the more thoughtful pieces that stick in my mind. Doing a standard review of Skyfall was okay, but digging into it for several thousand words was much better. I’m not an expert on form, so it takes some time for visual themes and devices to make sense. Letting my mind ponder a movie can only help the blog. The number of posts may be smaller, but the results won’t feel like I’m checking a box. This leads to my final solution:

Diversify the content.

This evolution started earlier this year with a weekly look at Deadwood and several posts about Stargate Universe. I’ll keep doing marathons, but they’ll employ a looser format. The topics also may stray further into TV, books, and themed entertainment. The goal is to avoid falling into predictable patterns. I’m also trying to keep the subjects engaging for me. If I’m not excited to watch a movie or TV series, it’s going to carry over into the writing. It’s been so refreshing to blog about Survivor for Rob Cesternino’s site during the past two seasons. The community supporting RHAP loves the show, and connecting with them has been great. I’m engaged with the show, and writing never feels like work.

I want to develop a similar feeling about my writing for this site. I don’t have illusions that these choices will lead to more readers. There are so many blogs discussing films, and even having a small audience is inspiring. The current blogging environment is much different than where it was in March 2011 when I started the blog. Sites that were social centerpieces for many have become less influential. It’s just part of the ebb and flow of the Internet age. We’re all still figuring out what we can do, and new forms of content delivery keep changing the game. Professional critics are doing similar soul searching. It’s an exciting time for connecting with people around the globe. The challenge is ensuring that whatever we do is satisfying to each of us. I’m hopeful that these adjustments and others down the road will make this blog something that keeps inspiring me well into the future.

March 21, 2014

Film Criticism: Finding a Voice

The Tree of Life

I’ve been thinking lately about my voice as a writer, especially when it comes to film criticism. It’s easy to watch a movie and quickly jot down thoughts about it, but do I have a unique perspective? The Internet is teeming with film blogs, and there are thousands of ambitious writers that are trying to build an audience. The challenge is finding a way to stand out from the masses. The point isn’t just to obtain more hits. Instead, it’s about feeling like my contribution is worthwhile in some fashion. Most of us are using our sites as a creative outlet and not for a long-term career. This approach necessitates developing a voice that’s providing more than a like/dislike assessment of a film.

In his excellent podcast The Cinephiliacs, Peter Labuza frequently asks his guests about this topic when exploring their perspective on film criticism. Some take a more academic approach, while others can’t help but get personal. It’s clear that there’s no right answer about how to approach a film. Developing an objective method for critical analysis rarely works because there’s no way to separate our own biases and life experiences from the piece. It’s important to embrace the subjective aspects without letting them take over the discussion. If I’m inclined to dislike a film by Zack Snyder, how do I approach his work and not make it all about his frustrating past? On the personal side, how do I consider the outside life of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski when approaching their films? The difficulty is not ignoring who they are without making it the entire point of the piece.

Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise

Looking inward, I’m a 38-year-old white guy who lives in the mid-size city of St. Louis. I’m married and have two young girls, which has a definite impact on the way I look at the representation of women. I adore the work of John Sayles, Whit Stillman, and Michael Mann. My favorite genre is sci-fi, yet I recognize that a majority of that genre’s films are unsatisfying. I took a series of film courses in college that shaped my thinking, yet I’m still a film history novice. I’ve grown wary of the online culture’s insistence on reaching a consensus. On the other hand, I find that contrarianism rarely solves that issue. All of these aspects of my life and movie tastes shape the voice that I bring to film criticism. Even so, they’re hardly the only factor in what makes my writing follow a certain mindset.

The idea of developing a voice is a tricky subject when it comes to writing about films. It’s about more than deciding whether to use the first person. I spent years reviewing DVDs, yet I’m not sure the writing improved much over the years. Because the pieces followed a specific format, it was easy to fall into a pattern. It became a paint-by-numbers situation with a formula of intro/plot/acting/directing/conclusion. While that’s hardly a terrible way to talk about a movie, it grows mind-numbing when employed across hundreds of posts. I started this blog three years ago, and I’m just beginning to feel like my voice is escaping the formula. Whether this shift is always positive is a different question.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

An interesting factor in writing consistently is developing a process that leads to the best result. Ignatiy Vishnevesky often uses longhand for his reviews and then types them up from that source. He’s also discussed putting together his work on an old typewriter. While my approach is much different, it shows how there’s no correct route. I tend to type up longer drafts and then work to cut down each sentence to its essential parts. Unnecessary phrases and adjectives are trashed in the hope of finding a style that flows. I’m not there yet, but it’s starting to come together into something that works for me.

It’s an exciting time to write about films. We can connect with readers around the globe, yet we’re so fragmented that it’s difficult to find them. There are currently 247 critic reviews posted about 300: Rise of An Empire on IMDB, and that’s just a small percentage of all the writing that’s out there. Is there a point to focus on that type of movie? That’s another side of finding a voice. Do we pursue niches with dedicated fans or try to climb the mountain of others hoping to attract the masses? There’s no easy answer, and it comes down to the purpose for writing. I started this blog as a way to explore blind spots and document my experiences, but it’s evolved considerably since that point. There is something invigorating about joining the present-day conversation about engaging films.

Wong Kar Wai's 2046

What I’m describing is the natural progress of developing an approach to any artistic pursuit. There’s a skill to film criticism that’s often overlooked in the age of Rotten Tomatoes. Truly engaging with readers is quite a challenge and separates most of us from the greats like Roger Ebert and the rising young stars. It takes serious practice and diligence, and there isn't an easy way to build those talents. All we can do is continue to write and strive to do more than a generic review. I may not always succeed in that goal, but it inspires me to keep plugging away at this appealing passion. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess, but trying to find a voice should be a fascinating journey.

March 12, 2014

Wes Anderson Hate and the Case against Filmmakers

Wes Anderson

There are certain directors that push the buttons of cinephiles and send us to extreme viewpoints. Every time they release a new film, the writing often focuses on our feelings about the perceived value of that filmmaker. Are they artistically worthwhile? Why do they keep doing the same thing? A prime example is Wes Anderson, who’s returned to prominence with The Grand Budapest Hotel this month. It’s one of the most anticipated early 2014 films and arrives in St. Louis next week. Anderson has plenty of devoted fans, so I don’t feel the need to defend why I think he’s a good artist. Instead, what puzzles me is the continued anger from cynics who despise his work. There’s nothing wrong with disliking any movie, but roping all his films together into a singular vision feels short-sighted.

A recent example is Noah Gittell’s “The Case against Wes Anderson” for the Movie Mezzanine. It’s a well-written piece that includes solid points about Anderson’s characters reflecting his persona. The question is whether that’s truly a problem. Woody Allen has faced this charge for years, yet there is something to the “write what you know” idea for plenty of artists. Why should Anderson push down the aspects that make him original? There’s also the charge that he steps too far beyond reality with his films. It seems we could make the same attack on Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or Michel Gondry. Why put creative directors into a box and ask them to conform to our ideas about what constitutes a film?

Here is an excerpt from Gittell’s piece that elaborates on this criticism:

Movies, of course, don’t need to be set in a world that precisely mirrors our own for them to be relatable. But reality in some form – whether it’s in the setting or in characters who behave in ways that we understand – must be present. In other words, there must be a way in, a way for us to bridge that divide between the fantasies of the screen and our recognizable realities.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson

Let’s examine this statement for a moment. The idea that a certain connection “must be present” in films doesn’t allow for each of us to take our own approach to cinema. It’s true that finding a common bond with the characters in a movie can make it succeed for audiences. Even so, that assumes that we’re all seeking the same thing when we watch a movie. Looking specifically at Anderson, this premise also theorizes that his work can’t deliver that association. That’s quite a statement for a director with eight feature films covering a wide swath of territory. His films may be artificial, but that’s an essential part of the movie experience. Even many documentaries are a construct with specified heroes and villains designed to elicit certain emotions from the viewers.

The strongest example for me is Moonrise Kingdom. It’s shot with Anderson’s trademark style, but it’s hardly a soulless endeavor. The teenage romance at the center of the story has plenty of heart within the whimsy. There’s also a growing father-son bond, a married couple struggling to connect, and an overzealous scout leader hoping to prove his worth. The film has so much character that it nearly bursts from all that energy. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with my take, however. The danger is using a few parts of the movie as part of an all-encompassing hate of the filmmaker.

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom

A more nuanced take comes from Stephanie Zacharek’s Village Voice piece titled “I’m Trying to Love Wes Anderson, That Miniaturist Puppet Master”. She writes about struggling with the live-action films of Anderson and only loving The Fantastic Mr. Fox. This line is a key argument in her take: “Characters in live-action Wes Anderson movies have adventures, yet there's no sense of adventure in them.” That’s a question that hangs over each of our reactions to his work. Do we reject the thought of a puppet master yanking his characters through a story? Or does his vision lead to wonder and delight? Zacharek’s criticism makes sense, particularly with my least favorite Anderson film — The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. That story appears less organic and more of a lark. Characters die and I feel little for them, and my reaction connects with critics who look that way upon all of his work.

What irritates me about simplistic vitriol against Anderson and other filmmakers is that it disregards their ability to grow and evolve. The music world has similar artists like Belle and Sebastian that lost devoted fans because they weren’t following a certain path. Their reaction makes sense, but it also leads to one-note criticisms. Even a detested guy like Michael Bay received more of a chance when he released Pain and Gain last year. Dismissing Anderson as just doing the same thing is too easy. Gittell essentially ropes all of his lead characters into the same type, and that’s hardly true. Dignan’s false ideas of grandeur in Bottle Rocket are much different than Max Fisher’s unrequited obsession for a teacher in Rushmore. Why try to put everyone in a box?

Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore

I’ve experienced a similar feeling with John Sayles, who’s explored diverse communities in 18 features. The reviews tend to fall into a pattern and call out familiar points about his independence and lack of technical ability. Spike Lee still is viewed by many as a director who only focuses on race, yet his output covers a wide range of subjects. There’s nothing wrong with injecting our love or dislike for a director within a review. Certain themes repeat across their careers, yet that’s hardly a sign of failure. Martin Scorsese has frequently covered spiritual territory and guilt, but he’s considered a skilled “auteur”. Let’s give Anderson the same breadth to grow without resorting to tired complaints. The Grand Budapest Hotel may work for you or fall flat, but at least give it a shot to stand on its own merits. Let’s dial back the hate and focus on the movies. That’s the point, right?

January 21, 2014

The Contrarian: Resisting the Urge with Film Criticism

Once Upon a Time in the West

We all have the impulse to become contrarians in culture that excites us. There’s a driving need to be unique that has only grown exponentially in the Internet age. Fantasy football managers want to believe they are the first to find a diamond in the rough. Disney World fans think a quiet lunch spot is their incredible discovery. It’s even more pervasive in the world of movie lovers. So many of us say phrases like “everyone hates this movie but me” or “I’m the only one who realizes that movie sucks” without even thinking. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in being an original thinker that we lose sight of what drew us to movies in the first place. Are we watching so many because they’re enjoyable or just trying to carve a niche in a chaotic world? The fast-paced world breeds contrarians everywhere, and the rush to throw out an opinion just reinforces this basic instinct.

Going against the grain is hardly reserved for bloggers. There’s a notorious film critic who’s tried so mightily to stay important by nastily speaking out against everything. This contrarian is not a dummy and recognizes that blowing his opinions out of proportion makes him a household name. Even his removal as a member of a large film critics society has brought even more attention. While every critic is entitled to his or her opinions about a film, wearing those views like a badge of honor is problematic. It becomes more about the person than the discussion of the movie. It’s too bad since contrary views can lead to engaging discourse. It’s boring for everyone to just rave about the same films. That’s part of what makes the unending series of awards ceremonies lose their interest.

Upstream Color

After nearly three years of blogging, I’ve grown weary of hearing the same comments made over and over. This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, and it relates as much to my own interests as a writer. I’ve tried to shy away from one-note words like “worst”, “terrible”, or “greatest”, especially when it comes to acting and directing. So much of our perspective as viewers (and writers) comes from individual experiences, and judging art the same way you’d rate a vacuum cleaner seems unfair. I wasn't as thrilled by Upstream Color as many critics, but that doesn't mean they're wrong. That challenge makes rating a film so difficult. Although I don’t rate them on the site, I do give star ratings on Letterboxd. Those are entirely subjective and often differ from any perceptions of true quality.

Here's a good example from my early days in writing about movies. During the heyday of DVDs in 2001, I reviewed the comedy All Saints Day. I hated the movie and strongly criticized the acting, directing, and every other part of it. I called it "one of the most maddening viewing experiences of the year" and was vicious. To be honest, it was a fun piece to write. Both the director and one of the actors e-mailed me with nasty responses. While their feedback of statements like "get off your thrown" was hardly intelligent, it feels different today when I think back on it. Instead of just describing my negative reactions, I really took shots at the people behind the movie. While I wasn't being a contrarian, that experience relates to what I'm getting at with this post. My review was lazy. The movie was terrible, but it deserved a more nuanced response.

Before Midnight

Another factor is the impact of our expectations, particularly with older films. The best writers identify their biases and use them to craft their pieces about movies. There’s nothing less thrilling than reading a takedown of a classic from someone convinced they’re doing a public service to the dummies who love it. I’ve been confused by the raves about plenty of acclaimed films, but that doesn’t mean the others are reading it wrong. One of the great aspects of this culture is the way that movies evolve over the years and become more powerful. World events and our stage of life play such a part in our reactions. Would I have the same feelings about Before Midnight if I was 21, single, and didn’t have kids? My own experience as a dad and husband changes how I view every scene.

What’s the solution? There’s no easy answer for obvious reasons. We’re all looking for something different out of our passion for movies. I’m not in the camp that thinks we should just be positive and avoid criticism. It’s fun to argue passionately about a film, especially when the community’s gone a separate route. That’s different than being a contrarian to rile people up and get attention. That style loses my interest quickly because it doesn’t account for nuance. I’ve found that most bloggers (or at least the ones I enjoy) write with more depth and consideration. That said, it’s an ongoing process to find a voice amid the hubbub. I still have a long way to go before I feel confident that my opinions have come naturally. Putting them into words is even more difficult. It’s quite a challenge, and that keeps it exciting to spend so much time on this very gratifying pursuit.

October 14, 2013

What's the Cultural Future for Movies?


We've reached the final entry in the excellent 5 Obstructions Blogathon organized by Nostra at My Filmviews. The restrictions this time are pretty simple. I can write about anything related to movies, though it shouldn't be a standard review. There were so many enticing options to consider with these open-ended instructions. Should I dig into a specific genre or filmmaker? That approach could offer interesting material, but I decided to go a different route. There's been plenty of chatter about the future of movies as a popular medium. We've seen the changes in the music industry and the challenges for labels and merchants when they didn't evolve. Will movie studios face a similar fate? The bigger question is whether the public still cares about their survival.

The Way Way Back

During the past few months, I’ve had several movie theater experiences that have made me wonder about the future of the medium. In late July, my wife and I had a multiplex theater completely to ourselves on the Sunday of the opening weekend for The Way Way Back. Last month, I caught up with In a World… in a massive local independent theater along with just two other attendees. While these showings did not happen during the peak times, they still offer a telling reminder than movies don’t rule the roost. They’re facing stiff competition from a wide range of activities. When attendance is sparse for most screenings, does it make sense to have them? Can studios justify the huge promotional costs to sell a film when there’s a good chance it will fail? Where does this leave filmmakers who aren’t interested (or capable) of leading an army to direct the must-see blockbusters? Technology is changing faster than we can keep up, and movies my need to evolve or risk being marginalized.

The examples that I cited are obviously smaller productions that won’t earn huge numbers at the box office. Blockbusters like Iron Man 3 and Star Trek into Darkness still drew major crowds and earned big receipts in 2013. There are other examples of films without giant budgets like The Heat that earned lots of money through counter-programming. If we just look at the successes and the total box-office numbers, Hollywood seems to be in good shape. The global marketplace is booming, and even misfires in the U.S. can make their money in other countries. I’m not as concerned with the financial well-being of the movie industry. Major corporations like Disney and Time Warner can absorb flops because they’re part of their overall packaging. What interests me is the idea that films aren’t as culturally essential to our society as they were even 10 years ago. Film bloggers and cinephiles may obsess about the latest casting rumors and upcoming releases, but we’re truly in the minority when compared to most audience members.

Star Trek into Darkness

I realize that I’m not breaking new ground. Anyone who’s worked in an office can testify at being amazed at their co-workers’ lack of basic movie knowledge. I haven’t been to the theaters as much this year. When there’s a baby at home (our second), the priorities shift from catching new releases. Even so, I’ve still gone there a lot more than most customers. Intelligent people with great tastes in other areas will talk about not going to the movie theaters more than a few times in the past 10 years. These are well-read individuals who’ve switched their focus to other ventures. What has changed about movies? Part of the issue are the costs for tickets and concessions, which continue to rise and won’t slow down as budgets increase. The U.S. economy is still struggling, and it’s hard to justify the expense. Families are choosing to stay home, watch great television, and not bother with the challenges of the multiplex. Once their habits change, some people realize they don’t really miss the experience. This may seem crazy to a movie nerd, but sometimes it’s just easier to sit on the couch and relax after a busy week.

There are interesting parallels now to the rise of TV during the 1950s, which spawned gimmicks from movie theaters. We’re seeing that today with IMAX, 3D, and other technologies used (with a sizeable upcharge) to make the experience seem different than home. From a cultural perspective, there was so much chatter about the Breaking Bad finale during the past few months. No summer movie received that type of attention, and this isn’t the first example of a TV show being the major story. This golden age of television is making it even easier to stay at home. Why watch Superman pummel buildings for hours when you can see Walt and Jesse? There’s also a different level of staying power through Netflix and DVD that is keeping these shows in the public consciousness more than most films. People still debate the merits of the Lost finale and where Vic Mackey was going at the end of The Shield. Are many of us having the same conversations about The Dark Knight Rises? The pressure is on filmmakers to create better content, and many are doing amazing things. The question is whether they can achieve the same event status except in rare cases. Audiences will go nuts for the Star Wars sequel in 2015, but other contenders will generate only a passing interest.

Elysium

There are two periods of time that used to draw excitement from both casual and dedicated film viewers. The summer movie season promised amazing blockbusters with stars battling aliens and crashing cars. We still have those films, but there are too many. When a pretty solid Wolverine film is barely remembered a few months later, you know we’re in overkill territory. The “summer movies” start arriving in April, and viewers are tired of them by the end of June. There are multiple big releases every weekend, and few people can keep up with even half of them. This overload diminishes the impact of all but a few movies, and plenty are going to flop. Elysium stars Matt Damon and is the follow-up to the very popular District 9, and it drew little interest.  The other big time period is the awards season, when prestige pictures arrive to make their case to win the Oscar. While the Academy Awards still have a box-office impact for indie films, they lack the excitement they once achieved. By the time the show arrives, we’ve already seen the Golden Globes and many other ceremonies, so they feel anti-climactic. It’s even less interesting for common audiences, who scratch their heads when movies they loved aren’t nominated.

Where do we go from here? This summer feels like the tipping point. Hollywood may break records in 2015, but its cultural impact is getting more limited each year. The ease of access to films through Netflix, Redbox, and other venues has made them less essential. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made headlines by claiming that movies were heading for a Broadway pricing model. While that approach could work for Star Wars, it will make the flops even more calamitous. If attendance lags, it’s possible that theaters will go to a tiered pricing system for different movies and show times. The challenge is fighting against the public’s perception of the way movies have been presented for a long while. Will they spend hundreds of dollars for a single night at the theater? Raising the prices won’t bring people back to the cinema; it could mean the death knell for their interest. I love seeing movies, but I’m in the minority beyond film lovers’ circles. No matter what happens, changes seem necessary within the next few years. I’m intrigued to see where the medium goes, though I expect it may be heading for an unfortunate destination.

July 24, 2012

Appreciation vs. Obsessive Consumption

John Cusack in High Fidelity

For anyone passionate about movies, it's easy to become obsessed with seeing every possible film. New releases appear constantly across the vast spectrum of indie and big-budget offerings. There's also a giant stash of older selections from North America and abroad that deserve our attention. How can anyone find the time to catch even a small portion of the options available? I'm currently reading American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, a collection of writings from some of the most influential critics. I was struck by this pointed quote from Pauline Kael in her Band of Outsiders review, which strongly resonates with me on this particular issue:

"By now — so accelerated has cultural history become — we have those students at colleges who when asked what they're interested in say, 'I go to a lot of movies.' And some of them are so proud of how compulsively they see everything in terms of movies and how many times they've seen certain movies that there is nothing left for them to relate movies to. They have been soaked up by the screen." 

While Kael's point is obvious, it struck a chord because I've been pondering similar issues lately. Since I started this blog last year, I've watched a large number of movies and written hundreds of posts about them. I've finally caught up with films that I'd avoided for a long time. Even so, plenty of notable theatrical releases have drifted past me. I haven't chosen to see fewer new movies, but obligations like work, school, and family have changed the game. This isn't a complaint but puts me in a different sphere from a lot of movie lovers. I'm now much pickier about which films I see on the big screen. This might seem like a downside, but the restrictions have actually enhanced my appreciation for each opportunity. The pace has lessened, but it's those same limitations that add magic to the experiences.

Cinemania

What I'm getting at is the difference between appreciation and obsessive consumption. Am I watching a movie because I love the medium or because it's become an addictive habit? I read a lot of blogs, and it can have the unintended effect of pushing me to want to see everything. The hobby starts feeling like work instead of a fulfilling pursuit. I truly admire cinephiles who venture to the theaters every Friday and see hundreds of new movies each year. It takes a serious level of dedication and makes them experts in the field. It's also an excellent way to go beyond the latest blockbusters. An extreme case is presented in the documentary Cinemania, which shows people who spend their whole lives visiting theaters. They seem detached from the world and rumble across town to catch multiple films every day. While I don't worry of reaching this level, there is a small element of truth for any fan. How do we balance pursuing our passion while making sure it doesn't consume our lives?

I worked as a DJ at a college radio station back in the late '90s, and it was a wonderful experience. I still miss the feeling of digging through so much music during my three-hour shift. In more recent years, I've listened to plenty of music, but it's never reached that level of intensity. That said, my appreciation for going to shows and hearing new albums hasn't dropped. In one sense, it might be higher now within the limited scope. I'm also addicted to theme parks, tennis, and fantasy sports, and all have gone through their ebbs and flows. Movies have been a consistent pursuit since I took a few film classes in high school and college. I still have the same enjoyment despite working harder to balance the schedule.

Martin Scorsese's Hugo

Many of us face the challenge of continuing to watch and write about movies while still having a life. I envy younger fans who can consume massive amounts of material in a short period of time. This binge approach is a necessity to anyone who wants to explore the landmarks of film history. Even so, I'm thrilled with my current balance of watching interesting films and bypassing the fluff. There are so many corners of the cinema world that I've barely touched so far. I've never seen a film by Eric Rohmer, Samuel Fuller, or Bela Tarr. The back catalogs of Hitchcock, Godard, and Kurosawa still contain treasures for me to discover. Plus, there's that Dark Knight Rises movie I've heard a few things about waiting to be seen. Regardless of the order, I can't wait to take all these routes. Loving the experience is the most important thing, no matter how many films you're able to see each week. 

September 20, 2011

My Post-Netflix Project

When I first joined Netflix back in 2004, it was an exciting new service for film lovers ready to ditch Blockbuster and other video store chains. The selection was beyond anything I'd seen before, especially for indie and foreign films. The idea of receiving DVDs in the mail almost immediately after choosing them was remarkable. Word of mouth spread among friends and family, and I was a proud evangelist of the Netflix brand. The website was easy to use and offered recommendations on other interesting movies to check out. Almost as good as the DVD service was the Friends feature, which allowed me to check out what my friends thought of their rentals. It seems archaic in the age of Twitter, but this was a truly great part of Netflix's product. Considering all this promise, I'm amazed to see the complete destruction of this good will over the past few years.

So what went wrong? I don't want to focus too much on the negatives, so I'll give a brief summary of the denigration of the Netflix brand. The changes started long before the recent price hike and splitting of the DVD and streaming services. First of all, they removed the Friends feature and eventually deleted any community elements, including unique reviews. They also shifted the company's focus towards technologies and away from serving its customers. The moves all share one thing in common; they were designed to raise the stock price and maximize their wealth. This goal is not bad on its own but it fails if ownership disregards the reasons for its original success.

Obviously, the goal of any big corporation is to make money. Even from a financial standpoint, however, the changes failed to consider the perception from fans. In the Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg stresses the importance of keeping Facebook cool. This was an essential component of that service's financial success. Netflix was a cool product, and evangelists had shouted to the hilltops about its greatness. They nearly destroyed evil Blockbuster in a very short time; the little guy had won! The problem was that the underdog became the behemoth.

There have been many excellent articles written about the latest Netflix changes from nearly every perspective, so I'm going to focus on my personal response. After seven years, I cancelled my entire Netflix subscription yesterday. During the past few years, my feelings have soured dramatically, and it was time to make a change. I know that international readers who don't have access to Netflix won't understand this choice. It's a small amount of money given the large selection from the mail service, despite the stupid Qwikster name. My reasons have nothing to do with money. I refuse to support a company that treats its customers like shit. It's that simple. I put Netflix in the same category as Wal-Mart, BP, and others who I only visit when no other options exist. I've seen the Jason Alexander video on Funny or Die, and I'll admit it's funny and spot-on. However, this doesn't change the fact that Netflix has brought a huge benefit to film lovers. If your favorite restaurant's servers started cursing at you and providing cold food, you'd go somewhere new.

The library is a great resource for movies and other media.

While Netflix might seem like the only game in town, this isn't true. I have access to two library systems in St. Louis in the city and the county, and both have surprisingly deep DVD collections. For example, the county library has both 13 Assassins and Trollhunter.  I'm a grad student at Webster University, so I also have access to their library of movies. Libraries might seem inconvenient, but I already go there, so it's not a change for me. The one downside is the lack of Blu-ray releases, but I can always make the trek to a video store or even use Redbox. For this blog, I mostly watch older films on DVD. I'm also an Amazon Prime member with a special student deal, so I have access to their streaming service. I haven't even discussed Hulu, ITunes, Mubi, and other options that charge nominal fees (if any). The landscape has changed, and there are plenty of good options for movie fans.

Inspired by this move, I've decided to start a Post-Netflix Project that documents how much I'll spend to replace movies from this subscription service. My former account used to cost $10.82 per month (including tax), so I'm setting my monthly budget at $11. Will this be enough to catch the movies I would typically find on Netflix? I'm looking forward to exploring some new options for accessing movies and TV shows. I'd also love to find out what you use if you've made a change. In the grand scheme of things, I know this is a very small move and will have little effect. Neflix may find a way to thrive once again in the streaming business and will likely sell off the doomed Qwikster pretty soon. Even if it continues to make millions, I doubt it will ever be cool again.

8/1/14 Update: I've avoided spending much time on Netflix during the past three years and continue to regularly use the library. My stance has softened a little since there are benefits to having the streaming options from Netflix for TV. Even so, I still regard them with little compassion and would rather support other services whenever possible. They've found a way to remain huge by focusing more on television instead of the biggest movies. They aren't going anywhere soon, but I still believe my main points from this original post.