There was a period in my life when I went to the movies up to five times in a single week. That was many years ago. I have not gone to a cinema in nearly a decade, but recently I have been rediscovering motion pictures at home. I’m not exactly sure when my interest got rekindled, but for the last couple of years I have been steadily amassing a collection of DVDs, mostly of old and foreign films, and watching them with some regularity.
You might recall that on these pages over the past year I’ve namedropped The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Weekend—I’ve been particularly attracted to the French New Wave of the 1960s. But I’ve explored lots of other material as well. When I was in Los Angeles last December as part of the American Music Center’s participation in the West Coast, Left Coast festival, I discovered a Mexican DVD shop en route from my hotel in Little Tokyo to Disney Hall. I wound up bringing back tons of bounty from the “época de oro,” the Golden Age of Movies in Mexico which lasted roughly from 1935 to 1959, a film legacy that is all-too-little known among Anglos since many of the films never get subtitled.
But I’ve been feeling extremely conflicted recently after reading all the stories about what a disastrous year it has been for Hollywood. Not enough people are going to the movies these days, which is bad for the economy. Admittedly, pundit after pundit has decried how bad all this year’s movies are, but since when have I let someone’s conception of quality affect my decisions. And yet I have not seen a single new motion picture, not a one—I, who typically ridicule folks who dismiss new music in the classical music community or the folks who claim to love visual art but never go to galleries to look at new work. The fact of the matter is that I hate waiting in lines—inevitable for seeing movies in NYC—and I’m too busy going to concerts all the time. I also don’t want to watch movies according to someone else’s schedule. But, wait a minute, aren’t concert times even less convenient than movie times? Indeed, I admit it, I have a double standard. But a concert is a live experience and a film never is, so why does it matter? Ah, the cineastes will declare, you can’t really appreciate work intended for projection onto a large screen on a small video simulacrum. (And you really lose out when it comes to 3-D movies, a phenomenon which I actually find fascinating; further proof that I’m out of touch with mainstream audiences.) Even though a film isn’t live, the difference between going to a movie versus seeing it at home is somewhat akin to the difference between attending a live music performance versus listening to an audio recording. It’s the difference between experiencing something in a social—and all too frequently distracting—context and experiencing it on your own terms whenever you want. Despite how many concerts I attend, I listen to recordings even more because I love the ability to focus that a recording provides. And a DVD of a film provides similar benefits.
What’s my excuse when it comes to new movies? Isn’t that a direct parallel to new music and something that I should equally support if I claim a genuine interest in cinema? Every now and then I will watch a recent movie (well, one from this past decade at least) borrowed via a NetFlix subscription. Although, weirdly, sometimes a NetFlix DVD will remain unwatched for months in my home. For the price we’re paying for that service, I could have bought several copies of each of those films!
Perhaps the thing about music is that no matter when it’s from—either hundreds of years ago or yesterday—it always takes you to another place. Oftentimes a recent movie will leave you exactly where you already are. Old films did that too, but we’re no longer there so seeing them can be equally transportative. The reason film is a remarkable medium is because it’s a mirror; the reason music is a remarkable medium is because it isn’t.