October 27, 2016
On the Present, Past, and Future
My daughter turns two next month, and I must admit that movies have become harder to make time for. Not less important, mind you, but there have been many times when plans for an evening movie have yielded to a request for a story or a late night play session with a restless child. Movies can’t really compete with those moments. After all, each moment with my daughter is a moment I’ll only have once. Not true of a movie I own.
I have recently begun to wonder what my daughter will make of my collection of films when she is older. Hers will likely be a generation that has little or no experience with traditional video stores, and if a recent trip to San Francisco is any indication, there may be far fewer places that have the kind of vast selection that my generation was spoiled with at stores that now exist only in our memories. Two of my last hopes, Rasputin and Amoeba Records, now sell far more used DVDs and Blu-rays than new ones, and even out-of-print DVDs no longer sell for the extravagant prices they used to. It seems there’s just little demand for them to justify asking customers to fork over $50 for something that they can rent digitally for $3. And what stores do have is no longer as extensive as it used to be. I had a list of 100 movies I was looking for, and I found only seven of them during my entire trip. A sign of the times perhaps.
Movies are not in danger of completely disappearing of course. There's streaming and downloading, and new movies will likely one day be available in your home on the same day that they’re released in theaters. Yet, watching a movie on a computer, smart phone or Netflix is a different experience than the one that earlier generations had. A few years ago, Leonard Martin explained how he’d had to actively seek out films when he started out. He would often scan TV Guide looking for rare or unseen films and stay up late watching them just to be able to check them off his list. I can only imagine he made regular pilgrimages to revue houses whenever a forgotten film was being shown. This was before VHS, yet even when VHS came along, many films simply never made it onto the format. I remember scouring video stores for secondhand copies of films released by such independent companies as Kino, New Yorker Films, and Embassy Home Entertainment. They were somewhat expensive, but their addition to a collection made that collection just a little more special. Will my daughter understand this way of thinking?
And then there were the conversations about films that used to fill the air of local video stores. Get a video store clerk or a film enthusiast talking about his favorite films or directors, and it was intoxicating. Many times I walked out of a store with a film I had either not intended to rent or had not even known existed. Will this kind of passionate conversation be common when everyone has access to the same films at the same time?
In his 2015 essay, Dennis Perkins wrote that going to video stores was a commitment of your time, energy, and money. You felt invested in the films you rented because you had spent time getting to the store and wandering around as you mentally pondered a whole host of conditions and possibilities. Renting a movie was often the result of careful deliberation, and when you finally made your selection, you were committed to finishing it, regardless of whether it was a masterpiece or turkey. It’s not the same with streaming or downloading. Less investment means less commitment, and it’s said that some Netflix subscribers give a film just ten minutes to grab their attention, and if it doesn’t, they find something else to watch.
This is the environment that my daughter will grow up in, an environment in which so much is at our fingertips. The challenge is that having access to something at the click of a mouse or having it stored on a USB can remove its immediacy. We can always watch it later. And later, of course, can eventually become never, partly because for many people there’s always something else going on online. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to watch a film while texting. Some people even go online to ask if they should finish the movie they’re watching. To many people from my generation, such actions are nothing short of sacrilegious. Will my daughter share this view?
I don’t mean to suggest that all is lost. It is not. Every term I meet students who are interested in discovering films that others deride as being unwatchable, mainly silent films and films in black-and-white. One of my students recently watched 12 Angry Men for the first time after it came up in a writing class and liked it quite a lot; also, every so often I come across a young person scanning the classic film section in one of Taipei’s remaining DVD stores. Discovery continues. My hope is that it will continue for my daughter as well.
It is said that a love of reading in adulthood is planted in childhood by a parent who makes reading a regular part of their time with their children. I believe the same is true of a love of films. Films are at a disadvantage, though. My daughter’s favorite books right now are The Little Engine That Could and Where the Wild Things Are, two books that could rightly be called classics of children’s literature. However, there is nothing in their appearance that would render them old. Their pictures are in color, their themes are timeless, and what appeals to children at a young age have changed very little over the years. This is not true of cinema. Films age, and some of them can look as if they are from another century, if not another world. Building an interest in them may be an uphill battle – one definitely worth engaging in, but an uphill battle nonetheless. I’d better get started.