It’s a rare thing that I watch movie I haven’t heard of. Generally, if I’m going to the theater or I’m watching something at home, it’s been given the OK by someone. Whether that approval is from a trusted movie news source, a golden statuette, or a friend, I need assurances that my time will not be wasted. This cinematic sieve has kept me flush with great movies of all kind, but the mathematical inequality, “too many movies and not enough time” still remains.
Admittedly, this is a good problem to have. There is no chance that you or I will run out of movies to watch, and so it’s unlikely we lose the feeling that our next favorite movie is just around the corner. That feeling is why we keep watching, that cinema high – the lights go down, the film begins, and until the end credits you are completely enthralled. Most importantly, you know it’s happening: you’re in the moment where a movie is changing you and there will be Time Before this movie and Time After it. I experienced this recently when I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s tense story of repressed love, In the Mood for Love. It’s a beautiful film that is meticulously constructed in all aspects. While I was watching it I knew. This was the next movie in the series of highs that connect my love for film.
However, there is a downside to having limitless access to the ever-growing pantheon of cinema: choosing. The other day, while scouring the Netflix menus, I was at a loss. Paralyzed by the overwhelming mountain of choices, I reached into the deep recesses of my memory to find a title that would pull me out of this stupor. And this is too often the case, I sit down for dinner with my girlfriend and rather than watch that Sophia Coppola movie or that Murnau silent classic, we watch episodes of The Office we’ve seen more times than I’d like to admit. Presumably, some part of me believes those movies will always be available at the touch of a button. Perhaps they will somewhere, but as they expire from one streaming service or another and physical formats fall out of use, can I really assume they will be available? More importantly, if they are available will I seek them out? As the many streaming queues grow longer, and as more movies are released every year, it’s increasingly difficult to keep up. And what was once essential on the list of must-sees gradually becomes a fixture that you glance past like leftovers in your fridge.
My initial response to this was to be proactive. I was going to chip away at my Netflix DVD queue bit by bit. If I was going to watch a movie online, it had to be something in my queue. But my plan fell apart pretty quickly and it wasn’t long before I was back to re-watching old favorites. Since being proactive in my viewing habits failed, my next strategy was to understand the problem. My thinking here was that if I could get to the heart of my viewing habits, I could undermine the impulse that might cause me to revisit all seventy episodes of Veronica Mars. My investigation led me to two possible reasons for my inability to choose: (1) Fear of the unknown, and (2) Not wanting to eat my cultural vegetables.
It’s always easier to make the safe decision. When you’re trying to pick a movie, the specter of disappointment is constantly looming. The film may be an award winner or come highly recommended from a reliable cinephile friend, but there is a distinct possibility that you will hate it. I know exactly what The Office is going to give me every time and there’s a comfort in that predictability. (The quality of the show falls off in the later seasons, but I enjoy hanging out with the employees of Dunder Mifflin.)
Eating your cultural vegetables is a phrase I first encountered in an article in New York Times Magazine. Films that fall into this category are ‘important’. They are films you should see. Sometimes these films are entertaining or enjoyable to watch, but more often they are required reading. Think Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera or Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. I happen to love Man With a Movie Camera. I thought it was more entertaining than Metropolis, which, at times, has the pace of cold molasses. Battleship Potemkin is the perfect example of a movie I’ve been avoiding because of its “cultural nutrients” (If I may continue the metaphor.) It comes highly recommended as an important part of cinema history. Hell, it’s only an hour long! But it has sat on my queue for what must be two years now. I can tell you with surety that I have no intention of watching it anytime soon.
Clearly, understanding the causes of my indecision hasn’t rid me of it. I’ve gained some clarity, but I think that my first plan was a better one. Sometimes you just have to do it. Take the chance. Throw caution to the wind and push aside the desire to be comfortable. Engage with the unknown. Eat your vegetables. Watch whatever your Battleship Potemkin happens to be. Perhaps I will try to do the same.