Stating the Subtext Up Front (Or a Refreshing Break with Convention)
Today I would like to dwell on a particular subject matter that will attract readers to a film blog in droves. What could that possibly be? Death!
No, I’m not taking about “amusing kills” in the form of a hatchet to the forehead.
Perhaps using the word “Death:” is a bit too attention grabby. Should we settle on the more highfalutin term “Mortality?” Did I just hear a mass exodus in the form of a sea of mouse clicks? What’s wrong with talking about how much precious time we have on dear old Spaceship Earth? Why is it such a taboo to openly acknowledge the fact that we all waste our hours on trivial crap?
How about climbing up on top of a mountain and screaming: “What’s it all about?”
Why not dig Peggy Lee up and have her sing a rousing chorus of “Is That All There Is?’
That’s not going to keep you here?
Oh, all right…Disembowelment! Decapitation! Dismemberment by Hacksaw!
(Or as ee cummings so articulately put it: “Ashes and So Longs.”)
Would you like another subheading under “Mortality?” How about “regret?’
Oh, sorry…Chinese Water Torture, will that get you to stay?
The Story of How I Began Wasting Time in a Vain Attempt to Reclaim It (Or How The Great “IMDB Ratings Project” Began in Earnest)
This all had such an innocuous beginning that I almost hesitate to tell an audience about it. There’s the standard details: Everyone that uses the Internet Movie Database is no doubt familiar with the Top 250 list. The supposedly “best” and “highest user rated” films of all time that has a dual purpose as a deep shaming device.
Why exactly is that? There is a particular conundrum in my life when it comes to consuming film. I took a rebellious stance against the “good” when I was young. You could rant to me all day about the supposed excellence of any classic…doesn’t matter which one. I sat in film classes where Citizen Kane was served to us on a golden platter. (“You mean I sat through this entire film just to find out the dude was crying over a fucking sled?”) These so-called gems just didn’t hold the same panache as the forgotten Hammer horror flick on the tube at 2 a.m.
(This is a particularly important point that I will return to later as I continue to dig into my film watching mania.)
The “younger” me (or perhaps “little me”) came to believe that there was a conspiracy that existed. This was a “taste making as brainwashing” ploy that touched every aspect of what was supposed to be a well-rounded education.
There were other issues at play that yours truly couldn’t see at the time. What about life experience? There are certain stories that you are just not ready to understand as a scrawny eighteen year old. There are also the factors of film history or the crucial question of “influence.” I know enough now to recognize that something as fabulously odd as The Warriors is just a classic western in urban drag. This is a bit like the argument for why everyone should read Shakespeare. He created the formal confines of storytelling that every writer can learn from. (That is not to say that I understand Shakespeare all that well either.)
The real hook in this story appeared when I began to age. I found myself jobless, over thirty, and living with my parents. I have heard that hardened prisoners look at their time on the inside as a chance to reflect. Hospice patients (or anyone near death) will tell you the same exact thing about “shuffling off that mortal coil.” It’s time to take an unfortunate, hard look at your life.
How exactly did I spend my time on Earth? Did I truly live life to the hilt and accomplish everything I possibly could have?
There were choices I had made which lead me inevitably to my parents’ guesthouse. The life pursuit of a “career in creativity.” (Kids, listen to your uncle Dusty; chasing after film projects royally fucks up your resume. You constantly have to explain the gaps in your employment history and tell a potential employer why you don’t have practical skills. Trust me, people who can unplug a toilet get work over people who can have philosophical conversations.) The steadfast unwillingness to do something else…and frankly, the lack of acknowledgment that I would one day pass away.
We’re back to what I so cleverly attempted to cover in my introduction. My time on this planet is terrifyingly finite…
That said; there’s always a bit of time for a brief digression. Let’s talk about the happenstance and the mania that led to what I would jokingly refer to as “the ratings project.”
I began to study the Top 250, and give the movies I had seen a certain rating (between 1 to 10). Out of the 250 films listed, I had seen just a little over half of them. This begged the question: What the hell had I watched instead?
That began the epic search to determine just how many films I had watched in my lifetime that weren’t “the right ones.” I started to scale through every writer, director, and actors’ filmography that I could possibly think of at the moment. I would make a quick acknowledgement and then assign a title I recognized with a rating. (Side note: I find “rating films based on quality of one to ten” to be a frustratingly arbitrary experience. There are movies that only rate a 5 in quality that I would give a 10 based on enjoyment level. There are other movies, such as the aforementioned classics, that earn an IMDB scale of 9 that I would a 5 for because I found them boring).
My journey led me far, far away the mythical promised land of the IMDB Top 250.
The IMDB automatically starts to build a “list” based on the ratings you pile up. I watched my own personal list grow from a mere hundred to a few thousand. (The list currently rests comfortably at a little over 2500, but that is subject to change.) I began to do simple mathematic equations (“If each of these movies were two hours long, how many hours of my life did they totally kill?”) The ticking number on “my list” kept bursting through the ceiling, and I kept pushing it there.
What was so profoundly bothersome about this?
- 1. I already mentioned the proverbial hours I realized I had lost in my life. Those weren’t coming back.
- 2. Personal Choice: There was the little point of what exactly I had decided to watch. Would you care for an example? There was a crappy little ‘50s B-movie I found in a used record store when I was in grad school called Reform School Girl (1957). This was clearly an example of “Sleaze…’50s Style” and it was so entertaining that I watched it twice. Yes, so entertaining that I don’t remember a fucking thing about it. What did I get from watching it? Maybe a catfight? Maybe obscure ‘50s actresses dressed in risqué pajamas? Some pithy and unintentionally funny dialogue? I gave the thing (what I could remember of it) a modest rating of 6/10. Meanwhile, the legitimate classic Life is Beautiful sits on my list without any rating at all. That is right, I have never seen that. The Holocaust versus Primitive Women in Prison? Really, what would you choose?
- 3. The “Death Bed” Fantasy: As previously stated, I can’t get out of dying and that deeply concerns me. I have (at numerous times in my life) pictured myself lying on what might be my deathbed. What am I going to look back on with pride? Will I have a moment when I say: “I never saw Life is Beautiful?” I can tell you why I never saw it; every dumb college kid I knew at the time was swooning over it. This was one of my “Holden Caulfield” attacks of misanthropy.
What I Have Really Been Talking About
This is all a big front for what has been obsessing me lately; mortality.
Do you mind if I take another excursion into the shadowy realm of the autobiographical? (This one is going to be really heavy. You have my full permission to check all the way out now.)
Shortly after my move back to Mom and Dad, my nine-year-old husky Dakota started to show too many signs of wear and tear. She simply couldn’t get up, and that final heart-breaking trip to the vet had to be made.
However, the cruel Beast Known as Fate decided that wasn’t quite enough. Shortly after Dakota passed on, my poor Mother suffered a severe stroke. (Don’t worry too much about this. She’s had a remarkable recovery and would probably kill me if she knew about this entry. So…um, no one tell her, okay?) I had the sudden realization that my parents weren’t going to be here forever. This couldn’t be; they couldn’t already be at the part of their lives when serious health issues crop up. How old did this make me?
As the commercial announcer would say: “but wait…there’s even more.” I ended up finding out that an acquaintance of mine from college died from Stage IV Colon Cancer. Why was his death such a blow to me personally? (The tragedy was for his family and friends’, and it had nothing to do with me.) This guy was only a year or two older than I was. He was what could best be described as a contemporary of mine. That said, I couldn’t help but think of all the things I was doing now that my acquaintance could no longer enjoy.
(Including sitting around the house in my boxers with the remote, scratching myself and talking to the TV. You know, life’s simple pleasures.)
What was my real “take away?” Life is shockingly, scarily finite and everything second maters.
What does this mean for someone who has spent so much time watching movies? I started having paranoid fantasies of traveling back in time. I would burst into my college dorm room and yank the remote out of my younger self’s hand. “You have an eighteen year old brain and body and you’re sitting here watching Reform School Girl?”
The issue might not be watching the “right movies,” but spending so much time watching movies at all. Movies were just supposed to be simple entertainment, not the obsessive point that I have made them into. What about spending time outside? What about writing that novel I always wanted to finish? What about that trip to Ireland I always wanted to take?
What about the fact that I had missed half the IMDB Top 250?
The Bitter Addendum: Or Watching The Bicycle Thief
I woke up one Sunday morning in the middle of this bit of existentialism and found The Bicycle Thief on Netflix. The thing had been disappearing from my queue for over two years now. I, of course, knew all about it by reputation but had never seen the damn thing. To hold my thread for this piece; the movie is currently ranked at number 87 on the almighty list.
I understand that this is a piece of film history; you can Google “Italian Neo-Realism” for yourself.
I just found it to be an unbelievable endurance test. I want to clarify that I didn’t find it boring. No, I just found the character of the father absolutely insufferable. He treats both his son and his wife in a deplorable manner. (You almost get the sense that he resents having to make money to support them.)
Then there are the details of what happens in the story itself. He finally gets a job, and then his new bicycle gets stolen. The audience watches every heart breaking second as the “hero” and his son storm Rome looking for the bike.
I’m not going to reveal the final ironic twist, but I have no moral qualms about revealing my feelings about it. There is not one ray of hope on display in The Bicycle Thief. There is, however, about the same level of sadism that might occupy the latest Hostel installment. (There are no thumbscrews or nipple slashing, but I digress.)
In short, I didn’t find it to be the magical and transformational movie going experience I wanted. “Hey, I could have very easily died without having seen this movie…and that might have been all right.”
Instead, I kept thinking: “So this is The Bicycle Thief? This is really it?”
I had just spent another two hours of my life on a film, and it had fallen short. Where did this leave me in my crisis? How this helped me take charge of my own short, sweet time? What the hell is this thing called life about?
I didn’t have any answers, and the brutal story about a stolen bike hadn’t helped me at all.
In case you are wondering, I only gave the movie a rating of 7 out of 10. That niche for “number 87” on the list was filled up, and what of it?
Mortality, my friends. There is absolutely no sense to be made of it…our time here on Earth…the movies we watched…decisions we made. Christ, I can just about hear the violin strings swelling in the background.
And I have a feeling that I have completely lost my audience.
Would you like a more satisfactory “final thought?”
Tits and blood!