I watch eight to ten movies a week. I discuss an average of four on the podcast. I write about one. So what happens to all the other movies I watch, the ones I abandon, the orphans? Tell you the truth, I don't know. They're floating in my brain somewhere, occupying space in my memory, forming part of my cinematic knowledge; but for all intents and purposes they're gone, buried somewhere between high school algebra and the route I walked to middle school. If forced to, I could dredge up the knowledge, but it’d require a lot of effort. It's not that the movies I watch no longer make an impact, it's that I watch too damn many; and if they don’t do something spectacular to stand out, they get lost in the grey matter. At my age, so much brain real estate has already been claimed, I've got precious little space to devote to memorizing the entirety of the dialogue and camerawork of inconsequential movies.
Here is just a handful of films I plowed through in the past couple weeks:
Enjoyable movies all, but at this point they've all blended together, none a distinct entity. (Well, ok, Cocaine Unwrapped, the sole documentary in the bunch, stands out just a skoch; but my point still stands, on however unstable a surface.) I don't want to repeat myself, mention shit I already covered in my piece on The World's End, but my continued movie-binging has gotten me thinking about aging—which, I guess is just something that’s been on my mind lately anyway—and why it is that none of these movies have affected me the way movies of similar quality did when I was a kid. Why does movie watching feel like such a duty now, like the act of a meth-junkie chasing that first high? It’s not that I’m not occasionally wowed by films; it’s that nothing seems as important as the shit I saw when I was younger.
So what made the earlier movies, my formative movies, consequential? As stated, it's certainly not that they were any better. Could it just be due to the fact that I happened to watch those movies first? Short answer, yeah. Long answer, um yeah. It's somewhat random which movies happen to shape our beings, inform our worldviews. Sure, for the budding cinephiles, classics will form a large part of our makeup, for the obvious reasons: we want to be completists so we start with the low-hanging fruit; we consult critical consensus-based canon lists and tackle those movies first. Sure, we may not dig all of the classics but we watch them because we know those are the movies we’re supposed to watch. But those aren’t the only movies we watch. Our cinematic upbringings are also informed by the dreck. We watch everything and then some: the classics for education, the fun stuff for the...well, fun. And every picture makes an impression, each one important, even the ones we don’t like—because all the early films helped us learn our tastes, all crucial in out cinematic education.
And though I like to believe that I’m always open to learning, always eager for new information, my brain will never be as pliable and uncluttered as it was when I was younger. Those early movies stuck with me because I was witnessing the formulas for the first time. Everything was novel. It was only in later years that I realized just how run-of-the-mill are the majority of films: ‘Alright, here’s the set-up, the conflict is introduced, the hero is about to succeed, a monkey-wrench is thrown in the mix, and he overcomes the obstacle.’ And as for the photography: ‘alright here’s an establishing shot, shot-reverse-shot for the conversation, and a dolly move for a little pizazz.’ Got it. It is as it’s always been.
That's not to say the film medium hasn't evolved, but aside from a few form form-destroying outliers (the work of Dziga Vertov, 2001: A space Odyssey), the changes have been gradual, each new film subtly altering the same basic framework. After many years of movie-watching it has become apparent that each film exists on a continuum. Each is recycling and subtly altering the shit that came before. As with human evolution, there is no such thing as a single missing link, just an ongoing process. Any differences between the films of adjacent eras are damn near imperceptible, mostly cosmetic.
Take the urban crime film, for instance; though in considerable flux throughout the decades, a genre that remained remarkably unaltered. During the seventies such films as Dirty Harry and Across 110th Street were indicative of a society in decline. The streets were lawless, the cops were brutal. Yes, the authorities captured the criminals, but the line between the two was blurred. By the eighties, though the brutality of the seventies films persisted, the ambiguities disappeared. We were meant to root for authority in these films. The line between good and evil became distinct. Yes the cops sometimes bent the rules, but it was for the good of society. The seventies films responded to an anxiety in the nation; the eighties films sought to reassure us that the good guys are always right and the ends justify the means. But really, how different are these pictures? Though few people would mistake Madigan for Cobra, each film hangs its ideologies on the same crime-thriller framework. Despite any cultural-shift induced cosmetic changes, the structure remained.
Which is why when a movie alters the form, I take notice. David Fincher's Zodiac is one such film—even if it took me half a decade to realize it (there goes my point). Though I all kinds of loved Fincher's film when I saw it in 2007, I didn't watch it again until last week. In fact, it wasn't even one of my top three movies from that year. (Of course, in retrospect, this was due mostly to bad timing on David Fincher's part. I mean, that's what you get for releasing your best film the same year the Coens released No Country for Old Men (arguably their best), Paul Thomas Anderson released There Will be Blood (arguably his best), and Andrew Dominik released The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (arguably his best). Incidentally, here are some of the biggest money-makers from that year: Transformers, Spider-Man 3, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Ladling the Pablum: We Enjoy Insulting the Fuck Out of Your Intelligence.)
The upending of convention Fincher achieves in Zodiac is so subtle it's easy to miss just what is so genre-defying about his picture. It is a crime thriller that completely destroys and pisses on the corpse of the crime thriller. With this film, any resemblance to the genre is strictly cosmetic; it is the structure that has been altered. In the traditional crime thriller, a criminal is established, and the cops vow to catch the criminal and stop his rampage. Well, that's what happens in Zodiac, right? Yep, and that's where the story-telling similarities end. As a rule, the thriller attempts to ratchet up the tension with each scene, the enemy becoming more dangerous, the stakes increasing, until, when it seems the seams are ripe for busting, the tension is released in an explosive finale, a clash between the two sides.
In Zodiac, however, the story will never be as urgent as it is in the set-up. The stakes decline as the film progresses, the urgency dissipates, and the investigation into the zodiac killings becomes so irrelevant as to enter the realm of absurdity. The investigation become so inconsequential, in fact, that the police abandon and it and an amateur sleuth cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) researches it in his spare time. By the time we discover who the killer might be—we don't have any physical evidence but it's probably the guy we said it was halfway through the movie—the suspect is dead, having already ceased to be a threat decades prior. What begins as a tense thriller, slowly morphs into a meditation on the nature of obsession.
All logic says Graysmith should just let the fuck go of his investigation: the zodiac is no longer a menace, the city is currently facing worse daily threats, his personal life is crumbling, and even if he does uncover the killer not much will come of it except the satisfaction of discovery. And yet he persists. He can't explain why, he just has to know. And though he can't get concrete physical evidence to back up his hunch, the accumulation of clues is its own reward (well that and book sales).
Which brings me to just why it is I continue to watch so many movies. I guess it all goes back to that William Faulkner quote I referenced some time ago: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.” (My numerous blog posts having similarly blended together in my memory bank, I’ve also got an inability to dredge up specific posts, so I have no idea in which post I used this quote, but it’s on the blog somewhere.) As a(n unsold) screenwriter, I just gotta see what other folks have done. I want to get a feel for what’s already been attempted stylistically, and try to go beyond that in my own writing.
But there's more to it than that. I think it's the same reason paleontologists continue digging for fossils, becoming excited with each new discovery in the evolutionary chain even though they already have a decent picture of our evolutionary history: the thrill of discovery. In binge-watching, I continue to absorb movie knowledge, even if I've already got the basics down. Yes, many of the movies I watch will be orphans, but occasionally I'll make an important discovery. And even if I don't make important discoveries, at least more of the picture that is the history of film comes into view. I'm no longer actively making an effort to let cinema inform my personality: that shit was taken care of in my formative years. Right now I’m just filling in the gaps.