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june 1 1996:
returning to the movies
T

he movies don't change. (Or maybe that should be, "the movies" doesn't change.) Maybe it's because the movies don't have a landscape. You go into a theater and you sit down and you see one movie. You get glimpses of the rest of the landscape of moviedom through the trailers, which are sometimes just as worthwhile as the movies themselves, and the posters (and more elaborate stand-up cardboard ads and banners) that you pass on your way in and out of the theater. But the movie itself does not really get stitched together with the recent history of movies to a great degree, not within the experience of watching it. Except in rare cases, it remains discrete. Maybe if you're a credit-watcher, you tie it in more with movies you've seen similar credits in, by spotting actors in the cast who are still percolating just below name recognition, or just spotting the special-effects and CG companies like I do.

When you watch television, you are relentlessly contextualized. You can't watch Seinfeld without getting a lot of malarkey about "Must See TV" shoved at you, so that, even if you know that Friends and ER are not particularly must-see TV in your opinion, you will at least come away with the sense that you are only watching part of a whole. The pride you might take in your selectiveness notwithstanding, why shouldn't you be allowed to just watch Seinfeld and think of that as a whole in itself, independent of its neighbors? Each of us is free to paint our own mental landscape of the movies, but the landscape of television (and our place in it) is subject to constant guidance, attempts at control. Look over here! Here's what's coming up tomorrow! Next week! Stay tuned!


back to the present...

When I first went to college, I went off TV for about five weeks, cold turkey, after a year or more of cartoons, MTV and morning news. It's not that I was too busy to watch TV, although you could say that I was too busy lying around on my bed staring at the ceiling going "Wow... I'm in college." I eventually got bored with boredom and returned to network television to watch the premiere of Frasier with a couple of acquaintances (I didn't choose a program in particular; maybe my acquaintances did).

And it's like Ripley said: IQs on television had dropped sharply while I was away. That was my first, overwhelming impression: every joke was flat and obvious, every commercial was transparently evil, and every moment of emotion was noxiously fake. In retrospect, there was probably no great change either in me or in programming quality over that period: it's just that I had never before been exposed to a first episode of a contemporary high-concept sitcom, in which all the cutesy little idiosyncracies have to be set up and explained in that first 23 minutes - the great challenge facing today's sitcom. In any case, one bad experience changed the way I viewed the entire landscape of television. A mere five weeks of absence had ruined me for network TV.

But you can always go back to the movies. Even if you have a bad experience after not having been to a new movie in six months or so (or not being able to remember if you have), you come away knowing that the bad experience you had was just one movie. The rest of the landscape remains unspoiled, as tranquil and expansive as the pre-pre-release movie ads on the sides of buses, which I always feel so grateful for when they first proliferate around spring break or so - pure marketing abstractions, they're always better than life.

Part of it may be that, at the same time as I returned to the movies, I returned to Berkeley and to the same bunch of movie theaters I've been going to since forever. There's a stretch of sidewalk from my mom's front yard leading down to commercial Solano Avenue, and every time I get back home from school, for break or for summer, I walk that sidewalk and I get panic mixed with nostalgia: nostalgia for childhood drives in our old van and imagining I could look down this stretch of street and see the Bay Bridge, or the Golden Gate, although you can't actually see either (so nice to be in the Bay Area and have that world-famous geographical reference point; everyone who lives here knows which way to look: at the gate); and panic that I feel so comfortable walking that sidewalk again after having been just as comfortable at college on the opposite coast for months. It worries me a little that I'm such a trainable animal, that places can just be in my blood like that, and I can drop instantly back into the groove.

Anyway I returned to movies in a big way in the last couple of weeks. First was Twister, with Nancy. I apologise. I had a decent enough time, but I never lost sight of how stupid the whole thing was. It was the only thing playing at a theater within walking distance that Nancy and her friends hadn't already seen. (I did find it remarkable that everyone in the movie was white. I don't mean that in a bad way necessarily; you have to kind of admire that sort of thing.) The following weekend, my brother and his girlfriend and I had to drive all the way down the opposite bayshore, to Belmont if you must know, to find a theater playing Mystery Science Theater 3000. Three people, in a mostly empty theater, watching a movie about three people in an empty theater watching a movie. Score!

If this is going to come down to a review, and it looks like it is, then I must say that I heartily recommend The Craft. I was prepared for disaster after reading the review on the NYT Web site, but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, and it was playing right up the street from Mom's house so what the hey. Turns out, it's a perfect old-fashioned teenaged monster movie of sorts, like they used to make 'em in the '50s. And I even went with - gasp! - A Girl. (Nancy's a girl too, but she doesn't count.)

As the NYT says, the first half of the movie is what got advertised: Bad Girls, kickin' ass. The second half of the movie turns into the old "look what happens to the good girl who fell in with a bad crowd" gag. This is the tried-and-true framework of every good teenaged monster movie: no gore, no sleaze, just bring out the social aberration, and all the kids scream at it in terror, but order and justice prevail and we all go home. The NYT review says this moralism is a major flaw of a movie made in the '90s; I say, this structure is part of a tradition, like verse-chorus-verse, and The Craft at least plays it good and loud.

It doesn't matter anyway, because the first half is what we remember. Nobody identifies with the end of a monster movie, when justice prevails. When we make it back home from the theater to bed, what we remember is the chaos that took top billing on all the movie posters. In the '50s they remembered the teenage Wolfman and teenage Frankenstein and thought in fear of the acne on their own faces, their own shameful pubescence. Today, the tables are turned, and we remember the four omnipotent model-looking goth chicks, and by God, we identify.

in other news...

I apologise to both of my loyal readers for slacking off while the sitcom server has been down (most of this past month). Technically I did have finals, so that's two excuses. Anyway I have now made the leap, serverwise and lifewise, and am back in the saddle.

made it to the new SF Main LIbrary. Yes, the old paper card catalog is stuck on the walls, yes, it's terrible. But I didn't worry about that as much as I worried about the marble everywhere. Aren't libraries supposed to be cozy? Maybe you just can't take the suburb out of this boy, but still. And it does take forever to get a free Netscape terminal.

and speaking of the New Main, check out this little scandal! brought to us by the man himself, Nicholson Baker. from all appearances, some serious journalistic heroism on his part.

That big Tale I've been promising is still on hold. I'll probably break it up into two or more parts. Maybe I'll start it next week but not likely.

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Here's that review, it sums things up nicely. You might need a password for this page, I'm not sure. For all the other titles here you can find plentiful stuff on Yahoo, under Entertainment.

Tales From The Dork Side are copyright Mike Sugarbaker, email for permission to redistribute.
Updated June 1 1996
misuba@iberia.vassar.edu