Blockbuster burnout, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the subtitles

I remember enjoying the Mad Max movies from the 80s,1 though truth to tell I don’t remember actually caring about them very much. I don’t think I ever saw the Thunderdome one, which I’m not bothering to even look up the actual title of.

Still, post-apocalyptic desert, guns, and explosions, and Charlize Theron all add up to a movie that was made for me. Yesterday the new rebooted Mad Max film arrived in theaters and it’s all over my social media and RSS feeds. Most of the reviews are favorable, surprising me with words like «brilliant». Is it possible that this sci-fi action flick has transcended genre and come in to life as an amazing film?

Sure, it’s possible. I could point to examples of such things happening. Yet I’m still uninspired to run out and see the movie. Increasingly over the past few years I’ve found myself less and less interested in blockbuster action films, though I have to admit that the quality of said movies is much higher than they once were. What I’m finding is that the higher-quality writing and acting and production values make the movies easier not to feel as though my time has been wasted, but don’t actually reward me with substance. The end result is that they are wasting my time, but they sneak that fact past me by refraining from insulting my taste and intelligence too much.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that I haven’t sought out what I would call «quality» film in past years. I surprise myself by gravitating toward the lowbrow. I studied filmmaking in college and consider myself halfway cinematically literate. So why aren’t I going for those films which I used to get so much out of? I didn’t even see A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which I was very excited about. I was just never able to get it together. I did, however, see a couple of movies which I enjoyed well enough but which were basically empty calories. (One of which, Interstellar, has demoted itself to «waste of my time» since I walked out of the theater feeling mostly satisfied.2)

I decided yesterday afternoon that I should actually treat myself well and go to a film that I thought might be good rather than just fun. A few days ago after the coffeeshop in which I was working closed for the evening and the staff kicked me out, I walked past a theater which runs mostly independent and foreign films. I read the mini-reviews posted in the window, and one stood out. I’d just missed the last showing, so I moved on from the Opera Plaza to the Embarcadero Center Cinema to see what was playing.

I’d missed the showings there as well, unless I was to wait around for a few hours. I did find another intriguing film playing,3 and a couple of posters for films that looked worth further research.

The film I saw yesterday afternoon was Tangerines an Estonian film about a carpenter, a (tangerine, of course) farmer, and two enemy soldiers in the Georgia/Abkhazia fighting in 1992. It was time well-spent. The film was well-done, engaging, and moral without being moralistic. It said something about humans and human nature, the ideals that we strive for, and the means by which we strive. It could easily have been ham-fisted. Too often stories taking on this kind of material resort to easy answers, which are quite often either crushingly depressing or unrealistically uplifting and life-affirming.

Tangerines manages to show human dignity in the midst of anger and hatred, and has a message about that that dignity: that it is up to the individual to maintain it, but that it can be contagious if given time. And that integrity in the midst of strife may be its only reward.

The physical and moral landscape of the film is troubled, but not bleak. It is frightening and insecure without being hopeless—this perhaps makes the sense of insecurity more intense. At least in hopelessness there is a sort of guarantee. In life we have things that are difficult but no absolutes, no certainties to the outcomes.

However, I’m not writing to praise the film. I’m writing because I feel a refreshing sense of having chosen a film that would appeal to me, rather than ordering from the menu.

There are a lot of choices around us for entertainment, and there seems to be some truth to the idea that too much choice tends to limit choice; when there is too much to choose from, one has to rely on a selection from what is being offered by some sort of authority, be it an informal one like public approval or a formal one like a theater that provides a curated selection.

With the enormous variety of nearly everything that we have to choose from, we may not have a practical option to evaluate all possibilities. But stepping out from one form of curation to another helps to expand the possibilities. Our time is limited and our choices must balance out the costs and benefits of those choices to our benefit. Otherwise those choices will essentially be made for us, to someone else’s benefit.

I’m not ruling out seeing the Avengers movie, or the new Mad Max. However, at this moment, I think that another principle takes over. I’ve said this about gambling: it’s not very fun to me because it mirrors unpleasant parts of my life. Just as the board game Life appeals to children but not to adults because it is a game about the world adults already live in («oh yay, I get to make an insurance payment») gambling doesn’t appeal to me because I already have too many ways to lose all my money. That’s just not fun.

Similarly, I’m just not sure that I need to go see a movie about a cop wearing body armor and using military weaponry to kill people, when I could just buy a newspaper.

  1. Yeah, yeah, the first one was 1979. ↩︎

  2. Actually, no. Spending some time with a friend is not wasted. Though that was time we could have spent talking about something or actually doing something other than staring glass-eyed at three hours of flickering images. ↩︎

  3. Wild Tales ↩︎