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 

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