Alex Massie

The Wearisome Unbearableness of Manohla Dargis

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Oh dear. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis (who apparently find the idea of being asked to name and write about her favourite movies of the year an intolerable imposition that reminds her of the Judeo-Christian patriarchy that has made her existence so frightfully ghastly) then further indulges herself with this hackneyed spot of hand-wringing:

Enthusiastic reviews, intelligent filmmaking, even hot sex are no longer automatically enough to persuade a distributor to jump.

The problem is that the art-house audience that supported the French New Wave filmmakers to whom “Reprise” owes an obvious debt can no longer be counted on to fill theater seats. Or maybe it’s overwhelmed. For a variety of reasons, including the glut of releases, movies are now whisked on and off theater screens so fast that it’s hard for the audience to discover them, much less build a popular film-going culture. In 1984 Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” hung around in theaters long enough for people to learn how to spell his name. These days too many cool movies are just passing through on the way to your Netflix queue.

I don’t think anyone knows what the solution is, but this year IFC Entertainment hit its stride with its First Take series. Twice a month the company simultaneously opens a film theatrically, including at the IFC Center in the West Village, and releases it via video-on-demand on cable television. If the film does well in theaters, it might go wider than initially planned. IFC isn’t the first company to go the day-and-date route, but so far it’s letting people with great taste buy films — during a multifestival shopping spree, they picked up “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” “The Last Mistress” and “Paranoid Park” — so, until someone comes up with a better idea, more power to them.

IFC also had the smarts to snap up the Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” at Cannes before it won the Palme d’Or. (It had a brief Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles and reopens in January.) Directed by Cristian Mungiu, this is one of those putatively dark, difficult movies that industry mouthpieces try to use as proof that critics are out of touch with the audience when it is actually the audience that is out of touch with good movies. Americans consume a lot of garbage, but that may be because they don’t have real choices: 16 of the top box-office earners last weekend — some good, almost all from big studios — monopolized 33,353 of the country’s 38,415 screens. The remaining 78 releases duked it out on the leftover screens.

This is, of course, nonsense. Art-house audiences - a category which, these days, includes many people who live nowhere near an art-house cinema - have never had it so good. It is far from clear, in fact, that there's even a problem here in need of a solution.

I suspect Ms Dargis actually knows this but can't cast off what seem to be her largely-predictable prejudices (or, if you prefer, biases) to acknowledge that these days, now that the customer is king, it doesn't really matter what's on at the cinema.

That doesn't mean we will watch fewer movies. It might in fact mean we'll watch more. But we'll watch them at home and do our own programming. These are, then, exciting times for the movie enthusiast. It's true that even home cinema systems can't quite recreate the movie-going experience entirely, but the benefits of just staying at home compensate for whatever advantages the traditional cinema experience may still afford.

Dargis can't quite admit the logic of her position: if movies are merely passing through art house cinemas en route to your Nefliz queue then it stands to reason that it doesn;t much matter how wide or how prolonged a release they receive. The point is getting them onto your Netflix (or Blockbuster) queue. Does it matter whether you see the latest Paraguayuan Quinoa western at home* or in Greenwich Village?

So, no, the Big (Bad) Studios are not "monopolising" our attention. Until recently movie-watchers were almost entirely at the mercy of the studios, distributors and cinema managers. No more: the process has been democratised. Everyone can plan their own film festivals now. Fancy a week of Hungarian cinema? No problem. Netflix will provide.

Sure, newspaper critics will complain that this atomisation of the audience is a bad thing, somehow fraying our sense of community or some such guff. But the other way of looking at it is that now you can actually see what you want to see. The advantages of this happy state of affairs would seem to outweigh the disadvantages. (Among those: circuses such as the Oscars become less and less relevant, while critics at major newspapers also lose some of their influence as guardians and arbiters of taste).

But this loss of influence need not be terminal. Rather than waste space complaining that films don't receive long enough runs in art houses (though what percentage of the population even has access to an art house cinema?) it would be useful if major newspapers such as the NYT devoted less space to current releases and more to letting readers know when interesting or over-looked or difficult-but-rewarding or foreign films are released on DVD**.

In other words, they need to move with the audience's changing viewing habits. I can't possibly get to all the films I'd like to see while they are on release, but I can if I watch them at home. Being reminded of when that great new Vietnamese movie is out on DVD would be more useful than being told that if I get to the Angelika cinema in the next ten days I can see it on a big screen.

*And of course the costs of watching movies at home is much lower, meaning one is likely to be more creative and take greater risks when choosing films than if one is paying $40 for a night out at the multiplex or art house cinema. This must be good news for independent and foreign film.

*Of course Netflix already does this, letting one know when, based upon previous viewing habits and my own movie ratings new pictures I might be interested in arrive in their warehouses. This is a useful service, as is being able to compare notes with people who their computers have determined broadly share my taste in movies. So it's not essential that the newspapers take account of this, but it might be in their interest to do so.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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