After enjoying Hot Fuzz for a Friday morning matinee, my wife and I ran to the store to pick up some Danish for a party the next day. We managed to get from the multiplex to the store and back again before seeing our next movie, conveniently titled Next. As the movie started, with Nicolas Cage looking two minutes into his future, I began looking two hours ahead into mine. After all, Disturbia had been getting rave reviews, and I still hadn’t been able to see it…
What was I doing? A double-feature might not be a bad thing on occasion, but how was I going to keep up with all these freakin’ movies? Only a few Fridays before, the wide releases totalled six in one week! As a teacher of Film and Theology and contributor to several websites, everyone expects (sometimes they demand!) that I see EVERY movie that comes out. People loan me DVDs (I currently have a few indpendent films, Punch Drunk Love and The Big Lebowski sitting on my XBox – yes, I will repent for not yet seeing The Dude – and I managed to watch 20 minutes of Howl’s Moving Castle at breakfast).
Instead of enjoying myself, I discover myself in an odd place of finding cinema a burden. In Next, the clairvoyant Cage finds himself strapped in a chair like Malcom McDowall in A Clockwork Orange, his eyes forced open to watch the big screen in front of him; I found myself sympathizing with his plight.
Is it me? Am I getting tired of the art form? Turns out I’m not, and a quick check of the numbers reveals this. In 2005, 35 flicks had been wide-released by the end of March; this year, 49 movies have been released over the course of only 12 weekends. No less than SIX movies came out on April 13 this year: Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Disturbia, Pathfinder, Perfect Stranger, Redline and Slow Burn opened together nationwide, joining a short list of the most crowded weekends on record.
In 2006, there were over 177 releases – 20 more than in 2005… and ’07 is already taking the lead for a new record in the film count. Those who feel like I do can breathe a sigh of relief that we’re not slowing down or getting “tired” of the medium. On the other hand, how is this glut impacting an industry that is currently lamenting an ever-increasing slump in box office sales?
“More movies” may equal “more choices”, but these things cost quite a bit of money to make. Not every movie is Spider-man 3 (cost: more than 300 million), but they still add up… and moviegoers can’t be in two places at once. Occasionally some of us even have to work (particularly with the price of movies these days). More choices are luring some people back to the attendance-challenged multiplexes, but spreading that money around a bevy of costly movies which then report mediocre returns doesn’t solve Hollywood’s problem.
In fact, rather than a few competing, attractive choices on a shiny cinematic menu, the Hollywood layout is beginning to look more like a one of those chinese or country buffets… a long line of trays with lukewarm offerings that fill but leave no lasting impression. It also unsettlingly exposes our narrative redundancy… it’s not that film or stories in general used to be more innovative, as I discussed in a previous article, but that we are so inundated that we can’t help but notice the similarities. We get upset that a film doesn’t satisfy, when the problem is that we’re gorged on its four prequels and fifteen narrative cousins.
Like anything else Americans like, we enjoyed one so much that we naturally assume a truckload will be even better. We didn’t just “super-size” our movies (Peter Jackson did that for us), we’ve created a robust dollar menu, and now we’re trying to order one of everything on it. Movie-aficianados will become movie-worshippers trying to keep up, while the quality goes down. What a cheap, flickering god to suck our watches and wallets dry…
So… am I calling for some kind of “return to the good old days”? No. Do I anticipate Hollywood will diagnose the problem as “too many movies” and the studios will agree to pace themselves? Not really. With hundreds of cable channels, the rising tide of video and online gaming that is taking center stage of popular entertainment, and new media formats to watch our entertainment on-the-go, I don’t anticipate anyone scaling back. What is important is that we realize what this means to popular culture… in that there will be a lot less of it.
Less? Someone will wonder: how does more movies equal less popular culture? Easy – with more media choices than we can possibly consume, the number of shared experiences will decrease. This means the water cooler conversation gets stunted. Affinity groups will tighten in size and accessibility. Icebreakers are already hard to come by. Some people spend all their time on YouTube, others in Second Life, and some on their XBox. A few even go to this fantastic, mythical realm I’ve heard of called “outside“. The increasing variety of “what we did last weekend” will help the already epidemic-sized problem of people “bowling alone”.
Why is this important? As a pastor, I like to connect with people and understand them, find out what inspires them. I like to explore how and where their passions resonate with the great hope and assurance I have. Actually, this desire is the earmark of faithful Christians, seeking to know their culture and better love people in the hope that lives will be transformed. The stories people are drawn to are often quite revealing about where they’re at emotionally and spiritually. When the narrative possibilities are spewing out of the Hollywood meat grinder at break-neck speed, and our entertainment economy fragments us into even tighter niche communities, this makes things more difficult.
How do I – and other Christians – adapt in this gluttonous and diverse environment? It will be critical to make sure we know the story of Jesus well… the story that we believe is not just the best, but true. Next, it will be vital to understand how that story breaks down and how it is reflected and/or distorted in a wide variety of film and narrative. This way, we can understand the basic concepts and connecting points and it will be easier to catch on when someone hangs on every word of a story we haven’t heard before. We also need to stretch ourselves to be culturally diverse, not merely sampling the same cinematic cuisine that makes us feel good. For me personally, this means expanding to media forms other than movies.
It also means that those who already pride themselves on being cultured may need to go see some of the remaining “popular” items they often shun. These folks forget the “diverse” part of cultural diversity, and wouldn’t be caught dead at Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Shrek 3, Spider-man 3, or pretty much ANY film with a number 3. They won’t be in line for anything opening on July 4th (like Transformers). However, these large blips on the cultural radar are still some of the easier connecting points, and should be seen as opportunities for conversation if not art. Otherwise, the art of conversation may be lost.
Lastly, it means we’ll need to LISTEN to people… and let them tell you about the stories they enjoy. Most days we don’t want to hear someone’s lukewarm recap of a movie, or novel, or game we didn’t want to explore ourselves. After all, that’s why we didn’t go, or buy it, or spend the time in the first place! However, the patience to hear what excites our neighbor may be just what we need to love them better, see where their life is at, and be proper representatives of Jesus who met people where they were at, heard their story, played with their kids, shared a meal, and spoke wisdom into their lives. I don’t claim to have a lot of wisdom, but I like to point people to where I received some wisdom… and much, much more.