Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

Jonas Mekas, Jason Statham, and the Difficulties of Digesting the Decade by Cullen Gallagher

Jonas Mekas, Jason Statham, and the Difficulties of Digesting the Decade by Cullen Gallagher Perhaps it is fitting that the last year of the decade should begin with a big decision, one that reflects not only ten years of watching movies, but also writing about them.

For roughly six weeks, most of February and March 2009, I stopped watching movies. It’s the longest period in memory in which I did not watch something on either the big or small screen. I made the decision after an encounter with Jonas Mekas’ 2008 documentary Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR that shook my confidence as both a moviegoer and reviewer. The title sums up the movie quite aptly: a compilation of four hours of videotaped news broadcasts off television during the last years of the Cold War. At the time, I thought – and still do think – that Mekas’ use (and perhaps abuse) of time says more about the act of viewing than about the events captured on film. His camera is an avatar for the spectator, clocking in hour after hour in which history unfolds on camera, of which we are unable to do anything about.

After watching the movie, my opinion hadn’t changed. More importantly, it hadn’t grown or evolved, either. A friend read my review and said to me, “I can’t tell whether you liked it or not.” I told him that I couldn’t tell either. And this worried me. Since I had begun writing regularly about movies for the high school newspaper in 1999, the process of crafting a review (whether for publication or not) had become a regular part of how I worked out my thoughts about a movie. Had ten years of putting opinions down on paper (or a computer file) brought me to the point where my opinion was formed before I watched the movie? Call it overdramatic, but I decided to take a break from all watching and reviewing.

I didn’t learn any great secret during my brief “vacation,” but I can appreciate that time away now as an unintended first step in digesting what had been for me at least, a long decade of moviegoing.

In 2000, I actually couldn’t really “go” to many movies. Living in small-town Maine at the time, I didn’t have a license, so I relied on what was available at the tiny video store within walking distance of my parents’ house, or what my friends were going to see in the theaters. In my town (and the neighboring city), we only got the biggest, most blockbuster-y of movies at either of the mall-related first- or second-run multiplexes.

But then there was a rundown, third-run theater on the outskirts of the neighboring city on Odlin Road. Punch-Drunk Love, in fact, only played there, months after it appeared across the country (at the time, it was probably the only Adam Sandler movie not to open at the Bangor Mall cinema). Even though the heat didn’t always work in the theater (a major hazard during Maine winters), it did take a few chances. My blizzard regalia didn’t come off during About Schmidt, but at least I could see the movie without traveling hours to another city (even if my breath was visible throughout the screening). They were also the only theater in our area even dare to show Michael Moore’s movies—who knows when the last time a documentary played in the Bangor area before those? In the aftermath of Fahrenheit 9/11, the Odlin Road even began showing other, less notable documentaries such as Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Now I probably couldn’t stomach Joan Osborne’s horrendous reinterpretation of soul classics, or the cheesy historical re-enactments, but at that particular time, at that particular place, a movie like that made for a perfect night out.

After moving to New York City (for the second time) in 2005, I might not have had such a euphoric reaction to the movie. The subway made up for my lack of driving skills, and I had gone from limited access to movies to total immersion. What I couldn’t see in theaters I could find on video at Kim’s (RIP). My moviegoing habits changed drastically. For years, the opportunity to see older movies on the big screen would take precedence over newer movies. Ironically, for me, home video became a way to keep up with newer movies that I missed theatrically. Seeing Gregory La Cava’s Womanhandled (a Western parody/self-reflexive Hollywood commentary from 1925) at MoMA, or D.A. Pennebaker’s One P.M. (a documentary critique of an aborted Godard documentary from 1972) at a microcinema in a barren loft in the Financial District, stand out as great cinematic experiences of the decade for me, even though they weren’t made in the last ten years.

In the wake of the 2009 Jonas experience, I again noticed a shift in my moviegoing habits. One of the first movies I saw post-vacation was I Love You Man. More memorable than the feature was a trailer for Crank 2: High Voltage with Jason Statham. Perhaps due to repertory immersion, I entirely missed hearing about the first Crank, and while Statham’s name was familiar, only now could I finally place a face to it. I had never seen one of his movies before. The clean, straightforward logic of the trailer immediately differentiated it from the typical preview that tries to make every movie look more complicated than it really is. Here, we have Jason Statham as Chev Chelios. Someone has his heart, and he wants it back. The plot sounded too simple and solid to be true.

When I saw the movie (back-to-back with the first one, on DVD), I was not disappointed in the least. The plot is indeed just what the trailer summarized, with no more complications to muddle it up. Within the first few minutes, the impetus for the story is given, which sets the foundation for 96 minutes of non-stop action. If the action stops, the character would die, and the movie would be over—thus, for the movie to continue, and the character to live, there must be action.

So much impressed me about the movie, but nothing so much as its insistence on the kinetic experience. Unlike Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR, which, I would argue, is more of an idea than a movie (in that the idea can be engaged with outside of the realm of the actual movie itself), the Crank and particularly Crank 2: High Voltage are unusually physical movies. They are almost experiments in how to create purely cinematic action. Movement, gesture, and explosion take complete precedence over story (so much so that, in Crank 2, story resolution is left to the credits sequence). And I mean this as a high compliment to both movies: they are utterly entertaining movies, and have that power to engage with the audience in a uniquely visceral manner that I’ve rarely encountered.

Changes not only in my access to movies, but also my approaches to viewing, make examining a “decade” in cinema problematic for myself. I don’t necessarily think what I watched over the past ten years as always aligning with what the decade was producing. My choices as a moviegoer were intrinsically tied to where I was at a specific time, whether it was being dropped off at the Odlin Road theater to see Chocolat (because it was the closet thing to an “artsy” movie in the Bangor area), or marathoning 1930s and 40s B-Musicals by the dozen at Film Forum during a hectic two-week period (because when else would I have the opportunity to see Judy Canova on the big-screen again). Because of repertory screenings (not to mention home video), my decade at the movies has actually spanned well over a century. And as fascinating as it may be to go back through the decade and pick out what the best movies one saw were, I think it can be more instructive (and fun) to think about why, and how, one saw what they did. With increasing changes in distribution/exhibition, it will be important to take note of how these areas will change over the next decade, and how it will affect the variety of movies we have access to.


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