Culture Club: Movies Aren’t Yours to Own

By Tim Grierson

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I feel alone among film lovers. When I go to friends’ houses, I notice their shelves stocked with copies of their favorite movies. For many, these items are cherished keepsakes–especially the DVDs and Blu-rays put out by the Criterion Collection, the company that produces definitive editions of essential films in handsome packages. For such rabid collectors, these past few weeks have been a little like Christmas: Criterion just completed its annual 50-percent-off sale, which has sparked lists such as Film.com’s “50 Best Criterion Collection Releases,” complete with the sets’ dynamic cover art. The lists are smartly done–and those covers really are beautiful–but I never feel the urge to own these great movies.

From an early age, I was instilled with a sense that the very best movies are something you have to earn. When I was a kid first getting into movies, I routinely programmed my VCR to tape films such as Citizen Kane off late-night TV. The next morning, I would excitedly head over to the VCR with the recorded VHS tape inside waiting for me–a holy artifact holding some masterpiece of cinema I couldn’t wait to see. The idea of a movie being contained on a physical device I could hold seemed unreal. How could any thing contain the greatness of these must-see movies?

As I got older (and got my driver’s license), I went out of my way to see films in a theater. I had to go forth and discover them–they were a quest, and one had to prove oneself worthy. Even as an adult who’s been beaten down by the hundreds of bad films I’ve reviewed, I’ve stubbornly held on to a belief that movies can be amazing. But that never translated into accumulating them at home. I quickly discovered that when friends tried to give me gifts of personal favorites on VHS or DVD (depending on the era), I would never feel quite as thrilled as I probably should have. A pattern started to form: I’d get the gift, express my gratitude, maybe watch the movie once (often with the person who gave it to me) and then that was it.

It’s not that I’m ungrateful. It’s just that those films are something far more spectacular and enriching than anything I could quantify, which is why their very existence on my shelves feels almost sacrilegious. It also feels presumptuous, as if I’ve somehow “conquered” the movie, like it’s a stuffed deer head mounted on my wall. I don’t want to ever feel that way about the films I love. To me, they remain larger than life, and I didn’t do anything to “earn” them–unlike those blank VHS tapes from my childhood that I filled by tracking down classic films on my channel guide.

I’m certainly in the minority. I know friends who will watch a film two or three times in one weekend; others feel they haven’t watched a certain title in a while–say, three months–and decide it’s time to pop it in again. The logic is understandable: You love the movie, so why wouldn’t you want to watch it again and again? I feel the opposite way. The movies I consider the greatest–2001, Manhattan, Jeanne Dielman–are also incredibly emotional experiences. They’re rich feasts I don’t want to devour on a regular basis because I want them to be special each and every time.

Simply put, movies aren’t albums–of which I own thousands. A CD is something you need to live with–at home, in the car, on the subway–for days, weeks and months, their full scope becoming clear through repeat plays. Sometimes a movie’s greatness isn’t obvious on a first viewing (e.g., Mulholland Dr. or Out of Sight) but very, very few albums’ value can be gleaned from one spin–you need to let it seep into your system over time. Movies have to do their job in one sitting, whereas an album can be broken up into pieces (songs) that can be shuffled and even remixed. A movie is a much more permanent, imposing and monolithic thing. Consequently, movies aren’t something I want to revisit over and over again. Part of their power is forgetting what happens in them so that you can be surprised anew when you finally decide to revisit them.

And when I do revisit them, I prefer it to be in a theater. Friends have huge home entertainment systems with gigantic screens, and they can be a hell of an experience. But it’s not a theater. A movie theater has all these strangers–yes, some might be incredibly annoying–who are all sharing the same moment with a film. Beyond that, though, I love the idea of going to a movie, as opposed to having that movie sitting there on the shelf, readily available for a spin in the DVD player. That’s too easy. If Radiohead came to your house to perform, it would be amazing–but if you knew that they could stop by and play any time you wanted, how quickly would it become less special?

That said, I don’t want to kid myself: I know that I’m swimming against a tide that continually grows stronger. With the prevalence of on-demand services and high-def televisions, the theatrical experience is losing its primacy. (Adding to that is TV drama’s renaissance on cable, creating even more reasons to stay home for your entertainment.) In my formative years, I had to seek out movies on TV, but eventually I turned to the big screen for a more immersive experience; for young people starting out now, that might not be their path. On one hand, they’ll have better access to different films, but on the other, they’ll be growing up in a culture in which the theater isn’t necessarily looked at as a crucial moviegoing element. (And they may not even watch movies on a TV; perhaps they’ll use an iPad or Kindle.)

This realization ought to make me depressed as I reminisce about the way things used to be. But that would be a mistake. I don’t expect anyone to follow my example, and I certainly don’t judge others who amass a spectacular collection of great films at home. My favorite movies are so intense, they’re almost too much to withstand–having them around the house, just sitting there, seems weird. But if I feel defensive about this notion of owning a movie, it’s also ridiculous to think any of us “own” the future of moviegoing. Films are too big for any one of us to contain. And they’re also too enduring not to be open to the idea that they’ll continue to evolve, no matter how we watch them.

Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.


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