An Experiment

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As a teenager I remember standing on line in the cold for two hours to see The Exorcist in Manhattan during its first week of release.  It was a thrilling, scary and overall fantastically fun experience.  I met a group of slightly older, cool people I got to hang out with, the movie was that rare combination of smart AND frightening, and I drank wine from a bottle someone had bought at the liquor store down the street so we could all stay warm.  All of this then added to the major buzz that I already had for being so in the know.

Never mind that news reports of several members of the nationwide audience suffering heart attacks at the sight of Linda Blair’s 360-degree head revolve turned out to be false. I felt like the hippest person on my block in Flushing, Queens for the next day (or was it month?) because, let’s face it – after that evening I was.

Clearly, times have changed.

Do we all really enjoy going to movie theatres anymore?  Or better question – do we really all still enjoy movies, at least the way we used to?  Well, the answer to that is, I guess it depends.

Clearly, we don’t enjoy waiting in/on line.  Okay, maybe the latter is just me getting older but I’m not entirely convinced.  This is partly because of how popular it’s become to buy your tickets in advance and print out a reserved seating bar code you can just scan at the door, and partly because of the new subset of people who actually make a modest to decent living being paid to wait in line for all sorts of things by those wealthy or clever enough to avoid any form of human interaction they deem to be unnecessary.

See: The Cronut black market

See: The Cronut black market

Of course, both movies and movie theatres are far different today than they were in the early 1970s – a time period that is now looked on as a bit of a cinematic golden age.  And even if we ARE excited at the anticipation of going out to see a new film, forty years ago we didn’t have the option of watching it at home via a decent size screen of our own on exactly the same day the rest of those poor suckas or cooler than cool Manhatttanites (take your pick) were braving,  well – the cold.  Not to mention their fellow man.

All of this being the case, I decided to try a little experiment this weekend.

  1. Take two films I was looking forward to seeing that were BOTH opening theatrically on Friday (Yes, I know upfront neither one will come close to The Exorcist)
  2. Watch one at a movie theatre where I buy a ticket, wait in line at the entrance and the snack stand, and view it with strangers sitting next to me in the dark.
  3. Watch the other at home upstairs on my own 52-inch screen (yes, size DOES matter), sprawled across my big red couch and munching an array of my own snacks as loudly as I please.
  4. And try to determine which experience is more enjoyable.

THE FILMS:

AT THE MOVIE THEATRE

Elysium – Starring Matt Damon & Jodie Foster, Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp.

Elysium – Starring Matt Damon & Jodie Foster, Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp.

Pre-movie assessment: A big action movie with smarts and a story by the filmmaker who did the superb District 9.  It promises to be what we now commonly call a real movie movie, employing all the bells and whistles of today’s technology.  Also, both of its stars lean towards playing real characters involved in at least a semblance of a story.  It demands leaving your crib.

AT HOME

Lovelace – Starring Amanda Seyfried & Peter Sarsgaard.  Directed by Jeffrey Friedman & Rob Epstein.  Written by Andy Bellin.

Lovelace – Starring Amanda Seyfried & Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Jeffrey Friedman & Rob Epstein. Written by Andy Bellin.

Pre-movie assessment: A small character film directed by two guys who made the Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (among others), but this time about another aspect of that changing time in the seventies they both lived through and understand.  A period movie about the star of the most famous porn film ever made that is set in my youth and co-stars Sharon Stone as the uptight mother of a porn queen who grew up in not too far away Yonkers, NYI am soooo on my red couch for this one.

Here’s what happened:

Elysium at the Movies

I’d like to report that theatrical filmgoing is alive and well and not going anywhere but I can’t.  Not that this was an awful experience and not that the movie, itself was awful.  But they weren’t particularly special either.

Elysium is one of those films that should be great but isn’t.  It’s better than average, which is far preferable to being bad.  Technically it delivers well, the acting is all around very good, and for an original screenplay the story is fairly original.   It has some depth as it explores a particularly dystopic future world of the have and have-nots, plus, in the tradition of the best of sci-fi films, it attempts to be politically relevant (its issue is immigration) even though it doesn’t entirely succeed.  Okay, points for trying and bigger points for not bowing to the ridiculous and laughable in order to shoot off a few more special effects (are you listening Man of Steel?).

Looking at you Mr. Cavill

Looking at you Mr. Cavill

So why am I not at least a little excited?  Because that’s not enough to pry people out of their pods these days.  Sorry, it just isn’t.  District 9 was a bizarre alien story done documentary style that came out of nowhere and seemed to be accidentally relevant – a discovery.  Elysium screams big movie, teases us with a story, and then never delivers with enough clever twists and turns/depth of character or – and I hate that I’m saying this – particularly spectacular special effects.  Not to mention, Man of Steel has grossed more than a third of a billion (that’s with a “B”) dollars worldwide being mediocre.  In order to dissuade studios from giving us more than movie theatre mediocrity, bigger original movies have to exceed the bar of just sort of good.

As for the movie theatre experience itself, here’s what I got.  No line to buy a seat and only one couple ahead of me on a line inside to scan my credit card and print out my reserved seat.  The theatre lobby was huge – huge enough for groups of people to talk amongst themselves and to no one else they didn’t know.

Not too shabby.

Not too shabby.

The theatre itself was fairly clean, though not spotless.   It was mostly full but not sold out, probably due to the fact that Elysium was also playing on two of its other 12 screens just a handful of yards away.  Excitement in the air?  Not really, especially after watching eight trailers (yes, 8!).  The biggest in-theatre audience reaction trailer– Jackass presents Bad Grandpa. (Note:  I didn’t laugh once).  Only film even mildly interesting-looking to me:  George Clooney’s Monuments Men, though I can’t say it’s a must-see.

My seat was comfortable, no one near me was on their cell phone or felt the need to talk to their neighbor and raked seating plus a polite crowd guaranteed I had a full view of the show.  The sound was excellent, the screen was big and my popcorn was stale.  Was it worth venturing out of the house?  Eh.  I don’t regret it but I wouldn’t run to do it again if I can’t get even a contact high of crowd excitement on opening night.

Final Verdict:  I wasn’t expecting anything close to The Exorcist yet it wasn’t even close to the fun level I was expecting.

Final Grade: B or B minus – depending on how generous I’m feeling at the moment.

Lovelace At Home

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Perhaps Boogie Nights has forever set the bar too high for films about players in the porn industry or maybe fiction is, indeed, stranger and more interesting than the truth.  Whatever the case, the creation and travails of Linda Lovelace as a sort of lens into the changing social mores of the seventies is a ripe idea that never quite…blossoms?  Explodes?  The metaphors are endless.  Still, it’s another case of okay to good but not great.

Amanda Seyfried is convincing, Peter Sarsgaard as her awful husband is sleazy enough to make you want to take three showers (and you can, because you’re at home), while James Franco (the original choice for the part of the husband) has thankfully been bumped down to a brief bit playing Hugh Heffner that doesn’t do much.  Sharon Stone in a sexless black wig as the somewhat sexless bleak mother of the decade’s biggest star of sex is believable – which I suppose is some sort of achievement since Sharon Stone was a bit of a legitimate sex goddess herself two decades later.  But is what we’re believing all that interesting?  Not particularly, or perhaps not particularly enough.

The filmmakers capture the time period perfectly; the movie’s well made on a fairly low budget and it’s never boring.  But neither is it ever exhilarating or exciting or frightening enough.  You get the feeling you’re watching a cable movie not because you’re viewing it at home on television but due to the fact that its style, substance and/or storytelling doesn’t grab you in the way a theatrical feature about porn – say Boogie Nights  – needs to.  Lovelace is amply watchable but it never compels you – most certainly it isn’t compelling enough to view outside the comfort of your own home on the big screen.  Which is a shame.

* Not my living room, but can't beat a movie night with Bette.

* Not my living room, but how could I not post a movie night with Bette?

I had some frozen yogurt early on, paused the TV to go to the bathroom once, and then concluded towards the end of the film with some green tea and a power bar.  The sound and picture at home very good – not as great as the movie theatre and not as big (hey, we’re talkin’ porn here!) but still very good.  Especially for a film that is not big on visual effects but merely big on visuals.

Note:  It’s about as easy as it can be to watch a film VOD (video on demand).  I mean, seriously – you type in your choice of film on the search function of pay movies, it comes up, you push the button and, for $7.99 you get it for two days.  How much would it cost in a movie theatre?  Double that price, plus add for refreshments, parking and combat pay if you’ve got noisy neighbors.

VOD oh yeah!

VOD oh yeah!

Final Verdict:  For a movie about sex, I got more thrills, albeit of a different kind, from The Exorcist than from Lovelace.  I don’t think it’s unfair to say that somehow I expected more.  Though it was sort of fun to relive the seedy seventies and, the more that I think about it, the more I want to say that Sarsgaard plays a superb scuzzbucket, if you can stand it.

Final Grade:  B or B minus, depending on how generous I’m feeling at the moment.  Yes, that’s the same grade as the previous film and no, that’s not a typo.

Conclusion:

It’s not that the screens that are getting smaller and more private, it’s the films that are getting more undemanding, less exciting and to a whole new level of oddly generic.  A lot is made about the circumference of your tablet or the quality, sight and sound of you and your venue.  Yet it’s not about that at all.  The only thing this experiment has taught me is what I’ve always known.  In the end it’s all about what you’re watching – not how you’re watching it.  In deference to Marshall McLuhan – the medium is not the message – the message still is.   At least to me and a few select others who remember a time when that wasn’t the case and long for a time when it will be again.  But perhaps we’re dinosaurs.

Love it AND Hate it

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You can hate something you love or love something you hate.  For instance, in my twenties I used to periodically LOVE watching televangelists Jim and Tammy Baker crazy talk their version of God and morality to the masses while simultaneously HATING them and every misguided piece of religious bile that spewed out of their hypocritical mouths.  What does this say about me?  That I’ll sink lower than the approval ratings of Congress (and then some) for a laugh AND I will even do it gaily at my own expense.

Truth be told, I fully support the right of pretty much any nut job who manages a way onto the airwaves to have their say just as I vehemently advocate for the right to hurl poison pen insults from the peanut gallery directly at them and their nether regions if I so choose.  Of course, sometimes a handful of those wackos and media whores of the moment are mentally ill and, in that case, all bets are off. Which particularly pains me since Kathleen Taylor, a renowned Oxford University researcher and author specializing in neuroscience, predicted last week during a talk on the brain that we might soon see a proven link between religious fundamentalism and mental illness.

Yes, I'm looking at you, Lonesome Rhodes

Yes, I’m looking at you, Lonesome Rhodes

This all brings me to my favorite TV reality judge (and overexposed rock star) Adam Levine (Note: Yes, I love Adam even as I sometimes hate tire of him).  Fearing the two best singers he mentored all season as a coach on NBC’s #1-rated show The Voice would indeed be voted off the program by the masses (nee viewers) who had the time and thought to phone in and be counted in the final vote tally, America’s #1 Jewish front man (that’s Adam, not me) decided to tell the truth and utter these four words:

“I Hate This Country.”

Uh, oh.

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If we were all brutally honest, we would all admit that in times of stress or perceived injustice we all have said or thought something similar or far worse:

For example:

“I HATE YOU, _____________________”

Mom

Dad

Sibling

Spouse (Fill in the name)

Lover (Fill in the name of your choice after they cheated on you)

Friend (Fill in the name of your choice after they cheated on you with your lover or spouse or both)

This, of course, does not mean that we really HATE any of those treasured people in our lives aside from in that moment in time (well, maybe we cut the friend.. right?).  Just as it doesn’t mean that Adam Levine hates the good ole red, white and blue any more than his fellow judge, country and western star Blake Shelton, loves it.

Let's have them duke it out!

Let’s have them duke it out!

I happen to know this is true because in the last two or three decades I have said I hate this country publicly, oh, at least a dozen times (though not on NBC because they haven’t booked me yet). More than half of those times were in the eighties and nineties during the Reagan/AIDS era.  A few more came after George W. Bush got elected and re-elected.  Another couple had to do with young people being bullied and a few more – well, I forget.

Like any opinionated fella in 2013, Mr. Levine instantly took to Twitter and defended himself with humor – brushing off his remarks as an impromptu joke.  But hundreds (thousands?) tweeted back to him and NBC that he was un-American (one twit even suggesting Navy Seal Team 6 be sent after him) and should be fired.  Then some fair and balanced wags at Fox weighed in with similar thoughts, prompting Mr. Levine to issue still yet another statement:  “I obviously love my country very much and my comments were made purely out of frustration.”

This last mea culpa is sort of like the kind you give to your parents, friends and lovers  — but without the accompanying tears, back patting or make-up sex.

As for me and my anti-American words, there will be no apology.  Formal or otherwise.  The last time I checked the only thing you can really be put in jail for saying in the United States is Fire! in a crowded movie theatre or any sort of perceived threat against the President.

You can also add choosing "List It" to my list of crimes. #AlwaysLoveHillary

You can also add choosing “List It” to my list of crimes. #AlwaysLoveHillary

Or, perhaps, if I had my way, singing Merle Haggard’s reactionary, right wing country classic from 1969, Okie From Muskogee, on network television – which was what happened on Monday night’s edition of The Voice.

Don’t remember the lyrics?  Well, here are the first four lines:

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee

We don’t take our trips on LSD

We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street;

We like livin’ right, and bein’ free….

Yet Adam Levine, who has been often said to smoke a joint or two , could this week only beam and nod in approval at that Muskogie moment.  Maybe it was because he liked the song or, more likely, maybe it was because he was afraid not to like the song.  I have no idea.  But then again, for a $10 million plus paycheck for each Voice cycle I too might even be silenced by the possibility of a red state America backlash getting in the way of my retirement fund.

For the record, there are many, many things about this country I do love.  New York City, the Pacific Ocean, the view from my upstairs window, kitchen supply stores, driving with the top down in my car with the heat on in 55-65 degree weather, and the right to write anything I damn please without having some idiot redcoat (or any other color coat) comin’ a knockin’ at my door and dragging me to a cyber-age Siberian prison never to be heard from again.

But that doesn’t mean that at one point or another I don’t also dislike, or even hate all of the above.  I spent some time on vacation last week in 90-degree/900% humidity New York that in that moment made me despise the city and everything about it even as I still loved (as I always have) its Broadway shows and hot pretzels.

These pretzels are making me thirsty!

These pretzels are making me thirsty!

I also hated my convertible car last year when the battery died twice in a month, one in the middle of busy intersection.  Just as I positively loathe the Pacific Ocean on windy summer days like today when I can’t figure out whether my sinuses or the brush in the Inland Empire burn with greater intensity.

The point is – no one should ever take at face value anything that is said, or even read, in this world.  There is a context, an underside, a nuance, or even an accompanying explanation to everything you hear, see or read.  You are not obligated to seek it out but none of us can rightly deny that it doesn’t exist.  I mean, even I know in my heart of hearts that there is something good about mashed potatoes and peas despite the fact that the sight of them together on my dinner plate inevitably makes me gag.

Which brings me to the newest food craze sweeping New York  – the Cronut.

Behold.. THE CRONUT.

Behold.. THE CRONUT.

A combination croissant and doughnut, these very sweet somethings are the invention of French pastry chef Dominique Ansel and are THE new must have for anyone who is anyone in the city (Note: the previous sentence could easily be read by my beloved Stefon).   People wait online in front of Mr. Ansel’s Soho bakery each morning starting at approximately 5am (he opens at 8) to get one of the precious 200 or so Cronuts he bakes each day.  You can buy up to six of them in a day (they are sold to you in a gold box if you do so), you can’t reserve them ahead of time (Anderson Cooper tried and was refused while Hugh Jackman was rumored to have waited in line) and there are Craig’s List professional shoppers who you can hire to stand in line and deliver your Cronuts personally to you if you pony up $30-$40 per pastry for the pleasure.

Given all of the this, is it any wonder that I decided ahead of time that I LOVE and had to have my very own Cronut on my recent NYC trip?  Well, that is until I saw a photo of one close-up and realized it had a weird gooey cream oozing out of its center which immediately made me nauseous.  Like really sort of sick.  Cause I’m more of a chocolate cake kind of guy.  Always was.  Which in turn leads me to admit that I HATE Cronuts and the elitist idea of them.  At least for now.  Or until I taste one.  At that point, it can go either way.