Once again, I won’t be compiling a traditional best-of list this year. Not because I witnessed any lack of satisfying, challenging, fascinating films of every stripe in 2008. (To the contrary, to thumb through my reviews and screening log entries for the year is to recall the wealth of enjoyment I’ve taken in the movies for the last twelve months.) But one of my favorite things about being a reader and writer of this site is that it so generously allows for rewatching, rethinking – rewinding – and these year-end round-ups feel terribly final. (In July, Beck offered Entertainment Weekly a list of the top ten reasons why he couldn’t provide them with a musical top ten covering the past quarter century. At number three: “I just don’t really think hierarchically, you know?” I do.) But it does seem right to take a moment to pause and reflect at the end of a year, and it’s indeed the joy of making a cinematic discovery, or rediscovery, that’s on my mind as 2009 looms.
A great deal of ink has been spilled over the culture of the opening weekend, the mindset that encourages the measurement of a film’s worth in the amount of cash it can rake in in three days, and the assessment of an actor’s powers based on his or her ability to open big. It’s a troubling trend, to be sure, one that turns movies, and the people who create them, into disposable entities. That mentality is echoed elsewhere--contrast the automated video rental vending machines popping up around the country, ready to spit out new releases with the press of a button, with traditional video stores where patrons could browse and wander, likely to stumble across something obscure, and weird, and even wonderful. But even as that one-use, amnesiac attitude toward film was troublingly present in various incarnations throughout the year, it was countered by an almost-unconscious, but quite persistent, tug in the other direction.
Even as video rental stores around the country continued to fold in breathtaking numbers, victims of the digital technology that’s transforming (and terrifying) the music and television industries as well, January saw The New York Times reporting on the nostalgia that two generations of moviegoers are prone to feeling for VHS tape. Times scribe Dennis Lim observed the fetishistic affinity for analog that united Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind and Garth Jennings’ underrated Son of Rambow this year, and reminded readers that chunky plastic tapes “changed the economics of the film industry and shaped the viewing patterns that we take for granted today. Swaths of film history became available for home consumption, as studios dug into their vaults; a movie could be watched repeatedly or at the viewer’s chosen pace. The ownership and control we now assume over our media diet originated with VHS and VCRs.” But there’s more to these backward looks than an appreciation of how VHS presaged a future of TiVo and On-Demand.
When the British movie magazine Empire published a list of the “500 Greatest Movies of All Time” in its November issue, it featured a write-up on Citizen Kane that acknowledged the film’s technical prowess but questioned if the film could be “a friend for life.” On a list crowded with films like The Goonies, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Evil Dead II, eighties touchstones that became friends for life for countless cinephiles through repeat viewings on VHS, the question was a revealing one. (Perhaps similarly revealing: the release, after nearly twenty years, of a fourth Indiana Jones film, and the unquashable rumors of sequels for pretty much every other eighties fave I’ve listed above.) VHS culture wasn’t about seeing awe-inspiring technical feats thirty feet high, like we might in a cinema, and it wasn’t about gobbling up loads of content before depositing it in our Recycle Bin, the way we can (both legally and illegally) on our computers. It was about making new friends and hugging them close in a keepsake clamshell case. When we browsed the video store shelves weren’t looking for the latest diversion. We were looking for love.
We at Not Coming to a Theater Near You spent October on our annual 31 Days of Horror feature, making our selections of which films to write on this year exclusively by delving into a VHS collection of little-seen horror flicks and watching and reviewing them without conducting any outside research. “The end result is an attempt to reprise the now outmoded practice of browsing--to select without the burden of outside information, to watch with little knowledge of what you’re going to see, and to ensure the potential for discovery,” our own Thomas Scalzo wrote in his introduction to the piece. It was a refreshing experience to take part in, and in truth, I’ve gotten a little bit more wary of researching films before watching them in the past few months. I still love IMDb; I’m just more likely to check out Zombie High’s 3.7 user rating after the fact these days.
I’ve written a lot about video store culture here--strolling into a store decorated by eye-popping posters and cardboard cutouts of the Toxic Avenger, and chatting with the clerk about the new releases, or hitting them up for a recommendation. I believe that some of that culture has drifted onto the web, both on this site and elsewhere, but while video store culture was defined by discovery, film culture on the web is too-often defined by hyperactively seizing upon information about upcoming films only to preemptively dismiss them.
Consider Quentin Tarantino, who famously got his start as a clerk at Manhattan Beach’s Video Archives before becoming one of our most well known directors. Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs had a splashy run on the festival circuit and a respectable run in arthouse theaters, but really made its name on videocassette. (I still associate the original, lurid VHS cover artwork for Reservoir Dogs – all shiny guns and blood-splattered lettering – closely with the film. It’s about as likely to spring to mind as the actual images contained on that fat black tape.) It was a viral hit before “viral” was a marketing buzzword, well suited to the rewind button (that Mexican stand-off launched a thousand freeze-frames) and VHS’ not-quite-reputable allure.
Fast-forward a decade and a half. Tarantino didn’t release a film in 2008, but his work-in-progress, Inglorious Bastards, had the web buzzing for much of the year. Purported copies of the long-rumored film’s screenplay were leaked and widely read, triggering fans to criticize Tarantino’s casting choices before a frame was of the picture was lensed, and even causing journalists to protest the film’s controversial content before the film actually existed. Whether Inglorious Bastards actually turns out to be miscast, or offensive, or good or bad or indifferent in 2009 is beside the point. The point is we should probably let them shoot the thing before we decide.
It was not my intention to write a mournful piece as my farewell to 2008, and I hope that I haven’t. In the past year I’ve witnessed shifts both welcome and unwelcome in film culture, and enjoyed the benefits of new technologies as much as I’ve found myself resisting some of their side effects. Through it all, it’s been an immense comfort knowing that there are other movie lovers out there who still have the desire to have their expectations defied, to uncover hidden gems, to make friends for life.