Films evolve, on a grand scale, when the way people watch them changes.
From the silent era to the demise of the studio system, movies were for the people. “Cinema was the luxury of the poor,” said French critic Serge Daney.1 Attendance peaked during the Great Depression–when sixty percent of the population went to the movies every week on average–and spiked again during World War II, then fell off sharply with the fall of the studios. Since 1965, about one in ten Americans goes to the movies every week.2
If, as Robert Fripp says, a crowd‘s quality of attention affects the music at a concert,3 then how we watch movies–whether alone or with a partner, in public or in private–changes their content in the long run. Watching something on a laptop by yourself can be like not seeing it at all; the perversion of the small screen is to pretend to console you with company (“life‘s parade at your fingertips”) while in effect alienating you from the human community. NetFlix, like television, is a product of high capitalism, a result of workers alienated from labor, isolated by product; and like TV, it can be a way to keep from seeing.
To look for solace or escape in entertainment is to put a band-aid on a gaping wound. For me, loneliness is an imperative that, for a time, expressed itself as a disease called cinephilia; it snuck up on me when lights were low; now, it compels me to fill my life with people and activity, but then, at the intersection of intro- and extroversion, when I didn’t want to go out but couldn’t stay in, going to the movies was a beautiful way to be alone with people. “It‘s as if movies answer an ancient quest for the collective unconscious,” said Martin Scorsese. “They fulfill a need that people have to share a common memory.”4
The point of this column will be to talk with folks about how they watch movies, in hopes that mundane activity, narrated, might slowly turn into living oral history, or if nothing else, be a way to avoid the tedium of opinion just long enough to get at the real world context and circumstances behind the judgments we make. “When people do a history of cinema, they do it using the films only,” said Jean-Luc Godard. “But you should also be able to do it using the way viewers watch films.”5
Orientation, Hampshire College, August 2001. John Dailey, a witty first-year with blue hair, a great jawline, and a photographic memory, is impressed that I just saw Bubble Boy and Summer Catch in the theater. Or at all. I wear a black t-shirt and black sport coat every day, and when he asks if I wear the same ones over and over, I tell him I have an entire closet full of them, when in actuality there‘s just the one outfit, purchased on a whim after I saw Ben Affleck wear it in Bounce. For John and I, that year was defined by playing a mute and a butler, respectively, in a Tom Stoppard play and watching First Blood on a laptop backstage during every performance; skipping class to drink whiskey in the dorms and watch Pearl Harbor on VHS; and just generally being good-for-nothings who lived, breathed, and ate cinema. It was the beginning of bootiful friendship.
Do you remember the first movie you saw in a theater?
I remember that I saw Bambi and I can remember seeing Jetsons: The Movie. Actually, I feel like I remember more like being told that I saw Bambi but the date checks out, the reissue date. But I can remember seeing Jetsons and coming home and my parents were painting the trim of my living room.
When you go to the movies, where do you sit?
Now I always sit on the right side of [my girlfriend] Robin. Always. That‘s just how we sit; it‘s how we sleep, it‘s where we sit. On the chairlift this weekend, I was like, “you gotta get on this side.” So, that‘s important…
The Garden has hot spots where you need to sit; the screen is tilted this way and half the seats are over here—I‘m sittin‘ pretty much dead center. I‘ll sit in the front row if the front row isn‘t a neck-breaker. If I‘m high–which I rarely am anymore–I want to sit as close as possible, so it‘s like Ben Hur, I have no periphery, it‘s all in my face, it feels like I‘m wearing blinders. But since I don‘t do that a lot anymore, I‘m more comfortable sitting farther back. I‘m pretty flexible, there aren‘t many seats that I would reject. I don‘t ever want the person I‘m watching a movie with to be miserable. Ever.
If I show a person a movie that I love, and they‘re not feelin‘ it, it‘s time to shut the movie off. I‘m not totally affected by what critics think or what my friends think but if somebody says something that hits home with me, it can make me kinda wish I hadn‘t heard it. It‘s like that Carly Simon song where she says, we tell each other everything but I wish I didn‘t know all of your secrets. Like, my girlfriend doesn‘t like Wes Anderson, I think mostly cuz she likes her movies grounded in reality or completely fantastic—she said it better than I could but she made a point that made me go, awwww.
Have you ever dated someone who didn‘t like movies?
Long term, no. I‘ve dated people who weren‘t as familiar with movies as I was, as I‘m sure you have. But somebody who didn‘t like them? I don‘t know how that‘s possible.
Are you more open to, say, movies your girlfriend loves that you‘ve never seen before?
No. We had a disastrous screening of Now and Then, which was one of her favorite movies. That didn‘t really do anything for me, and I actually haven‘t finished it and I feel guilty.
Was that a favorite from her childhood?
Because that can be dangerous, showing someone something you loved when you were a kid…
…but haven‘t seen since.
Oh no, she‘s seen it a million times.
Maybe she can‘t separate the movie from the experience she re-captures every time she watches it.
I always liked Ghost World but I realized the sheer brilliance of Ghost World because of her. When we started dating, the first movie we ever watched together was Rosemary‘s Baby. If you can watch that… well, now we‘re talkin‘.
Isn‘t that your favorite movie?
Absolutely. And then she came back at me with Tod Browning‘s Freaks, was the second movie we watched. That was huge. I‘d never seen it.
There‘s things that you talk about a lot that I slowly bring into my understanding of movies, such as the ‘polite three-star review‘…
I think you quote that much more than I ever did.
And that seems to actually be your M.O.
What, giving polite three-star reviews?
Watching movies that could get them. You were watching Demolition Man when I came over. You watched the Fast series.
The quotation is: “I always chide myself to be tougher and to stay away from what I call the “polite” three-star review, a recommendation of a marginal film that upon reflection I might not really wish upon a friend.”
Who said that?
OK. That sounded like Gene Siskel, and that‘s what I would‘ve guessed. In my head I was like, “that‘s not Ebert.” Because [giving polite three-star reviews] was totally Ebert; that‘s why everybody loves Ebert.
Nobody loves Siskel.
I feel like you and I have been gravitating toward three-star movies because we tend to watch things that neither of us has seen or that we might struggle to watch on our own.
We gravitate more towards IMDB 5.6s, I think. We gravitate towards two-star movies (two out of four) that one of us might latch onto for god knows why, which sometimes makes for interesting—sometimes it feels like a waste of time, it feels like I‘d rather have done something else, but there aren‘t many people that want to do that, take that risk and watch that kind of movie with somebody else, especially sober—I say sober because getting drunk isn‘t the same as getting high. You get high and watch a movie, every movie has something.
And that‘s how you and I started watching movies. We started out, we could find something in anything. I mean, not quite anything, I still don‘t remember Incubus… there‘s always gonna be a black hole now and then.
I don‘t know, do we need to go back? Are we losin‘ somethin‘ special?
I mean, not to Incubus, no way!
Our movie-watching has evolved. We made some weird choices, stickin‘ to your guns with Walter Hill or not stickin‘ to ‘em with Godzilla, or this or that. I feel like baby tangents are our best tangents, because there aren‘t many worthy anythings, unless we were gonna, like, watch every movie that Cary Grant was in, that would turn out fine.
Watching a movie with somebody else changes the rules. I can watch At Long Last Love by Peter Bogdanovich by myself and forgive everything. I can watch it with you and maybe not forgive as much; maybe forgive as much—maybe I actually like that movie…
Like, 1941, for instance, is the opposite, maybe, is less forgivable alone. If you watch that by yourself, it‘s more of a beard-stroker, where you‘re like, Michael Kahn‘s editing… the comedic timing is really funny, when they pour the coffee all over everything is really funny, but if we hadn‘t been together, you wouldn‘t have laughed as hard. I wouldn‘t have laughed as hard. You wouldn‘t have necessarily rewound this or that.
Comedy‘s always better with other people. Most movies are, but comedy especially.
Remember when you got to make a Tony Scott shelf at Video to Go [a video store where we used to work]? Circa Domino?
Sure. Shannon [the manager] didn‘t fight me on it. Shannon was like, ‘yeah, no, he‘s good.‘ The only other shelf I was fighting for was Brian De Palma, and I had to make that my Picks shelf, because he wasn‘t havin‘ it. I really like Brian De Palma.
When I first heard of De Palma, I heard that he was a garbage filmmaker. I feel like Shannon must watch his movies and see film school in action, and I don‘t see that, I see the craft being mastered.
Do you cry at the movies?
Now I‘m becoming even more of a softie than ever before; love makes me cry, death makes me cry, all the things that make everybody cry, is makin‘ me cry now. Cinematic greatness, as I see it, makes me well up.
What is entertainment? What is pleasure?
North By Northwest. There‘s no greater pleasure than watching that film. I could watch it right now, no problem.
John Dailey lives in Greenfield, MA with his girlfriend, Robin. Together, they like to jog a 5K and reward themselves afterwards with Heady Topper. They run an Etsy store called Pioneer Valley Vintage and he works in a Mexican restaurant, as a cook with eyes in the back of his head. He recently watched seven movies in one day.
Movie Attendance Has Been On A Dismal Decline Since The 1940s, Business Insider ↩
A Personal Journey Through American Movies, Martin Scorsese ↩
Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, Jean-Luc Godard ↩