Ten months into the never-ending nightmare that is the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m exhausted, adrift in a world gone mad with cruel, inept politicians, conflicting social-media messaging, selfish, belligerent anti-maskers, and death. I’ve dealt with several deaths in my family, resulting in grief, anger, depression, apathy, and fluctuating weight (discovering 7-11 on a food-delivery app while one is stoned isn’t a good thing). My home province, Alberta, has one of the highest COVID-19 rates in Canada, as the provincial government, led by a man who reminds me constantly of shirtless, will-pimp-himself-for-cheeseburgers Randy from Trailer Park Boys, cares more about the economy than the citizenry, so I’m more than ready for a New Year’s Eve prescription of Prosecco–feed it directly into my veins!
I still walk to my office for work, but I’m alone (at least I keep the lights on to create the illusion of a normal work environment—there were a few weeks of working by computer-monitor light, which made me feel like an Internet troll in his parents’ basement at best, and a pedophile at worst); my work attire consists of jeans or khakis, Grumpire t-shirts (shameless plug, but also very true), and Doc Martens. Being a naturally-bred homebody, I haven’t felt the pain as much as others who enjoy a rich, varied social life, but I do miss hanging out with friends at my local pub, the Ship and Anchor, and going to the local art-house cinema, The Globe—I’m hoping both make it through the pandemic intact. As soon as vaccines are the norm, I’ve vowed to get plastered, shitfaced, tanked, juiced–whatever you want to call public drunkenness in all its glorious debauchery—at the Ship and Anchor, gorging on their delicious, deep-fried pickles, as The Pixies serenade my repellent, post-pandemic display of excess. Films and TV shows seem to be an ideal escape, and I have a large physical-media library to last me several decades (I’ve lost count after the first 1000 Blu-Rays), but I fear I’ve lost the will to keep my mind sharp with challenging cinema: “Escape” is the optimum word. I have always appreciated the breadth of cinema, regardless of genre, time period, or nationality, but in 2020 I feel like I’ve thrown my hands up and surrendered to films’ simple pleasures and have become a lazy cinephile–Hell, I don’t think I can even use the term cinephile in good conscience anymore (“Passive Watcher of Comforting Films Lacking Substance” is a more apt title).
To date, I have watched 255 films in 2020, which is shocking to me—it’s the most I’ve seen in a calendar year—and I’m not a film critic! Films can be a wonderful momentary escape, but I feel in my case, 255 escapes in a 365-day year to be excessive. I want to be clear: I’m not judging anybody else for watching a similar number of movies (or greater) in any given year—I cite my viewing habits to highlight my poor coping skills, as I haven’t done a very good job dealing with my grief or stress. I’ve watched movies to either fill a void or to distract me from uncomfortable feelings—the medium has been neither art nor entertainment for me and that’s got to change. I’ve also ignored thought-provoking cinematic fare out of laziness and fear. This isn’t a contrarian screed disdaining classic cinema as “cultural vegetables” (whatever happened to that guy?), or judging people who enjoy genre movies—please watch and enjoy what you like and never let anybody tell you otherwise. I have always held myself to a high standard when it comes to appreciating the arts, be it literature, theatre, visual art, or film, so it’s dispiriting to recognize that my French New Wave Criterion Blu-rays sit on a shelf apparently only for display—why there’s more of Jean-Luc Picard in my regular rotation than of Jean-Luc Godard!
There is room for both Vinegar Syndrome and the Criterion Collection to co-exist happily in cinephiles’ collections, but I’ve been taking the easy way out and avoided films that require putting in a modicum of mental effort. I can blame 2020, but if I’m being honest, it’s been happening for a few years now. My beloved, long-suffering partner pointed out (quite correctly) that I’m more amenable to watching the first two Pitch Perfect movies (replete with the godawful “We’re Back Pitches” tagline) than I am for the latest Thomas Vinterberg film, Another Round. I’ve forgotten how many years it’s been since she asked me to watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (okay, it’s been 12 years); I’ve forgotten the number of times I’ve broken my promise to watch it, but not my shame. I’m not just lazy, but selfish—I don’t want to compromise my viewing desires and it shows clearly in my film diary for 2020. People are making lists for the best films of 2020 they’ve seen—I haven’t seen any of those films (and sorry, Jay, Sorority House Massacre wasn’t a “discovery” in 2020). I’ve become unmovable in my film viewing because I’m afraid to feel emotions while viewing—god forbid I shed a tear during Away from Her or The Diving Bell and Butterfly! I’m robbing myself of being moved emotionally by a film narrative and I cannot fathom why I’ve avoided such catharsis all year—suppressing one’s emotions is neither healthy nor sustainable over time.
I’ve eschewed art-house fare in favor of horror movies, my favorite genre, because I’m anesthetized by the comfort of an atmospheric supernatural thriller or a mindless slasher with a high body-count I’ve seen countless times because I don’t have to worry that I’ll engage with my feelings; it’s fast-food cinema—it goes down easily and is quickly forgotten. I remember being overly excited when Scream Factory’s massive Friday the 13th box set arrived in my mailbox in October (I used Christmas 2019 Amazon gift cards to pre-order the set as an early birthday treat), but watching twelve entries of hacking and slashing at Camp Crystal Lake (or Vancouver posing as New York City) did little to appease my gnawing discontent. That’s not an indictment on the genre—I’ve just relied too much on horror movies to pacify my bouts of depression. While there have been rare, lucid moments in raving about Host or His House, I’ve done the genre a disservice by using it as a security blanket (I’m more Charlie Brown than Linus, but the analogy still applies), not seeking out audacious storytelling, but treating it as a virtual nanny while I lie on the couch, filled not with curiosity, but with numbness.
I haven’t leaned on horror alone—unlike Steven Soderbergh, I don’t catalogue TV shows or books (though I think I might in 2021), but I know that I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek in 2020. Not just the classic ‘60s series, my favorite, but I’ve sampled from nearly every TV iteration of the franchise (including newcomers like Discovery and Lower Decks). I’ve gotten so bad that I don’t even pull out the Blu-Rays, I watch the cropped streaming versions! Bones, I need a hypospray to cure my apathy! In times of despair–like a pandemic–what’s more comforting than the uplifting words of James T. Kirk, Orator Supreme, or Spock explaining the beauty of Vulcan’s IDIC philosophy (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations for you non-Trekkies)? I’ve watched enough Enterprise episodes that I nearly desired owning a beagle like Porthos, Captain Archer’s dog! As soothing as an idyllic vision of the future might be, going boldly where no one has gone before has done little to shake me free of lethargy.
Watching films which require greater attention used to excite me. To be drawn into a cinematic world via a skilled filmmaker’s mise en scene was alluring and to unpack its substance was a challenge I accepted gladly. I didn’t avoid international cinema—I wasn’t worried of feeling “too tired” to read subtitles on a quiet Friday night like I do now. I accept that many events in 2020 have sapped me of energy, but I’m not pushing past the fatigue and ennui to feed my mind and soul. I know I’m no longer the gleefully arrogant 25-year-old film snob, but even at 47, I need to do better. I don’t want to become that guy who works as a cubicle jockey by day, going home to an overly-processed dinner and a backlog of TMZ episodes on the PVR by night. Life without art is a dreary existence (just ask any Republican) and I refuse to go gently into that not-so-good night, thank you very much. Most of the artier fare watched this year has been because of my partner’s cajoling and I’m grateful—my love for ‘90s indie filmmaking was rekindled by revisiting Todd Solondz’s darkly comical genius in Happiness or Noah Baumbach’s achingly-honest debut, Kicking and Screaming. After a decade, I rediscovered John Mitchell Cameron’s beautiful, soulful Shortbus but did I continue to immerse myself in those type of films? No, instead I retreated and watched all six Paranormal Activity movies and the first three Amityville Horror movies. I’m nothing if not intractable.
So yeah, 255 films. I’m reminded of an Irvine Welsh short story, “Snuff” (collected in The Acid House), in which a sad, lonely man, Ian Smith, spends his off-hours from work watching movies (two to four movies a night) and crossing each one off in Halliwell’s Film Guide (in the days before IMDb, kids) after each viewing. His wife left him a year ago for being uninteresting (the narrator describes Ian as “self-contained”), he has no friends, and his co-workers call him the “Video Kid” behind his back. Once he completes watching every movie in Halliwell’s Film Guide, there’s nothing left for him, so he films his suicide on a newly-purchased video camera, recording his death by hanging. I don’t see myself in Ian, but I’ve always used the story as a cautionary tale to enjoy film as a passion, but not at the expense of my health and wellness. Sadly, I fear that I’ve taken a page from dear old Ian and shut out the outside world and compartmentalized my feelings by gorging on vast quantities of celluloid. I don’t want to subsist on a diet solely of forgettable movies—I want to embrace the medium at its best and rekindle my passion for cinema. For a cinephile, watching films shouldn’t be a rote exercise, but a joyous, immersive experience and my heart yearns to feel something, anything, when watching.
I crave variety. Horror mavens can watch slicing and dicing 24/7 and I salute their endurance if that’s what makes them happy, but I want more. I want to be able to enjoy the occasional horror film and analyze it critically, but I need to roll up my sleeves and dig into other cinematic offerings. I’ve neglected Pedro Almodovar’s wit for far too long, Mike Leigh and Shane Meadows’ bleak class struggles, the plethora of recent indie offerings from diverse new filmmakers I’ve ignored because I’m a cheap bastard (I’d rent plenty of movies back in the video-store days—not as many as poor Ian Smith—so what’s the hang-up with spending a couple of bucks on a streaming rental? Cough up the money, ya cheap screw!), and so much more. I need to shake up my viewing habits in order to recharge my critical faculties and reconnect with the cinema. Recently, I watched The Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup for the first time and howled with laughter—it was a rare moment in which I allowed a film into my heart and charm me fully. I need more experiences like that to reaffirm my passion–delving into uncharted cinematic territory will regain my holistic appreciation for the medium—there are plenty of classic film noirs and Spaghetti Westerns I have yet to see!
My film-viewing habits in 2020 have disheartened me, but I’m optimistic for the future. I know that deep inside me there still exists a cinephile who delights in rich storytelling from masterful filmmakers from all over the world. My task is to draw that part of me out again and refrain from succumbing to passivity. I need to balance artful cinema with casual fare but must never rely too much on the latter. There are so many talented writers and fellow film fans in print and online who have exemplary taste–now is the time I ought to write down their thoughtful suggestions and put in the work. Art isn’t always supposed to be easy and I need to exercise my cinephile muscles so I’m back in shape (that’s somewhat easier than shedding the extra COVID weight). While 2020 has been a lamentable, forgettable year, I recognize that I cannot blame a pandemic for all my failings. If I want to be a better person, I’ll do what it takes to be somewhat whole again. My 2021 syllabus will include classic slapstick comedies, Technicolor melodramas, dense Tarkovsky offerings, paranoid ‘70s thrillers, and so much more (and yes, there will be horror—I can’t quit my favorite genre completely). And if we all act responsibly, maybe we can revisit the darkened theatres of the cinema again sometime in 2021. It will feel unnerving to be a student again, but I think with hard work, tenacity, and a positive attitude, I’ll feel comfortable being a cinephile again. Wish me luck!