Understanding the cinematic pursuit into which I was thrust, insofar as my New York life is concerned, requires a brief understanding of the viewing conditions of the long-ago time of 2003. This was the first time I saw a repertory movie in New York: L’age d’Or at Anthology. I was a sophomore at NYU at the time. This was soon followed by The Manchurian Candidate at Film Forum; both viewings qualified as filling in gaps in The Canon. L’age d’Or was my first exposure to the idea that a film, essentially unavailable via home video, could be seen projected on 35mm rather than remain elusive. From 2005 (when my comprehensive records begin) through 2016, I saw 2,659 movies in the theater. Mostly older ones, and nearly all because I wanted to have a nice few hours of quiet observance, contemplation and inspiration.
My largest switch occurred not in 2007 (when I decided that my arrogant bias against any new film was lifted and I once again started seeing more than a minimal number of mainstream films) but around 2011 when I realized that the most rewarding thing to do in a movie theater is to have a good time. The more I made films and traveled to festivals with them, the more respect and interest I had in the pursuit of A Good Time At The Movies. Suddenly depleted to nothing was my desire to force myself out into unforgiving weather in pursuit of something I “should see,” replaced and growing daily with a willingness to, I guess, “lower” my standards and focus only on films I “want to see.” A novel concept this is not, but forsaking pretention brought with it a renewed sense of what I was doing with my leisure time, and it wasn’t anything
Like most chronic conditions, cinephilia affects people slowly and is generally incurable. In a city like New York, it takes hold when you realize that watching films in the theater is more enjoyable than viewing the same films at home, and goes past the point of no return when you find yourself committing to a complete retrospective of anything which you knew nothing about prior to its first screening and never actively sought out previously. That was me, for years, and then it wasn’t anymore. I had already proven my bona fides to anybody who dared question them, attending 35mm screenings of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Out 1 (twice!), Satantango and Near Death. So what. So have lots of people. But when programming in New York shifted to the then-underserviced population of “low cinema” connoisseurs, my allegiances changed almost entirely.
Starting in about 2012, the volume of 35mm screenings for what can be classified as ‘VHS movies’ exploded. Previously neglected genres such as horror, porn, kung fu and exploitation opened up as viable and robustly attended viewing possibilities. This tradition of cinema must not be neglected. Un-canonized as it is, the way to preserve and maintain ‘low cinema’ was once exclusively via home video. With that no longer an option, in an odd twist of fate, 35mm viewing may be the last bastion of hope for marginalized and wrongly disrespected films. The L’age d’Ors of the world have (mostly) been rescued, restored and reissued. Not so for the films which never even merited an upgrade to DVD.
I was in Los Angeles last October and somebody asked me if I knew about ‘this new theater in New York.’ They were talking about Metrograph, and I replied that I am there several times a week. “What kind of movies do they play?” I was asked. “Movies you want to see and movies you don’t yet know you want to see,” was my answer. Filmgoing is, like anything worthwhile and culturally enriching, perpetually threatened by whatever new noise comes along to drown it out. It’s not lost on me that the first things I saw at Metrograph were a handful of Frederick Wiseman films followed by a weekend of kung fu. What joy it was to familiarize myself with a new theater by rewatching documentary masterpieces I hadn’t seen for years, followed by Sammo Hung. Going to the movies, for a brief time before I righted my mind, felt like homework. This is the essence of cinephelia and I believe it is a dead end: one that will fail to inspire all but the most radical young movie lovers to devote their lives to watching, considering, writing about or making movies. Sadly, ‘movie lover’ or ‘film buff’ are pathetically dumb sounding terms, so those like me are left without demarcation.
My biggest problem with adjusting to the existence of cinema within the modern technological society we live in is that I remember when each movie I watched was something special. A VHS held in my hands. A television broadcast time committed to memory and planned around. One trip to the theater per week. What I began to feel when my sole mission was to cram as many films into my eyeballs every day was likely akin to what a computer-proficient teenager feels when downloading a hundred films, three of which will make a lasting impression. It’s just too much. The whole idea was to prove something irrelevant to myself, to see as much of a retrospective as logistically possible.
This, for me, became somewhat unfun. The only challenge was to beat my own record year after year. That’s not important anymore. My mission is now to go to the movies when I want and when I am quite certain that I will have a good time, on one level or another. These words are not a declaration of universal fact. If a twenty film series of an unknown entity makes you happy and is your idea of a nice time, please go see that. Just make sure that the movies are entertaining and fun first and foremost, whatever your idea of that is. •
Alex Ross Perry is the director of five feature films, most recently Golden Exits.