Cinema detox

Photo via Pixa Bay

This is the time of year when I am normally at my movie-geekiest. Usually by mid-April, I’ve already purchased Entertainment Weekly’s Summer Movie Preview and am plotting how to make it to all the big releases each week.

This summer, I could barely tell you what’s coming out. Like everyone else, I saw “Avengers: Infinity War” opening weekend, and I’m reasonably excited for “Incredibles 2” and “”Mission Impossible: Fallout.” But other than that? I have rarely given it much thought.

“Deadpool 2”? I liked the first well enough, but I’m fine waiting to watch it at home. “Solo”? Didn’t we just have a “Star Wars” movie? I’m sure “Ant-Man and The Wasp” will be a ton of fun, but it feels a bit anticlimactic after “Infinity War.” Honestly, this is the first summer in probably 25 years where I’m not eagerly looking forward to spending my evenings and weekends in an air-conditioned multiplex.  

It’s not just summer, though. By this point, I usually have seen enough films to put together a serviceable mid-year top 10 list. I usually see upwards of 70-100 new films in a given year. This year? I’ve only been to the theater about 8 times (which is very low for me) — and two of those were for “Black Panther.” And while I often thought my decline in moviegoing would be met with angst or depression, the truth is that I really don’t care. It wasn’t until I perused my Letterboxd account that I realized how little I’d set foot in the cinema.

So what’s happening? I can think of a few things.

A much-needed break

The first reason for my cinema detox is that I’m simply taking a much-needed break. Like I said, I’ve been obsessed with film all my life, but it really took hold in 1993, when I was a high school freshman who had his face melted by “Jurassic Park.” I was hooked from that point on. I had a subscription to “Premiere” before I had a driver’s license, and while other students were heading to amusement parks and parties on Senior Skip Day, I was sitting down to watch “The Lost World.”

As I got older, I knew I wanted to have some sort of career linked to films. I took a screenwriting course. I (very) briefly considered acting before being reminded that social anxiety and acne are bad combinations for movie stars. When I got to college and began preparing for a career in journalism, I realized I wanted to somehow write about movies. While I toiled in a call center, I kept a lengthy blog that featured my first movie reviews. In 2005, when I became a reporter, I served as the paper’s film critic, a role I continued in a freelance capacity for six years after moving to another job. Either for fledgling magazines, weekly papers or Patheos, I wrote about movies on a semi-professional basis for 13 years.

It was great. I interviewed Oscar-nominated directors, attended press screenings and participated for 10 years with the Detroit Film Critics Society. I never made much money for it and I didn’t have much acclaim, but I was able to get paid for doing something I loved. But it was also tiring, especially once kids were in the picture. Screenings took me away from home, deadlines required writing late into the night. Award season was both my favorite time of year and an exhausting logistical nightmare. Last Christmas, on top of holiday traditions, I was finishing two grad school classes, working full-time, attending screenings, co-hosting two podcasts, and catching up on last-minute screeners for year-end recognition. It was fun, but I was drained. Worse, I knew that if I continued with all of this at once, it was going to wreak havoc on my family.

Earlier this year, the editor at the paper where I was a freelance critic informed me that their budgets were pulling back and I should push pause on sending anything in. To be honest, I was relieved. I had already taken a semester off school to decompress; having the self-imposed pressure of weekly screenings and reviews taken off me was welcome. As a result, I’ve been seeing less films. I feel a bit out of the conversation at times, but that’s okay. After 13 years in the dark, I needed a bit of sunlight. Instead of hitting the multiplex, I need a few evenings to play ball with my son, take my daughter on a wagon ride or go on a (non-movie) date with my wife. I’ve seen movies, but with less urgency. I’ve viewed things as a fan, not a critic. And the break’s been good. It’s kind of a film sabbatical, where I’m letting myself decompress, hopefully catch up on some old things, and attempt to be more well-rounded. The breather has been nice.

The IP Apocalypse

I will also be completely honest that I’m beginning to get franchise fatigue, something hard to endure when nearly every new release is part of one. On principle, I have nothing against sequels, prequels, reboots or cinematic universes. I greatly enjoy the Marvel movies and look forward to seeing the latest “Star Wars” with my wife and son.

But for years, the joy of these giant stories was their novelty. You’d spend the first half of the year with original dramas, comedies and horror movies, looking forward to the one giant event that everyone would be talking about. After a summer of nonstop events, just as your eyes were being blinded from the explosions, it was awards season, and time to enjoy richer fare.

Today, it feels like the smaller films and award contenders, while still around, are just brief gulps of air between the onslaught of brand extensions. “Black Panther” and “Ready Player One” are movies that would have been summer events 10 years ago; this year, they were warm-up acts released before Easter. Nearly every trailer promises famous (CGI) faces blowing stuff up, saving the day and cracking wise. And while a few manage to lure me in, Hollywood’s IP takeover (chronicled so well in the recent book “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies” by  Ben Fritz) is numbing. The last time I saw a film, I sat through 20 minutes of ads for other major franchises, including continuations of the saga I was there to see. Every week it seems there’s a new superhero film, cinematic universe or reboot, and it’s getting dull.

The best moments at the movies have always been the ones that come out of nowhere and surprise me with their originality. The mindblowing cool of “The Matrix.” The sublime silliness of “What We Do in the Shadows.” The intensity of “Whiplash.” Sitting down at the theater and not knowing what’s coming is a great pleasure, one we lose when every movie is a hero’s journey, a get-the-thingy chase or a “legacequel” that follows the original’s beats (it’s why “The Last Jedi,” despite being a sequel, was such a breath of fresh air). Those brushes with the new are still out there — this year’s “A Quiet Place” is a rare original hit — but overall, we’re stuck with comic book adaptations, redone Disney classics and sequels. There’s a thudding sameness that makes me weary of walking into the movie theater, especially when so much great drama and comedy is constantly available on television and streaming services each week.

Changing tastes

More than that, I wonder if I’m just having a belated brush with maturity.

I was movie-obsessed for most of my life, like I said. My calendar hinged on release dates and my conversations were peppered with factoids and trivia. I spent every weekend at the cinema or watching a DVD, sometimes for work but more often because that’s what I chose to fill the silence. While it decreased with kids and marriage, it didn’t end; my wife still has difficulty talking about films with me because she knows my tendency to launch into geekspeak and critic mode. I’ve long been a cinephile, probably to a point where it’s not always healthy.

This year, I’ve made some conscious efforts to incorporate healthy changes in my life. I’m reading through the Bible. I’m eating healthy. I’m meditating and exercising daily. None of these is related to film, but they’ve had affected my love of them all the same.

I have more energy and focus, and so I’m listening to fewer movie-review podcasts and reading fewer movie blogs because trying to consume material not as a distraction but to make me a better person. I’m going outside or spending time with my kids instead of sitting in a theater, reading instead of vegging in front of the TV. Without trying, my thoughts have begun to shift to things of more depth. I write about faith instead of film not because it’s more lucrative (because lucrative is a laugh) but because that’s just where my interests have been drawn recently.

I’m not abandoning film. I’m simply letting other interests in. After a year where that was my obsession, I’m putting it in the right place. I’m not using art as an escape for life, but as a way to process it. It’s an enhancement to living, not the reason for it. And I feel more peace and joyl than I have in years.

Coming Attractions

So what does this all mean? Am I done watching movies, writing about movies or loving movies? I hope not. As I stated above, I’m taking a break. And during that time, I’m learning to view film and pop culture in its proper context. I believe taking in these other interests and understanding that it’s okay to not spend every weekend in a movie theater or in front of a screen will actually make me better at analyzing and appreciating film. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it on a weekly basis again, but I hope to do it on a more in-depth level.

I’m planning to push myself to get back into film and culture writing here and in other areas. I have an article commissioned this summer that I’ve wanted to write for years. I’m taking a class on film theory and criticism this fall to further hone my skills. And I’m planning to use much of this summer to catch up on some of those gap films I have missed over the years. I hope to continue being involved in film writing.

And I plan on starting right here. My former “Five for Friday” column is going away and, in its place you’ll see a weekly column about film, television and pop culture. Sometimes these will be in-depth pieces. Sometimes they will be random thoughts. Other times, maybe they will be lists. There might be a faith angle sometimes, and other times not. But it’s a way to begin incorporating it again. I don’t think we’re nearing The End on this any time soon.

Note: Normally you’d be hearing the latest CROSS.CULTURE.CRITIC. podcast episode in this space on Fridays. However,  a crazy summer schedule that includes school, work, and two-night-a-week T-ball for my son means that Joe and I are taking a brief hiatus and planning to get back into things in late July or early August. When you’re middle-aged, have kids and full-time jobs, sometimes you gotta push pause. Until then, on Fridays you’ll get to read musings that will probably be more pop-culture related. In August, we’ll pick the podcast back up!

About Chris Williams
Chris Williams has been writing about faith, culture and film since 2005. His work has appeared in the Source and Grosse Pointe News newspapers, Local Celebs magazine, Patheos, and Christ and Pop Culture. He is the co-host of the podcasts “CROSS.CULTURE.CRITIC.” and “It’s My Favorite.” Chris lives in the Detroit area with his wife and two children. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Tim Terhune

    Very interesting post, Chris! Thanks for sharing the twists and turns of the road you’re travelling.