Cinematic Shelf Life (Why ‘Good’ Films Go Bad)

Pure cinematic honey.

A few days ago, I went to a one night only showing at BAM of Minnie & Moskowitz, one of my very favorite Cassavetes films. They’re currently doing a 20-film retrospective, including some films of his that are long out of print on DVD (such as the aforementioned, which thankfully has recently become available on Netflix Instant in HD, after being on there for ages with probably the worst SD transfer I’ve ever seen in my life) and some that have never even been released on DVD in America (such as Love Streams). This goes on until the end of the month, so if you’re in NYC, get your ass there. The prints are all gorgeous 35mm. Cassavetes really doesn’t get enough credit for his colors, because on DVD, they tend to look muddy, but their subtle vibrance comes through wonderfully on film. (Here’s hoping the recently announced Blu-Ray upgrades showcase them better.)

The film played perfectly well in a theater setting. The audience laughed at all the right moments, and genuinely so. I can’t think of a single joke in it that fell flat. You would’ve sworn the film came out yesterday, rather than back in 1971. Like honey, time hasn’t spoiled it whatsoever, and its sweetness hasn’t diminished one bit.

Meanwhile, there are comedies from just a few years ago that, although hugely successful at the box office and highly praised by both critics and moviegoers alike, have already gone stale as all hell. Just look at The Hangover. At the time it came out, it was a sensation, yet it has held up just about as well as the rest of Todd Phillips work—which is to say, not well at all. It’s a movie you can watch once, in theaters, and feel as though you had a good time, and then any time you revisit it you get diminishing returns, until one day you watch it and there’s barely anything funny about it whatsoever.

See also: the Austin Powers films. Everyone always says they got progressively worse as they went on, and sure, that’s arguable, but for anyone who says Goldmember specifically sucks, go back and watch the first Austin Powers movie. It holds up just as poorly. There are just as few jokes in it that truly ‘work’. (You can do this experiment with the Hangover trilogy as well.)

The reason these movies, and countless others, have such a short shelf life, is because they’re rotting beneath the surface from their inception—and are designed to be. If Hollywood were to pump out a truly great movie, you’d be so sated after seeing it that you’d have no desire to go out and see another for many months. And even if you forced yourself, you’d regret it immediately after, because it’d be so glaringly flawed and unfulfilling in comparison. It’d be like trying to eat at your local sushi joint after eating at Sukiyabashi Jiro. This would be a disaster for Hollywood, financially. Making truly great, truly fulfilling movies is bad business, pure and simple.

Which is why Hollywood is in the business of creating temporarily-filling, barely-tasty dishes. That way, you stay full just long enough to be hungry when you get home, which tricks you into keeping coming back to the movie theater. And Hollywood knows they’re selling you spoiled food when they sell you DVDs of these movies. They know you’ll watch them once or twice, and then they’ll rot on your shelf forever, causing you to keep buying more and more whenever you want something to watch.

With the advent of streaming though, this Hollywood business model is dying. People aren’t going to movie theaters as much for the same reason people wouldn’t go to McDonalds as much if they had a machine in their house that popped out anything on the McDonalds menu whenever they wanted. Which is why streaming is the only possible future for the purveyors of fast food movies, and they just need to accept that fact as fast as possible. Let home be the place for pigging out. Let theaters be like fine restaurants. Let the outing mean something.

Epic superhero movies are the last vestige of the fast food movie theater experience. A big, bold, desperate experiment of bombast and over-length. And once that runs its course, it’s all over, finished, kaput. Going to a movie theater will one day be as lame-sounding to this fast food crowd as going to a museum or a library.

John D’Amico did a post on Friday on the topic of movies that are allegedly “so bad they’re good”. It’s a brilliant piece that I agree with wholeheartedly. My humble two cents I’d add are this: say what you want about The Room—it’s impossible to deny that it’s an enduring work. People keep coming back to it, and will come back to for a long while. It has shelf life, plain and simple. And that’s probably the most objective criteria you could ever judge a film’s ‘greatness’ by.

Just last night I watched a completely silent film (no music, nothing) by Yasujiro Ozu called Tokyo Chorus. It was made in 1931, and it defies pretty much every expectation of what a ‘silent film’ is. In fact, it’s modern as fuck. There are moments that feel as though they could’ve come right out of Parenthood, or a family scene in a Spielberg movie, or even Office Space. Not once while watching it did anything feel dated, which is quite impressive for a movie where everyone is sitting on the floor and houses are comprised of paper sliding doors and women dye their teeth.

That movie is probably the oldest example I can think of, of pure, cinematic honey.

3 thoughts on “Cinematic Shelf Life (Why ‘Good’ Films Go Bad)”

  1. I guess this is why they cancel all the fantastic TV shows that everyone loves and leave the really crappy shows on. When you watch a stellar TV show it makes it hard to find the other shows that are on palatable. Dang it, now I need to go watch a movie that enriches my soul.

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