Sunday, May 14, 2006

Miscellaneous: Eureka

I had an epiphany at the movies over the weekend. It had nothing to do with what was onscreen, but these moments are rare enough that I’ll take whatever I can get.

The lights have gone down. Mission: Impossible III is about to start. A few rows ahead, another light goes on.

One of the twentysomething men who staggered their seating so no one will think they’re, you know, together has taken out his cell phone. I assume he’s going to turn it off.

He doesn’t. He starts answering text messages. The glow of the phone dims occasionally, but at no point during the movie does it die. His thumbs are in near-constant motion.

The teenager across the aisle is also checking text messages. Halfway through the film he confers briefly with the friend next to him, then runs out to the lobby to make a call.

Ahead of them sit three woman in their forties. They are lapping up the movie; damn the gossip pages, they still love them some Tom Cruise. They gasp at every daring escape, laugh at all the jokes, swoon at regular intervals.

Even they can’t leave their cell phones alone. Maybe the sitter called. Maybe someone answered my email. Maybe something somewhere is happening.

We’re not talking about a bunch of high school kids who have been dragged to an Antonioni festival. These are people of all ages who have, of their own volition, come to see a propulsive action film made with the full bag of narrative tricks meant to enrapture contemporary audiences.

That’s when I realize why the movies are in a protracted slump, and why they may never climb out of it.

Forget the usual reasons. Tickets are too expensive, my home theater has a better picture, the movies suck. All of that may be true, but the industry’s problem is more fundamental: the human race is doomed.

We are becoming constitutionally incapable of giving ourselves over to an experience. That’s what going to the movies is, sitting in the dark with strangers, all of us surrendering to the light. It’s a bargain people are no longer willing to make.

I always argue on behalf of seeing films in the theater. But why pay the ten bucks if you’re not going to concentrate on the movie? Better to stay at home if you want to half-ass it. As the DVD spins you can take calls, eat leftover pizza, and ask that most American of questions: what else is on?

Watching M:i:III in those circumstances was like seeing Pascal’s line about man’s miseries deriving from the inability to sit quietly in a room brought to life. It was almost a privilege, becoming aware that I was bearing witness, in some small way, to the death of the sacred in everyday life. Each light from a cell phone was a flare shooting up into the darkness, signaling for help when help ain’t coming. I’ve even got science to back me up. And something tells me it’s only going to get worse.

On the plus side, the Casino Royale trailer looks good.