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Movies as content, not experience

My exercise routine involves ~40 minutes on an elliptical trainer in a spare room, in front of a television set. Usually, it’s when I watch my ‘stories’ — genre television shows including Mindhunter, Colony (RIP), Watchmen, The Good Fight, Star Trek: Discovery, etc. However, I’ve plowed through all that, and in looking for something to watch, I’ve fallen back on old movies I’ve never seen.

Recently I’ve watched Zardoz, Three Days of the Condor, and am currently in the middle of The Talented My Ripley. About a year ago, this is how I finally got around to watching The Godfather and The Godfather: Part 2. (I’ve also started, but not continued with, John Wick 3 and Freebie and the Bean.) Viewings take place over multiple sessions, and I’m essentially treating these movies as a series of television episodes.

And in doing so, watching movies has shifted from being an experience to an exercise in consuming content. I am no longer enveloped and carried along by a story and aesthetic, and having that communal experience in the darkened room, and instead am engaged in a strange type of ‘productivity,’ catching up on media that has intrigued me but I haven’t had time to watch, and doing so in a way that maximizes my consumption efficiency, during my exercise time.

For me, this is in large part a response to what it means to be a middle-aged professional and family-man and citizen. So many things compete for my attention that I feel like the only responsible way to watch movies is while I’m doing something ‘good’ for me — exercising, or sharing time with family. To simply see a movie for the sake of seeing a movie feels like a selfish luxury.

I’m sure I’m not the first to identify this shift in viewing from experience to content. I expect it’s what is driving much of the media production in a streaming age, this churning out of ‘good enough’ material that keeps people occupied. When Scorsese calls out these movies as not being cinema, I think part of what he’s getting at (and may not even realize himself) is how our movies have become “content.” With cinema, there’s as much, if not greater, emphasis on matter of character, scene, pacing, feeling, psychology, aesthetic. With content, plot rules everything, as it’s the easiest way to maintain audience engagement.

I don’t know exactly what the ‘so what?’ is of all this.