Well, Labor Day is past, and summer with it. True, there is about a week and a half still remaining until the autumnal equinox, but school is starting, beachfront shops and eateries are closing, and by common cultural definition the season reached its end last weekend. I was rehearsing for the show I directed last Saturday and Sunday, finished the book I was reading on the train ride home, and didn’t need to be at my day job until Tuesday. And so, on Labor Day itself, I was able to spend the day finally doing what I’d wound up putting off for the entire summer.
In other words, I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn, where both Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie were still playing, and treated myself to a double feature. The two movies famously shared a release date of July 21st this past summer; what started as a social media goof pointing out the savvy counterprogramming wound up becoming a cultural phenomenon as people queued up to see them back-to-back on that opening day, and then encouraged others to do the same. Much like syncing up The Wizard of Oz to The Dark Side of the Moon – a rite of passage for so many, chemically enhanced or otherwise – people reported life-altering revelations from seeing the two films juxtaposed. Both, after all, are about lingering legacies of mid-twentieth century culture, and have wound up sparking philosophical discussions of a sort we rarely get about mass-market movies anymore. The cinematic marathon has become such a profound phenomenon for so many that I had to seize this last chance to experience it.
And it was…fine?
They’re both perfectly good movies. They both have actual ideas, and in both cases the filmmakers have a well-thought out strategy for exploring those ideas in film. They’re both well made with committed casts. Definitely see them if you can. I did.
And as I did, I kept wondering, this is what’s broken the brains of so many people? Seeing these two movies back to back has made my countrymen’s collective brains explode?
How times have changed.
My birthday is in late January, right around the time prestige pictures go into wide release to capitalize on their Oscar nominations. (At least that’s how things used to work – I have no idea what studios are doing these days, on a wide variety of topics.) In 1994, when I was mired in graduate studies and my birthday happened to fall on a weekend, I decided to spend the day at the mall taking in the big Oscar nominees, since it was my one and only chance to do so. Now bear in mind, the major nominees that year – which I viewed as an all day triple-header – were Philadelphia, The Piano, and Schindler’s List.
Yep, saw those three movies back to back to back. And for good measure, the night before I took in a midnight movie revival screening of A Clockwork Orange. Did Barbenheimering break your brain? Imagine watching all four of those movies within a twenty-four hour period.
But the thing of it is, back in the eighties and nineties, that’s exactly the sort of thing we did. Assuming we were movie-obsessed in the first place, we had the first multiplexes (with reasonably priced tickets) and we had cable television and we had video stores and we had the means to seek out and binge the films we wanted. I’d go to the public library and rent VHS cassettes by the cartful once that became an option. I’d see five Woody Allen movies in a row (back before that was problematic) and stay up until two in the morning to not only watch The Bridge on the River Kwai, but tape it off of the cable broadcast (that’s a thing we used to do, kids) and oversleep the next day, missing a period or two of high school classes, as a result.
And I’m not the only one. If you cared about movies as something other than a commodity, if you believed in them as our cultural heritage and wanted to absorb them as completely as possible, that’s what you did.
And somewhere along the line, we stopped. Our marathons are all binges of a ten-episode Netflix series that’s really a heavily padded two-hour movie. Our film tentpoles are hundred-million dollar exercises in playing with action figures. The good stuff is well-nigh impossible to find, and the mass-market stuff is meant to be as anodyne as possible. The studios have always been fine with this arrangement, of course, but in the last decade or so they’ve been especially ruthless in keeping things that way.
So I’m glad that the Barbenheimer phenomenon has reminded folks of just how much you can make out of the moviegoing experience. But I’m extremely worried that we all seem to be so desperately out of practice.