Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Movie a Day Keeps the Boredom Away: A Modern-Day Odyssey

About four months ago, my wife and I sat down to have one of those conversations that every couple dreads. Yes, it had come time once again to take stock of our finances. It wasn't that there was some seismic shift in our life circumstances like the loss of a job, a new child, or an inheritance from long-lost relative in Nigeria (still waiting on that cheque, Prince Abdulla). No, in fact, quite the opposite. Somewhere in between working, raising two kids, and completing an epic binge-watch of twenty seasons of Survivor to prepare for Season 40 which featured a cast of returning winners (#WinnersAtWar) we ended with a few spare moments to contemplate our own little micro-economy. 

We gradually realized, as though awakening from a long slumber and looking around groggily at our surroundings trying to find our bearings, that something was amiss. Things literally did not quite add up. When we actually looked at how much money we were pulling in combined from both our jobs, the number was actually quite a bit higher than we had thought. I know, it's a tough life we lead. It's not like we can retire early or start yacht shopping or anything like that, but we realized that we were getting dangerously close to that middle class sweet spot of achieving a level of income that could finally be described as "comfortable." 

This, in and of itself, was not, of course, a problem. The issue was that the balance in our bank account did not seem to reflect the extent to which we had advanced our careers and their commensurate remunerations. As a couple who is approaching that turbulent time in our lives known as Middle Age, we, of course, are plagued by distinctly adult anxieties like paying for our children's education, saving for retirement, and having a cushion for when Middle Age hits in full, and the accompanying crisis takes its inevitable emotional and financial toll. 

So, we were forced to bite the proverbial bullet, and put together a household budget to track exactly what was draining our bank account each month, and prepare ourselves to make some Big Adult Decisions about where we needed to cut back. This is no easy feat for my wife and I, as historically we may not have necessarily had the best financial role models in our lives. I especially had not had the kind of positive financial mentorship that, in retrospect, seems like such an essential life skill that I'm still amazed that teachers and parents didn't frantically drill into my head exactly how important simple principles of budgeting actually are. Much to our surprise and chagrin, once we crunched the numbers, it turned out we should have been operating at a much higher surplus each month than we had been for some time. The budget accounted for every last penny on the books. 

The problem, it turned out, was us.

My wife and I had been playing a little fast and loose with our discretionary budgets, as it were. With no accountability, random purchases like eating out, clothes, random bulk from Costco, and in my case, movies, which individually weren't a whole lot of money, collectively added up to quite a large chunk of our personal finances. It was time to tighten our belts and reign in our personal spending for the good of the family. 

It was around this time, with a necessary and self-imposed reduction in my cashflow for extracurricular purchases, including my ongoing hobby involving an ever-growing collection of DVDs and Blurays, I laid out a blueprint for a little personal project. (Also, a global pandemic which limits shopping options also helps with the old budget, in all fairness.) Around the same time my wife and I were working on formalizing our household budget, I also happened to take stock of my aforementioned collection of physical media, and came to a maybe not-so-startling conclusion. With a collection of movies and TV shows bordering on 1,300, it turned out that there were roughly 129 movies that I owned that I had, in fact, never actually seen. This was due in part to my collection habits, which of course include "blind buys" of movies that I had never seen before, and in part to inheriting a collection from some friends who found themselves with a surplus of physical media that they, in fact, were not all that keen to keep, and which I was all too eager to absorb into my own collection.

Despite my best efforts, things had gotten a little away from me. With nearly a tenth of my film collection consisting of movies I hadn't yet watched and a new appreciation for personal finances, I decided it was the perfect time to start going through my backlog and actually watching all of this content I was amassing, which was, to a large extent, one of the main points of collecting in the first place. When it comes to collecting anything, as with any habit, once one gets drawn into a binge, the tendency is to ride it out through to its end, consequences be damned. And my own collecting is definitely driven by several factors. As a self-professed cinephile, I actually enjoy watching movies. But sometimes as a collector, the motivation goes beyond the content of what I'm buying to the pure joy and rush that comes from the simple act of collecting itself. It's an easy high to push that number a little higher, and have content available to watch "whenever I wanted to." 

It turns out I finally found myself at that perfect nexus between want and need that so often is the catalyst necessary to spur us into action. And so I began my epic quest to experience the epic (and not-so-epic) quests of others committed to film. 

At first, I was a little worried that "forcing" myself to watch these movies would transform my hobby into a chore, so I had to do a little mental recalibration. So often, I talk about exploring what cinema has to offer, and watching films that are "off the beaten path." After all, one of the aspects of film that I enjoy is its ability to inspire and challenge me. I remember in university when all of my friends were also collecting DVDs, we were constantly on the search for movies (RIP Blockbuster ans CD Plus) that were outside the realm of the "mainstream." That's not to say that I don't enjoy or find value in blockbusters or the standard slate of studio films, but variety in film is as important as it is in one's diet, and for much the same reason. As a great philosopher once put it, "Man cannot live by tentpole movies alone."

The Criterion Collection was a boon for my friends and I when we first discovered the film distributor and its mission to "publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements." Since then, other boutique movie labels have offered even more variety in lesser-known, culturally significant, and/or cult films: Shout!/Scream Factory, Arrow, Kino Lorber, Twilight Time (the bastards), and Vestron Video all provide access to rabbit holes just as life-changing as Alice's own conduit ever was, for those watching with the right eyes.

Contemplating this, it kind of hit me: within my own collection, I had unintentionally engineered a similar sort of cinematic journey. Granted, not all of the movies in my collection were necessarily "important classic and contemporary films," but the excitement at the promise of taking that journey to places I might not otherwise have gone was still every bit as potent and intoxicating as the promise offered by the libraries of any of my favourite specialty distributors.

I've added dozens of the unwatched to my memory banks in the past several months, and overall, I have to say that I've really enjoyed the journey so far. I finally watched all of the Hunger Games movies, which has allowed me to have conversations with my wife and daughter that I never thought I'd have. I've also discovered hidden gems that I didn't even know I had, like The Interpreter, Being Flynn, and Open Range. I'm once again stretching my temporal legs a bit more watching movies from a wider variety of time periods, like The Invisible Man (I'm talking the 1933 version) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), instead of being held hostage to the cult of the new. Even some of the bottom of the barrel, such as Battledogs and Sands of Oblivion have been fun parts of the journey (even though my wit is not nearly as sharp as the minds behind Mystery Science Theater 3000).

More than being able to appreciate a wider variety of films and the commensurate inspiration or cognitive engagement, my ongoing project is also an important exercise for me on a deeper level. It's been a reminder of that age-old lesson to appreciate what we have instead of focusing on what we don't. That simple act of appreciation is so core to our own happiness and self-fulfillment, and yet so easy to loose track of. Whether it's watching a movie that's sat unwatched for nearly two decades (looking at you, The Libertine) or spending more time with the family, it's important sometimes to slow down and be grateful for what you have right in front of you.

For me, the journey is far from over, and I find myself approaching hobby with a renewed vigor as the urge to explore - if only within the confines of my home and my television screen - has brought into focus some key truths about why I do what I do, both within the sense of my hobby, but also in a larger sense. Reprioritization seems to be the prevalent theme in these turbulent times, and wit comes to life-altering realizations, as with any habit, once one gets drawn into a binge, the tendency is to ride it out through to its end, consequences be damned. 


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