On Viewing Habits

’50s sci-fi movie This Island Earth

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll list off every decade from the 1910s to the 2010s. 100+ years. I’ll go backwards through the movies I’ve been watching and cross off each decade represented, until only one remains. Then I’ll think, “Oh, I guess it’s been a while since I watched something from the ’40s; what’s still out there?”

I keep lists, dozens of ’em. Not just by year or decade but by director, genre, topic, critical champion, or nebulous mood. None of this is necessary, but it does bring me pleasure. I love to build taxonomies of the unseen.

Some moods are less nebulous. Weekend mornings are an excellent time for silent movies, which won’t wake anyone up. Or pre-Code movies, often 60-80 minutes. Or film noir. Anything that feels like I chanced upon it on TCM some summer as a teen. (Little in cultural life’s more satisfying than the elation of discovery.)

Most discoveries, of course, are unworthy of that term. “Discover” implies some novelty or obscurity in the thing discovered, but you’re just watching a movie. People made it, and people have probably seen it before. Yet patterns of viewing and conversation can make it feel like you just stepped into a fresh universe, and now that this movie has graced your eyes nothing will ever be the same.

Other moods of mine: recent indies. 1960s B&W. Overwrought melodrama. ’50s sci-fi. Avant-garde shorts. Westerns. (The latter when I want to see a living, breathing horse.) I think I used to be less capricious, more inclined to cross items off lists of Great Movies. Now I find myself hunting Good or Interesting Movies instead. The challenge is that those are much wider categories. I can’t just grab hold of a single consensus. Instead I pore over every list I can find, jotting down and looking up unfamiliar titles.

You know what else I do? I go to IMDb. I narrow my search to films from a certain calendar year. I start scrolling and clicking and I do not stop. A thousand or so entries in, I find things that would be discoveries, if I could access them (which I can’t) and if they were good (which they’re not). I do not recommend this behavior to anyone, as it’s time-consuming yet yields only the slightest, most arcane rewards. Some quirk in the wiring of my brain makes me find it soothing.

“What to watch?” is this devil of a question. Cinephilia couldn’t exist without it. Algorithms volunteer answers on behalf of money and power. Sometimes I spend hours pondering, as if this were some academic inquiry rather than the viewing equivalent of “What do you want for dinner?” I try to remind myself that contrary to what anxiety might say, not every choice has to be perfect. You can just watch a movie. It doesn’t have to be this whole big thing.

With movies as with any art form, I will always be hopelessly behind. I will never truly catch up, and I need to reconcile myself to that. I am one woman: finite, mortal, insignificant on a cosmic scale. I can appreciate some beauty, experience some frissons, maybe learn a little about another time and place. It’s neither nothing nor everything. It’s just something I like to do.

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