In Germany–not everywhere, but in a lot of places–the movie theater has an event called Sneak Preview. Observe:
It’s the Mystery Box of movies. The Pros: You pay less money than a normal show, and you get to see a movie before it’s released in Germany. The Cons: There’s just one really…you don’t know what movie it is until it starts. As a movie nerd, this is my high ropes course. This is my All-Star Three-Point Shootout Contest (is that still a thing?). Anybody can go see a Sneak Preview in the US. It’s becoming easier and more widely known to go to a local business on Tuesday or Wednesday and pick up free passes for a new movie on Thursday, and then you have a nice night out seeing something that you are maybe kind of excited about, and you see it early and for free. But how hard core are you? Would you be willing to build an evening around that kind of event…when you have no idea what movie it is? Knowing that this could be your last day on earth, do you desire to spend your time and money going out to (possibly) see the Justin Bieber movie? Well…I’m not either. But I’ve never had my movie nerdiness tested in quite that way before. How much do you like movies, and how entertained are you be “movies” in general, rather than specific movies, artists or stories? It really is a different question than, “Do you like movies?” By committing to the German Sneak Preview you are saying, “I enjoy Movie. I am willing to pay, and sit through, Movie. Doesn’t matter which one.” Or does it?
Now, there’s a reason why we don’t have something like this in America: It would never work. There might be some fringe markets here and there, or historic theaters that could pull it off–I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that something like this is already a weekly event at the Alamo Draft House in Austin, TX or that Patton Oswalt hosts something similar at a locally owned one screen in LA–but you’ll never see an AMC or a Lowe’s or Harkins creating a regular event like this in their theaters because it wouldn’t work. As I’ve compared the movie-going experiences in the two countries, there are far more differences than similarities, and it all boils down to how Cinema plays into the culture. In America, going to the movies is seen as “watching expensive TV.” It’s difficult to watch a movie in the theater without a cell phone interrupting at one time or another–despite hilarious advertisements begging audiences to respectfully SILENCE the phones. Large groups of people–teenagers are usually blamed for this, but I would argue it could be applied to groups of ANY age–go to the movies to socialize DURING THE MOVIE, as if they were at home on their living room couch. The theaters even have the same movie playing on multiple screens so that, just like at home with your Tivo or DirecTV, you can catch the most popular shows just about ANY TIME you would like to. They even have the same approach to junk food that most adults have in their homes, you find yourself saying, “This doesn’t sound particularly good, and it’s incredibly unhealthy for me, but it’s all we have laying around.” So we drink liters of corn-syrup sugar and eat giant cartons of fake butter because there’s nothing else in the kitchen.
German movie theaters are like heaven for someone like me; not just a fan of “movies” in general but a fan of “going to the movies,” as something that is, in itself, a legitimate activity. This is because German culture asserts that going to the movies IS an activity that doesn’t need to be partnered with other activities to be seen as legitimate. So instead of running a business that constantly apologizes to its clientel for having to ask them to leave their homes, German movie theaters offer a movie-going “experience.” When German theaters talk about their “Programming,” they are talking about more than just the films they show. Sneak Preview is just one of many programmed evenings that make the theater a social arena, to meet with friends or to meet new people, as well as an entertainment venue. There’s “Ladies First,” an evening where only women get to come in and see a new release and drink complimentary champagne (in this case, they are told ahead of time what it will be, this week it’s the Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston movie. In German that movie is called, “My Made-up Wife”). Then there’s the male equivalent, Echte Kerle or “Real Guys,” and they get beer. This week Real Guys will be watching Drive Angry 3D, proving, once again, I have no interest in being a real guy. They even have events like this for teens (Bieber), Kids and Families (and they get to choose between every possible children’s film that is currently in release), VHS Kino (for those of us who would love to watch the most obscure old movies in the theater), and special offerings in different languages (primarily Turkish and at some theaters, English). It’s phenomenal. The theater is always crowded, but the audiences, unlike in the US, are never annoying; because, unlike the US, when people go out to the movies in Germany they actually WANT to be going out to the movies. So: TO MOVIE THEATERS IN AMERICA that are interested in making more money: Stop charging a billion dollars for everything, and start creating a culture of interested, focused audiences. That is all.
The one variable you know about the Sneak Preview possibilities: It will be released in Germany the following week. So if you do some research, you can at least find out what the possibilities are. This is good in the sense that, on weeks that precede the release of the dreaded Bieber, you can avoid the Cineplex entirely. So a few weeks ago, we decided to go try out the Sneak Preview. We were in the thick of Award-winning movie releases in Germany–The King’s Speech, True Grit, Black Swan–we were expecting all of these and more at any time. Like in college, how my friends and I would make sure to go to dinner in the cafeteria the day after a trustee’s event, this seemed like the perfect time to take our chances on a mystery movie.
Right away, it starts out awesome. Most of the audience shows up a bit before you can actually go to your seats. This is because Sneak Preview is known for being sold out, and the ushers have to clean the theater from the previous show before anyone can enter. So there’s a fun, energetic crowd mingling and getting drinks before the movie starts. By drinks I mean: drinks. The concession stand sells delicious beer, juice, sparkling water, coffee, all kinds of things other than (but also including) soda, increasing the chances of me actually purchasing something there. We almost immediately connected with friends, talked while we got our snacks, and made our way into the theater. Before the movie starts, a host comes out to play some trivia games for fun little prizes. People come around to your seat with ice cream (which is standard practice before each and every movie in Germany), and then the movie begins.
As we watched the previews, an obvious theme began to emerge: Westerns. We saw a preview for Rango, the new Johnny Depp animated gecko-as-sheriff movie coming out soon, and then a trailer for Cowboys and Aliens. Inka leaned over and said, “Oh, I guess we’re seeing a western.” And I said, “Is that how this works? Are the previews a pretty reliable indication of what the feature is?” Inka, who has been to a number of Sneak Preview events in the past said, “I think so.” I leaned back and began to wonder, “What westerns are out right now?” As the lights dimmed, indicating the feature film was about to begin, my heart started beating a little faster as I answered my own question, “True Grit.” TRUE GRIT! We’re about to watch a western, and True Grit is a western AND it wasn’t one of the western previews we saw…I’m about to watch a Coen Brothers movie in German. This is the greatest night ever.
Then the movie starts. Fade in on a sad, old-fashioned restaraunt/saloon…clearly western…wow, this might actually be it. A strong gust of wind blows dust down the street, just past the pick up truck….wait…pick up truck? When does True Grit take place? Would there have been trucks? It looks old…this seems plausible. What is this? Cut to: Inside the restaraunt where we meet our main character and my heart sank as I realized I would be spending the next 90 minutes watching:
I immediately saw a couple people get up and leave. I immediately thought about joining them, even though I didn’t know them. I knew this would be a possibility, and except for those brief, beautiful final seconds when I thought I would be watching Jeff Bridges wear an eye patch…it’s honestly the kind of movie I was expecting we would see. Although, now having seen it, nothing can actually prepare you for Burlesque. I can’t imagine that even people who saw it on purpose were fully prepared. But the main reason why we didn’t leave was because, almost immediately after the first couple people walked out, the title of the movie came up on the screen and the theater broke out in uproarious laughter. From that point on, a couple hundred German movie goers and me entered into our own Mystery Science Theater 3000 experience. No one made out loud comments, but everyone was whispering with their neighbors throughout, everyone was laughing at all the same things that didn’t seem to be intentionally funny. The language barrier was non-existent; and I think that says more about the script than it does about my German abilities. It was phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience of seeing a movie in a practically sold out theater, in which the entire audience felt the same way about a movie: we all hated it and we all had a great time drinking and making fun of it. Although, it’s possible that this happened at Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull Whatever.
Because my brain is MY brain, I found myself trying to rationalize this movie, why it could possibly be so poorly put together, and how in the world it was nominated for “Best” anything in the Gold Globes. Here’s what I came up with: The main character in the movie, played by Christina Aguilera, has a severe personality disorder that is never diagnosed, and this movie is about her finding a home with a group of Hollywood outcasts exactly like (or possibly worse off than) her. Because nothing in the movie makes any kind of sense, and there’s not even any self-contained logic that helps it along. I mean, if you watch the Dark Knight, then you might be the person who says, “Oh yeah, like there would REALLY be a lawless crazy clown and a man who dresses like a bat, like that would REALLY happen!” But even if you don’t get into the movie, you have to admit that the movie itself has a certain set or rules and logic that it follows. Burlesque does not. People say things for no particular reason, do things for no particular reason (it doesn’t even make sense to say they are doing things because “they want to”), it’s like all the characters and events are forced into being by either a vindictive god or incompetent director (maybe both). But if you take the whole thing at face value, then you can look at it as a documentary…there’s no narrative to speak of, someone just happened to follow this group around with a camera. Then it becomes about a group of unfortunate folks with severe personality disorders who, instead of having friends and family to keep them home, get them treatment, and finding a nice work placement, they ran away to Hollywood. So then, even though it is not enjoyable at all, there’s at least a quiet beauty in the idea of a bunch of damaged misfits finding and supporting each other. If you ever watch this movie for any reason, test that theory out. I’m not saying it makes it good, but it at least explains what’s going on.
1. “Awards” for movies have officially lost all meaning. That has been true for a long time, but knowing that this movie was nominated for “Best” anything for anything among anything…that actually pushes me past “not caring,” where I was before, to “angry.” Because, really, it’s the worst of anything among anything. Things like this just reveal our true nature as a Capitalist Nation to an absurd level. “If you have enough money, you can promote something that is completely awful as something elite and awesome.” Yay capitalism and its complete and undeniable hold over our perception of reality! Which brings me to…
2. Remembering why I like movies. I’ve had some major life changes in the last two years–lots of traveling, lots of changes to my life and schedule–so it makes sense that I would find myself watching movies by myself. But Burlesque reminded me that I don’t like Movie. I don’t just like watching movies or “going to movies,” as much as I enjoy community and dialogue and all the things that go along with the ancient tradition of storytelling. Lately it has made sense to watch movies by myself, to pass the time; and then when I get to be with friends and family, it became more desirable to play games, talk, go to weddings, or other super social things. And it was a natural transition because…that’s what I did as a teenager. Movies became my early entry way into the world of adult ideas and emotions. For better or worse, movies have always served as “storytelling” for me. Storytelling has, throughout history, been the way societies pass down their values, norms, traditions, taboos, to the next generation. American society is not a culture with a storytelling tradition…we have to buy things. And as a young person, I bought stories. Movies, books, comics; these taught me as much or more about the world as anything I was taught in school or things I learned at home. And…amazingly, I forgot that. Somehow as an adult, I divided the things I do for fun (again, movies, books, comics, etc.) from the things I am doing professionally (like, reading and interpreting The Bible); but really they’re all one. Sneak Preview, as a social event, is hilarious and kind of fun. As a movie event…it’s kind of a travesty. Because there have always been reasons for me to see the movies that I see. Sometimes they are disappointing, but there’s a reason why I went in the first place. As Neil Gaiman has said, “We owe it to each other to tell stories.” And as people of a consumer culture trying to better ourselves, and maybe our world along the way, we owe it to ourselves to be careful what stories we spend our time taking in.
In conclusion, mystery movies are fun, but we shouldn’t spend too much time watching terrible pieces of filth, no matter how many awards they are nominated for. There are too many important stories to tell.