The big news in the film industry this week was the announcement by Warner Brothers that all 17 of the company’s feature films originally scheduled for a 2021 theatrical release would be debuting simultaneously on the company’s HBO MAX streaming service. While the studio is claiming that this is a unique, one-year arrangement made necessary by the pandemic-related closure of so many movie theaters, many are taking the move as something like a death knell for the big-screen, communal experience that has been the heart of cinema since its invention.
I’m reminded by these concerns of the agita surrounding the video rental industry in the 1990s, when I managed one of Portland’s many fine independent rental stores for several years and then owned another for several more. As high-speed internet (or what passed for it then) became more widely available, trade magazines were full of doomsaying. Once the masses can order up “Jurassic Park” from the comfort of their living room, after all, why would they traipse to the local Blockbuster and face the prospect of extortionate late fees?
Well, it took a while for the intertubes to get big enough that video streaming and downloading was an affordable option for the average household, but when it did, those Cassandras turned out to be correct. Impersonal, corporate chain stores such as Blockbuster and Hollywood went from cultural mainstays to bankrupt dinosaurs virtually overnight. I’d always thought that those places, which made their money by catering to customers who rarely ventured beyond the New Release wall, would be the most vulnerable to the technological shift. And, for once in my life, I was right.
As an employee, owner, and proselytizer on behalf of the small, independent, curated video rental store, I felt that loyal, discriminating customers would help ensure the survival of places such as Trilogy and my own Video Verité, in the same way that neighborhood record stores have hung around after the demise of Musicland and Sam Goody. And, again, I was right…for a little while. But, eventually, and inevitably, Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, Hulu, The Criterion Channel, and various other platforms combined to offer a selection of both current and archival programming to rival even a well-stocked neighborhood store.
Now, Portland has one video store of note, Movie Madness, which, in order to survive, was brought under the nonprofit umbrella of the Hollywood Theatre and exists as, yes, an extraordinary resource for movie lovers, but also as a museum of sorts, honoring a bygone forerunner to the current distribution model for home viewing.
This is all to say that, though the pandemic is turbocharging what was already a challenging environment for theatrical exhibitors, local institutions such as the Hollywood and Cinema 21 are in a better position to survive this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime crisis than the multi-megaplex at the nearest suburban shopping center. It won’t be easy for anyone, of course, and Portland’s independent theaters will need every ounce of your support to make it through. But, to put it bluntly, people who just want to gobble popcorn while gaping at the latest special-effects extravaganza (of whom I am sometimes one!) will be happy enough doing so in their basements and living rooms, whereas folks who appreciate the theatrical experience as the communal, quasi-religious ceremony that it is will be back. In another ten years, it might be a different story. But my quasi-optimistic take is that the end credits haven’t rolled for movie theaters—at least the ones that truly matter—yet.
Speaking of movies, here are some of this and last week’s streaming highlights:
“Sound of Metal”: In an alternate universe, this one would be playing at Cinema 21, as it was scheduled to be for private theater rentals before the most recent lockdown orders were issued. If there are Oscars next year, expect it to be up for at least a couple: one for lead actor Riz Ahmed, who plays a drummer in a heavy metal band dealing with the rapid onset of deafness; and another for the inventive and effective sound design that takes you inside his experience.
When Rubin (Ahmed) realizes that his hearing is starting to go, he initially tries to play through it, but his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) won’t have it. Rubin’s a recovering addict, so he ends up at a group home for hearing-impaired folks in that situation. His goal is to save up enough money to get cochlear implants, which puts him at odds with the house manager, Joe (Paul Raci) and the other residents. What follows is a fairly predictable arc, as Rubin’s anger and resentment break down and he starts to come to terms with his predicament.
There’s an authenticity to “Sound of Metal” that speaks to the 12 years writer-director Darius Marder spent shepherding the project, and to the wise choice to cast numerous actors from the deaf community. It’s both a character study, fueled by Ahmed’s utterly believable performance, and a cultural study, exploring the diverse approaches and personalities among those with impaired hearing.
And that sound design, again, is key to the film’s immersive quality, even when doing so requires it to be abrasive and unpleasant. I’m not sure another film has ever captured the panic and disorientation inherent in an experience such as Rubin’s. And yet “Sound of Metal” ultimately provides empathy and even a smidge of inspiration.
(“Sound of Metal” is available on Amazon Prime.)
“Zappa”: I suppose, as with most music documentaries about well-known artists, one either eagerly anticipates this portrait of the iconoclastic rock satirist Frank Vincent Zappa or one really couldn’t care less. Since there’s no point in trying to convince the latter (at least in this limited forum), I’ll speak to the former: It’s great, check it out as soon as possible.
That’s probably all any Zappa fan needs to hear, but, to be more specific: The film draws upon voluminous archives kept by Frank over the course of his life to present about as well-rounded a biography as one could expect from a two-hour film. It features oodles of previously unreleased clips (including some smokin’ 1970s rehearsal footage after the end credits), as well as insightful interviews with Frank’s widow Gail, who allowed access to the Zappa vaults but unfortunately did not live to see the finished film.
Frank Zappa was, simultaneously, an enigma (even in these two hours there’s very little sense of his interior life), a paradox (avant-garde composer Edgard Varese was an enormous influence, but Zappa’s biggest hit was “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”), and an anachronism (despite looking like a nightmarish hippie, he was well-known for his steadfast aversion to intoxicants and his hard-nosed business acumen). Director Alex Winter (better known as Bill from the “Bill & Ted” movies) expertly weaves these threads together, although one wishes he had more room to cover the details of Zappa’s composing and recording habits.
Come to think of it, there’s also not much about Zappa’s notoriously intense guitar playing, or his delicious lyrical wit, or the drawn-out litigation around his estate, the latter of which explains the lack of participation by any of his four children. But these lacunae are evidence not of any failing on the part of the filmmakers, but of the multi-faceted nature of one of the few pop musicians truly worthy of the word unique.
“The Changin’ Times of Ike White”: Zappa isn’t the only guitar virtuoso to receive the documentary treatment recently. Ike White gained some notoriety in the 1970s as a soulful, slick player who released an album while serving a life sentence in prison for first-degree murder. He caught the ear of Stevie Wonder, ended up marrying his record producer’s secretary, and, after eventually being paroled, vanished from public consciousness.
If this setup sounds familiar, that’s because director Daniel Vernon’s efforts to track down White decades after his parole are reminiscent of the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” It’s no spoiler to say that Vernon manages to locate and interview White, who still makes his living playing music and remains haunted by the ghosts of his past. To reveal much more, though, would be to ruin the sometimes tragic surprises that the film holds in store. Ultimately, White isn’t as singular a figure as Zappa, or even as Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of “Sugar Man.” But his story still has something to teach about the possibilities, and limitations, of reinvention.
(“The Changin’ Times of Ike White” is screening in the Hollywood Theatre’s virtual cinema.)
“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life”: It’s been five years since Sacks, the celebrated neurologist and author, died, and this admiring documentary profile is a potent and poignant reminder of what was lost. Director Ric Burns, a veteran of these sorts of “American Masters” programs, seamlessly shifts between interviews with Sacks conducted after his cancer diagnosis, testimony from colleagues and admirers, and archival material chronicling Sacks’ peripatetic life.
Born in London, Sacks spent much of his childhood in the countryside after his family fled the Blitz. There, he witnessed his brother’s descent into schizophrenia. After attending medical school and embarking on a rather bumbling career as a researcher, he ended up in 1960s California, where he became, contrary to his later avuncular image, a hardcore enthusiast of motorcycle riding, bodybuilding, and amphetamines. It was only after he shifted his focus towards the individualized care of neurologically damaged patients and the authorship of associated case studies, that he found his niche in the 1970s. And it wasn’t until the release of the acclaimed 1990 film “Awakenings,” in which he was played by Robin Williams, that he became well-known outside the academy.
This prolific and impactful career, though, was only a prelude in some sense to the example Sacks embodied after he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma and given mere months to live. As captured in this film, he handled the situation with the sort of equanimity that arises from a recognition that one’s life was all the more well-lived for not moving in a straight line.