Being a dad … and a film buff

Today is an odd time to be a film fanatic. There was a time when we knew almost nothing about a film until it was released, other than a notable name or two. Certain landmark events, like Tim Burton’s Batman or the disastrous pre-press surrounding Waterworld, were exceptions to the rule.

To this day, headlines about Waterworld are more concerned with the film’s budget overruns than anything else.

Now, we pore over every bit of information, from early casting decisions to the pedigree of the writer and director. We examine the public comments of everyone involved in search of something anti-social or otherwise objectionable. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big-budget tentpole or direct-to-Roku; we’re all over it. And if something doesn’t meet with the approval of the masses, By God! someone’s going to be held accountable.

By the time the film — for which we already know the storyline, thanks to “sneak peeks” and leaks on the cast’s twitter pages — is released, it’s an anti-climax. And don’t even get me started on today’s exhaustive trailers, which function basically as complete plot summaries.

But something happened recently that sent me backwards in time into an era when all we knew about any given film was that it starred a name actor and had a lame tagline: I became a father (lame tagline, you say?).

Speaking of lame taglines…did Yogi Berra write this?

As any parent knows, trying to watch a movie with an infant is like being offered a piece of cake, only to have it snatched away at the last moment. Repeatedly. So the television and everything attached to it has become less important in the last few months, which means I’ve gone from being someone who knew the casts and plotlines of just about every film in development to living “off the grid.” And as far as actually seeing new releases in a movie theater…well, that’s a distant dream.

Sure, some things slip through. I know each and every twist in Spiderman: No Way Home just from the occasional innocent scroll through Facebook, though I won’t actually see the film until its Blu-ray release. But by and large, I have no idea what’s in theaters right now, or what’s coming down the pipeline, or who went on a racist, sexist, homophobic tirade on which set. And it’s nice.

The last film I saw in a theater without knowing anything about it was “Under the Skin,” one of my favorite films of all time. I love the experience of being guided down the rabbit hole into a story I don’t already have mapped out in my head. The films that made me love cinema in childhood — Road to Perdition, Legends of the Fall, The Last of the Mohicans — were experienced like this. I was not plugged into the entertainment industry. I didn’t know who Michael Mann or Thomas Newman were; I just knew I liked things they were involved in.

Manhunter, a Michael Mann film mostly known today as “the first Hannibal Lecter film.” In reality, it’s one of Mann’s masterworks.

Simply put, I received films as they were meant to be received. Plot misdirection meant something. Twists meant something. Tragedy meant something. There was no voice in my head yelling, “Good writing! Bad writing! This should have happened instead!”

I’m back in that sweet spot again. I saw Midnight Mass on Netflix without having read a single thing about it (and promptly spoiled it in my review. As goes for everything on this site, don’t read it if you haven’t seen it!) and, coincidentally or not, I found it to be a masterpiece.

The point is, there’s a lot of (justified) talk these days about the uninformed masses, but I’m also of the opinion that everyone knows a little too much about everything. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about films, or comedy, or painting, or literature; knowing too much about how a thing was made and who made it, especially before the thing is even experienced, can ruin said experience. Even for those of us who enjoy studying how a film is put together — listening to the audio commentaries, watching the crappy behind-the-scenes featurettes, pausing the film to point out to our significant others the symbolism hidden in the lead actor’s tie — there is a limit. Too much, to quote Stephen Fry, is “precisely that quantity which is excessive.” And ladies and gentlemen, it’s out of control.

I shouldn’t know that Jordan Vogt-Roberts is planning a Metal Gear Solid film that will never get made (the rule, after all, is that only video games with shallow, dull, and derivative narratives — or no narratives at all! — get made into films). I shouldn’t know that Ben Affleck was once attached to a hilariously ill-conceived Paradise Lost film adaptation. The list of unnecessary information is almost infinite.

What I’m happy to know, instead, is that as my daughter grows up, she will have a small window of incredible opportunity to see films — or whatever art she prefers — without the added baggage of a hyperactive, hypercritical society that insists we be fully pre-briefed about absolutely everything before we get out of bed in the morning. And I can’t wait to share that experience with her.

From Father and Daughter, a Dutch animated short and winner of the 2001 Oscar for Best Animated Short.