November 17, 2010
I have this relatively quirky behavioral trait that manifests itself in constantly keeping the mainstream at arms length. As soon as something I’m into becomes even remotely popular, I tend to, if not totally dismiss it, at least award it less cachet.
Like when Willie Nelson stopped being an underground cult figure and began appearing on metaphorical lunch boxes like some kind of modern day Roy Rogers or something. Or when Ernie "the Breadman" Scow turned the rest of humanity onto "my" secret lair up at Defa’s Dude Ranch.
Following moderate mourning periods, I did return to the fold for both Willie and Defa’s, however. But, although they’ve both rewarded me countless times over the years with high performance lifestyle-as-art and deliciously decadent weekends, I’ve never really found either to be quite as cool as when I had them to myself.
Obviously, there are various neuroses at play here. The notion that the validity of anything is inversely proportional to its popularity would appear, at least on the surface, to be patently absurd. But that, for good or bad, is the somewhat aloof psychic neighborhood I inhabit. It’s a jungle in here.
My favorite experimental laboratory in these matters is the cinema. Nowhere is the feedback more instantaneous than when, after settling in your seat in a dark theater, you realize you are alone, or nearly so. The feeling that almost no one else shares your artistic sensibility borders on the rapturous.
One example would be "The Baader Meinhof Complex," a docudrama set in a highly-radicalized 1970s Germany that attempted to portray cinematically the inner workings of the "Red Army Faction" (RAF) which, due to the names a couple of its members, became known in the media as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
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When it came out a couple of years ago, I marked the date it would screen locally on my calendar and awaited, somewhat patiently, its arrival. I remembered the actual story as one of horrific underground violence played out against a backdrop of horrific governmentally-sanctioned violence.
I entered the smallish art-house multiplex theater early and, having the joint to myself, selected a seat dead center and a good ways back. As always in such circumstances, I wallowed in my solitude. By the time the previews had finished and the feature began, no one else had entered. Pure bliss!
But then, out of the corner of my usually-highly-suspect peripheral vision, I caught sight of a gent with a cane and a béret shuffling down the aisle. He took a seat in the front row and, intermittently throughout the screening, interacted with the characters verbally. I loved it! It was like watching myself.
I recall behaving in a quite similar fashion during "Shattered Glass," a 2003 film about a New Republic writer who, unbeknownst to his employer, turned in fabricated stories. Being totally alone set me free. I talked back, laughed uproariously, guffawed, scoffed, berated subplots, and generally had my way with the film.
So, all seemed quite well in my serene and comfortable cinema-appreciation world — until last weekend, that is, when the discovery that I had missed the weeklong theatrical release of the "50th Anniversary re-issue print" of "Breathless," the Jean-Luc Godard film that in many ways inaugurated the "French New Wave," jolted me to the bone.
But that was only part of the problem. Now, as we now know, if I had been alone in the theater for the screening, it would have been best-case scenario. But when I learned from the theater manager that weeklong attendance for this wonderfully-irreverent classic had been paltry at best, some even wanting their money back, I felt outraged at the film public.
Didn’t they know they should have packed the theater to the rafters for each showing and how lucky they were to witness the coolly-detached Jean-Paul Belmondo, a cigarette dangling from his pouting lips, narcissistically seduce Jean Seberg into his irresistible yet doomed existence? And on the big screen with a newly-restored print to boot!
Money back, indeed! What possibly could there have been about this iconic film that caused someone who had already gone to the trouble to attend to demand a refund? What was it they didn’t understand about this essential contribution to the birth of modern film?
Actually, how refreshing that they didn’t "get it." We "in the know" wouldn’t want to feel crowded, now would we? How wonderful the solitude. It leaves you breathless.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.