On the Ethics of Seeing Tenet During a Pandemic

[Editor’s Note: I will be posting a review of the new Christopher Nolan film Tenet in the next few days.  So as to allow that review to focus on the actual movie as much as possible, I have opted to put my thoughts about the process of seeing the movie in these troubling times in the below essay separate from the review.]

On March 11 2020, at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic someone asked me if I would be afraid to go to movie theaters while the virus was out there.  I responded by saying “I for one have no intention of slowing down my theater visits and look forward to there being smaller crowds of assholes with cell phones.”  The stupidity of that statement haunts me.  Firstly it haunts me because of the dumb assumption that theaters would even be open in the forseeable future and secondly it haunts me because of the cavalier attitude I was having toward the situation and social distancing.  Two days after I said that I saw the (terrible) horror film The Hunt in theaters not knowing that it would be the last movie I’d see on the big screen for months and the AMC staff was already trying to employ some social distancing protocols and had begun wearing gloves and masks.  I also had tickets for a rep screening of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre lined up but I never made it to that.  The night of that screening my governor announced that he was shutting down restaurants, bars, and movie theaters and though the order wasn’t going to go into effect until the next day it was something of a wake-up call to me and I decided to stay home and from there I joined with the national lockdown.

In the months that followed I took (and still take) lockdown very seriously.  I’ve taken great efforts to avoid going to the grocery store more than once a week, I’ve avoided in person meetings with most people including close friends and family, my hair is the longest it’s ever been, and when I manage to get out of the house to go for walks I’m careful to maintain distance from the people who walk by even if it means stepping off the sidewalk and onto lawns and into the street.  I realize that I’ve been able to maintain my level of social distance in part because I’m privileged to have a job I can now do from home, but still most of these things can be done by anyone who cares to take the effort.  Meanwhile I’ve watched with absolute disgust as the crises has gone on and on and on largely because of the greed, selfishness, stupidity, and general lack of discipline by my fellow Americans.  I of course have nothing but contempt at the deranged lack of leadership on the part of Donald Trump and by local officials across the country who cave right in when people whine about businesses being closed down and having to comply with mask ordinances.  I also have minimal sympathy for political organizers who delude themselves into thinking they aren’t spreading a deadly disease when they encourage people to pack themselves together in protests, with or without masks.  And perhaps most of all I’m disgusted by everyday people who willfully ignore the multitude of guidance they’ve gotten not to take unneeded risks meeting in groups indoors but who just march into bars, restaurants, and hair salons the second their spineless leaders allow them to despite rising cases and deaths.

Now, as I proceeded to watch people keep this epidemic going by doing stupid things there was always something nagging at me saying “would you be as willing to throw stones if things I actually enjoyed were being dangled in front of me.”  Bars and restaurants were never a huge part of my life and giving them up was not hard, and while it was killing me not to be able to go to movie theaters they weren’t really available to me even if I wanted to march out to them so I hadn’t exactly put my principles to the test and the release of Tenet was going to be quite the test.  Pretty much from the beginning of the pandemic Warner Brothers was lining up that film to be the movie that welcomed people back to theaters but I’m pretty sure when they made that bet they were expecting America to respond to the pandemic responsibly like other countries around the world and for it to have been much more contained by that point.  I don’t exactly blame them for going forward with the release.  All things being equal, I do wish they had just moved the release out to 2021 like so many other movies did so I could (hopefully) see the movie without all this baggage but I don’t blame them for releasing it.  The rest of the world is more ready to open up and can do so safely and their movie theaters shouldn’t remain shut just because America doesn’t have its shit together, and I can at least on some level sympathize with the fact that domestic theaters need some kind of lifeline in order to have a future.

Much of the last few months there’s been a push pull in my conscience between wanting theaters to be preserved and also believing they shouldn’t be allowed to open.  It’s annoyed me when movies like The King of Staten Island and Mulan opt for expensive VOD release over delay, firstly because it makes watching them more expensive and secondly because it’s one less potential source of revenue for theaters when they come back but I do think these lame VOD releases are preferable to rushing theater openings when it’s not safe.  Ideally I don’t think theaters should even be legally allowed to open right now and I don’t support my Governor’s decision to allow such re-opening.  And beyond the obvious dangers of re-opening the act of going to see a movie in a COVID-19 environment did not sound like any fun.  I consider mask wearing to be an important act in blunting the pandemic and do it without complaint, but I also completely hate it.  Getting all those water vapors trapped around my mouth is unpleasant and I also wear glasses that get completely fogged up whenever I try to breathe while wearing these masks.  I can barely tolerate masks for the twenty minutes it takes to go grocery shopping and seeing an entire feature length film in one sounded both unpleasant and also potentially unfair to the film I would have trouble focusing on while dealing with one.

Finally July and August came and went and the film’s final release date was set to be August 26th in international markets and September 3rd for the United States with extensive “Early Access” showings beginning August 31st.  It was finally time for me to decide what I was going to do.  In many ways skipping the movie altogether during this theatrical run just didn’t seem like a real option to me given how much keeping up with current cinema is a passion of mine and something that’s almost tied to my very identity.  The fear of missing out was particularly palpable in the case of a Christopher Nolan film like this as I would need to be out of the loop while the whole world of film discourse dissected the film without me.  Additionally a certain feeling of karmic justice occurred to me: I’d been on my best behavior through this whole pandemic while other dipshits did all sorts of dumb stuff to help spread this disease.  If everyone else can party it up and take all these risks why can’t I be entitled to cheat just once?  That’s not an attitude that can withstand strict scrutiny.  The truth of the matter is that breaking social distancing guidelines is always a roll of the dice, much as other irresponsible behavior like drunk driving is a roll of the dice.  You could do it fifty times and if you’re lucky never get snake eyes, but you could also get snake eyes on your first roll and no amount of past good behavior really changes that.  On the other hand, just living during these times is going to force you to take some risks and this may well have needed to be one of them for me.

And so, the day tickets went on sale I went ahead and reserved a ticket for the very first preview show in a Dolby Cinema Auditorium on August 31st.  Reserving such a ticket and actually going were two separate decisions however and from the moment I bought the ticket I knew I would need to keep on thinking about whether I was going to go through with the plan.  Around the same time as this images were coming out from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a truly horrific gathering in which a bunch of defiant assholes gathered in South Dakota without wearing any masks or adhering to basic social distancing.  That this was allowed to happen allowed to happen is disgraceful and the local officials that didn’t prevent it almost certainly have blood on their hands… but there was a certain guilt that came over me for feeling that way about those people while still having tickets to a not so safe gathering of my own.  When I took another look at the theater website I realized that the screening I had tickets to had actually sold out.  Granted it only “sold out” at 40% capacity, but still that meant a great deal of the theater I was preparing to enter would have people in it and even if they were theoretically going to be wearing masks that didn’t seem ideal and the type of person who would attend such a thing likely wasn’t going to make for the most risk averse crowd.  I didn’t want to be part of such a crowd so I finally balked, decided not to go to that screening, and requested a refund.

From there the plan was still to go to the movie but not until I felt somewhat sure I’d be seeing it in a fairly empty theater.  That was not made easier by this “Early Access” screenings that Warner Brothers cooked up for the film, which I think is some kind of scheme to allow them to report a week’s worth of box office along with the opening weekend numbers.  The whole thing seems to be forcing the theaters to only have three or so showings of the movie a day which is stupid because it forces more people to gather in single auditoriums when the safer thing to do would be to have it basically playing on every screen and spread people out some more.  I was busy with work stuff for a lot of the following week (I’m never quite sure when my day job will have me staying late on a given day) but I kept tabs on the screenings and how many people had tickets to given shows (one of the benefits of assigned seating) and a lot of the showings seemed disturbingly crowded.  Finally on Thursday the 3rd, the supposed real release date of the film, a lot more showings got added and while the Dolby and “Lie-Max” screenings at my local multiplex were still more filled than I was comfortable with there was a 5:30 showing that appeared to only have four people showing up, all located in a group toward the front of the theater.  I decided the time to strike was now.  Seeing that there were still only four tickets old half an hour before the start time I bought a ticket in the top row (pretty far away from them) and drove out there.

I had worried that the screening would fill out in the last half hour but I think I only saw one or two people show up outside of that original family.  So I was located about as far as I could be from another human in the screening but I was still plenty being risked here.  I don’t know how well the air is actually circulating out with these MERV-13 air filters the theater is touting so there could well have been airborn COVID lingering in the theater.  Additionally I had no idea who had been sitting in my seat prior to this and there could well have been fomites all over the armrests for all I knew.  I was careful to use my T-shirt to get my tickets from the automated machine when I arrived and was pleased that the ticket taker was now just looking at my ticket as I walked in rather than physically tearing it, and as I exited I was careful to push the door open with my foot rather than touch the doorknob.  All told I think I saw this movie about as safely as I possibly could have considering the situation but all the warmth and coziness I normally associate with movie theaters was gone and the notion of a theater being a distraction-free environment were certainly diminished by having to adjust my mask a bunch to make sure my glasses didn’t fog up.  The constant dread of mortality and plague spreading probably didn’t help either.

Ultimately I think I saw this thing as safely as possible, but as this rambling essay suggests I had to deal with a whole lot of nonsense and anxiety to do it and that’s not an experience I want to replicate too many times.  I’m certainly not going through it all again to satisfy whatever morbid curiosity I might have about New Mutants, I’m not doing it to check out that Unhinged thing, I’m not doing it to see re-releases of movies I can watch on Blu-ray even if I might have viewed that as a great opportunity otherwise.  In fact there’s not a single thing on the September schedule that jumps out as something I’d even consider going through all that again over.  Wonder Woman 1984 is scheduled for October 2, that might spark some consideration, as will some other titles later in the year like Black Widow, No Time to Die, and Dune but none of those are sure things for me and at the moment I’m hoping they all just get pushed out.  I’m sure there are “normies” for whom only going out to the theaters for major blockbusters like that isn’t out of the ordinary but this is coming from someone who would normally be going out to theaters at least once a week on average so if I’m not pumped to see some movies I’m not sure who will be and I’m sorry to say I hope it isn’t many.


2016 Year in Review

As usual it’s incredibly late but I’ve finally got all my year end stuff up on the blog.  They can both be viewed here:

The Top Ten Movies of 2016

The 2016 Golden Stakes

It’s been a long year and I watched more movies in 2016 than ever before.  When I started this blog in 2007 I watched 63 movies (including movies from that year I saw on DVD but not including documentaries) by year’s end, which was more than usual for a while.  I hit a low in 2010 when I only saw 40 movies by the time Golden Stakes came around and my previous record was set in 2013 when I saw 75 movies by the time I was done.  This year I managed to see 87 movies.  That’s 1.67 movies a week.  Wow.  I don’t know that I’ll do that again this year but we’ll see what comes along.

By the way, I didn’t do a post to announce it but three days ago was the tenth anniversary of The Movie Vampire, a fact that I have mixed feelings about.  I’m proud to have stuck with it this long, but I also wonder where the time went.  Anyway, I may be doing some special anniversary related posts when I have time in 2017.

2015 in Review and Plans for the Future


We’re about a quarter of the way into 2016 and I’m finally ready to finish up with 2015 (thanks a lot work ethic!).  As I do every year I’ve put together a top ten list and a set of Golden Stake Awards, and I’ve finally gotten around to posting them in the special pages section.  Both can be viewed here:

2015 Golden Stakes

Top Ten films of 2015

Now, on to the next announcement.

For the last nine years (wow, nine years of this)  I’ve reviewed every movie I’ve seen in theaters (and a number I’ve seen on DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming) and there’s been one constant throughout: the four star rating system.  It’s a rating system I more or less stole from Roger Ebert and I’ve long thought that I understood it and it worked, but last year I became rather disillusioned by it.  I’m not a professional critic and I don’t make a habit of seeing every movie that’s out there and because my viewing is so heavily curated most of the movies I opt to see are some shade of “good,” which makes them hard to fit into a four star scale.  Because anything that’s two and a half or less is a “thumbs down” it means that a large majority of movies are going to be either a three, three and a half, or four star review and given that I’m stingy about giving out four star reviews that means that damn near everything has been a three or three and a half star review.  Meanwhile, in the last year or two I’ve been in the habit of posting reviews and ratings on Letterboxd.com, a site that let’s you review and rate movies which works entirely on a five star scale.  Doing my ratings there has given me a pretty good feel for how freeing the five star scale is over the four star scale.  The movies I would have given two and a half or less to will still get those ratings, but for anything higher I have more freedom.

A three out of four can be converted into either a three or a three and a half out of five depending on how passionate I was and a three and a half out of four can either be relegated to three and a half out of five or be bumped up to a four out of five.  And the movies that I normally  would have given a four out of four can be converted into either a four and a half out of five or a full five out of five depending on how passionate I am.  These ratings will be more robust and clear, and I want to be using them going forward starting in 2016.  To make this transition more clear I’m going to be using these graphics to illustrate my star ratings  rather than using the old asterisks.

5  4.5  4 3-5_zpswmhmrc3s 3_zpsyxg7shxf 2-5_zpsn9coif22 2_zpsouqiyr54 1.5 1 0.5 0

2012 Wrap Up


I’ve always been of the opinion that in the world of Cinephillia the years go from Oscar night to Oscar night rather than from January to January.  So now, almost two months after the rest of the world moved on, I’ve finally decided to leave 2012 for the history books.  It’s been a hell of a year and I’m leaving it now with a two retrospective pieces looking back at the year in film.

Firstly, I’ve posted the results for my Sixth Annual Golden Stake Awards.  For those who don’t know, the Golden Stakes are a sort of personalized award show I put together where I single-handedly pick both the nominees and winners in a variety of categories ranging from Best Actor to Best Fight Scene.  I’ve put one together every year, but I’ve never really found a good way to present it on the blog until now.  All of the choices can be found at the link below, and I hope to go back and add results from previous years as well once I recover from all the work of putting together this one.

The 2012 Golden Stakes

And those looking for a more concise snapshot of the year’s best film can go over to the page for Top Tens, where I’ve added my choices for 2012.

Yearly Top Tens

So now it’s time to look forward to 2013.  There are some interesting sounding movies in the pipeline for this year and I look forward to reviewing them.  I also have some plans to make this blog a little more personal in 2013 and hope to be writing more than just a whole bunch of reviews.

2011 Documentary Round-Up: Part 2


Bill Cunningham New York (12/11/2011)
Before seeing this documentary I’d never so much as heard of Bill Cunningham even in passing, but within certain circle’s he’s extremely well known and respected.  Cunningham is a fashion photographer.  If that’s enough to make you disinterested I don’t blame you, but hear me out.  I have no respect for fashion at all, but the way Cunningham views the topic seems surprisingly intelligent rather than vapid.  Since the early 50s he’s been photographing people on the streets of New York trying to pick up on trends as they emerge from the people.  He’s an interesting guy too with a lot of charming quirks like his insistence on traveling the city by bicycle and the fact that he lives in an incredibly small room in Carnegie Hall surrounded by file cabinets filled with negatives.  The film does descend into hagiography at times and I would have liked more discussion about what exactly separates his work from that of a paparazzo, but for the most part this is a shockingly interesting and well made doc.
*** out of Four

Tabloid (12/23/2011)
Two years ago Errol Morris made an excellent documentary called S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure about the deadly serious issue of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and it opened to a resounding shrug from the film community.  This year he made a documentary about an ultimately inconsequential sex scandal and received much more attention because of it.  Apparently even in the world of highbrow documentaries sex and sensationalism sell better than war journalism.  Still this documentary about the strange case of Joyce McKinney manages to be a very interesting account of a story that hasn’t really been told on this side of the Atlantic.

It is interesting to try to discern what the truth is in regards to what happened between McKinney and Kirk Anderson, but Morris is ultimately more interested in dissecting McKinney and seeing what makes her tick.  On top of all that, Morris is at the top of his stylistic game and has given himself the freedom to run wild with it.  Morris incorporates newspaper clippings and title cards seamlessly with the interview footage in a way that is visually appealing while also revealing a sly sense of humor about all of the proceedings.  The film might lack some of the weight of Morris’ best films, but its every bit as well made and still very interesting to watch.
***1/2 out of Four

Senna (1/7/2011)
I once looked up a list of the best paid athletes in the world expecting to see names like Derek Jeter or Kevin Garnet, instead what I saw was someone named Michael Schumacher, which is a name I’d never heard of in a sport I had no idea was that lucrative: Formula 1 racing.  Though the sport is not followed at all in the United States, the worldwide fanbase is apparently quite huge, so huge that the name “Senna” is a household name in many parts of the world.  Ayrton Senna was in fact a three time world champion on the F1 circuit and a dominant driver throughout the late 80s and early 90s before his career was cut short by a fatal crash in 1994.  The documentary Senna covers the driver’s professional life from his entry in the European circuit, through a bitter rivalry with another driver named Alain Prost, up until that fateful crash that ended his life.

Because Senna was such a public figure there was so much footage available that director Asif Kapadia is largely able to let the public record speak for itself.  We do occasionally get voice over commentary by sports journalists, but we never cut to talking heads and the film also doesn’t use a narrator, instead we see the various events played out in the footage as if this were a dramatic film.  It’s similar to the approach used for the documentary Tupac: Resurection, which also knew the power of simply letting archival footage speak for itself.  By the end of the film we really feel like we’ve witnessed one of the great stories in professional sports play out before our eyes.
***1/2 out of Four

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front (1/8/2012)
We’ve all heard the stories about “ecco-terrorists” who have set fire to lumber mills and freed test animals, but rarely have we met them.  In this new documentary we do indeed meet one of these so called terrorists named Daniel McGowan, a seemingly friendly and likable young man living in New York.  We watch McGowan over the course of a few months leading up to his eventual imprisonment and then look back at what led him to this point.  We learn about the history of the E.L.F. and what turned them from mainstream activists into arsonists, and how they managed to last as long as they did.  While the filmmaker is clearly sympathetic to McGowan, he does interview both the U.S. Attorney who convicted him, a cop involved in the investigation, and some of the people who lost their property to these fires and allows all of them to tell their side of the story without judgment.  The film itself is efficient, if not overly artistic, it felt like one of the many true crime documentaries that tend to air on MSNBC on weekend afternoons.  That may be for the best given that there’s a lot of information here that needed to be covered, and the evenhandedness by which it is conveyed is commendable.
*** out of Four

Buck (1/11/2012)
Often documentaries will come out and bring attention to stories that seem so interesting that they inspire Hollywood to make a narrative film out of the material.  Here we have an example of the opposite.  Robert Redford made a film loosely based on the horse trainer Buck Brannaman fifteen years ago called The Horse Whisperer and only now are we getting a documentary account of the real man.  Brannaman is an interesting person in that he seems like a “hard” man but he doesn’t have the violent swagger that is often associated with “cowboys.”  In fact he’s the antithesis of the impulsive “cowboy” that George W. Bush claimed to be.  His backstory, which involved a very tough childhood, is also interesting and watching his horse training techniques is also kind of interesting.  The thing is, I’m not sure that I needed a full 88 minutes in order to be interested by all this.  I feel the film may have been better served if it had been a Documentary short subject rather than a feature length film.
**1/2 out of Four

2011 Documentary Round-up: Part 1


Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (9/19/2011)
When the “Late Night Wars” were going on last year my eyes were glued to the TV and the internet, fascinated by the high profile battle that was going on over NBC’s late night schedule.  That said, my interest in the conflict had more to do with my disdain for Jay Leno than it had to do with any true admiration for the comedic talents of Conan O’Brien.  O’Brien is a fun personality but a little bit of him goes a long way, and frankly I’m not that interested in watching a talk show every single night of the week.  As such I wasn’t sure how much I’d get out of this feature length documentary about the guy and given the cult like nature of “Team Coco” I had pretty good reason to fear that this would be a product that was “for fans only.”  In fact it would have been so incredibly easy for the documentarians involved to out a puff piece, a movie filled with footage from O’Brien’s tour mixed with self serving interviews about how “fun” it is to work with Conan.

Instead, what we have here is a very honest film about the “agony and ecstasy” of being an entertainer and a brilliant portrait of Conan O’Brien at a period of great frustration in his life.  The film consists almost entirely of backstage footage from his tour, actual concert footage is sparse, which is good because those shows don’t look like they’d be particularly entertaining unless you’re watching them in person.  O’Brien himself has a report with his assistants and writers that can teeter between jovial hazing and borderline cruelty.  You can tell that he’s someone who wants to make everyone laugh but who’s internally going through a lot of anger.  It reminded me about another famous documentary about a famous person on a frustrating tour: Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, but Conan O’Brien is not Bob Dylan and in this case seeing him persevere through one of his most unpleasant moments only elicits greater respect for the man.
***1/2 out of Four

Pearl Jam: Twenty (10/21/2011)
I love Pearl Jam, in fact I think they’re the living embodiment of everything that a rock and roll band is supposed to be.  This documentary, lovingly crafted by Cameron Crowe, only reaffirmed my respect for the band which is a respect that Crowe clearly also shares.  I’m am not so sure that the same will be true of people who aren’t already enamored with the band, in fact there’s probably nothing of interest here for people who don’t already at least like the band, and that’s what keeps me from fully embracing the film.  That said I really admired just how well the film was put together with tons of archival footage of the band and from related pop culture stitched throughout along with good and relatable interview footage.
*** out of Four

Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (11/3/2011)
The common complaint about Morgan Spurlock is that he makes documentaries that only prove points that should be obvious to begin with like the fact that McDonalds is not very good for you or that not everyone in the Middle East is evil.  That’s true, but it also sort of misses the point.  Spurlock is not trying to break new ground; he’s trying to present interesting information in a fun and highly accessible way.  It’s long been accepted that fiction films can be light entertainment, why not allow documentaries the same license?  This one is particularly fun because it becomes has an almost unintended and highly accessible meta element of being a movie about the making of itself.  Spurlock’s fun Michael Moore inspired stunts are as fun as ever and the fact that he’s dealing with a topic that’s not wildly serious makes them feel appropriate rather than cheap.  We also do get a brief look at the inner workings of the advertising industry, which is interesting in a much more genuine way.
*** out of Four

Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (11/16/2011)
As someone with a more than casual knowledge of Hip-Hop I was fairly familiar with A Tribe Called Quest, even if they weren’t exactly my favorite rappers in the world.  Their albums like Midnight Mauraders and The Low End Theory are indeed classics of sorts, but I don’t think they eclipse the works of other groups around that time like Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, and Gang Starr.  Consequently it seemed a little strange to see the many talking heads in this documentary treat the group like it was the second coming of Mozart or something.  Of course what really matters here is the film’s exploration of the group members and their personal dynamics, and that’s interesting when it finally arrives, but too much of this documentary feels like a behind the music episode and I sort of wish director Michael Rapaport had settled down and decided whether he was going to make a career retrospective (like Pearl Jam: Twenty) or tour documentary (like Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop).  Instead he tries to do both and the results are disappointing.
**1/2 out of Four

Page One: Inside the New York Times (11/29/2011)
This documentary manages to get incredible access to the inner workings of America’s most respected news source at an important juncture in its 160 year history.  All Throughout the documentary there’s doom in the air as the internet seems poised to overtake print media as the preeminent news source and the Times is the white whale that these young turks seem to have pasted a bullseye atop.  Page One: Inside the New York Times is not exactly a paragon of documentary organization, in fact it seems like a number of different documentaries in one: it could have been a vérité work about what the newsroom is like, it could have been a profile of journalist David Carr, or it could have been a straight exploration of new media vs. old media.  It does all of these things and runs the risk of being over-crowded because of this, but it turns out that each of these mini-documentaries is so interesting that it’s hard to hold that against the film and their all woven together so well that you forgive it its overflowing ambitions.
*** out of Four