In my junior year of high school, I started getting into movies. My English teacher, who was a serious film buff, warned me half-jokingly: in film, you start with the best and make your way down to the worst. With literature, you grow as a reader and work your way up to the greatest works, many of which are quite difficult. But movies are much more accessible and don’t require nearly as much time, so it’s easier to start with the great works. Over the years you progress to movies that are more obscure, but not necessarily better.

In early 2010, I started writing short reviews for every movie I saw. This journal is now eleven years old and comprises 819 movies. That’s 74 movies a year, or on average almost exactly one every five days.

At this point, I feel exhausted by movies. I don’t enjoy them anymore. Every couple of days I curl up on the couch at 10pm, scroll through Amazon Prime video, and pick something to see. It’s almost always a disappointment. This has been going on for months. I feel like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. The mere thought of sitting through another blockbuster for two hours fills me with dread, and a pre-emptive boredom so overwhelming that I’d rather go do the dishes.

I compare that to when I was a kid, and even movies that objectively weren’t very good would have me totally immersed. Those films of childhood were special – they’d fill me with wonder and ideas, inspiration for scenes to then recreate in The Sims or Lego. These days, sometimes I’m lucky and find that feeling of immersion and awe again. But it happens so rarely that it no longer feels worth the effort to rake for diamonds in the muck.

What happened? I have a couple of ideas, but no firm conclusions:

  1. TV and Film have switched spots. In the 90s – a great decade for American film – ambitious directors strived to make movies. TV was the “idiot box”. This has changed, probably due to the advent of streaming, which structurally changed how people consume media. Cinema has become a bad business, and feature films are now the domain of reliable crowdpleasers like Marvel installments. For ambitious indie directors in 2021, the medium of choice is the ten-episode miniseries.

  2. Self-Censorship. Comedy was big in the early 2000s. Movies like Superbad or the Hangover had meaningful impacts on popular culture. But since 2012, the only successful comedies have been animations aimed at young children.1 The 2000s-era teen/adult comedy has died out, despite immense popularity. Why?2 Adult comedy thrives on irreverence. Over the past decade, we’ve become touchy about what’s okay to say or laugh at. Borat could not be made today.3 More generally, making challenging, contrarian films these days basically requires you to be an established auteur. Otherwise, the constraints on what films can get made (funded) grow tighter every year, and viewers get more of the same.

  3. Most Stories are the Same. Kurt Vonnegut once said that there are only six types of story. The fundamental constraints of the medium (and to a lesser extent, audience preferences) lead to the same story being told, over and over again. If you’ve seen an archetypal movie like The Godfather, then there are hundreds of films that will feel like boring, worse copies. Having seen lots of movies, I do not recall the last time I felt surprised watching a movie.

  4. You Learn the Tricks. As an experienced viewer, you learn the directors’ tools. The main character isn’t going to die this early, there’s another hour in the movie. That’s probably a Chekhov’s gun. As you learn all the common tropes and devices, it becomes impossible not to notice them, and movies become yet another layer of predictable.

  5. Passive Media Consumption is Fundamentally Bad. Many years ago, a friend tried to convince me that the passive consumption of any media – film or television, maybe even music – was bad for the soul. To unthinkingly let a wave of content break over you is to inundate yourself with noise, to be filled with other people’s mediocre thoughts and games. Certainly, passively consuming media usually leaves me disillusioned: time spent, but nothing gained. (Porn is the emptiest calorie of them all.) Film is passive consumption by definition, because it’s best when you’re fully immersed. I’m not sure if I agree that all media is thus fundamentally and inescapably bad, but much of it is.

Thus comes the slow disappointment of watching movies. First you don’t understand them. Then you understand them, and they’re captivating. Then you understand them too well, and they’re boring. Special effects become ordinary, deep movies become dull, groundbreaking themes become repetitive.4 You realize some revered directors are just hacks.5

Perhaps worst of all is the realization that the movies you like are very rare, and as you dive deep into film, you’re on a quest for the one-in-a-hundred experience. One of my favorite movies is Eyes Wide Shut. I have seen all movies that anyone on the internet has recommended as being “like Eyes Wide Shut”. Spoiler alert: none of them are. Not even close. Pulp Fiction had mass appeal, many directors tried to copy it, but it remains unique. One of the great things about movies is how many there are – you’d think the variety is enormous – but as per points 1-4 above, it’s actually surprisingly narrow.

So what is one to do but re-watch one’s favorites? That carries little novelty, but maybe it’s good in that it’s self-limiting. A saving grace for re-watching is that some films take multiple viewings to be appreciated, and sometimes those viewings have to be spaced out over years. Some movies can only be understood and felt by people at a particular point in their lives. My father’s favorite movie is Lost in Translation. I found it unrelatable, but maybe once I’ve gone through my forties and a mid-life crisis, I will find it speak closely to me. Maybe that is what we do as moviegoers – watch them so we know what to watch again – but I cannot shake how terribly dissatisfying that labor is.

  1. Some people might consider Deadpool of 2018 a comedy, but I wouldn’t. I think it’s much more of a traditional superhero movie with some comedic elements. 

  2. Another argument you could advance is that TV and Film have generally been moving away from comedy as a genre. The sitcom-and-laugh-track era appears to be over, thank heavens. TV has certainly become more high-brow over the past decade, moving toward ambitious long-form stories. Ultimately, comedy carries a connotation of cheap laughs, a lack of sophistication, saying many words but communicating no meaning. To today’s generation of filmmakers, a comedy may feel like a dull proposition. 

  3. The Borat sequel of 2020 could only be made because Sacha Baron Cohen is already highly established and can afford to take risks, and he was making a sequel to one of the most popular comedies of all time. (That’s predictable revenue.) 

  4. “Split personality” is an interesting premise for a movie exactly once in the lifetime of the viewer, and thereafter it’s a dullard. 

  5. I’m nearly done with David Lynch’s oeuvre of work, and my disappointment is immeasurable. For a full decade, I had Lynch in my mind as one of the great names in American Cinema. I watched Blue Velvet as a teen and was blown away. And since then it’s been all downhill. Mulholland Drive was okay. Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway are obviously awful movies that he had no clue – zero, nada, zilch – how to tie together into a satisfying story or ending. Twin Peaks after the third or fourth episode was a similar disaster. Lynch apologists will write “ooh, he’s so quirky and ~weird~”, but no, the weirness is a side-effect of the man being incapable of seeing a story through.