Home Alone

THE LAST FILM I SAW IN A THEATER was Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, at BAM Rose Cinemas in February 2020. Of course it didn’t occur to me that this would be the last movie I’d see on the big screen for well over a year—why would it? I hadn’t gone more than a month or so without visiting a movie theater since I was sixteen. Thirty years of movie after movie, Jurassic Park to Jeanne Dielman. Art houses and multiplexes; malls and drive-ins. All abruptly shuttered, some forever.

So my movie-going narrowed, like everyone else’s—in my case, to a forty-eight-inch Sharp LED TV and Panasonic Blu-ray player (or, for illicit streaming, a thirteen-inch MacBook Air). A nice enough setup for the movie nights I used to host in my Brooklyn apartment, but the movies are supposed to be, in Nicholas Ray’s phrase, bigger than life. How I miss the “caves,” as Manny Farber called them, “the murky, congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities.”

But this forced reduction to the dimensions of television is also a return. In 1984 my favorite movie was Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (they found him), which I still haven’t seen in a theater. I had the luck to grow up during the glory days of the Video Home System cassette tape. After the local video-game arcade and the local comic-book store, the finest establishment on earth was the local video-rental outlet, a paradise of garish rectangular boxes leaning precariously on wooden shelves divided roughly by genre. My town’s one theater played one movie at a time, the one the owners figured would bring in the biggest box office, which was often junk like Ordinary People, so I missed a lot of movies the first time around. And VHS taught me how to watch a movie again—E.T. or The Empire Strikes Back yielded up all manner of unsuspected goodies on a second or third screening. “Viewing any film,” writes the literary critic D. A. Miller in his new book, “we necessarily fail to see a lot of it.”

Miller came of age in the 1960s in San Francisco, so he rarely saw a film more than once “until I turned fifteen and could go downtown on my own.” “Going downtown”: a trope for rarefied or subversive cultural experience, at least in New York, San Francisco, and a few other American cities. The art houses of Miller’s youth freed him from his family’s conviction that seeing a movie you’d already seen “bespoke the indulgence of those, unlike us, with nothing better to do.”

Miller had nothing better to do, especially after technology caught up with his desire to see films a Second Time Around (Columbia University Press, $25). The book revisits newly released DVDs of pictures Miller first saw on the art-house circuit decades ago, ranging from Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff to Hitchcock’s The Birds, with no unifying theme beyond repetition (this can get too cute, though at least he leaves Kierkegaard out of it) and a pleasing idiosyncrasy of attention. The omission of streaming video, now the dominant format for home viewing, is not accidental. Miller kicks things off with an account of “The Cinematheque Today” in which he laments the obsolescence of “the DVD and its distinctive viewing practices.” Streaming “makes it onerous-to-impossible to deviate from the straight line of cinematic unspooling”—ever tried to rewind to a specific point in a film on Netflix?

So this is an old-school celebration of the possibilities of an outdated medium, as Miller pauses, rewinds (the very term, like “dial” and “hang up,” a holdover from an even more outdated medium), summons commentary on the audio track “by pressing a single button on our remote.” It is the variety of what he notices—the trajectory from fist-fucking to fist-fighting in William Friedkin’s Cruising, “Midge’s bright yellow Cosco stepstool, with retractable steps” in Vertigo—that makes the collection more than a lark. Miller, who wrote a book on Jane Austen’s style, blessedly has no truck with “film studies.” He’s just interested in watching movies, subjecting them to what he calls “close viewing,” something “everyone can do . . . the province of the laity.”

Jacques Rivette, Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974. Julie (Dominique Labourier), Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar), Céline (Juliet Berto).
Jacques Rivette, Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974. Julie (Dominique Labourier), Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar), Céline (Juliet Berto). Courtesy The Criterion Collection

Miller’s procedure—art house to DVD—was the reverse of my own, VHS to art house. Like the film critic Dave Kehr, a fellow denizen of the boonies, I made “lists of titles” that represented “exotic places I hoped to visit some day but for the moment remained remote and inaccessible.” Both Kehr and Miller describe late-night TV epiphanies. “Armed with the newspaper television listings,” Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, “and a functioning alarm clock,” Kehr reports in his 2011 collection When Movies Mattered (University of Chicago Press, $23), “the dedicated teenage cinephile could see a range of movies that seems amazing by contemporary standards—albeit in the dead of a night on a nine-inch black-and-white screen.” Miller saw Dial M for Murder on his grandmother’s “mingy black-and-white TV set,” which “would have obscured the film’s structure had I been curious or competent enough to analyze it.” But Kehr was enthralled, “my nose pressed up against the tiny screen in my bedroom”; Miller, planted “in front of the set, the better to see . . . and be near the dials,” found himself under an “enchantment,” “a spell”—a “mystical ecstasy,” no less.

Likewise, as I scoured video stores far from the art houses of the great and terrible metropolises, ticking off titles in the “foreign” section (hermetic Antonioni next to hematic Argento, as if a language other than English spoken in a film were enough to erase genre distinctions), I didn’t care that I would screen my treasure on a secondhand TV with a built-in VCR and broken volume knob. Later I would learn to obsess about aspect ratios and fully restored 35-millimeter prints, and residence in Chicago and New York would allow me finally to catch elusive prey like Two-Lane Blacktop and The Mother and the Whore in their gigantic splendor. For now it was enough to absorb “art films in total incomprehension,” as Miller puts it (me, on first viewing Antonioni’s L’Avventura at sixteen or so: “Wait, what?”).

Miller’s most rewarding chapter, for my money, revisits Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, an insane fifteen-hour miniseries originally broadcast on West German television in 1980. Over a decade ago I failed to make it through more than four episodes of Criterion’s DVD edition, which I promptly sold. I had successfully conquered Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour Out 1 and Béla Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour Sátántangó, but Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Weimar downer defeated me. Does anything happen in this movie? I retained only a vague impression of sordid characters sitting around in bars bathed in neon light. Miller’s descriptions jibed: “unalleviated duration,” “unnervingly slow,” “deadening repetition,” “the kind of film in which ‘nothing happens.’”

But Miller’s essay prompted me to hazard another go, and after receiving a review copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz on Blu-ray from Criterion, which I am happy to shamelessly plug, I found myself—well, not entranced, exactly, but I finished the damn thing. Something was clearly very wrong with German television in 1980, but the movie’s pretty good! Miller argues that it seems even longer than it is because Fassbinder incorporates “vibrant pulsation . . . nearly everywhere in the film”: blinking lights, chugging trains, trembling beggars, fluttering leaves, flashing lightning, etc. These pulses constitute “a strange sort of metronome” that focuses our attention on the dripping slowness of time. I don’t buy this for a second, but it gave me something to think about while I watched the protagonist sit at a bar drinking beer.

Last night I watched Criterion’s sparkly new Blu-ray of Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, thinking to do a “second time around” of my own, though my only comparison is BFI’s DVD from 2006. But I became engrossed in the movie and by the time it was over I didn’t feel like switching to my Region 2 DVD player, which involves unplugging a bunch of cables and plugging them in elsewhere (I’m fairly sure the colors pop brighter on the Criterion). The Blu-ray is superb—it includes Claire Denis’s extremely French documentary on Rivette, which begins with a film critic talking at Rivette in a bar about the difference between cinema and painting (Rivette seems bored). But, having just finished Miller’s book, I kept wishing I weren’t watching it in my living room.

And I realized that all of us have learned a thing or two about “unalleviated duration” this past year. Though I decamped for the suburbs during the pandemic—not a true New Yorker after all—I pine for Angelika Film Center, with its ’80s vibe, and Film Forum. And the Metrograph—beautiful, but sound bleeds in from the adjoining theater and sometimes you have to sit on a folding chair. Even AMC on 34th Street, the sort of squalid hive where Travis Bickle might take a date. IFC Center, the old Waverly, its elbows sticking out. Lincoln Center, Cobble Hill Cinemas, the Quad, Village East. Places I used to go to alleviate duration, watching bigger-than-life pictures with strangers in the dark.

Michael Robbins is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Walkman (Penguin Books, 2021). He is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University.