You guys! It's June 1st, 2017. That means that today is an anniversary that makes me really, really happy: you see, EXACTLY three years ago, I started two traditions, both of which are sadly about to end in a couple of months when I leave Provo to move to Boston.
(Oh... surprise! I haven't mentioned it on this blog yet, but I'm going to Boston University in August to pursue an MFA in Film & Television Studies! For more about my career change, click here for the post I wrote back when I first started applying to grad schools.)
Anyway, exactly three years ago, I started two traditions.
The first tradition was "Cinema Sunday," a weekly open group with whom I watched and discussed a different film every Sunday night. Because we've been doing that for three years now, that means we've probably watched over 150 films together. That's insane! Throughout those 150+ weeks, various people have attended (it's been a wildly diverse crowd in some ways--different films attract different folks--but there are maybe a half-dozen people that have been with us pretty consistently almost every week the whole time, too). It's been so cool to hear such a variety of commentary, anecdotes, emotions, and reactions from my friends as we've experienced so many wonderful stories together.
The second tradition was "Mad Men Monday," a weekly TV watching/discussion group (which has also involved a variety of people, but which has tended to be a bit more consistent, because watching a show every week requires more commitment than showing up now and then for a movie). We started, naturally, with seven seasons of Mad Men, then watched a season each of The Wire and Narcos, two seasons of Fargo, a season of Fresh off the Boat, six seasons of Game of Thrones, and now Fargo again (season 3!). Usually every week we'd watch two episodes, then we'd chat about the show and speculate about what might happen next. We'd discuss themes and implications, often veering into long and [sometimes] productive conversations about politics and culture and art and sex and religion and it was so, so good.
I don't know how to sum up my feelings about these traditions. They've taught me so much. Not only because I've watched such beautiful (and sometimes challenging) content, but also because the people with whom I've watched/discussed these films and shows have been such consistently empathetic, thoughtful, interesting, passionate, and expressive people.
Watching Mad Men (a slow-burn dramatic show set in the 1960s which addresses a lot of issues concerning misogyny, racism, socioeconomics, personal/spiritual fulfillment, sexuality, societal expectations, and identity), for example, was illuminating because many of the folks who came over to watch it had dealt with a lot of sexism and harassment in their own lives. The show speaks for itself really well, of course--but since I'm coming from a place of significant male privilege, there are plenty of small, nuanced moments in Mad Men that I would have misread (or even entirely missed) if I hadn't watched the show with women whose life experiences helped inform a close reading of Peggy Olsen's, Joan Holloway's, or Betty Draper's characters.
Some films were extraordinarily difficult to watch with a group. Do The Right Thing, Fruitvale Station, Into the Abyss, Ordinary People, and A Separation come to mind. Not exactly "crowd-pleasers," these films aim to confront us with difficult ideas or content, bringing up real-life events or problems in ways that force us--often uncomfortably--to think really hard about ourselves, others, and the world. This is a good thing. I've learned that it's tricky to do too many of these films in a row--folks get exhausted--but watching these films with people you love and trust can often lead to really memorable evenings full of contemplation, emotion, and insight.
Other films were relatively much easier to watch in a group. Star Wars, Trollhunter, Over the Garden Wall, The Sandlot, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars come to mind. It's fun to watch silly, thrilling, or (especially?) unintentionally funny moments on screen with a group of friends. And, arguably, these "popcorn" films generate just as much good in the world as do more serious, "heavy" dramas.
My favorite group experiences, I found, were somewhere in between--films and shows that were able to be thrilling, exciting, or fun while also tackling important, intimate, or difficult issues.
I think Mad Men is a great example of this. I can't remember laughing harder than I did with my Mad Men friends at the surprisingly hilarious jokes in that show, but it's not a comedy by a long shot. It's emotionally exhausting and it's realistic and it's poetic and it's challenging and it's the kind of show that really makes you search your soul. But it's also quite often an aesthetic treat, a musical journey, and a delightful experiment in how to make distinctive and charming (but flawed) characters collide in interesting (and often funny) ways.
The Graduate, Lemonade, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Saving Private Ryan come to mind as well. They're undeniably masterful and engaging works of entertainment, but they've got a lot to unpack; with the right crowd, there's plenty to discuss.
Another great example of this was Swiss Army Man, a hell of a weird, crude, and absurd film with a heart of gold and a plethora of genuinely thoughtful themes at play. Watching that one with a crowd was like a sort of Rorschach test: you could tell which audience members were willing to engage with it as a philosophical treatise about life and relationships, versus which of us were only willing to recognize its impeccable comedic timing, its ingenious special effects, and its relentless fart jokes.
In fact, I'd say a lot of things we've watched together at my house in the past three years have been Rorschach tests. After pretty much each film or episode you could ask yourself a lot of questions and you'd get drastically different answers each week. How do people react differently to media? Who likes this film/show, and why? Who dislikes it? Who thinks they like it but the more they talk about it the more problems they find? (Conversely: who thinks they hate it but the more they talk about it the more delights they rediscover?) Who has a hard time making up their mind about what they think, and why? Who prioritizes the aesthetic stuff going on over the thematic stuff, or vice versa? Who's reminded of childhood memories? Who has gone silent? Why? Is anyone in the room visibly upset, frustrated, impatient, or uncomfortable with the way the story is being discussed? (And later, in private, do they bring anything up to you: topics they wish people had noticed, questions they wish they'd asked, scenes they'd hoped to further analyze and make sense of?)
You learn a lot about your friends by watching things with them. People who say "movies are a terrible first date" clearly aren't doing it right. What better way to start an intimate, engaging, and complicated conversation with someone than by bringing in a third party for a couple of hours, letting it make its case, and then discussing your reactions to it?
Okay, I'm beginning to ramble.
The point is: it's been a really great three years. These traditions, simple as they may seem, have become a major part of who I am. They have acted as a sort of ritual for me. I feel reverence, gratitude, and peace when I think about them. And I'm so grateful to all of you who have been a part of them.