MCN Commentary & Analysis

Thankful 2020

After 22 years of doing an annual Thankful column, I shouldn’t let a mad king and a pandemic get in the way.

I am always thankful for filmmakers doing the work, even when the work doesn’t live up to my idea of the highest quality. The work of making movies is almost never easy. The life of being a filmmaker only ever becomes comfortable for a few. It doesn’t show up on your doorstep, hoping for you to be a part of the circus. Billy Ray, who is one of those who has the comforts of success, talked to me about this being the most productive year of his professional life. The circumstances created a kind of quiet, which allowed him to focus and get his work done. But then again, he seems the kind of guy who would also get his work done living on 10 square feet in the middle of an active volcano. I know a wide range of creators in the film and TV world. Each storyteller is different. Each level of drive is different. But no one sets out to fail or be embarrassing. Some go from project to project. Some grind for years between opportunities. They aren’t saving lives, but they are the front-liners of this industry. And for that I am thankful, whether I liked your movie or not.

I am thankful that in a nightmare of a year like this, Netflix built streaming into a real thing and that so many others – however nascent their efforts – have joined. It’s a double-edged sword. If I had read as many books as I have seen movies that I never would watched in a normal year, I would feel like an effete smart guy. But I am a television kid and a movie person and the range of available content that is readily available has been glorious.

I am thankful for the perspective, on a movie level, that the pandemic has allowed. I actually miss the early days of the pandemic, when I was up all night a lot and tearing through all the services, but particularly The Criterion Channel, reminiscing and expanding the stupid-large library of films in my head and heart. Not every happy memory of a movie I hadn’t seen in decades remained a good one. But it was a reminder that not every movie – even from great filmmakers – will be good and that there is something inside every piece of work that delivers value. Wandering through the Criterion 1970s horror film collection last month was illustrative. There were certainly the kink and nostalgia elements. But there were also ideas in many of those films that matured over the years, usually through other filmmakers, and delivered in a very different way in the 90s or 00s or by the last decade of Blumhouse. Right now, I suggest that anyone who hasn’t see The Underneath or King of the Hill do so (on Criterion) this weekend if you love Soderbergh’s work… because both little-seen films are key to where he is now, as all of his films are.

I am thankful that Steve McQueen decided to bring his artistic skills to cinema. Mangrove is my movie of the year, so far. The other four films in the “Small Axe” package also bring to life a personal moment in time, the way great, sometimes personal filmmakers like Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan have over decades. McQueen did it in a year or so.

I am thankful for the clarity that this year has brought to the job of being an entertainment journalist. Of course, part of that clarity is a nightmare. There are good journalists and bad journalists and good work and bad work and it all gets mixed up in the stew as everyone hopes to keep their jobs. I have become much more conscious that I can’t just grind out shit. Regardless what anyone thinks of me or my ideas, my survival as a journalist remains a function of studios buying ads over four or five months every year… But it can’t just be me carrying the water for those studios to pleasure them and rationalize my purpose. For me, the politics of the moment are a problem, not because I feel cancelled, but because the mainstream in my area of the business don’t even engage ideas that are not cleanly wrapped up in a familiar box. When I see all the water going the same way, I don’t think, “Hey, I can get attention for being contrary.” I think, “There is something really wrong here. In real life, water doesn’t all go the same way.” Something truthful is not very far from the surface… but most outlets won’t bother scratching deeper than a lottery scratcher. And of course, the me-ification of journalism puts enormous pressure on the “me”s getting it right. And very few really know or ever knew anything pre-2010. Writers, when they are the “me” don’t think of that as a problem. They are smart and skilled and people say things to them. But it is a huge problem. History informs the future. Always.

I’m thankful for the festivals that chose to stream and deeply disappointed in those that did not. They chose unwisely. For the most part, these festivals did well. There were glitches and frustrations. But those are beyond even needing to consider forgiving.

But none of these festivals were anything like being at a festival for real. And seeing films in your living room – giant TV, excellent sound, no streaming glitches – is still not seeing a film in a room with other people. And at festivals, you are generally in full rooms, which is optimal. It’s not a fetish. It is a different experience. It’s not as subtle as CD-versus-vinyl. It’s the difference between eating at a restaurant and eating at home. I love cooking at home. But I also love restaurants. And if you feel otherwise… okay. But Zoom ain’t being in the room. And in a room at a festival, I can feel this pleasure.

I am thankful that anyone has read this far. I am thankful for my family. I am thankful for my friends (every level of friend) in the industry. I am thankful for every DP/30 guest who has given me their time and their honesty while I have no glossy cover to offer as bait. And I am thankful that something that brings me so much pleasure has a consistent, albeit modest, audience of people who love the work and love the talent who talks with me.

I am thankful that we will have a new president and that I live in a country that is profoundly flawed but that can survive the lowest scum there is running the country for four years.

I am not thankful for COVID-19 in any way. Fuck you, COVID-19.

I look forward to really getting back to work when things are safer. I’m not really sure what that work should be. I am not only going to have to recalibrate for a changing journalism industry, but I have to recalibrate for a time when we are not spending hours a day trying to synthesize the madness of the nation and the existential issues that come with that. At 56, I consider the roads taken as much as the roads in front of me. That’s probably a waste of time. I have always had an arrogance about what is worthy of my time and effort. I’ve never really been able to afford that arrogance. But I have also been amazingly lucky. My life is imperfect, but I have so much to be thankful for now and in so many past years.

Thank you all. May 2021 be everything that 2020 was not.

11 Responses to “Thankful 2020”

  1. Dr Wally Rises says:

    Thank you David. I am thankful that, for the first time in my adult life, Liverpool finally, finally, after three decades of near-misses, heartache, underachievement and false dawns, won the English Football league title.

    I never envisaged a thirty-year wait for that elusive championship ending in quite these circumstances, but as an institution we never like to do things the conventional way.

  2. Bob Burns says:

    I am grateful to every crew member of every film, even the films I dislike, because I know each and every one of them is trying to do their best work every day on every project, with hope that their films will be something wonderful. We critisize their efforts only because we are holding them to the high standard of being awards worthy.

    I am very grateful for this site, for David’s analysis, and especially for the news feed. which almost always points me to commentary that is new and interesting. Thank you David, and Ray.

  3. Ray Pride says:

    Thank you!

  4. David Poland says:

    Thanks for sticking with us, BB.

  5. Amblinman says:

    “If I had read as many books as I have seen movies that I never would watched in a normal year, I would feel like an effete smart guy.“

    “Readin is for the gays”

    2020 broke you, Dave. Good luck, bruh.

  6. Bradley Laing says:

    Hollywood at a Crossroads: Studios Face Tough Choices on How to Reach Audiences as Coronavirus Worsens
    Rebecca Rubin 1 day ago

    “The number of screens to play a movie could keep dwindling, especially if independent cinemas don’t receive federal relief.”

    —Who is lobbying for federal relief for independent cinemas, right now?

  7. Stella's Boy says:

    Theatrical is fine. Nothing to see here. Theatrical revenues are too important to studios. They will never go full streaming. DP just said so.

  8. Ray Pride says:

    The Telephone People work in mysterious ways. Goosing the stock price by making a huge announcement about a couple billion dollars worth of inventory?

  9. Bradley Laing says:

    —Would the politicians listed below provide money to independent cinemas?

    The Washington Post
    What’s in the $908 billion economic relief proposal
    Jeff Stein 5 hrs ago

    Once the top-line numbers are agreed to, the bipartisan group is expected to leave the details to the leaders of the Senate’s small-business committee. Those senators — Rubio and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) — would then be expected to negotiate specifically how the $288 billion is apportioned in economic relief for firms. Talks between Rubio and Cardin over another round of PPP funding collapsed in recent days, suggesting that it may be hard for them to reach a quick agreement.

  10. David Poland says:

    It’s all theaters, in theory. $15 billion. Not sure what the independents might get out of that.

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