Pleasures of spending

by Rob Horning

4 February 2006


Recently Steven Soderburgh tried releasing a movie simultaneously on DVD and in theaters. This treatens the existing business model for fils, which require a window of time when theaters have a monopoly on access to a film and thus can guarantee the proceeds earned from those who can exhibit no patience and must see a movie right away, when its buzz is most intense. Of course this assumes that theaters add no value, they only capitalize on a rigged system—in othe words, no one who could choose where to see a film would pick a movie theater; they would pick theior couch and big flat-screen TV. Considering how movie theaters have become these awful warehouses of surly teenagers where you can be assured someone will be talking on the phone during a movie, despite its being amplified to jet engine decibel levels, it’s a fair assumption. But when I see “reperatory cinema” at theaters like Film Forum and Anthology in New York, I get something more out of the experience than I would get sitting at home with a Criterion Collection DVD. Part of that is probably the ability to enjoy some nostalgic anachronism, to get to pretend I’m living in a time when films are necessarily social experiences, and one’s experience of Godard, say, was necessarily shaped by the people there in the theater with you, their reactions and their laughter and the discussions overheard afterword. The church-like communal experience of watching a film like Au hazard Balthazar seems like a part of what the film is supposed to be about, the movies as a spiritual ritual, a purification of everyday life to its essence and a common recognition of those verities revealed. And in going to Film Forum, I’m nicely reminded that I’m not alone with my nonmainstream tastes; I see just how many people share my biases.

In this recent Slate column Daniel Gross writes, “Today, too many media executives regard their businesses as zero-sum games. And in their worldview, every person who watches a new movie on television for free is one less person who won’t pay $9.50 to see it in a theater. But that’s clearly not the case. As with many other productsairline flights, clothes, hotelsёdifferent consumers seeking different experiences will come in at different price points. Just because content is available for free doesn’t mean somebody won’t pay for it.” He stresses the idea that consumers sometimes like paying extra for something, since it gratifies their egos or their sense of justice or because they believe their money is getting them something extra (as in my Film Forum experiences). Often simply spending money forces the spender to be more focused and more engaged with what he has spent it on—in trying to get one’s money’s worth, one works harder at getting more from the experience purchased. This demonstrates Marx’s contention about the nature of money, which begins as a place holder for other values, but soon seems to embody value itself. Then we need to spend it to lend its supposedly inherent value to the social experiences from which its illusory value is actually derived. Value independent of money becomes impossible to imagine; we demand that we spend money in order to authenticate our pleasures.

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