Movies

When Every Film Is Released Like a Blockbuster, Real Movies Get Lost in the Shuffle

The Slate Movie Club: an interruption.

A young woman and young man, the main characters of The Painter and the Thief.
The Painter and the Thief. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Elevation Pictures.

[bangs gavel]

THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF!

Now that I have your attention.

2020 has been a year for sitting with your thoughts, and here’s one I’ve been sitting with for a while: In a world where everything is #content—“textureless future food,” as Alison so Soylent-ly puts it—we’ve lost more than the evanescent magic of the movie theater. This year film festivals and local arthouses soldiered on in virtual form. But without that infrastructure, which builds buzz nationally and locally for small movies that require care and attention, almost every 2020 movie got the same kind of release: posted to a streaming platform and then left to fend for itself. In a post-theatrical world—which, to be clear, I don’t think we’ve entered yet, but we’ve certainly gotten a taste—the pool of content into which movies are dropped is so vast that even the content keepers themselves can’t keep track. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich reported a few weeks ago that when Variety’s chief critic, Peter Debruge, began contacting Netflix about A Sun, the Taiwanese epic he would end up naming the best movie of the year, the company’s publicists seemed unaware that it even existed.

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In a sense, streaming offers the ultimate level playing field—as Justin points out, everything is the same one click away, and it’s been remarkable to read a Movie Club in which nearly every film discussed can be watched, instantly, by readers from the biggest city to the smallest town. But getting the same simultaneous worldwide release as a comic book blockbuster doesn’t mean you get the blockbuster treatment. What it does mean is that even the rarest and most delicate of movies—the kind that the ecosystem outside Hollywood typically nurtures like baby birds—get the same brief window to grab an audience’s attention, the equivalent of an opening weekend when there’s no physical limit to how many movies can “open” at the same time.

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Who cares if some weird foreign film gets lost when there’s The Queen’s Gambit to watch? Practically speaking, the answer may be nobody—or at least not enough bodies to turn the tide. But it’s worth fighting the good fight for movies like the afore-yelled-about The Painter and the Thief, a documentary with enough intrigue and troubled psychosexual dynamics to fuel a 10-episode miniseries (although I’m glad it’s not one).

Benjamin Ree’s documentary premiered at Sundance and was released on demand in May. It’s an engrossing, often mysterious account of the relationship—friendship? romance?—between a Czech artist and the burglar who made off with one of her most treasured works. Karl-Bertil, a drug addict with a huge chest tattoo that reads “Snitchers are a dying breed,” claims that he can’t remember what happened to the painting, whose loss obviously pains the painter, Barbora. So while it’s alarming to see him reclining on a couch in her apartment, her motive seems clear enough: befriend him and hope that he eventually reveals the painting’s location. But as their meetings stretch over months and eventually years, it becomes less clear what either of them is doing, or even thinks they’re doing. Is Karl-Bertil plotting another crime, suckering in a bohemian liberal intent on performing her own broad-mindedness, or is he just a broken soul desperate for a kind word? Is she a bourgeois vampire leeching off his underclass “authenticity,” or maybe even looking for a bit of rough trade?

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The movie keeps us in the dark until its final shot, sometimes by withholding details (like the existence of her husband and his girlfriend) that might have clarified matters at the expense of the overall mood. Perhaps that’s not playing fair—at least a few critics seemed to think as much—but what the film achieves is more engrossing than a mere recitation of facts. It’s about the places that following our instincts can lead us, sometimes wisely, sometimes less so, but always to somewhere we couldn’t have ended up any other way. And because of that, it’s a movie you need to sit with for a while, perhaps a few minutes or a few months. (The Painter and the Thief’s closing bombshell is definitely one I wanted to spend a few quiet moments contemplating.) One thing the endless conveyor of streaming video has robbed us of is those precious moments after a movie is over, that brief interstitial when the house lights come halfway up like an airlock equalizing the pressure between worlds. Even if you manage to lunge for the remote in time to hit “show credits,” that fleeting pause for reflection, to process what it is you just saw, is gone.

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One of the underrated privileges of being a critic is having the time to turn things over in your mind before you have to put your thoughts into words. But that time is increasingly a luxury even we professional luxuriators can’t afford, to say nothing of a culture that is always being relentlessly spurred onward to the next binge watch. When everything is extruded from the same tube, there’s no way to know whether to prepare yourself for a slow-food feast or a squirt of nutritional paste, which is how we end up with Netflix’s library of pre-chewed movie substitute. Here’s to movies that stick in the throat.

Read the next entry here.

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