When I was at Cal taking film classes, I had it drilled into me that there is no replacement for seeing a movie in a real theater. Since the primary alternative at the time was VHS, I was inclined to agree. So after I graduated I went to movie theaters reasonably often and caught a fair number of the well-reviewed arthouse flicks of the 1990s. I actually saw some really obscure stuff when I moved back to Orange County for a while, since movies that played only in New York and LA also tended to play Costa Mesa for some reason. But since then I've pretty much given up on theaters. The rise of digital home video coincided with my moves to places where the art theaters were inconvenient to get to (in Washington getting to them meant dealing with Seattle traffic; in New York it meant a long walk to the subway and the horrors that lurked therein). By the time I got to Massachusetts, I'd been broken of the theatergoing habit, and some bad experiences put me off theaters entirely. So it wasn't until Jen wanted to go see Howl's Moving Castle that I got to see what Northampton had to offer in the way of cinemathèques.

We went to the Pleasant Street Theater. This proved something of a misnomer, as the theater was unpleasant and under the street. It was a long chute made of bricks painted black, extending away at an oblique angle from a small screen. There was also no air conditioning, and while the heat wasn't a problem underground, it was pretty dank. The angle of the floor, or lack thereof, gave patrons an excellent view of the backs of other patrons' heads. Now, to be fair, presumably the theater above was nicer, and the managers of the Pleasant Street Theater would probably argue that they were doing the public a service by building their little cinematic bomb shelter because otherwise the film showing therein would be gone from western Massachusetts entirely. But these days that just means waiting an extra six weeks for the DVD. It seems to me that now that most movies are viewed at home or in the back seats of vans, if a theater wants to justify a ticket price that costs more than a rental, it needs to offer a better experience than one can get at home: a huge screen, no ads, unobstructed sightlines, correct projection, comfortable seats, and an understanding that it is entirely unacceptable to converse about the film or talk on the telephone while the movie is showing.

As for Howl's — not bad. The niftiest bit was the castle itself, which reflected the heroes' fortunes, from a ramshackle monstrosity to a handsome flying village to a plank on a pair of wheels. There is also an appealing scarecrow character. Even when times get tough, he remains pretty sanguine about things. Once again, I was impressed with just how much story these cartoons give you for your money. There's one character who initially seems like the main villain, and so I expected that her defeat would be quickly followed by the credits. Instead the story takes on such epic proportions that when she's dispatched it's almost a footnote.

On the Netflix front, Jen received A Shock to the System, which I watched and found pretty weak. It is like the quickly-canceled 1996 TV series Profit, except whereas Profit was atmospheric and featured an interestingly twisted protagonist who returned to his luxurious home from a full day of corporate skullduggery and curled up to sleep in a cardboard box, A Shock to the System is very 1980s and features an oaf. I don't know what it is, but when the Michael Caine character showed up to his white-collar workplace, I found it difficult to take him seriously unless he was there to move the furniture.

Jen also got A Mighty Wind, which mercifully ran into a technical glitch and stopped playing after half an hour. Let me put it this way. In Ready, Okay! there is a bit in which Allen is at an Easter party eavesdropping on conversations and finds that they're all pretty inane. At one point he hears someone say, "So, Frank, I hear you're thinkin' about gettin' yourself a boat." In A Mighty Wind, an entire scene would have been built around that line. Utterly typical is a scene in which one of the Folksmen runs into the others at a get-together and says something like, "Hey, didn't I use to play with your kids back in the day?" You know, the sort of banter that people regularly engage in — it's not actually funny, but it shows that you're jovial or whatever. But here's the thing. The filmmakers seem to think that the fact that people are engaging in unfunny banter is itself funny. And they're wrong. It wasn't funny in Waiting for Guffman (another one I was relieved to be released from early), it wasn't funny in Best of Show, and it's not funny here. There is a bit in This Is Spinal Tap in which the band is playing a military base and one of the officers is showing them around; at one point he notes that he's let his hair grow a bit longer than is usual in the military: "I'm getting a little shaggy myself. I'd better not stand too close to you, people might think I'm part of the band. I'm joking, of course." Again, the comedy is supposed to derive from the fact that his banter is falling flat. Apparently Christopher Guest thought this was the funniest moment in the movie because it seems as though he's made a career out of filming it again and again.

It's not all about the ostensible hilarity of inane chatter and awkward moments, though. It's also a freak show. Come laugh at the big cast of weirdos! Now, I've read debates about whether the laughter is supposed to be malicious or affectionate, but that's beside the point. I'm just saying that there are many other types of humor aside from "ha ha, isn't this guy weird? and her! isn't she weird?" and most of them are superior. It's not a very rich vein of comedy that Guest and company have staked out for themselves. My memory tells me that This Is Spinal Tap was a funny movie; A Mighty Wind made me start to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks on me.

Which brings us to The Aviator.

The Aviator is a biopic about Howard Hughes. The first part of the film is about the making of Hell's Angels, Hughes's legendarily expensive 1930 war film. We see Hughes launch his fleet of biplanes and lean out of a plane with camera in hand, nothing between him and the ground thousands of feet below, and it's impressive and scary... but it also suggests that this is going to be a movie about the movies, a masturbatory exercise at the best of times. I remembered that at the end of his life Howard Hughes supposedly watched Ice Station Zebra obsessively, and I recalled that Aviator director Martin Scorsese is known for keeping a continuous film loop going in his living room — was that the connection that drew him to this subject? It seemed so, as the first half of The Aviator revolves around Hollywood and Hughes's dalliances with various actresses. Look, here are modern stars playing old ones! Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow! Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn! It was starting to look more like a parlor game than a story.

Fortunately, the second half of the movie is significantly stronger than the first, focusing on the onset of Hughes's famous mental illness and his struggle to overcome it at least long enough to stave off an effort by Pan Am and the legislators in its pocket to establish a monopoly on transatlantic travel. The scenes of Hughes at the congressional hearings are riveting and all by themselves made me feel that the time I'd invested in the movie had been well spent. Hughes's deterioration from eccentricity into actual madness is also interesting. The movie stops in the late 1940s, before he started wearing Kleenex boxes as shoes and breaking off hypodermic needles in his arms and stuff, but I guess they had to save something for the sequel.

Howard Hughes was one of the first people I knew to be famous when I was a little kid. (As I recall, my understanding was that the two most famous people in the history of the world were Neil Armstrong and Alexander the Great.) Hughes, I gathered, was the richest man who had ever lived. I guess in retrospect that was the middle phase of his celebrity: first he was the famous filmmaker, aviator and playboy; then he was the reclusive "richest man in the world"; and now even people who know nothing else about him, neither his accomplishments nor his bank balance, know him as the freakish germophobe who inspired an episode of "The Simpsons." Michael Jackson has followed a similar arc in his perception by the public: musician, ultra-rich eccentric, freak.

The editorial cartoons that followed Jackson's acquittal were mostly the same: a jury box with the foreperson declaring, "We, the jury, find Michael Jackson guilty of being really weird!" Tom Cruise has also been rapped for aberrant behavior, be it chastising Brooke Shields or jumping on Oprah's couch. They say that at the onset of adolescence, kids become obsessed with the question, "Am I normal?" I guess that means that culturally we're around twelve. It also means that, like a twelve-year-old, we have the mistaken impression that there is some standard of "normality" to which everyone adheres except for a few freaks and that we're terrified of being one of the few.

But Jackson and Cruise and all the other weirdos are not really all that unusual. I mean, jumping on a couch? Most people do something stranger than that every day. They just don't do it on television... because they don't get to be on television. Even Jackson isn't as uniquely bizarre as the media chorus would have us believe. It's just that, having had access to the kind of financial resources that Howard Hughes and very few other people have had access to, he's been able to indulge his whims more than most people get a chance to. So, what, he had a chimp? People keep all sorts of animals in their houses. There was a woman in the news recently who had 488 cats, most of them dead. There was a guy on "This American Life" who cloned himself a pet bull and continued to keep it even after it gored him multiple times. He's had too much plastic surgery? So has my mother. Hell, try to find someone between 20 and 35 who hasn't done something grotesque to herself, be it plastic surgery or ramming metal spikes through her body or injecting her dermis with rust and copper phthalocyanine. Ah, but what about the sleepovers with the little boys? Flip through the papers sometime and count up all the ministers and coaches and politicians who get caught diddling children. It isn't right — but it's far, far from unusual.

Just about everyone has some quirk that would get him branded with a scarlet A for Abnormal if anyone cared enough to pay attention. Phobias, compulsions, eating disorders, you name it. I have more than a few of my own, ranging from the serious (a fight-or-flight response to the smell of alcohol) to the whimsical (a weird feeling every time I pour out a glass of water left on a counter that I've thrown away someone's contact lenses). And that's not even counting the things that are considered normal but actually are pretty fucking strange. Hundreds of millions of people wear jewelry depicting an instrument of torture (often complete with tortured human figure upon it). Hundreds of millions more mutter to themselves and think that invisible, all-powerful creatures are listening. Billions wear clothing even when it's broiling hot outside because of a little voice telling them that certain parts of their bodies are obscene. And I'm supposed to think that Howard Hughes storing his urine in milk jars is somehow beyond the pale?

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