Why do people sign up to run marathons?
It’s an odd thing to do, when you think about it. Here in Chicago, something like 45,000 people run the marathon every October. About 15 people who finish the race at the top of their divisions win prize money, but the other roughly 44,985 people don’t get anything at all. In fact, they each pay a couple hundred bucks in entry fees for the privilege of forcing their bodies through a public, grueling, 26-mile speed- and endurance-test.
So why do they do it? It can’t just be to run, or even to find out whether they can run 26 miles. (After all, they could do that any day of the year, for free, just by walking out their front door and Forrest-Gumping it in a direction of their choosing.)
Personally, I can only speculate on the motivations of the participants. (I’m sure a marathon holds many charms for the long-distance runner, ones that undoubtedly elude a former two-pack-a-day smoker who still can’t run a city block without coughing up half a lung.) But surely, for some of them, part of the attraction is the added pressure of having—and announcing—an ambitious, discrete, and concrete goal. Pressure makes for good incentive, after all, even if that pressure is artificial, arbitrary, essentially without stakes, and entirely self-imposed. In other words, it's not that they have the motivation to run the marathon: it's that the marathon gives them the motivation to run.
Which—imperfect analogy though it is—brings us to the matter at hand.
Six years ago, in the summer of 2017, I decided—abruptly, whimsically, and (arguably) quite stupidly—to undertake a film-geek's version of a marathon: I would try to see, and review, every movie that opened in Chicago between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
It was an absurd goal, for several reasons. First and foremost, it should go without saying that I am not a full-time professional critic. (It’s right there in the website’s title: “unaffiliated.”) That means no one pays me to write reviews, and no one gives me free passes to screenings. (My site isn’t even monetized, and wouldn’t make much money if it were.) Basically, I’d be spending a lot of time and money and effort to pretend I had a full-time job as a film critic.
It was ridiculous for other reasons as well. This website has always been a labor of love, and the best thing about being “unaffiliated” was that I could write about what I wanted, when I wanted, at whatever pace and length I wanted. (Historically, I've only reviewed a tiny fraction of the things I watched, and my reviews tend to run very long, and very late.) My stupid Summer Movie plan, on the other hand, meant I would have to see and write about everything, including—inevitably—a lot of movies I never really wanted to see at all. It also meant I would somehow need to do so quickly—or else fall hopelessly behind. (Five or six new movies might be opening on any given weekend: I wasn’t going to have a lot of time to dally or ruminate.)
All of this, of course, was kind of the point. It was an experiment, a deliberate short-circuiting of the way I usually do things. I wanted to see if I could convincingly pretend to be a professional critic. I wanted to force myself to give movies a chance that I’d usually ignore, and I wanted to force myself to temporarily abandon my long-winded habits and see if I could write faster, and more succinctly, while still writing well.
And so was born My Summer of Summer Movies. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day I ran around Chicago like a madman, often hitting two or three movies back-to-back at a single multiplex, or leaving one theater to race across town to catch a random screening at another. (I learned to appreciate the strange double-bills this process produced. In the “Fat Balding Heroes” category, for example, Captain Underpants proved a wonderfully welcome palate-cleanser after the turgid historical melodrama of Churchill.) In between screenings—though there seemed to be precious little time between screenings—I’d write the reviews, as succinctly as possible, forced by necessity to jettison my usual tendencies towards lazy procrastination and languid pontification.
So how’d it go? The experiment was technically a failure, of course, as it was always destined to be. But it was nowhere near as bad a failure as I would have predicted. I missed a few films here and there, but I saw nearly everything. The problem was, the unwritten reviews started to pile up, and around the middle of August I fell hopelessly behind, never to catch up.
All told, I saw 68 films between May 29th and September 4th of 2017, and I posted reviews of 52. (This was by far a personal record: I had never before reviewed more than 30 movies a year.) I saw a lot of good movies, including many that I’d otherwise have skipped in theaters or dismissed unseen. And, if the bad movies outnumbered the good—which they certainly did—even those inspired me to find creative ways to describe a particular film's particular aroma of shit. (I didn't enjoy a single second of watching The Emoji Movie, for example, but I had fun writing about the experience.)
So I was largely pleased with how it went. (I have been relieved to go back and reread those hastily-written movie reviews, and realize that some of them are actually good, and most of them aren't any worse than ones I spent weeks fretting over.) But it was exhausting, and it wasn't a sustainable way to live, and I can't say I ever really expected to repeat the experiment.
And yet—fast-forward six years—here we are again.
Why now? Well, I've been on a long, only half-intentional sabbatical from The Unaffiliated Critic. Over the past couple of years my wife and I have produced some episodes of our podcast, The Unenthusiastic Critic, but I haven't written much of anything for the site. There are a number of reasons for that—work commitments, health issues, a global pandemic, and other writing projects all played a factor—but it would also be true to say I just kind of fell out of the habit. I've kept meaning to start up again, but there never seemed to be a good reason, and inertia is a powerful force. Writing is a lot of work, and—without a financial incentive, and without a huge audience of millions clamoring for new content—it's gotten easier and easier to just not.
Which is where we come back to that "marathon" notion, and the artificial incentive of an overreaching goal. The smart thing to do, I'm sure, would be to ease my way back into regular writing by deciding to review at least one new movie a week. But I know myself, and I know I've told myself that before, and it doesn't really work. So I have a gut-level feeling that some bold, ambitious, utterly stupid idea is needed to help me jumpstart my battery and break out of my lethargy. And this is the stupid idea I'm trying.
So we'll see how it goes. The plan is the same as it was last time: if a new movie opens in Chicago between now and Labor Day—and I can get to a screening—I'm going to see it, and review it. I undertake this plan fully aware that it's silly, aware that I'll probably fail, and painfully aware that—God help me—I'm going to have to watch another goddamned Transformers movie. (Seriously, what were the odds?)
But I'm also weirdly excited to run this race, and stretch my sadly atrophied muscles. I hope some of you will follow along, cheer (or jeer) from the sidelines, and throw the occasional cup of ice water at me as I pass. If anyone wants to sponsor my run—and offset the price of a ticket or two—there's a Donate button at the top of the page. If you want to Subscribe—to be notified of new reviews by email—there's a sign-up box at the bottom. I'm also reinstating this weekly Blog Post/ersatz newsletter, which will post every Monday, to round-up whatever I reviewed the previous week, and announce whatever I'm planning to review next. (I may also use it to write some "mini-reviews," in the not-unlikely event I start to fall behind on the full reviews. Just being realistic here.)
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see a double-feature of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Yay!) and The Boogeyman (Huh?). I'm definitely looking forward to the first one much more than the second, but who knows? Watch this space…