My Father

I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for my father. I mean, I obviously wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for Mark Royden Winchell, but my mind, my taste, my sensibilities, my humor, my quirks, and my essence are deeply connected to him.
My parents met in the mid 1980s at Clemson University, where they both taught English. They dated less than a year before marrying. They got married and had children later in life than some people do. My father was 43 when I was born. I don’t know what my earliest memories are because I honestly don’t recall being very young, but among the moments that spring to mind from what I can recall is going with my father to the university library to check out books and VHSs of classic comedies. My warped sense of humor has to partially stem from my father repeatedly checking out a big book titled The World of Charles Addams, a collection of Charles Addams’ cartoons from The New Yorker. We would look at the book together, and I would say, “Why is that funny, Daddy?” at pictures such as the Addams Family standing on their roof about to pour a cauldron of hot liquid on some carolers below. Another book that I often checked out was Leonard Maltin’s book on the film comedians, which ranged from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen. With my father’s help, I would look up on the computer if there were books on the comedians I liked. We would go to the book section about films and find them. Often they were big biographies that I was too young to actually read, but I checked out many of them, content to look at the pictures and take from them what I could. My father let me get whatever book interested me. As for the films, I vividly remember getting Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual shorts. I can see the box of one of them still. I also remember getting films from Buster Keaton, especially Steamboat Bill, Jr., and the Marx Brothers. Those old, square husky VHS boxes look like bricks now. It was a regular occurrence for him to take me to the library to check out the books and VHSs. One story that I don’t remember but that I have heard my whole life is that I once dropped my pacifier in the book dropbox inside the library, and we had to go back and retrieve it. They kept it for us because they knew we would be back. And while I’m on the subject of pacifiers and films, I should tell how I finally gave up my pacifier. My parents agreed that if I threw it away, they would let me buy whatever film I wanted at Suncoast video store in the mall. I kept my pacifier much longer than normal. Being daring for my age, I got The Nightmare Before Christmas. My father joked that he would have gotten me Last Tango in Paris if I’d give up the pacifier.
The Winchell family have spent thousands of hours in video stores, libraries, and book stores. Besides the Clemson University library, my father would take me to Movie Gallery and Blockbuster. I am not just old enough to remember video rental stories, I remember when they used to have a silent section. We used to go to Movie Gallery or whatever the name was over the years. It changed many times, including once to Mooovies with a cow logo. I forget how many O’s. We’d go every Tuesday, when new films were released, and I would get a range of old and new films. I didn’t just go in and pick any film real quick. I perused the selection to make the right decisions. My father would always give me my time and space to wander and explore. The same was true of book stores such as Barnes and Noble and video stores such as Best Buy. Books and VHSs were not just entertainments or packaging of the fun. The items themselves were to be cherished, preserved, and ordered. My father kept his books in his own chronological order, and since I was in diapers, I stacked and ordered my VHSs. One of the times I was most angry as a child was when I got Dracula’s Daughter in the wrong box. I had my beloved Universal monster films in a collection that all had the same design on the top of the box. When I ordered the film online, the picture showed the same heading as all my others. Well, the fools gave me the wrong one, and I couldn’t conceive of their stupidity and how they had wronged me. I don’t remember my father’s reaction, but I know that he would have understood my pain.
Besides letting me search for and buy films, my father shaped my love of cinema. I watched a lot of what typical kids my age watched: Disney, The Wizard of Oz, Looney Tunes, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network. Once when I was young I was watching the 1961 Disney version of Babes in Toyland starring Annette Funicello. He said there was an older version of the film starring two funny men named Laurel and Hardy. He didn’t have that film with him at the time, but he did show me their film The Flying Deuces. My father introduced me to the classic comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Bob Hope, and many more. From the earliest age I was watching silent comedies before I was old enough to read the intertitles by myself. He showed me It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, two of my childhood favorite which are both 60s comedies with long titles and have Buster Keaton and Phil Silvers. I was the only 12-year-old who knew who Zasu Pitts and Paul Ford were. My father never forced films down my throat. He showed me a world that many people that age never see. I never cared if a film was in black or white or even silent because I just grew up being exposed to them and loving them. I would like to think that I would have grown up to love films even if my father didn’t show me those older films, that I would have grown to appreciate them on my own, but I don’t know if that would be the case if it weren’t for him spurring my interest at such as young and impressionable age.
Part of this has to be genes, but I definitely have my father’s memory and some of his eccentricities. My brother is high-functioning autistic and if people were actually diagnosed back when my father was growing up, he would probably have been considered Asperger’s. I like to say that I am not on the spectrum, but I’m hovering around it. My father used to be able to reel off authors and dates and facts, not to show off, but because he had the knowledge, and it was almost like he had to say it aloud. I feel the same way about films. Even as a kid, I would make long lists of films. I would list all of the films by my favorite comedians. To this day I can still rattle off all 36 Abbott and Costello films in alphabetical order really fast without hardly thinking, as if I were reciting the alphabet. When we would name numerous works by either an author or a director, it’s not because we wanted to show off our knowledge. We genuinely wanted to spread the information that we had because it interested us and fascinated us. Deep in the recesses of my mind I am operating on a similar mental wavelength as my father. My mind bends and absorbs and blocks the world in the same way to a great extent.
My film knowledge certainly went past what my father knew, but he always remained interested and would see new films with me. When I got old enough to see more adult films in theaters, we would go with me, even all the way to Atlanta for a day of films. I saw my first R-rated film in theaters with my father: The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The opening scene was horrifically embarrassing for about ten seconds, but my father started to laugh, and then it wasn’t uncomfortable. One of my favorite movie theater experiences was seeing Borat on opening weekend with my father with a big crowd. I’ve never heard an audience laugh as hard, as often, and as uproariously. I love so much that my father laughed even harder than I did when Borat brought his own feces back in a bag to the dinner where he was supposed to be learning etiquette.
Some of my other fondest memories of seeing films in theaters with him were the last ones we saw. My father died of cancer ten years ago today. In the last week of December of 2007, between Christmas Day (also my birthday) and New Year’s Eve, he drove me to Asheville, North Carolina, to see Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There where six actors play him. We thought my father’s cancer was gone. He was well enough to drive 100 minutes to Asheville while we listened to Bob Dylan music, see the 2-hour-and-15-minute film, and drive the same distance back home. In less than four months he was in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down. We saw at least four other films over the last months before he was readmitted to the hospital, which he never left. 2007 was an amazing year for films, and we saw No Country for Old Men, Sweeney Todd, and There Will Be Blood. I remember after seeing the third, There Will Be Blood, he turned to me and jokingly said that, since he was dying, maybe he shouldn’t be seeing all these bleak and violent films. The last film we saw in theaters together was Cloverfield, which opened in January of 2008. I went with my friend Max, and the theater was so full that we sat together, and my father sat in another part of the theater. After it was over, I rushed over to him to see what he thought of the film, and he said with a deadpan face that he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.
My father died on May 8, 2008, at age 59. I miss him every single day. There are so many things I want to discuss with him, to debate with him, and to show him. As great as every new film or television series might be, there is still a sadness lurking around it because I can’t watch it with him. There are older films I never knew if he saw. Political issues I don’t know where he stood on. Stories from his life that I will never know. I have a bad habit of not looking back at my life or even the present and taking in what is going on. I just go forward. I will stop and briefly realize that I haven’t really considered or processed something from my life. My father’s death was cruel and ugly, and I hate that he died so young and when I was so young. It just happened, and I don’t know how much I’ve thought about him being gone. He just is. However, I think he is engrained in me to such a degree that I don’t have to sit and ponder him being gone or what that means. Because he’ll always be there. He’s a part of me. As distinct and opinionated a voice as I have, his is also intertwined with mine. He is my brilliant, quirky, loving guardian angel and film partner.
At his memorial service, I showed this clip from The Flying Deuces where Laurel and Hardy sing “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

Why Are People Not Seeing Steven Soderbergh’s Films in Theaters?

Steven Soderbergh is one of the most prolific directors of the decade for someone who “retired” from filmmaking for four years. The Oscar-winning director took a self-imposed break between 2013 and 2017. After his film Side Effects came out in February of 2013, he did not have another theatrical film until Logan Lucky in August of 2017. He was far from unproductive during that time, though. His new film Unsane, which he was the director, editor, and cinematographer of, opened on March 23 of this year. The horror film was shot on an iPhone, as was his upcoming film High Flying Bird, which is already in post production. Since 2014 he has produced four television series: Starz’s The Knick (which he directed all twenty episodes of) and The Girlfriend Experience (based on his own 2009 film of the same name), Amazon’s Red Oaks, and Netflix’s Godless. For HBO he produced and directed the mini-series Mosaic, which included an interactive app that viewers could use to navigate how they followed the narrative. He has another television series in the works for Starz with filmmaker Gregg Araki titled Now Apocalypse, and he has two other television series using the same interactive platform as Mosaic. He definitely isn’t retired anymore.

Soderbergh, 55, has been busy making films since he broke into the indie film scene with his directorial debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which premiered at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, six days after he turned 26. The film received the Audience Award at Sundance, the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and went on to gross $24 million in the US on a budget of $1.2 million. He is the only person in Oscar history to receive multiple nominations for Best Director in the same year; he was nominated for Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning for the latter. Erin Brockovich made $125 million in the US; Traffic, $124 million. He directed Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, which have grossed a total of $426 million in the US. His 2012 male stripper film Magic Mike grossed $113 million in the US. His films have starred some of the biggest, most bankable movie stars on the planet, including George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, and those are just some of the ones in the Ocean’s series.

Ever since he started, Soderbergh has been an eclectic director who has gone between large-scale Hollywood movies and indie films. He is a glowing example of a filmmaker who has done “one for them, one for me.” “Them” being Hollywood, and “me” being Soderbergh’s playful and experimental self. They are all distinctively him own, though. He directed a small budget 2005 film titled Bubble starring non-professional actors and set in a doll factory. He made the 2006 war drama The Good German in black and white with the technology available during the 1940s, the time period in which the film was set. Porn actress Sasha Grey starred in his 2009 drama The Girlfriend Experience. In between these films he was making Ocean’s films and easily enjoyable genre deconstructions such as Contagion and Haywire, often starring multitudes of major stars.

Some of Soderbergh’s films have done extremely well at the box office, but most of his films in the last ten years have underperformed. I think Soderbergh’s disillusion with Hollywood—the films they make and the way they are produced, marketed, and released—began with his 2008 Che Guevara bio-pic Che starring Benicio Del Toro. The four-and-a-half-hour unconventional historical and political epic was a massive production, and it received mixed to generally positive reviews, but its widest release in the US was 39 theaters, and it only grossed $1.778 million worldwide. On the Criterion Collection special features for the film, Soderbergh bluntly says, “It was odd to see people who allegedly are pro-cinema kind of rooting against it conceptually, you know, kind of taking the position of ‘Why would someone make a movie of this length and try and release it this way?’ And my attitude is, well, why wouldn’t you encourage somebody to do something that’s out of the box, whether you like the movie or not. You can not like the movie, but it was odd to see people sort of slamming just the idea of making it.” He goes on to add, “I can’t sit here and tell you that it was worth it. The time, the money, my own money. And the…the sort of…I think the effect it had on the people that worked on it. It also made me consider the issue of whether or not movies matter anymore at all. I think there was a period where they did matter culturally. I don’t think they do anymore. So that…that added to this sense of what was the point of eight years of work when movies, I think, have become so disposable and don’t seem to be…there aren’t many opportunities for them to be taken seriously the way they were in the late 60s and 70s here in the United States.”

Another determining factor of Soderbergh’s anger is probably his treatment when trying to make his Liberace bio-pic Behind the Candelabra. An Oscar-winning director who had made multiple films that had grossed over $100 million had two Oscar-winning actors, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, in a reasonably budgeted film about an iconic American cultural figure, and all of the major studios told Soderbergh that it was “too gay.” The film would not be a financially wise decision, he was repeatedly told. Soderbergh ended up having to make the film for HBO, where it received wide critical acclaim and won multiple Golden Globes and Emmys. In many other countries, the film was given a regular theatrical release.

When Soderbergh decided to come back to directing theatrical films, he wanted more control over the marketing and distribution of them. He already had many hats on as a filmmaker (director, editor, cinematographer), but he was determined to be as economical about how the films were seen and distributed as he was about making them. With his first foray into feature films in four years, Logan Lucky, he did some interesting and unorthodox accounting. Before the film was even shot, he sold the rights to the film overseas and got the $29 million budget. The impressive cast—Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank, Seth MacFarlane, and Dwight Yoakam—helped seal the deal. Then, before the film was released anywhere in theaters, he sold it to various cable channels, streaming and video on demand services, and airlines. The actors also took a pay cut and a profit participation deal where they would get more money based on the box office success of the film. The actors could literally log onto a secure website and track how much money they earned. By dealing heavily with the financial aspects of the film himself, Soderbergh did not just receive creative freedom and final cut on making the film, he was given total control over the marketing, trailers, posters, and distribution methods of the film. Film studios spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns these days in print, on billboards, on television, online, and basically anywhere eyes or ears can consume promotional material. Soderbergh felt like film studios spent way too much money promoting their films and especially wasted the advertising budget with massively popular and well-known properties such as comic book franchises and Star Wars. The director used a scalpel to cut as much fat and as many middle men as possible out of film distribution equation.

And the film underperformed at the box office. The film only grossed $7.6 million opening weekend, $27.7 million domestically, and an additional $19.7 in foreign sales. The film ended up only grossing $47.5 worldwide. Not terrible but underwhelming. What happened? Why didn’t more people see his film? The film was critically acclaimed, with a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 78 rating on Metacritic. It was a smart but easily enjoyable heist comedy with multiple successful movie stars. Perhaps it just wasn’t advertised enough. Perhaps the release date was not the prime time for the film to do well. Maybe audiences were not lining up for a redneck version of Ocean’s Eleven. After all the big budget spectacle films earlier in the summer, the film could have seemed like a good one to wait for at home.

Besides the two Ocean’s sequels, Contagion, and Magic Mike, all of Soderbergh’s films since his triple hits of Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and the first Ocean’s Eleven, which all grossed over $100 million, have grossed less than $35 million domestically. That means thirteen of his seventeen films since Ocean’s Eleven in 2001 have made less than $35 million domestically. Seven of them have made less than $3 million domestically. His new film, Unsane, has been out three weeks and has grossed only $7.7 million domestically. Most theaters are not playing the film anymore or will stop playing it after today.

There are many reasons one can point to as to why Soderbergh’s films often underperform at the box office, but it boils down to one main problem: audiences. People are just not going out and paying to see most of his films. He keeps making intriguing, entertaining films in many genres with popular stars, and they are often released on thousands of screens across the country, and people just don’t go. It seems people, for the most part, only want to see big action films, franchises, sequels, animated films, and other generic releases by the major studios. If they’ve liked Transformers 1-4, why not see Transformers 5? Of the 33 films released in the US in 2017 that grossed over $100 million domestically, only eight were original films (not sequels, spin-offs, or remakes). Ticket prices are so high, especially in major cities, that audiences are more selective about what films they will go out and see in theaters. With the short release time for most films between theaters and streaming and home video and with the quality of home theaters, many people wait for smaller scale films on the small screen. Logan Lucky is a heist film set on a NASCAR track, but it’s not really an action film. Unsane benefits from being seen on the big screen in the dark with a group of strangers, but try and convince the average viewer that a horror film shot on an iPhone starring that actress from that Netflix series is worth going to the theater to see. More people have probably seen Black Panther more than once in theaters than have seen Unsane once.

This article could have been written about a myriad of great filmmakers who are trying to make smart, challenging adult films and are struggling to scrape together a reasonable budget and get any kind of theatrical distribution besides a few major cities. The most recent film released in the US by these directors made less than $1 million domestically: Gregg Araki, Andrea Arnold, Susanne Bier, Joon-ho Bong, Albert Brooks, Andrew Bujalski, John Carpenter, Shane Carruth, David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, Terry Gilliam, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Terrence Malick, Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Alex Ross Perry, Jason Reitman, Ira Sachs, John Sayles, Todd Solondz, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, and Frederick Wiseman. The most recent film released in the US by these directors made more than $1 million but less than $5 million domestically: Olivier Assayas, Warren Beatty, Danny Boyle, Jane Campion, Terence Davies, William Friedkin, Jonathan Glazer, Charlie Kaufman, Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, David Mamet, Mike Mills, John Cameron Mitchell, Sarah Polley, Nicolas Winding Refn, Kelly Reichardt, Jeremy Saulnier, John Waters, Ben Wheatley, and Terry Zwigoff.

The one that hurts the most is Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Scorsese, one of the greatest living directors, spent years trying to make his religious film about Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan, and it came out in the midst of awards season in December of 2016, and barely anyone went to see it. It got excellent reviews and was released on over 1,500 screens across the country. The director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street made a beautiful, deeply personal film starring Spider-Man #2 and Kylo Ren and it just came and went. Who has time to think and feel for 161 minutes? Why bother with supporting a master filmmaker like Scorsese when he pours his heart and soul into a stirring piece of art? If audiences won’t even pay to see a NASCAR heist film starring Channing Tatum and James Bond with a funny accent directed by one of our most consistently reliable and creative filmmakers, forget anyone seeing a long, slow, depressing religious film set in 17th-century Japan.

In the interview for Che, Soderbergh says that films “have become so disposable” and “there aren’t many opportunities for them to be taken seriously the way they were in the late 60s and 70s here in the United States.” Great films are still being made by great filmmakers, but they are struggling to find space in the modern movie marketplace. There are many reasons for this, but the number one reason is the audience. If Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, Kathryn Bigelow, and dozens of other directors make incredible films and virtually no one pays to see them, does cinema matter anymore? Films don’t matter without an audience, and people don’t seem to be showing up where it counts.

How I Watch Films and Television

This is how I do it. I am not saying that my way is the only way.

Sleep is my favorite thing in life. Second is watching a film in a theater on film (although almost every theater shows films only digitally now) on a really big screen with great sound and a big audience as long as they are off their cellphones and not talking. I like to sit as close to the middle of the row as I can. Most of the time I do not like to eat anything, and I usually drink only water. The top two reasons I usually want to see a film are: 1. the director and 2. good reviews. There are over 100 living directors whose new films I want to see in theaters regardless of plot, subject matter, reviews, or actors. If these directors remade City Lights, my favorite film of all time, starring Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, I would still see it. If a film has multiple reviews on Metacritic and has a rating in the red (39 or under), I almost certainly will not see it unless it has a director I am a completist about. I try and watch the original versions of films and TV series before the remakes and sequels. I say I try and read the source material (novel, novella, short story, graphic novel) before seeing the films and TV series they are based on, but I often do not. The only films ever made that I refuse to see are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the 2003 Michael Bay-produced remake; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning; and Texas Chainsaw 3D. I keep a list of every film I have seen, and I have seen over 3000 feature theatrical films.

At my apartment I have a widescreen television with surround sound and a region free Blu-ray player. I have Netflix (streaming and through the mail), Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, and Starz. I own a few hundred films and TV series on Blu-ray and DVD. I do not buy DVDs anymore, just Blu-rays, unless I cannot legally rent or stream the films or TV series. I have never illegally downloaded a film or TV series. I do not even know how to, and I would never do that. It is illegal and immoral. I will not watch a film or TV series on DVD if I can get a Blu-ray of it or stream it in HD. I rarely buy a film or TV series that I have not seen, unless it is a classic or by a director I really admire, and I know I want to have it even if I end up not liking it.

I would never watch a film or TV series unless it is in the correct aspect ratio and completely uncut and commercial free. Even some of the cable channels show films not in full widescreen. I will only watch a film or TV episode if I can watch it in its entirety in one sitting. Films and TV episodes should not be broken up. I have never walked out of a film in theaters or not finished a film. When watching a film or TV series, I turn off all my lights, and I always completely silence my phone and do not look at it. If anyone watches a film or TV series using an electronic device, he or she has not seen the film or TV series. The person has been using a device while a film or TV series has been playing. Since I have my widescreen television, I have no reason to ever watch a film on anything smaller. I have never watched a film or TV series on a computer or phone, and I never will.

If I watch a TV series, I watch it in order, spreading out the episodes by at least a day. I never watch more one than one episode on the same day unless two aired back-to-back originally. I do not like binge-watching series. I never watch a TV series unless I can fast forward through the commercials. I have never seen a reality TV series outside of a class, and I have no desire to see any. I have never seen a TV drama series that premiered before 1990. I am watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Hill Street Blues now though. The only TV dramas that I have seen that premiered before 2006, when Big Love did, are the original Twin Peaks and the British House of Cards, which both premiered in 1990. I want to see more.