11 March, 2011

Cinema Purgatorio: It's (Not) Movie Time!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was fresh to video in the summer of 2002, and I was fresh to prison. It surprised me to learn that rented movies played twenty-four hours a day on a closed-circuit channel here, and it pleased me to have a cellmate generous enough to let me watch Peter Jackson's three-hour epic depiction of Middle Earth on his TV. I'd rather have seen all that lush scenery on a screen larger than the window of a microwave oven, but it was better than missing out completely.

Back then, there were eleven movies shown each week — new ones, classics, indie releases, blockbusters, and everything in between. Inmates could even make requests by dropping notes off at the recreation office. Being the film snob I am, my requests didn't often jibe with what the convict population craved. Where most wanted blood and guts, or at least explosions and flames, of the Michael Bay variety, I wanted something more offbeat — Wes Anderson's quaint quirkiness or David Lynch's disquieting phantasmagorias. It gave me a secret in-the-know pleasure to overhear an inmate complain about films I chose. The time I requested Donnie Darko — that really screwed with people's heads: "Man, that was some serious bullshit!"

Quality and frequency of movies plummeted in 2005, when the then-governor issued an inexplicable executive order banning from Missouri prisons all video games and R-rated movies. News media reports on the decision quoted him as saying that without such influences prison conditions would improve. I smacked my forehead. Of course it was the movies that made inmates rape each other and do violence. How foolish everyone had been to ever think otherwise!

The only noticeable changes since then have been inmates' options in cinematic entertainment. It's money made from price markups at the commissary that funds the prison's nonessentials: gym equipment, library books, games for the visiting room, DVD rental. That commissary profit is what paid for an expensive "commercial grade" five-disc changer to rotate the month's entertainment on a preset schedule. It sounds far cooler than it is. We average four movies per month now — strictly non-animated G, PG, and PG-13 releases from major studios (except Fox). No more fascinating foreigns, no more intelligent indies, no more deep-delving documentaries. The company awarded the prison's rental contract for the last five years running, Swank Motion Pictures, sounds to my ears like a pornography studio, and I suppose that a name like that should tell me not to expect much in the way of artfully nuanced product, but hope springs eternal.

It's been a year since I watched anything on the movie channel worth my time. On its surface, under the circumstances, movies seem a petty matter to carp about. When so much else is ripped away, leaving vast, vacant fend-for-myself intervals to fill, the tiniest luxury is what I have to get by on. In this instance, that luxury is the escapism of a good film. Now even that's been taken. At least I still have words. They'll have to take those away before dreck like (current selection) The Last Exorcism appears to be an acceptable investment of an hour and a half.

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.