Affected Passion: The Eurocup and Arthouse Cinema

An admittedly rambling post today, because a couple of Sundays ago, I was contemplating beating the heat by ducking into a movie theater.

Which reminds me of the time I went shopping for a classical music CD with the intention of finding some background music for the office I was working in. Doing math something like, “Well, the Bach cello sonatas are on sale at seven dollars for an hour and fifteen minutes,” I realized I was trying to maximize musical minutes per dollar. I went to work with a box set of the complete Mozart piano sonatas, and a sick feeling that I’d insulted the memory of someone who’d given his life to music.

That Sunday, with a different equation at work, I was really just looking for air-conditioning. Remembering the insult I felt I’d hurled at the great composers, I opted to duck into a bar for happy hour instead, and then take a nap and catch a late film, when I was more alert to appreciate it. (True confessions: I’d also heard that the blockbuster that might have lured me into the “BTU’s times minutes divided by dollars” zone, Prometheus, just sucked.)

Standing room only during the Eurocup final.

Strolling down 5th Avenue in Park Slope, I started noticing that there were crowds inside the bars already. It’s a Yuppie bar crawl kind of atmosphere most nights, but at 5:00 on a Sunday? Then I realized it was the Eurocup Final between Spain and Italy.

Back in 2010, my old landlord, a firefighter, described the World Cup as that period every four years when Americans act like they care about soccer. The Eurocup is soccer’s second biggest prize, or at least Europeans think so, and it falls in between World Cup years – during Olympic years.

I’d already sworn off the Eurocup, and soccer in general, because my old landlord was right: it was an affectation. College-educated white people express the national allegiances they cultivated during their vacations or their junior-years-abroad by cheering for athletes they’ll forget in a week. A favorite topic of the spectators is how great the game itself is: like sheep cheese and health insurance, sports is something Europeans just have a knack for.

I’m a Europhile, and I find this kind of bonding snooty and disingenuous. Not that we should turn our noses up at fun – and it is just plain fun to be out with a pint of beer in front of you, and a cute Polish girl or Irish guy across the bar, all of you ooh-ing and ahh-ing in unison while blokes from the working class and immigrant ranks of the great old industrial cities pull off spectacular athletic feats and…almost-score.

When we congregate to check out a spectacle, however, a part of what we are there for is to see who else is watching, what our peers in spectatorship look like. Who hasn’t had the experience of becoming fascinated by the crowd you’re in, when you realize you’re surrounded by comrades, or running into acquaintances on the way into or out of a venue and becoming instantly closer to them? “Oh my God, you like [the Rangers/ klezmer/ Goldfrapp/ Danish cinema/ batting cages/ the opera/ blues festivals/ history lectures/ etc.] too?”

The times I’ve indulged my curiosity about soccer, I’ve been impressed by how knowledgeable a few fans are about the game, but irritated by the self-congratulatory tone of the cheering. Like a crowd at Carnegie Hall giving Mozart’s 40th Symphony a half-hearted standing ovation, it feels like we’re cheering for who we are: we are international citizens, who could hold our own in café conversation in the great capitals of Europe, and we are better than a Yankees game.

Remember, I was just looking for a nap-cap, so, surly and superior, I walked as far as 15th Street to find a suitable bar with a discount and no TV, and commenced Plan B. “What a bunch of snobs.”

The “crowd” for “Gypsy.”

The movie ticket I ended up buying was for a Slovakian-Gypsy crime story that had a very odd pace and was therefore difficult to get into. Fascinating as it was to see life portrayed in a Gypsy (or Roma) village, I found it tough. Which happens. Even a die-hard baseball fan will be glad he didn’t drag his spouse to a sloppy Mets-Cubs game sometimes. Of more interest was the crowd, or the lack of one. There were three of us when the lights went down, and it swelled to seven people by the time the feature started.

Is one of the reasons we grouches love arthouse cinema because it is ours and no one else’s? Is one of our pitfalls the danger of choosing the recondite for its own sake? Do we fancy ourselves keepers of the flame of some “true” cinema, and do we feel like our value is greater the smaller the crowd of spectators we find ourselves in? Or are we just being genuine, seeing the movies we love most, thinking it’d be alright if a greater crowd would show up, but not wasting any precious brain space over it?

This is what I contemplated while I snuck into the hallway and took a back seat in the next theater over. It was showing a 55-year-old film about, what else, Americans tearing up a great capital of Europe. The crowd was a respectable 60-80 people, on a Sunday night getting close to eleven.