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Mike RobinsonFor most of 2016, I have been off movies for some reason. For a while it seemed to be the boring titles, unknown and unfamiliar actors, uninteresting plotlines, and maybe just the hassle of going out, finding parking and lining up.

It just seemed so easy to stay home with Netflix, with Hastings and Poirot, or Lewis and Inspector Morse. There were hundreds of episodes to watch and plots to untangle.

“Let’s just stay home tonight,” became a Friday norm. And then we realized that all of this was just another form of technological disruption. Just like Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon. Why bother with Yellow Cabs, the Fairmont and Sears when you can get better, quicker (and cheaper?) service from your iPhone, or your laptop in the case of Netflix?

But after a year or so of no trips to the International Cinema and the Park Theatre, it has become apparent that something is missing. The need to see something new, and perhaps longer and more complex than the shouting, short norms and memes of social media has become paramount.

It’s like wanting to read a book after too much Googling, YouTubing, e-mailing and Facebooking. It’s yearning for complexity that makes you think, and that is of your choice – rather than some bloody algorithm created by a techie in Silicon Valley or a village of hackers in Macedonia.

I decided it was time to disrupt the disruption. It was an experiment I conducted by myself, partly because my wife was away on a business trip, and partly because Vancouver was blanketed in snow, which had the effect of keeping everyone indoors.

I took the opposite tack, and walked for three nights in a row to our neighbourhood Cineplex. Here, you can dine in a variety of food court takeaways, and easily access the adjacent 11-cinema theatre complex.

They also offer $8.50 seniors’ rates (you have to ask), and a wide variety of films. In short order I watched: Rules Don’t Apply (Warren Beatty’s new film), Moonlight (by director Barry Jenkins), and Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan’s new film).

The net result of watching these three long and somewhat convoluted films was joy. They are convoluted in the good sense, intricate.

They trace the lives of Howard Hughes, mostly during one year, 1959; a complex young black man (alternately called Little, Chiron and Black as his life unfolds); and a janitor, Lee Chandler, whose life gets bent by the death of his brother, Joe. Each of these films fulfills the need for longer narrative, for thoughtful depth of character, for unexpected plotlines, and the kind of arty messiness that life creates when algorithms are absent.

They are each the work of auteurs who put individualism and idiosyncrasy to work in a way that digital reality misses.

The best thing about my movie week was that it made me think more than it entertained me. For some time now, I have been increasingly struck by the controlling impact of online life. Watching millennials and their younger societal siblings walk about texting, eyes perpetually on screen, parroting digital generalizations, and being mentally controlled by algorithms is increasingly angering me.

Watching little children pretending to text or actually playing with ‘kid tablets’ is frightening because it reveals a childhood increasingly controlled by science, technology, engineering and mathematics – thought in the absence of free, uncontrolled play.

Play is the ‘work’ that children perform on their own time, often in natural environments, away from the control of adults. In its basic form it requires nothing more complex than sand, water and twigs to construct reality. Interestingly, Howard Hughes, Little and Lee all grew up in the world of pre-digital play.

Art in the form of Beatty’s, Jenkins’ and Lonergan’s film-writing and direction, experienced with others in a big screen cinema, is important. If nothing else it contributes to the need to discuss concepts, to be critical, and perhaps in some people, to the cultivation of an edge. By edge, I mean a sense of the avant garde.

A society without critical thinkers lacks the unorthodox, experimental and radical thoughts that drive progress. It is also susceptible to control by those who wish to forestall change and control agendas.

They want us all to read their tweets and look at our iPhones. I think it is time to resist.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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