First person: Being a film buff in Arkansas isn't as hard as it used to be

First person: Being a film buff in Arkansas isn't as hard as it used to be
Cinephile and writer Noel Murray stands in front of the only ten-screen Cinemark in Conway Arkansas, a college town with a population of about 60,000. (Noel Murray)

If you're a movie buff living in Los Angeles, New York or a handful of other major American cities, this should be one of the most glorious times of the year for you. Whatever the critics have been raving about, you can see — either right now or by New Year's Eve. "I, Tonya"? "The Shape of Water"? "The Post"? "Phantom Thread"? They're all heading your way, if they're not at your local multiplex already.

Me? I live in Conway, Ark., a college town with a population of about 60,000 and one 10-screen Cinemark theater. It's a nice theater, granted: only a few years old, with stadium seating and good digital projection and sound. But if I wanted to see "Lady Bird" or "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" tonight, I'd have to drive about 45 minutes to Little Rock.


Meanwhile, as some of my cinephile friends are talking about where they can go to see "Phantom Thread" projected through 70 mm celluloid, at the moment I honestly have no idea if I'll ever get to see Paul Thomas Anderson's reported masterpiece on a screen any bigger than my TV.

Honestly, I'm used to this. I was born in Georgia, grew up in Tennessee, did short stints in Kansas and Virginia, and have spent the past 18 years here in Arkansas. Through all those moves, I've remained a film fanatic.

There are a lot of us out here in the sticks who grew up watching “Siskel & Ebert” and reading Pauline Kael.

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I'm far from the only one. There are a lot of us out here in the sticks who grew up watching "Siskel & Ebert" and reading Pauline Kael, and who see every top critic's "Ten Best Movies of the Year" columns not as something to check against our own, but as a wish list.

In a lot of ways, it's easier to be a cinephile in exile now than it was when my wife and I first moved to central Arkansas in 1999. Back then, Conway had two theaters, which together still held only 10 screens. The projection was underlighted, the sound was abysmal, and at least one house in each multiplex always smelled like rancid popcorn oil.

Under ideal conditions, I agree with my big city friends who prefer celluloid to digital. But where I live, the switch to digital has led to a more consistent presentation. The image is always bright and in focus; and the sound's never muddy.

One big change for the worse around here is that we don't have the number of video stores we once did. Most of the film buffs I grew up with and I made a habit of scouring not just every local mom-and-pop rental shop but also every Blockbuster and Suncoast, looking for the foreign imports and cult curios that sneaked onto the shelves between the dozen copies of "Jurassic Park."

But you know what I can do today that I couldn't 15 or 20 years ago? I can check out "The Lost City of Z" and "A Quiet Passion" on Amazon Prime, or "Nocturama" and "My Happy Family" on Netflix. This year, when I noticed "Columbus" popping up on a lot of my favorite critics' best-of lists, I bought it on iTunes. Movies that were the toast of major international film festivals not so long ago are just a couple of remote control clicks away from playing in my living room.

That's one of the many ways that the conversation about cinema differs in a smallish Arkansas city, as opposed to Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. In the metropolises (not to mention in movie-mad cultures like France), Netflix has become the enemy, for buying up the kind of pictures that used to be art house staples, and keeping them out of theaters.

An Seo Hyun and Steven Yeun in "Okja."
An Seo Hyun and Steven Yeun in "Okja." (Jae Hyuk Lee / Netflix)

But the likes of "Okja" and "Tramps" were never going to come to Conway. These days I get to see those — and quite a few others — at almost exactly the same time that my colleagues on the coasts do.

That matters too, since so often lately, the discussion around certain movies gets thoroughly played out on Twitter and in online think pieces before the pictures even open widely. By the time Oscar nominations roll around, people in the media centers are sick of arguing about films that are just about to expand into my neck of the woods.

Aside from VOD and subscription services, another way folks in the middle of nowhere stay current on cinema is via regional film festivals, which to some extent have replaced the old art house circuit, bringing a handful of the year's most acclaimed documentaries and foreign films to dedicated audiences around the country.

I personally travel to Toronto and Sundance every year in my capacity as a film critic, which covers a lot of the year's big indie releases for me. But I also drive a few hours up the road to Columbia, Mo., for True/False, and occasionally zip back to my old hometown of Nashville for its big festival. It's a very different crowd that attends the local fests, made up of arty teens, eager academics and adventurous retirees. We all are also part of the fabric of America — red or blue.

By no means would I ever say that it's better to be a film buff in Arkansas (or South Dakota, for that matter) than it is to be one in L.A. or New York City. Heck, I'd like to live near a repertory theater. I'd like to have seen "Dunkirk" in 70 mm.

But when I hear my urban friends complaining about digital projection, or about Amazon snapping up their favorite Sundance movie, or about how someone's best-of list is too predictable, I'm reminded of how much cinephilia is a spectrum, and how often the opinions on that spectrum are shaped by location.


So take it from a hick: Passion for the arts exists everywhere. It's just that not everyone's venues are grand, and not everyone gets the good stuff at the same time.