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Daum: You pays your money …

HomesMoviesEntertainmentThe Tree of Life (movie)E-Commerce IndustryTerrence MalickTom Hanks

There's something exhilarating about walking out of a movie. Not only does it reacquaint you with the notion of your own free will ("Wait a second, no one is forcing me to watch Tom Hanks ride around on a scooter!"), it's like getting two extra hours in your day. To walk out of a bad movie is literally to escape from the darkness, to show yourself who's boss, to remind yourself that your time is valuable.

So is your money, of course. Should you get it back?

Lately there's has been some disagreement on that score, particularly when it comes to "The Tree of Life," directed by the legendary (and legendarily esoteric) Terrence Malick. Though advertisements suggest it's a story about a family in 1950s Texas, "The Tree of Life" spends much of its 138 minutes in flashbacks so deep they go all the way to the Big Bang.

Malick paints the screen with images of planets forming, volcanoes erupting and oceans emerging in a sort of psychedelic haze that deliberately reduces the lives of the Texans to mere blips in time.

"The Tree of Life" won the big prize at Cannes, and it's touted as a masterpiece. Much of the praise, however, has been drowned out by reports of audience dissatisfaction (they booed even at Cannes). People have been walking out of theaters in higher numbers than usual and, yes, demanding their money back. A Connecticut movie house posted a sign on its front window reminding patrons of its no-refund policy and encouraging them to "read up on the film before choosing to see it."

Keep in mind that this is a two-screen independent cinema; it's not as if patrons were being forced to see "The Tree of Life" because "Transformers" was sold out.

What about that great American principle of the customer always being right? Just how far should movie theaters, or merchants and service providers in general, bend to "guarantee" customer satisfaction?

These days, thanks to competition generated by a global, online marketplace, it seems like everything is returnable. Retailers, online and off, are dying for your business. They're willing to money-back-guarantee your happiness.

Want a book that's not yet in the library? Most bookstores offer a full refund, no questions asked, so why not buy the book, take it home, read it and then return it? The store doesn't mind, mostly because you may never get around to bringing it back.

The same ethos goes for a lot of clothing and accessories, appliances, electronics and furniture. Some retailers, such as the sporting and camping gear outfitter REI, are so famous for their liberal return policies that you can find Internet comment threads brimming with one-upmanship: A commenter on a backpacking blog observed that you could feed an item to a bear and REI would still take it back.

With Fourth of July sales still going on, it seems downright un-American to suggest that the customer may, sometimes, be wrong. After all, a generous return policy is a paean to free markets, a sign of a healthy economy and, in many ways, a good thing. But in a marketplace that demands very little in the way of commitment, a crucial aspect of shopping has fallen by the wayside: the element of choosing.

Once upon a time, buying one thing had something to do with deciding not to buy another thing. It meant thinking hard about what we wanted — be it a movie, a kayak, a new suit — and knowing a do-over would be difficult if not impossible. Today, that's almost quaint. We blithely load our online shopping carts with items we might not like or need or fit into, and we don't feel the least bit anxious — because we can always return them. Meanwhile, our DVRs are recording every show we might ever want to watch, and the titles on our Netflix queues are numbering into the hundreds, many of them destined to be never watched.

Is it any wonder, then, that "Read up on the film before you choose to see it" is proving to be an elusive concept? In a world where everything's refundable, fast-forwardable or otherwise disposable, it's easy to forget that buying a movie ticket has never been a risk-free proposition. That's part of the thrill. Then again, there's the even greater thrill of walking out. That, for sure, is worth the price of admission.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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