Sunday, May 25, 2008

A skill every cinephile should master

It happens to every movie lover. You'll be somewhere- a party, a family gathering, or what have you- and eventually a friend will tell remark that you're "really into movies." Sometimes the other person will nod his head in acknowledgement, but this doesn't happen often. More likely, you'll get one of two questions- either "what kind of movies do you like?" or "seen anything good lately?" Personally, I hate the first question- too damn vague for my tastes- and tend to fall back on my stock joke in that situation, "good ones!" Good thing that most people will ask the latter question.

But one thing not enough people will bear in mind when asked if they've seen anything good lately is that it's not simply an idle question. If someone is going to ask you this question, it's because they're looking for something good for themselves, and they're asking you in a form that sounds less self-serving than "can you recommend something good for me?" But of course, this is exactly what they're asking for, and this is your time to shine. One of the great pleasures for most movie lovers is turning others on to something great, so take this opportunity to use your knowledge for good. Some tips:

1. Know the person's tastes. This can be tricky if you've just met the person, so start out by mentioning recent blockbusters. Tell him you saw Iron Man, and compare it to other comic book movies you've enjoyed. Reference mostly obvious ones- Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men- and then throw in a Hellboy or something along those lines as a test. You'll generally be able to tell if a title is new to the other person by his expression. Then based on his reaction to the ones he hasn't seen, figure out which he seems most interested in and go from there.

2. When in doubt, pick something recent. Like it or not, most people are more comfortable with newer movies. If nothing else, they're easier to find at your local Blockbuster or in the vending machines that are starting to pop up all over the place. But if you know the person's tastes, don't simply fall back on the obvious stuff. Everyone has heard of No Country for Old Men and The Departed, so there's no reason to throw those out there. So pick something he might not otherwise have considered- something that doesn't really jump off the shelf at the video store the way the more hyped titles do. For a time, my favorite movie to recommend was The Prestige, because it wasn't a huge hit, but there's plenty of good stuff to satisfy the Saturday night renter- a good story, fine acting, lush production values, twists a-plenty, and so on. Best of all, it leaves people with plenty to talk about when it's over, and thus will provide a ready topic of conversation the next time you run into this person.

3. When it comes to older movies, choose wisely. One of the biggest differences between cinephiles and casual moviegoers is knowledge of directors. Oh sure, everyone knows Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, but mention Douglas Sirk or F.W. Murnau and you'll most likely get a blank stare in return. So when you recommend a classic, do so with an eye to two factors- recognizable stars, and familiar genres. Most people don't have a wide base of knowledge when it comes to movies, but often they'll be enthusiasts of particular genres, and as such will have stars whose work they enjoy. Is the person into testosterone-packed "guy movies"? Go with something like Once Upon a Time in the West, which contains tough guy favorite Charles Bronson, the supremely evil Henry Fonda, and the not incidental charms of Claudia Cardinale. Have some standard answers for various genres- if someone asks you for something funny, The Lady Eve; if you're recommend something for a family, The Court Jester or even The Iron Giant. You get the idea.

4. Resist the urge to blow people's hair back with your knowledge. This can be difficult at times. You want to tell people about the new Roberto Rossellini box set. Hell, I once made the mistake of praising Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi to my dad, who doesn't know Kore-eda from Corey Feldman. This, my friend, is how you lose people. Most people are resistant to subtitles, and have a low tolerance for artsy fare. When you're recommending movies, remember that the person asking you is doing so as a consumer. They want to be gently led to something they'll enjoy, not given the hard sell. As I said before, when recommending a movie, choose wisely. It means the difference between being a person's go-to guy for recommendations and being that guy with the weirdo tastes. Take it from me, being in the latter category isn't nearly as cool as it sounds.

Inspired by Esquire's recent list The 75 Skills Every Man Should Master, with a tip of the hat to Adam Ross and James Frazier.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Good news for everyone who's sick of the James Taylor video

Morning, folks! Did you miss me? I’m sure you’ve all wondered what I’ve been up to lately that was more important than posting here. Truth is, I haven’t been myself lately. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong until yesterday, when I remembered that I hadn’t bought a DVD in over a month. Obviously, that really isn’t like me, so I promptly remedied the situation by running out and purchasing this:

I know- it’s not the kind of thing I usually go for. But there was actually a reason for this purchase. I’m not a huge fan of it myself, but it was a gift for my girlfriend and her son.

Yup. As Albert Brooks said in Broadcast News, “How do you like that? I buried the lead.”

Yes, recently I’ve found myself in a wonderful relationship with a lovely woman named Angela. It’s been too damn long since I’ve been this happy, either with myself or someone else. So I hope you’ll forgive me for being delinquent in my duties on this blog. Between Angela and work and Screengrab and Angela’s son and keeping up with new movies and Angela, something’s got to give. But I’m great, in case you’ve been worried. Pretty damn great, actually.

Moving on to other DVD news that you probably already knew about, here are the newly-announced Criterions for August:

First off is a new pressing of Salo, for the benefit of those of us who missed the three-hour window for it the first time around and couldn’t make it to the local indie video store before some punk decided to steal their copy. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Continuing Criterion’s commitment to the Archers, here’s probably the best-known Powell/Pressburger film I haven’t yet seen. I love these guys (though certainly not as much as Donna) so I’m stoked to get a chance to finally see this one.

This one’s new to me, but I’m sure I’ll rent it. Hell, since it’s Criterion I’ll give it a spin on general principle.

This may be the most intriguing of all the August releases. I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, but it should be worth the price simply for the dazzling array of announced narration tracks- Isabella Rossellini, Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach, Laurie Anderson, and more.

Finally, the best Criterion-related news I’ve gotten lately is this month’s animated riddle. A month after I wished Max Ophüls would finally get some Criterion love, I found this in my e-Mail:

Ask and ye shall receive in my opinion. Now maybe they can get around to releasing some high-quality versions of Jacques Rivette films. Hint, hint.

That’s all there is for now. I’ll do my best to keep this regularly updated in the future, but I make no promises. Please try to understand.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

YouTubed Nostalgia Trip: James Taylor on Sesame Street

A few days ago on Twitter, longtime SLH bud Kent Beeson linked to a video of James Taylor performing on Sesame Street. He said he didn't remember it, but I sure did. It was actually one of my favorite episodes when I was little, not least because I was already familiar with Taylor because my mom listened to him. Now with the magic of YouTube I was able to see parts of the episode for the first time in a quarter of a century. Here's JT and friends performing "Jelly Man Kelly."

Two things stick out. First off, the tuba is a nice touch- gives it a whimsical and benign feel that a more conventional bassline might not have, and makes the music much more listenable whenever the kids are singing. But secondly, and more importantly, Taylor has a darn good rapport with the kids. He actually interacts with them, directing them to sing when the song reaches its refrain, then gently shushing them when it's time for the verses. It's easy to imagine the career he might have had as a children's entertainer had the recording-artist thing not worked out, and you definitely can't say that of all the guest stars on Sesame Street.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Yes, of course they're serious."

Over the past few days, I've observed with some amusement the online reaction to Steven Soderbergh's recently-announced project The Girlfriend Experience. Much of the reaction I've noticed has centered around the proposed casting of an as-yet-unnamed adult film star in the principal role. But some of the interesting talk has focused on the idea of surrogate girlfriends. According to Wikipedia, the "girlfriend experience" is a service provided by some prostitutes which entails treating the client as though she's his girlfriend, rather than a mercenary screw.

However, if someone is looking for the zest of a relationship but is too guilt-ridden/paranoid/cheap to hire an accommodating escort, there are other options. Of these, the one that provides the most oddness for your fake-dating dollar is a site I stumbled upon when reading the comments on Glenn Kenny's blog, called Imaginary Girlfriend. Go ahead, take a look, and try not to chuckle.

My first reaction to this discovery was disbelief. They couldn't be serious, could they? This whole thing smelled vaguely like an abandoned Jared Hess movie, or one of those harebrained ideas I would have thought up in my college days while intoxicated, like orange-juice-flavored toothpaste, or video rental by mail. Who would ever believe you could reliably and cheaply send movies through the US Mail and expect them to be returned? That's just crazy talk.

But no, Imaginary Girlfriend is for real. Heck, it even says so on the FAQ page. But rather than a downmarket version of GFE or even your very own Bianca, this is something much more mundane. Basically, you pay for girls to leave you romantic phone messages and send you love letters, e-Mail, photos and gifts so you can pretend to be in a long-distance relationship.

Yes, really.

As someone who has been in more than one long-distance relationship (a sad reality of many people's college years- or mine, anyway), I can attest to the fact that they really aren't much fun. They're all idealization and no proximity, which is okay for a short period of time but quickly grows interminable. The trouble is that sooner or later idealization is a pale substitute for real romance. Sure, people can profess their feelings to each other over the telephone or via e-Mail, but you lose out on the many wonderful small things you get from an up-close-and-personal relationship. It's more than just sex- it's watching her dozing on the couch while you're watching TV together or trying out a new recipe some evening just for the hell of it. No letter or phone message, no matter how poetic or candid, can compare to such things.

But then, is Imaginary Girlfriend really meant to give its customers the fun of a real long-distance relationship? Let's look at the FAQ page, shall we? Under the quesiton, "why would I want an Imaginary Girlfriend?", it states:

"There are many reasons. Some guys are tired of being told by friends and family to get a girlfriend."

So basically, we're talking about long-distance hetero beard duty. Moving on...

"Maybe you would like to make someone else jealous when they see how enamored your new girlfriend is by you."

Yes, until he turns to his own girlfriend, standing right the hell next to him, and makes googly eyes at her. Hard to compete with that.

"Perhaps you are wondering what it's like to have a long distance girlfriend?"

See above. It's hard enough for real, so why invite it?

"These are all good reasons, and it really depends on your situation. Having an Imaginary Girlfriend can be a lot of fun. What guy (or girl) wouldn't enjoy being showered with personal love letters and affection of an Imaginary Girlfriend? Having an Imaginary Girlfriend can be a great confidence booster!"

It's this last part that blows my mind. Sure, you get to walk and talk like you're in a relationship, but it's not real and you know it. You can re-read those letters all you want, but that won't make the sentiments in them any more real. And you don't even get any intimacy out of the deal- a few measly missives, maybe some perfumed panties, but no actual contact with the woman in question. What a confidence booster! Especially when one of your more longstanding friends actually thinks a little bit about your "relationship" and decides that something isn't quite right. Like- oh I don't know- the fact that you never really seem to have met the woman who allegedly loves you so much.

My single status has been well-documented on this blog, but this sounds desperate even to me. How arrested does your development really have to be for Imaginary Girlfriend to be acceptable by your standards? Seems to me the only thing a customer can get out of this is the ability to front like he has a girlfriend. And to me, that's one of the least of the pleasures one can derive from a relationship. Maybe it's cool when you're in middle school to brag about your relationships, but not so much when you're an adult. It's just not how it's done nowadays. And that some men still think it is- enough to sign on with Imaginary Girlfriend- just shows how out of touch they really are.

On the Imaginary Girlfriend site, there's a warning: "Anyone who has difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy should NOT use this service." Funny, because that's just about the only sort of person I can imagine getting any enjoyment out of it.

Note on new reviews

Hey guys. Sorry for the lack of content lately, but I've been pretty occupied with my Screengrab writing, which leaves me little time or energy to update this too often. In addition, I've begun writing short reviews for the newsletter at my day job. It's going to be interesting, since I'll have to pitch them to a somewhat less film-nerdy crowd. For the time being, I'll link to amended versions of these reviews in the sidebar. I say "amended versions" because I hope to add some more depth and thematic stuff for you guys (you're welcome). Generally, the rule of thumb will be that the first paragraph will be the work piece, and everything else will be just for you. Although I'm sure you'll be able to tell the difference.

Anyway, enjoy.