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.


Scott W. Black said...

Based on my video clerking days in the 90s and the cinematic tastes of my current co-workers, I think you're giving the general public too much credit.

Believe it or not, there are still lots of people who have never heard of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, despite its Oscar wins. And there are people who think NORBIT is just the bee's knees.

Also, the question most asked of me when I was a video clerk was: "You got a movie with a lotta killin' in it?"

jahs34 said...

About the classics, you can't go wrong with Wilder.
In fact if they mention they have seen one, and didn't like it, they are not worth my time.

jahs34 said...

I usually don't recommend movies to my friends, most of them are into lousy comedies and blockbusters.

What i do is ask them which movie have they seen lately and like, so i know what to avoid.

Hedwig said...

I'm the resident movie recommender for most of my housemates, and I've gotten to know their tastes very well. In exchange, I made them watch Casablanca with me. I told them that if after half an hour they'd had enough, we'd switch to something more modern. Obviously, we watched the whole thing.

Still, it can be difficult to hide your, well, disdain, especially when someone (one of my colleagues, in this case) tells you they thought White Chicks was the best comedy they ever saw. But I try, and I've been able to stretch some of my friends' tastes a tiny bit, I think.

jahs34 said...

Hediwg, White Chicks is the favorite movie of one of my friends, he claimed to have seen it over 100 times.

Ornichus said...

Back in the first year of college, I made my friends watch Happiness with me on my birthday. They've been making fun of my movie recommendations ever since.

Craig Kennedy said...

With personal recommendations, I try to steer people towards mainstream stuff that has an interesting edge to it or to arthouse stuff that has a mainstream appeal.

The hope is that people's horizon's will be broadened a little bit without freaking them out too much.

Sadly, most people I know don't take movies all that seriously...they're time fillers. If I can convince someone to fill their time with something a little more intersting than Alvin and the Chipmunks, it's worth almost as much as turning someone on to pre-WWII French cinema...and much easier.

elgringo said...

I worked at Hollywood Video for two years and my movie recommending skills were constantly put to work.

When I was asked questions like, "What's good?" I had to decipher the two word query into a number of sub-questions. "What's good that just came out?" "I have no idea what to watch tonight, could you recommend something that you like?" "Where's the nearest copy of "White Girls?"

It's rough but it's nice when you start to find regulars that come in and who trust your guidance.

That's when you can pull out the foreign films and the pre-1980 movies.

James said...

I have two common experiences related to my status as the local movie guru.

1. People constantly demand that I tell them what my favorite film of all time is. I always respond by offering to name 10 of my favorites, and most of the time whoever I'm talking to sort of rolls their eyes as if they're frustrated that I didn't just say "Pulp Fiction."

2. People always tell me "hey, you gotta meet my friend, he is so into movies, at least as much as you are!" Without fail, the person they're referring to is in fact an active renter at Family Video, but knows about as much about the medium as I did in 9th grade. This type will usually have seen a fair number of good mainstream films and perhaps a few of the popular greats like "Taxi Driver" and "The Godfather," but if I start name dropping or talking about Hitchcock beyond "Psycho" the conversation hits a wall.

I developed a bizzare test for these people. I ask them if they've seen all of the Beverly Hills Cop films. They'll usually respond in the affirmative, to which I then challenge them to name three non-Eddie Murphy actors that appeared in at least two of the films, who directed each film, and what year they were all released. The goal here isn't so much to find someone who can answer all of these questions as it is to see how the react to a difficult query. Usually they shake their heads and assure me that only a supreme movie geek would even attempt to learn dates and grosses and things like that, which tells me about what I need to know about how much of a cinephile they really are.

Daniel said...

Fabulous posts and comments - all so true. Really an important discussion.

For me it can be frustrating when people ask you but they really just want to talk about some movie they're already thinking of, whether it be something like White Chicks or No Country. In either case, the discussion stalls as they try to tell you something about it you don't already know.

If you are able to get in a recommendation, it's usually something they haven't heard of and don't have the patience to hear about. This is why I think #'s 1 & 2 are so important.

The other difficult aspect of this is that you really only get one shot at a recommendation, as le says. A friend of mine took his brothers to Paranoid Park with disastrous results. How can you regain someone's trust?

Anonymous said...

WHITE CHICKS IS FUNNY. Albeit an awful, awful film, but I laughed A LOT.

Anyways, you can imagine the taste of MY friends, high school boys and girls...if it hasn't got a superhero or Zac Efron, then it is a no no. Well, I try steer them on the right track, but it is often no use. I get it, we all have our tastes.

Danny, I made a friend of mine watch "Paranoid Park," and when it ended I was still gasping for air, and he was like, "whatever, I want to watch Hot Rod." I nearly stopped breathing all together.

I am really not intelligent enough to contribute any more to this {awesome} discussion. Great post Paul.