Wednesday, November 27, 2019

CONSUMPTION AS IDENTITY: Movies, Fandom, & Critical Thinking

“Criticism is the only thing that stands between the audience and advertising.” 
Pauline Kael 

I love watching movies. A claim that until recently also meant I love going to the movies. But as I've grown older, I’m afraid the whole communal experience thing has begun to lose some of its appeal for me. Which is really too bad, timing-wise, since moviegoing has never been more user-friendly and tailored for customer satisfaction. Take, for example, those new-fangled, high-backed, individual armrest w/cupholder, semi-reclining stadium seats designed to accommodate the plush expanses of the American Big Gulp/Super-Size derrière.
Or the more-democratic return of reserved-seating, which, in my day, was exclusively a roadshow luxury afforded the elite (i.e., folks with social calendars and reliable babysitters). Concession stands, once just a place to buy popcorn, over-carbonated beverages, and DOTS™ candies to strew in the aisles for other patrons to step on; now offer a veritable food truck variety menu. And in many theaters, a real, live person comes out just before the film starts to remind patrons to turn off their phones--just like in the days of the silents when title cards reminded ladies to please remove their hats.
But over the years I’ve accepted the fact (my partner would say "embraced" is more like it) that I’ve become far too crabby and curmudgeonly for these tantalizing innovations in movie exhibition to exert much influence over my resistance to seeing films with an audience. In whatever graveyard one might find buried the ornate movie palaces of old...those with uniformed ushers and $1 souvenir programs; sneak previews that were actually a surprise; or double-features and open admission policies...there is where you’re likely to find what once made seeing movies in theaters so much fun for me: a youthful disinterest in monitoring the behavior of others.
On the other hand, what hasn’t changed a bit over the years is how much I love to talk about movies. When I was young, Saturdays meant my three sisters and I would spend entire afternoons at the local movie theater immersing ourselves in colorful worlds and lives far different from our own. Our method of prolonging the experience and making the movies last until the following Saturday—when, more than likely, we'd see the same exact double-bill again—would be to engage one another in discussion about the movies we’d just seen. In exhaustive, expansive detail.
Having to sit together in silence for long stretches of time in a dark theater left us fairly bursting with gab at the end of the day. Thus, no afternoon at the movies ever felt complete without the accompanying animated conversations we had on the bus ride home. We’d talk about the plot, which performances we liked, recount favorite scenes, recite passages of dialogue, and share with one another our varied, seldom intersecting, opinions on what we thought of the movie overall.
Due to there being so many of us, each having our own unique take on the same movie, I came to understand then what has remained true for me ever since: when someone shares their thoughts about a movie...their personal response to it, their critiques, their likes and dislikes...movies are so subjective, what is being relayed always reveals more about the individual speaking than it does about the film itself.
Unless talking about a film's aspect ratio or running time, little about movie discourse is ever objective. Claims of a film being either "good" or "bad"--even when those claims are from esteemed sources---are not statements of fact. Talking movies is an exercise in subjective observation, personal tastes, and individual aesthetics. But listening to an individual share their thoughts on a film not only affords an opportunity to learn something about the particular person; it also allows for the chance to experience a film from a fresh perspective. An experience that can call our attention to things we might not otherwise have noticed.

"It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good."   - Tina Fey 

Going to the Movies: Communal Act / Private Experience

My sisters and I were pretty good about not letting our differences of opinion get in the way, but that's not to say all was smooth sailing. Anyone with siblings will tell you that disagreeing on things—make that, everything—is a fact of life. The only reason our weekend post-movie confabs didn't habitually end in reenactments of that ladies' room scene in Valley of the Dolls is through the honing of certain skills. Each of us had to learn the fundamentals of tact, debate, listening, and not being judgmental when it came to other people's tastes. And let's not forget the all-important, knowing when to keep one’s yap shut.
Take, for instance, the time I managed to look both supportive and straight-faced while my eldest sister, after taking us to see The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) for what must have been the 6th consecutive time, explained at length why George Harrison (his being “the quiet one” and all), never got as much attention as the others, and was, therefore, the only member of the Fab Four deserving of her lifelong devotion. 
Curious George: George Harrison in A Hard Day's Night (1964)

And if a similar familial diplomacy was responsible for the peaceable resolution to a starchy standoff between me and another sister over the relative merits of Debbie Reynolds’ eager-to-please performance in 1964s The Unsinkable Molly Brown (she was pro, I was con); I credit my preteen Spidey-senses for knowing I'd be saving myself a lot of grief by waxing enthusiastically about the beauty and talent of up-and-comer Faye Dunaway in The Happening (1967) rather than gushing the sentiment I really wanted to express: that for the entire film I couldn't take my eyes off of co-star George Maharis.
Gorgeous George: George Maharis in The Happening (1967)
Our tradition of after-movie chat sessions continued well into our teens. Rather a remarkable feat, given the closeness of our ages and the way puberty plays the dirty hormonal trick of ratcheting up adolescent hypersensitivity at the very same time it kicks teenage know-it-all-ism (typified by the frequent, unchecked volunteering of inflexible opinions) into overdrive.
But as our individual personalities began to emerge and our tastes grew more disparate and self-defining, the biggest change I noticed was that while my sisters continued to enjoy movies in much the same way they always had; I'd graduated on to something that fell geekily between enthusiastic interest and all-consuming passion. Gradually, as I began to self-identify more and more as a movie buff and film enthusiast, my contributions to our post-movie discussions took on a decided air...much of it hot.
Alas, I was almost always "that guy" in the movie line.

The Funicello Fracas
To give you an idea of the kind of hurdles that had to be surmounted before my sisters and I were ultimately able to hammer out an honest, mutually respectful way of sharing our differing tastes in movies and pop culture, I offer up this case history: When I was but a wee lad, I harbored a latent crush on Annette Funicello in reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club on TV.
I was equally closeted in my infatuation with Frank Converse on Coronet Blue and Richard Chamberlain on Dr. Kildaire at the time, but I guess my sisters picked up on something they saw in my eyes each time Annette adorably dropped her chin and spelled out "...K-E-Y" during the Mouseketeer sign-off. Whatever it is they saw, it launched them on a merciless campaign of teasing me about it that lasted for several days. The more they teased, the louder and more fervent came my false denials, until one day I broke down in tears and barricaded myself in my room.
The Mouse-Eared Troublemaker
Teasing wasn't anything new between us, but any of us being responsible for making the other cry was a definite no-no. So my sisters' way of apologizing and remedying the situation was to take crayon to construction paper and hastily fashion signs emblazoned with slogans declaring “Kenny Doesn’t Like Annette!” and “Kenny says NO to Annette!" and then march back and forth in front of my bedroom door as though participating in the world's smallest, least consequential protest demonstration.
In what would be her final film for AIP, the studio behind all those Beach Party movies, Annette Funicello co-starred with pop star Fabian in Thunder Alley (1967). A racing car drama in which the former Mouseketeer fends off a date rapist and gets to play her first drunk scene

I’d like to say this was the last time my sisters ever teased me, but that would be a lie. But it WAS the first and last time any of us ever teased or tried to make feel small because of their personal tastes.
In fact, some years later, it occasioned we all went to a double-feature, the bottom half of which was a low-budget race car drama titled Thunder Alley (1967), starring a considerably more mature Annette. And although it was clear that I was the only one enjoying it (being that my secret love was no secret anymore), when I sheepishly asked if we could PLEASE stay to see it a second time, my siblings readily consented, with nary a smirk, jibe, or rolled eye between them. I like to think I later paid them back when, during their Clint Eastwood phase, I actually managed to stay awake through two screenings of Paint Your Wagon.
As we grew older and Saturdays changed to going to the movies with friends instead of family (in my case, friends for whom "That was good!" or "What a piece of shit!"  represented all that needed to be said about any given movie), I took to filling the film critique void with trips to the library. The late '60s and '70s were the absolute heyday of film journalism, so it was there where I'd lose myself in books and magazines devoted to cinema essays and film analyses by my favorites: Pauline Kael, Peter Bogdanovich, Stanley Kauffmann, Andrew Sarris, and John Simon. That I didn't always agree with their opinions was never the point. It was my love of movies that kept me at the table. 
Most eye-opening for me was how these writers balanced respect for the emotional persuasiveness of film while still applying critical thinking to what they deemed to be a movie's flaws and merits. The objective was not to tear movies down or spoil anyone's fun, merely a belief that films had both the potential and responsibility to be better: better entertainment, better art. These writers taught me how to look at film and evaluate cinema in ways that extended beyond the purely sensate. Suddenly, how a movie made me think came to be as important to me as how a movie made me feel.

"The unexamined film is not worth seeing."  - A film buff's take on the Socrates quote

After years of being regarded as a purely escapist entertainment medium,
the serious and thoughtful critical evaluation of film seemed to be everywhere.

If those years spent watching movies on weekends and reading about movies during the weekdays represent the Appreciation & Evaluation stage of my love affair with film, then high school brought me to my Identification & Proprietary phase. As a Black, gay adolescent forging an identity for myself while attending an all-boys Catholic school while living in a predominantly white neighborhood; movies provided me with escape, motivation, and emotional catharsis. Relating on deeply personal levels to the movies I consumed, I found in the films of (significantly, but not exclusively) Robert Altman, Ken Russell, and Roman Polanski…inspiration and a dream of—if not entirely the person I was at the time—then most certainly the person I wanted to become.
Being neither a jock nor a joiner, I was largely invisible during my freshman year, but due to always having my nose buried in a book about movies, by sophomore year I was known around campus as The Movie Guy. A label that stuck and an image I enthusiastically cultivated for the entirety of my years at St. Mary's.
This pseudo-notoriety led to my participation in such geeky extracurricular pursuits as writing movie reviews for the school paper and posting fan-art movie posters in the library. It also led to my getting to meet the other movie buffs (a.k.a., the other gay kids) at school. And while it was great to find individuals with whom I could again talk movies...this time with guys who (to say the least) shared a similar enthusiasm; I gotta also say that I was less than thrilled that it also occasioned my first face-to-face encounter with blinkered fandom and the vociferously proprietary side of celebrity worship.
The fundamentally solitary, insular nature of being a film fan (It's not a team sport. It's essentially a person's internal relationship with the flickering images on a screen) doesn't easily lend itself to open-forum discourse under the best of circumstances. Much less socially-awkward adolescents in the first hormonal flushes of pop-culture infatuation and film-based cultural identity attachment.

Since this was more than a decade before Siskel & Ebert at the Movies demonstrated that even erudite middle-aged men were not above resorting to ad hominem attacks when in disagreement, I blamed it on our youth when nearly every movie discussion our group had splintered off into white-knighting protectiveness (only sycophantic praise allowed, critique not tolerated); proprietary elitism (no one loves their favorite as much as they); and emotional defensiveness (subjective criticisms of a favorite film or celebrity was perceived as a personal attack). Where were my sisters with their picket signs when I needed them?
Them's Fightin' Words
A Generation-Z internet spat over Beyonce or Taylor Swift is child's play compared to the maelstrom of social media vitriol Baby Boomers are capable of unleashing when a favored classic film or screen personality falls under critical scrutiny.

Having wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 11 when I saw Rosemary's Baby, after graduation, there was no question that I was going to film school. A move that marked the end of the informal phase of my cinema education and ushered in a period in my life that I now look back on and call the Status & Ego epoch.
In many ways, film school was everything I hoped it would be. Not the least of it being my “How long has this been going on?” reaction to the idea of earning academic credit for that which I’d been gleefully doing all those years for nothing. The transition from film-consumer to film-maker was fun and challenging, but...being the talker that I am...I got the biggest charge out of the Film Study classes.
Classes with names like Classic Film Theory & Aesthetics, where movies were thoughtfully and critically discussed without the assumption that scrutiny automatically signaled a fault-finding expedition, brought back memories of the fun I had talking movies with my sisters as a kid. For the first time in my life, in an atmosphere where I was free to eat, drink, sleep, and breathe movies to my heart’s content, I felt completely in my element. So much so that I scarcely noticed that I was surrounded by, and had myself, morphed into, this:
I don't mean to generalize (yes, I do), but when someone says something like this,
the least of what's intended to be conveyed is that they're going to the movies. 

There are worse things than being a film snob, but few as boring to be around. I don't know how my relatives could stand to be around me. Quicker and more painlessly than I'd like to admit, I'd allowed myself to become the '70s version of what I call the Criterion Collection hipster: the self-styled cineaste overheard at film festivals saying things like, “You mean you’ve never seen ‘The Bicycle Thief’…not even once?”
Hungry for the instant (meaningless) status and ego lift and kinship of belonging to a community of film lovers, I deluded myself into believing that seeing movies in arthouses was superior to a cineplex, and that watching films with subtitles and dropping the names of foreign film directors gave me some kind of cultural cachet.

"The fact that the [Marvel Universe] films themselves don't interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament."   - Martin Scorsese 

Maybe film schools should offer a course teaching movie fans that no matter how esteemed, awarded, profitable, critically acclaimed, or beloved a film, franchise, or cult favorite; it's perfectly OK and absolutely natural for someone else to dislike it. Those individuals are not wrong, they're not jealous, they aren't haters, and they don't misunderstand it... they simply hold a different opinion.

Movies had always had such an expansive effect on my life, yet once I embarked on a course of formal cinema study—taking both film and myself far too seriously—my world only narrowed.

But, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, "Everybody has to go through stages like that." It took the distancing of time and an intervention from a highly unlikely source (see: Xanadu post) before I was able to find my way back to that kid who fell in love with movies on Saturday afternoons because of the dreams they inspired, not the identity-association and ego-status I sought to acquire via its consumption (i.e., you are what you watch).
And I’m afraid I’ve never lost my passion for talking about movies, and happily, for the last 24 years or so I’ve been able to indulge my mania for post-screening armchair movie quarterbacking with my partner. A fellow of unyielding good taste (he’ll appreciate my adding) who shares the belief that fandom, comfort movies, and franchise loyalty are all an important part of what makes movies so much fun, but upholds the principle that film has always been at its best when it is also inspiring new thoughts and ideas, not merely confirming the ones we already hold.
Show Me The Magic

Copyright © Ken Anderson