I've written before about the needlessly contentious relationship between film writers and civilians, mainly as a chance to be rude to more successful critics, often in vague, non-specific terms, about what I think they're doing wrong. This doesn't accomplish much other than make me look like an asshole, so I'm going to try a different tactic, one that I think more serious cineastes should take (naturally, since it's my brilliant fucking idea): reach out to civilians.
None of them are reading this blog, obviously, because they're all off doing whatever civilians do. I mean . . . what the fuck do they do with the time that we're writing 7000 word articles about the role of UFA in shaping the visual aesthetic of Hollywood's First Golden Age, or getting into fistfights with people over Terrence Malick movies? Whatever they get up to, that's not the point, we could spend years of field research tagging them and studying their habits, but why waste all the tranquilizers sedating them when we can use them to get high (and anyone who's tried to watch a Godard picture from after 1967'll tell ya: getting lifted helps). Point is, we all know a civilian or two—they're fairly easy to identify—and it's about fucking time we let them know we're not big scary eggheads with insular vocabularies and superhuman boredom thresholds. At the core, we're just like them: people who like movies.
This is the thing a lot of the civilians I talk to get hung up on: because of the unctuous jerkoffs who take five minutes to say the word “film” and insist on the brilliance of shit that sounds fucking boring (or, worse, the unctuous jerkoffs make it sound fucking boring), civilians think “serious” cinema is not for them, and regard art cinema and entertaining movies as two disparate entities. This is a shame, because while there are any number of art pictures that are challenging to their audiences, there are also a whole lot of really great “films” that also rule the fuck out of shit as “movies.”
The intent of this post is to give us—because don't even try to bullshit, if you're reading this, you're One Of Us—the vocabulary to let civilians know that just because it's serious doesn't mean it can't be serious fun. So, first, an important distinction:
Film vs. Movie: Basically they mean the same thing. A lot of people use “film” and “movie” interchangeably, which is fine, for the previously stated reason, but you want to watch it with the word “film” in certain contexts, especially when dealing with civilians. A lot of them hear the word “film” and go, “ooh, that sounds serious,” and while we all know serious is (or can be) awesome, your civilian might get a little wary. Especially if it's used as a suffix to the words “foreign” or “independent” you might end up totally fucking blowing it. So if a civilian asks you something like “what kind of movies do you like?” don't make the mistake of ending the conversation by being like “I like foreign and independent film” because they're just gonna go, “Ahhhh,” and pretend to be interested and end up either changing the subject or leaving. On the other hand, if—for whatever fucking reason, and goddammit this had fucking better be because the civilian brought him up—Ingmar Bergman gets dragged into the conversation, there's no ifs ands or buts, the only acceptable phrase is “Bergman film.” This holds true for a select few foreign and art cinema directors. But the handy thing is, you're usually not going to be talking about any of these directors until way past the entry level, and by the time your civilian is watching Wild Strawberries or whatever they're not going to be civilians anymore, so it's a moot point.
This is not a rant against the word “film.” When we're among our own kind, we can use whatever language we want, be as pretentious as we like, and the only danger is mouthing off to someone smarter than you or getting busted trying to pawn off something you've read as your own thoughts. Then, there's no real danger of anything except looking like a dickhead. You're not alienating a potential movie lover. Cuz really, that's the thing, we want more people loving movies, and feeling uninhibited about liking good ones.
Basically, we want to use friendly, non-intimidating language. I find the word “picture” to be the best of all possible worlds. It's a little old-fashioned, so older civilians won't find it threatening. It's short for “motion picture,” so it makes sense, and it's not excessively casual like the word “movie” can be under the wrong circumstances. But the coup de grace is that it's so fucking pretentious a lot of serious cinema people will cringe occasionally, and what good is hanging around with serious cinema people if you can't fuck with them and give them dyspepsia every now and then? The best part is, only serious cinema people know how pretentious it is, so you've basically got your own private screening going on in your head while having a seemingly innocuous conversation about a “Humphrey Bogart picture” with your nice civilian friend over a beer.
So, good, we've got our civilian all warmed up. We still have a bunch of big fucking obstacles in our way. Our tripartite demon of civilian fear and loathing is thus:
All three of these shibboleths cast massive, dark, foreboding, frigid shadows over our nice, friendly civilian and send them scrambling to watch unspeakable things, movies which I shan't even name for fear of upsetting the more sensitive readers out there. Our challenge is to present these types of movies in as palatable a way as possible. Not to tell them, “This is good, thus you must like it.” Describe why it's awesome, and if you do so properly you get “That sounds awesome.” Then all you gotta do is watch the fucking movie, better known as the fun part.
Of paramount importance, of course, is picking the right movie. Let's start with “old” (read: anything made before the civilian in question was born).
The way to figure this out is to figure out what your civilian actually likes, because if you try and force what you want them to like on them, le jeu sont fait, motherfucker. So here's a couple hypothetical answers to the (impossibly reductive, but fuck it) question, “So what do you like?”
Civilian: “I like ownage. Who in old-ass movies owns the shit out of people?”
Answer: Humphrey Bogart
Beginner's Level: Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon
Intermediate: The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place
Advanced: well, shit, if they're at the advanced level they're probably off watching The African Queen and The Caine Mutiny and shit on their own initiative. Good job.
Keep in mind the purpose of this post is to provide general unsolicited advice, and so the question becomes, who has the broadest appeal? For ownage alone, one might be tempted to answer “John Wayne” and while it's true that John Wayne did own, there's the political problem. Like in fucking Hondo when he's out there protecting the woman and her kid and he throws the fucking kid in the river to teach him to swim and growls something right-wing and the woman gets all aroused. That scene aged badly. Bogart works better, as he makes up for not owning as many dudes as John Wayne did by really makin em fucking count. Major Strasser. End of list.
There's a reason everyone trips about Casablanca. One of the first posts I ever did on this blog was about how great it was, but words are ephemeral. Casablanca will win over anyone except apostate nitpicky killjoy assholes farting about how there's no such thing as “real” letters of transit and all that fuckin shit. Of course, you don't phrase it that truculently to your civilian. You go, “Oh, yeah, I know everybody's been sucking this movie's dick for the last hundred years but trust me, half an hour in, its balls will be on your chin, too.” Or paraphrase. Build up enough trust with your civilian so that if you go “Trust me” they don't just go “fuck you.” Casablanca will not betray that trust.
The Maltese Falcon also works because it's every bit as good as Casablanca is except it won't make you cry. Casablanca occasionally makes people cry, and if your civilian isn't progressive and is mumbling about “chick shit” like romance, show him (chicks rarely complain about chick shit) The Maltese Falcon, which features pretty much nonstop Humphrey Bogart ownage, of verbal, physical, and even intellectual varieties. The Maltese Falcon is powerful shit. People buy fedoras and tan raincoats and shrink six inches and start rolling their own cigarettes to be like Bogart in that fucking movie. As well they goddamn should.
Shocking as it may seem, some civilians might be looking for something other than ownage in their old movies . . .
Civilian: “I like comedies.”
Answer(s): Pretty much anything Preston Sturges ever made.
This one's a little tricky for me because it's outside my usual home territory; any number of you out there better-versed in classical Hollywood cinema than me might be able to think of better suggestions. Preston Sturges works well for civilians, though, because he was such a stunningly fucking good writer and his dialogue and characters hold up remarkably well over the decades. The Lady Eve is fun as hell because Henry Fonda's a dork, Barbara Stanwyck is Barbara Stanwyck, et cetera ad infinitum, so if you want to keep it light, that's a good one to go with, but if you want to blow your civilian's fucking mind, show them Sullivan's Travels.
Sullivan's Travels is hilarious in some places, really really dramatic in others, and ends on such an exhilarating, transcendent note that you'll be talking about how awesome it is with your civilian for hours afterward. You do have to be careful, though, because the dramatic parts may make some tune out, so if you're sensing an unreliable attention span you might want to try something else first.
This is where Billy Wilder comes in handy. Specifically, Some Like It Hot. Actually, what the fuck am I talking about? Disregard all that other shit. Watch Some Like It Hot with your civilian, and say “you're welcome.”
Answer: “I like tearjerkers.”
Solution: There is but one. The man is Douglas Sirk. The movie is Imitation of Life.
Some might say I'm crazy, busting this out for a civilian. And sure, I'm crazy. And sure, parts of Imitation of Life are dated as shit, though Troy Donahue menacingly growling the n-word is one of the funniest things ever. And, yeah, it's over the top. And sure, the average civilian, not (over)thinking the matter, is going to look at the ending and go “Get the fuck out of here, did she really just die of a fucking broken heart?” To which there's only one reply, “Yes, yes, she does.” (Ed. Note: Imitation of Life is fucking awesome). Your civilian will at this point perhaps sneer and go, “Well that sucked.” So . . . what am I on about here? Why did I tell you to throw on Imitation of Life? Because your civilian is going to turn right around and tell you “This sure isn't any An Affair To Remember.”
Therein lies the brilliance of my plan. Only civilians have ever seen An Affair To Remember beginning to end (little known fact: even Nora Ephron, who's not a civilian, only saw the couple seconds of it she used in Sleepless in Seattle). Serious cineastes had to turn it off or leave the theater or whatever after the first five minutes to either throw up or get treated for diabetes. Because your civilian is a civilian, they've seen An Affair To Remember. They all have. They can then use this knowledge to get one up on you, the nominal expert, and the first seed in the orchard that is cinephilia has been planted: the feeling of superiority attendant to having seen something the other person hasn't.
By the way, the whole above scenario is word for fucking word the way it'll actually play out. The sneakiest thing about civilians is that they do know more than you do about old tearjerkers, it's a glitch in the Matrix (by the way, that brings up another excellent point that I'll consign to an aside just to be a dick: confirming to civilians that movies they like are actually good works wonders. Their eyes light up when you tell them, yes, The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia totally count as Greatest Of All Time picks).
So, to make a long story short, the trick with getting your civilian to watch old movies is basically just getting them in the right mood, not being condescending, and picking the right movie. Easier said than done, sure, but so is everything. Except defenestration: throwing a motherfucker out the window is quicker than that long-ass word.
Much harder. Shit, if you thought getting someone to watch a black & white movie was hard, getting them to watch something with subtitles usually involves bribery of some sort. Or one of those Clockwork Orange-style chairs. I was actually a little disappointed when I got my Lasik surgery back in 2000 that the apparatus wasn't more old-school with razor-sharp shit sticking out everywhere, and no anesthesia and all that cool stuff, me going “NOOOOOOO!!!” as they went for my eyes. Instead everything was all comfortable and soft and they gave me all the drugs I asked for—which, considering I was a couple months shy of 22 was a fucking lot—and said reassuring things to me and I barely felt a thing and only whined like a bitch for like two seconds.
I'm digressing because it pains me, way more than that extremely smooth and painless surgical procedure, to admit how fucking impossible it is to get civilians to watch pretty much anything foreign. The only person who ever figured out how to get civilians to watch foreign movies is Harvey Weinstein, and a distressingly high percentage of the foreign movies Miramax released in the 90s sucked marmoset dick (Cinema Paradiso, Chocolat, shit like that, even if neither of those technically came out in the 90s). How Harv did it, man was not meant to know.
The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to get civilians to watch foreign movies is the way Arthur Dent taught himself how to fly in Hitchhiker's Guide: throw yourself at the ground and miss. By which I mean, if you think about it for two seconds, the whole shithouse'll go up in flames, you just need to go with the organic flow of the universe. If you're with a civilian, and they want to watch anything foreign, don't question it. Just watch (or endure) it with them and hope they like it well enough to be talked into watching something good later. You cannot prod them at all until they've lost their cherry, and even then you have to give them space until they volunteer enthusiasm.
This is the most frustrating thing of all. Much as you know in your heart of hearts your civilian would like a gritty French gangster movie, or a big bright crazy Bollywood masala picture, or a sparse, minimalist Japanese drama, or a picture about a bunch of Iranian chicks who are totally nuts about soccer . . . you cannot make the first move. Just about anything you say to your civilian suggesting they watch something foreign, unless they've given you a clear indication that they're open to it, could result in a “meh,” or the dreaded “I don't like foreign movies, I hate reading subtitles.” And once they've given you that initial sign that they might dig something foreign, be careful. Don't fuck it up, you don't want to create one of those “I saw a foreign movie once, I didn't get it” people.
Hope I didn't bum you out too much, because fortunately, the last one's really fucking easy:
These have the advantage of usually being in color and not necessarily having subtitles. They also have all kinds of cool stuff like nudity that the studios have to foreswear in their idolatrous worship of the PG-13 rating. Or, if you're dealing with someone who isn't into that kind of thing, there are PG-13 and under independent pictures as well. That's the big secret of independent cinema: they're just regular movies that are financed and produced by someone other than a Hollywood executive.
And yet, “independent” movies are regarded as this big daunting thing by a lot of civilians. They tend to have this unfortunate stereotype of independent movies as boring, pretentious, and cheaply made. This stereotype didn't come out of nowhere, there are plenty of boring, pretentious, cheaply made independent pictures. They're also known as shitty independent pictures. The good ones are fucking rad, and civilians will not be able to tell the difference between a good independent movie and a studio picture that isn't one of the big special effects things.
Perfect case in point: back in 1994 when Pulp Fiction came out, none of the dipshits I went to high school with had any idea that it had a whole foofball independent movie backstory, playing at Cannes and all that shit. This was because it was screening in non-arthouse movie theaters, and when it came out on video it was right there on the shelf just like every other “normal” movie.
You can certainly make the case for Pulp Fiction not being a typical independent movie, because it's not. It's got dudes with guns just like studio movies, it's got recognizable movie stars, it grossed $100 million, and got shitloads of media attention. But in that last is the key: getting people who would ordinarily make the “who farted?” face when you say the words “independent film” to them will have no such negative reaction if you just present it to them like a normal movie. It's all in presentation.
Of course, you don't want to bullshit your civilian. Telling them Blue Valentine is just like The Notebook because Ryan Gosling's in it is going to accomplish nothing except pissing your civilian off. What you do instead is get your friend who likes crime dramas and pitch Winter's Bone, for example, as a story about meth dealers and shit and maybe drop some oblique hints about the chainsaw scene. Or, fuck, now you can just tell them Mystique plays the lead. That's a good strategy, finding an actor they know from a big studio picture and being like, “hey, you get to see more of them in this!”
The best thing about getting civilians into independent movies nowadays is that between Netflix and the other nine million ways to watch movies online one of the biggest pains in the ass from back in the 90s and before is gone: access. Used to be, you wanted to see something independent or foreign you had to get on the fucking subway, shlep into either the Angelika or Film Forum and if you were in the Angelika you had to put up with the motherfucking subway going by all the time on top of the incredibly unfriendly ambience, and that's the bullshit you had to put up with in New York, where it was easy. Outside of major cities, unless the gods were kind and granted you an arthouse within driving distance, you were shit out of luck. Now, once something comes out on DVD, it's just a movie. And if you've been good and built up trust with your civilian, they'll look at “keyword: independent” and ask you “Independent, huh? Is it good?” and you'll say yes, and they'll listen to you.
And thus, we come after a long and hopefully entertaining amble to the whole point of this: if you're not a dickface about knowing more about movies than someone else, they're more likely to trust you when you suggest stuff. That's it. Be nice to people and don't lord shit over them, and things will be okay. You may even, after getting an amiable newcomer to the joys of cinema to watch something good with you, create a new One Of Us. Then, when they get to the point when they get that reference, you'll brush a tear away and say, “Oh . . . they grow up so fast!”