Chatting About Movies During Lunch

Remember a few years ago when Chris Rock hosted the Oscars awards ceremony? He had a bit in which he asked some people in the street if they’d seen any of the films nominated for Best Picture. Together the nominated films had grossed less than $200 million domestically, or less than the widely scorned F/X extravaganza, Electra. Not one person had seen any of the five nominated films. The joke was revealing, but the audience wasn’t amused. Rock wasn’t asked back the following year.

In the cinephile world the fall is when the real films come out. Cinephiles may have a hazy recollection of the summer blockbusters, but they know the major films playing at Sundance or the New York Film Festival. Sometimes the competition to see the rarest and most exotic films–the ones furthest away from Hollywood–can reach absurd levels. Read any film blog and you’ll see someone’s top 10 list topped by a film made by a Kurdish/Laotian director who speaks only Frisian. His film was screened once at the East Village Independent Underground Film Festival, and immediately after its conclusion it self-destructed like one of those tapes on Mission Impossible. The director couldn’t make the screening because he was a prisoner of conscience in Kazakhstan. The GreenCine crowd can get like this.

And yet cinephiles aren’t really snobbish, I don’t think. Their viewing habits reflect the industrial nature of their medium. Rock music fans are the same way.  Because of the historical role of their fetish, literature readers have different somewhat different consumer habits, although best-selling authors like James Patterson might as well write in Sanskrit. When you’re a cinephile you know abstractly that someone is buying tickets to Alvin and the Chipmunks, but you can’t imagine anyone you know actually paying money to see it in the theatre, just like you can’t believe living, breathing people actually voted for Mitt Romney.

The other day I went out to lunch with a group of eight co-workers, and we talked at length about movies. These people were college-educated people, married with one exception, and most of them had small children. Chris Rock would be glad to learn that no one had seen any of the films most often mentioned as Oscar Best Picture nominees. They hadn’t even heard of most of them except for Atonement. (Two people had seen Beowulf, which, as far as I know, isn’t a BP candidate.) The parents had seen only animated films, including Enchanted, which is, for all intents and purposes, animated. On the other hand, most people had seen at least one of the films nominated for Best Picture in 2007 on DVD. One guy said his family had finally gotten around to seeing Pan’s Labyrinth last weekend. Netflix subscribers were the most adventurous viewers. Cheap and easy access to films encouraged people to take chances on foreign films with subtitles. "I’m not going to spend eight dollars to read subtitles, but I’ll do it through Netflix," one woman said.

None of this is particularly surprising. What was interesting was listening to how people talk about films and how they come to choose which ones to watch. The difference between these casual filmgoers and cinephiles is, I think, a matter of language. My co-workers know movies through film industry publicity, People magazine, and Netflix’s "people who saw this film also liked . . . " feature. The stereotype of casual moviegoers is that they’re stupidly pleasure-seeking. Actually, theirs is a very a pragmatic language based on the expenditure of precious time and, to a lesser extent, money.  When you work sixty-hour weeks at a high-stress job, you only have so much energy left over for rarified cultural consumption. Besides, it’s not like someone is going to break the ice in a labor negotiation by mentioning the  Kiarostami film she saw the night before. Parents also have to take into consideration factors like volume (most theaters are too loud for three and four-year-olds) and unforeseeable crises like a four-year-old falling to pieces when an animated rat gets locked in a car trunk. (This happened to one mother during Ratatouille.) There was much grumbling around the restaurant table about the suicide threat scene in The Incredibles.

Cinephiles, on the other hand, speak in an entirely different language that is, frankly, rather poor in conveying the pleasure of watching a film. Try persuading someone to watch The Death of Mister Lazarescu and you’ll see what I mean. You can read all the Christian Metz you want, but deciding to spend a couple of hours to watching an elderly bachelor die in a post-communist hospital is still a matter of faith. In the case of  Mister Lazarescu, that faith will be rewarded, but we’ve all sat through noble films that we felt better for watching, but won’t watch a second time. 

The differences between cinephiles and suburbanites with toddlers aren’t as great as they might appear.  Both groups are concerned with pleasure and social capital. They just simply talk about these topics in different ways. More importantly, these languages aren’t easily translated, but the cineplex crowd is no less hard-hearted and rational than people lining up to a New York Film Festival screening. I would go so far as so say that cineplexers have an analytical language as highly developed as any given subscriber to The Village Voice. They’re just different languages.

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  1. I love this topic. I think it comes down to divergent “escapist” approaches. After 40-60 hours of structured banality, the idea of sitting in front of something for an hour and a half that merely mirrors that banality, a visual manifestation of the market economy (money-driven), I escape into something that engages me, that challenges me, that in Derridean terms, “dislocates” me. I don’t consider myself a cineaste, but I’d rather see a movie with sub-titles for that very reason. Its an opportunity to distance myself from a stultifying ethnocentric culture that perpetuates the insidiously intractable bovine contentment American society embraces and nourishes at every opportunity.
    I think an interesting question is “What movie preference would be a deal-breaker in a budding relationship?”. My friend declared a dinner date a total nightmare after his date played Counting Crows in her car. For me, if my dinner date extolled the virtues of “Swingers”, I’d likely reevaluate any possible future with her.


  2. I don’t really think that we ever see a movie to escape. Even escapist films are symbolic resolutions to the problems that we’re trying to escape, so in that sense we can never escape the self. To use your terms, Andrew, we’re always dislocated whether we’re aware of it or not.
    First date movies have the some of the same pitfalls as children’s movies, when you think about it: you always have to consider what kinds of primary and tertiary identifications your fellow moviegoer will form. You can’t just watch for yourself; you have to watch for the other person, too. On my first date with my wife I took her to see The Man Who Wasn’t There, an odd choice of first date movies. She married me anyway.


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