On Poor Taste: A Cinephile Grapples With Lowbrow Likes

(A version of the following first appeared in INsite Boston in 2005. Please forgive the dated references. The overall content is still relevant!)

There’s a golden rule in courtship: “Never talk business on a first date.” (Ditto politics and religion.) Likely because, for most people, that’s a fast pass to Snoresville. But what if your business is entertainment?

Someone recently had the bright idea to take me DVD shopping as a “get to know you” exercise on a first date — what better way to get familiar with a film major than to see what movies he likes? I knew I was doomed when my date held up a copy of a certain Nicole Kidman film in which she may or may not have been a robot and said, “Wasn’t this great?”

I blinked. My instinct is to always tell the truth: “While I enjoyed a few performances and a few stray lines of dialogue, the film favored cheap jokes over consistent characterization and failed to follow even its own incredible logic, resulting in one of the most atrociously misguided third acts I’ve ever been privy to. Even director Frank Oz claimed it was his biggest regret as a filmmaker at a Q&A I attended!”

Had it been a close friend, I would have sounded off exactly like that. (And they’d have agreed, because all my close friends are film snobs, too.) However, I know from experience that people are defensive about their film faves the way first-time mothers are protective of newborns, and you just don’t tell Mom her infant looks like the wrong end of a crack baby.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It was fun.”See, as an alum of one of the top-rated film schools in the world, people are often interested in my opinion on movies. But not my real opinion. The last thing anyone wants is some big screen know-it-all tearing apart their favorite flick, which in their mind is a cherished masterpiece that just missed awards season. If you cite “choppy editing” or “bad sound design” as a reason for disliking a movie in mixed company, you might as well say, “My trip to Mars was sensational!” for the all the blank stares you’ll get. What people want is my cinema-schooled stamp of approval, affirming that their love of all things Michal Bay is not totally unfounded.

I just don’t have the heart to shoot ‘em down.

Yes, I know it’s “just entertainment,” and as a fair-minded liberal I technically support a Filmgoer’s Right To Choose. But the mainstream abortion of good taste in movie-watching is an assault on everything I hold dear, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder: “Doesn’t anyone take entertainment seriously anymore?”

Take game shows, for example: those freaky-genius contestants can tell you the name of Mozart’s ninth cat but, when posed with the question, “Catherine Zeta-Jones is: A) an actress; B) a law firm; C) a fatal strain of malaria,” they have to phone a friend. How can such seemingly accomplished people be so blind when it comes to popular culture? Sure, maybe geniuses don’t see Academy Award-winning movies or flip through OK! at the supermarket… but I find it hard to believe that none of them use T Mobile. Their Catherine Zeta-Ignorance is evidence of the mainstream’s foolish belief that entertainment exists merely for their amusement.catherine-zeta-jones-ChicagoMaybe it isn’t their fault they haven’t been properly educated — but I worked hard and shelled out a pretty penny to be this film-savvy. How dare the Average Joe think his measly two cents rival the tens of thousands of dollars that went toward my film degree? I forgo Pulitzer Prize-winning novels to keep up with Entertainment Weekly; I need room in my head to memorize box office grosses, so I say goodbye to those trivial facts about Andrew Jackson I learned in high school. Does nobody appreciate my sacrifice? Do they not see how this qualifies my opinion as The Right One? When they say a movie’s good and I say, “Well, actually…” don’t they realize the debate should be over?

What I do for a living is what other people do for fun, but nothing I can say will convince anyone who think otherwise that Revenge of the Sith was a terrible movie on every imaginable level. (Even though I’m right.) Marine biologists don’t often run into contrarians arguing, “Actually, I don’t think dolphins use echolocation at all!”, but in my field, everybody thinks they get to weigh in, whether they’ve got a degree or not.

So to get along with the masses, I must swallow my pride (plus four years’ tuition), put on a game face, and lie my way through first dates with the cinematically challenged. I’ve learned to suppress my inner Criterion collector in favor of his socially acceptable cousin, who thinks all your favorite movies are “fun!” He’s not the guy who condemned your devotion to the Vin Diesel oeuvre, nor the guy who made you sit through a black and white movie with subtitles on your first date. He’s the guy who totally encouraged your purchase of that little gem, The Stepford Wives. His reward? A second date.

Sure, there’s a naggy voice in the back of my mind that likes to ask, “Whatever happened to character arcs?”, but it shuts up when I feed it popcorn. After all, who am I to judge?  Though I’d never admit it on a first date, I own Big Momma’s House on DVD.

‘Cause hey.  It was fun.

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