Thursday, January 24, 2008


I wanted to comment on this quote that I posted on my tumblr blog:

I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s story, which he relates in his latest Answer Man column (I just now published it online), about a phone call he once got from a reader:

Caller: “We live near the Wilmette Theatre, which is showing ‘Cries and Whispers.’ What can you tell us about it?”

Ebert: “I think it is the best film of the year.”

Caller: “Oh, that doesn’t sound like anything we’d want to see!”

-Jim Emerson (commenting here)

What's interesting to me: I'm much more likely to recommend a movie that I enjoyed but don't feel too strongly about than a movie that I am passionate about. Let me elaborate just a bit and add that it really depends on who's asking for a recommendation.

Watching Regular Lovers was one of the richest, most rewarding, most interesting, and most emotionally compelling movie experiences I've had recently; watching Juno, on the other hand, was moderately enjoyable. But if I had to recommend a movie to most of my co-workers, most people in my family, most of my (non-movie buff) friends, it'd probably be Juno. Why? Because Regular Lovers is not the kind of movie most people would be open to and/or interested in. Even among my movie buff friends, I'd be hesitant to recommend it without a few words of "warning" ("Almost three hours", "French", "About May '68") and, in fact, there are a bunch of other movies that I didn't like quite as much (Once, The Hoax, Zodiac) that I'd be more likely to suggest.

I wonder if this makes me kind of a lousy champion for a movie to have: I mean, if I love Regular Lovers so much, shouldn't I be singing it's praises to everyone I meet and trying to get them to see it, too?

I don't know:

Part of me thinks that I should stick to my guns, recommend the movie ("Try Regular Lovers: it's one of my favorite movies of the year"), and hope that a few people (or at least one person) will act on the recommendation and feel like watching the movie was a worthwhile experience. But another part of me wants to avoid situations where I'm trying to sell the movie or convince someone they should see it. (My thinking here is: the kind of people who are likely to really respond to it are also likely to discover it without my help.)

Related question: is it more elitist for me to recommend a film like Regular Lovers (because it shows off what a sophisticated film-goer I am) or to not recommend it (because I can't imagine my co-workers/family members/friends would be able to get it)?


nostack said...

In the abstract way you phrased it, certainly the latter is more elitist.

But I think you (and Ebert) are leaving out a lot of social context.

If someone asks me what my favorite book is, I don't think it's elitist to say The Brothers Karamazov. And if they press for more information I can describe the book a little bit, and they can make up their own mind if it's the type of thing they want to read.

But if someone's asking me for a recommendation, it's usually with a purpose in mind--either they're asking for something they'll probably like (Confederacy of Dunces), something they're not sure they'll like but are willing to try (Tristram Shandy), or maybe something that's shallow fun but they never heard of before (Tomoe Gozen).

In that case, saying, "Raggh you must read James Joyce ragggh" would be asinine. Not because you're being dismissive of their tastes and capabilities, but because you're not listening to the real question, and you're exploiting their uncertainty to further your own agenda.

Jon Hastings said...

Yes - social context is key! I mean, depending on the context: "Have any good movies recently?" might mean the same thing as "Can you recommend a good movie to me?".

Another of the social issues though is that a lot of my friends/family know me as "the movie guy" (i.e., I watch a lot of movies, went to cinema studies school, work in the industry part of the film industry, etc.) so the breakdown you show in your fourth paragraph isn't always clear. In the real world, I never blindly recommend anything (for instance, I wouldn't suggest someone go off an watch Eastern Promises unless I know they're "ok" with screen violence).

Also - recommending my favorite movies isn't (or wouldn't be) a case of "furthering my own agenda": it's a case of answering a question (or a certain question at least) honestly. The question is one of when it's best to hedge your honesty. One answer is "when it's indicated by the social context".

Michael said...

Critics and their agonies, eh? Me, I like to remind myself regularly that no one is going to pay attention to me anyway. It's liberating!

Marc said...

How about just answering the question honestly, assessing your tastes and theirs as best you can and not worrying about whether it's elitist or not? I think most of the angst over elitism is about as superficial (and sometimes as misleading) as most of the angst over fascism, anyway.