Monday, February 06, 2017

poseurs, amateurs and other movie buffs

Woody Allen enlists Marshall McLuhan to help deflate the obnoxious pontifications of Russell Horton in "Annie Hall" (1977) 


 “My name is Joe.

“And I am a ... movie buff.”

Once upon a time, I was a member of a small, select, rather surreptitious subdivision of the moviegoing public.

As originally perceived, a movie buff was a solitary individual who was unlike your average moviegoer in two distinct ways: He (film buffs have historically been mostly guys) was known to attend movies alone and often saw certain movies multiple times, more than once. In less enlightened times, it was considered suspect, even undesirable, to watch a film without a companion - or to watch a movie more than one time!

Yes, friends, times have clearly changed. Case in point: the on-going, seemingly never-ending "Star Wars" craze, now 40-years-old.

A movie buff also was not discriminatory about film genres; he would sit through anything and everything. And true buffs would read movie reviews at a time when no one else read movie reviews - or was even aware that there was such a thing as movie reviews.  And, yes, they actually read the review, not just glance at the headline or the tell-nothing star-rating. 

Originally, there were no star-, numerical- or lettered-ratings. (Or thumbs!) There were no short cuts. One actually had to read the review.

I know. Crazy.

Finally, the original movie buffs learned how to “read” the movies that they watched – and if you don’t know what that means, look it up.

Movie buffs, as I knew and admired them, were curious and open-minded about film, two very important, crucial qualities.  They were adventurous.

This type of moviegoer – my type of movie buff - still exists but is quickly fading.  Frankly, we’re dying off.  And, during the past few decades, we’ve been supplanted not by a single new breed but by a few variations that have compromised the notion of what a movie buff can and should be.

First, there are what I call The Franchise Geeks, a brainless but dangerous group of moviegoers - dangerous because they are what drive the film studios.  The original Franchise Geek was born in the late ‘70s in response to such blockbusters as “Jaws” (1975), “Superman” (1978) and especially “Star Wars” (1977).  The second-generation Franchise Geek made his debut 1989 in tandem with the Burton version of “Batman,” and the millennial Franchise Geek is the target audience for series inspired by the comics of Marvel (“Spider-Man”) and D.C. (“The Dark Knight Rises”). 

The Franchise Geek cares about one thing and one thing only – the latest franchise CGI extravaganza – and is not really a movie buff at all.  But these geeks have power and influence.  The studios court them and some critics have lowered their standards to keep in step with them.

In their own simple(-minded) way, they're opinion-makers. Scary.

Next, we have The Siskberts, those people who suddenly discovered film and film criticism with the advent of “Sneak Previews,” the syndicated movie-review show hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert that ran on PBS from 1975 to 1983 before morphing into other versions (“At the Movies,” “Siskel & Ebert” and “Ebert Presents: At the Movies’). 

Gene and Roger (who I remember as good friends, as well as colleagues) did something crucial:  They brought movie criticism out of the closet, so to speak. To reiterate, few people paid much attention to movie reviews but Gene and Roger popularized the form.  A movie critic was formerly seen as some grumpy old professorial type, deserving of his misery. 

But here were Gene and Roger, two regular guys just sitting around and jawing – not about sports but about film.  And they made it look easy.

And, in turn, they inadvertently created a lot of little Siskbert monsters – clueless people who pontificate about movies and who now think they are experts on the subject.  Woody Allen anticipated this phenomenon with his astute and hilarious Marshal McLuhan sequence in "Annie Hall" (1977).

 As a personal experience, I recently met a Siskbert who complained that "Manchester by the Sea" has "serious editing problems." Huh?

I'm willing to wager that your average Siskbert has never heard of Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris - and probably doesn't even read movie reviews at all.  Why bother?  They're their own critic, see? I mean, they are the critic.

Our next group, The Movie Bloggers, is a hybrid of the Franchise Geek and the Siskbert.  Because their views on film are presented as written words (on a computer screen, not a newspaper or a magazine), they actually perceive themselves as movie critics, not knowing that someone has to actually hire you and pay you before you can present yourself as such.  Some have also identified themselves as “film historians.” Oy.

But I’ve a hunch if you asked any blogger about their favorite Glenda Jackson movie, they’d look at you with a confused glazed expression.

Finally, there are two groups more closely related to the Original Movie Buff. The Graduates are film freaks from the 1960s who became hooked on the film of the same name, as well as “Midnight Cowboy,” “Easy Rider,” Medium Cool, “M*A*S*H” and “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” – just a few of the titles representing the then-New Wave in American filmmaking. 

Some of them may still be around – I’m certainly still a member – but they were drowned out by the Franchise Geeks when “Jaws” and “Star Wars” took over. The New Wave was suddenly finished. Stone. Cold. Dead.

Which brings us to The Codgers, who were among the Original Movie Buffs but refused to evolve. Your average Codger doesn’t like anything new and thinks that anything made after 1970 isn’t legitimate or worthwhile.  They sit symbolically on the porch in their rocking chairs complaining that no one makes musicals like the ones that Judy and Mickey made for Metro.  In their tiny universe, MGM is sacred.

BTW, one doesn't necessarily have to be old to be a Codger, whose beginnings can be traced to 1994, the year Turner Classic Movies debuted.  Many of them are devotees of TCM's Robert Osborne.

What all these subgroups lack is something that I alluded to earlier – curiosity and an open-mind.  One really doesn’t have to be fanatic about film or even well-versed in it. But a sense of adventurousness is crucial – a desire to see “The Lobster” and “Paterson,” as well as “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Dr. Strange,” an enthusiasm for “La La Land” and “Our Kind of Traitor,” as well as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Casablanca.”

There's no room for any kind of snobbery among movie buffs and when I use the word snobbery, I'm not strictly referring to an elitism.

Snobbery can come in all forms, both high-brow and low-. It's too restricting. Too exclusive. The hobby, pastime, avocation of being a movie buff must be rescued from exclusivity and anything restrictive. It must!


Alex said...

So true, Joe. I've lost count of how many "conversations" I've had about movies with friends who only talk in terms of stars: "I give it four stars." Or, "It's a solid three stars and no more."

Sheila said...

Hilarious. This post reminded me of Bette Davis' tirade in "All About Eve." I looked it up: "They're not people. Those are little beasts that run around in packs like coyotes...They're nobody's fans. They're juvenile delinquent, they're mental defective, and nobody's audience. They never see a play or a movie even. They're never indoors long enough."

edward c. said...

As much as I liked Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel and appreciated their reviews, I never liked the "thumbs" gimmick. I actually prefer the stars because there's some gradation. With the "thumbs," there's no gray area. A film is either worthwhile or not worth the time.

Charlotte said...

Joe! Love your depiction of old movie codgers sitting in their rocking chairs on a porch and bemoaning that the only good films are on Turner. I've met quite a few who didn't like "La La Land" because Gene Kelly wasn't in it!

Michael J. Fitzgerald said...

JOE: You could almost change the word movie (or film) and slide in media... Everyone is a media critic today... If they buy a newspaper, well, they are expert. Ditto for watching television! Nice column!

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Michael. Yes, all this extends beyond movies and bleeds into other areas of the media - and television in particular. Now everyone is a TV critic. But I don't know about newspapers. I think you are giving the average American a huge benefit of doubt in terms of reading a newspaper these days. Magazines maybe (the facile, junky kind), but probably not newspapers. Too old-fashioned. Plus they'd actually have to read.

Brian Lucas said...

Bloggers? Don't you know that they call themselves On-Line Critics now? And there are thousands of them. Literally.

joe baltake said...

Brian- Yes, thousands. I check out the movie blogs very infrequently these days - life's too short - and each one seemingly offers links to hundreds other movie sites. Who reads these things?

Tim K. said...

I love the comment about the (questionable) editing of "Manchester by the Sea." So typical. These people make comments and have no idea what they're talking about!

joe baltake said...

Tim- They often have observations that make no sense and yet they speak with such authority. A very strange trend, indeed.

Marvin said...

Siskbert(s) and Movie Bloggers? Hilarious. Brilliantly hilarious. As far as I am concerned, these are the two most obnoxious "categories." Wonderful article, Joe, deserving of "some kind of prize."

Kiki said...

You're such a terrific writer ... and like my friend says when he looks over my shoulder as I read you, "He knows so much."

joe baltake said...

Kiki- I doubt if most critics would admit this but it takes a certain arrogance to get the job done - or confidence, if you want a less aggressive word. As far as knowing "so much"... When I was reviewing in Philadelphia, I had a feud going with a critic on a rival paper, someone who had no affinity for film and was taking up space in a job that someone else, someone more qualified (in my opinion), deserved. Anyway, we appeared together once at a Pen & Pencil Q&A (strictly Philly) and someone asked why we never agreed on movies. He went mute but I responded, "Well, I know what I'm talking about." I can't believe that I was ever so arrogant, but I'm glad I said it. Hey, someone had to say it!

Michael J. Fitzgerald said...

Joe: I certain agree about being sure of yourself - just short of being arrogant. In my weekly general interest column, I have to have faith in my observations and opinions. And be willing to stick my neck waaaaaay out sometimes. I will catch flak for a column that is set to publish Friday, "Hidden lessons in "Hidden Figures'' ... I had just filed the column and went to a soiree here in the San Francisco area in which I watched the slick organizers warmly greeting various fat cats (read: Rich) attendees while treating the staff/help as if they belonged in steerage.

joe baltake said...

Hey Michael- I'm sure you're well aware that when one has an opinion, particularly a strong opinion, one will catch some flak. It goes with the territory. As for my arrogance with my colleague way back when, I can only blame it on my youth (at the time). As I've aged, I've learned that one can think something without necessarily saying it. My "Well, I know what I'm talking about" comment was not only unnecessary but pointless. Did I expect the guy (or anyone else, for that matter) to agree with me? In retrospect, I came off looking bad. And that's life. -J

van said...

I've no idea if the "thumbs" shtick was the idea of Siskel and Ebert or forced on them by television producers. Nevertheless, I was surprised that Ebert in particular, who seemed to take pride in being a pring journalist and won a Pulitzer for his criticism, would endorse the idea of reducing a review to a thumb turned upwards or down.

F. N. said...

I don't know if anyone else has noted by the editors behind MSN are constantly coming up with silly movie lists usually compiled by people whose credentials are never presented - the 25 best horror films, the greatest love stories on film, the 100 best film couples, etc., etc. It's rare when an older film - something made before "Jaws" - is ever listed. Most of the titles are contemporary, meaning films from the 1980s on. For these people, movies seem to have began the day they graduated from high school.

Howard said...

I like your connection of The Codgers to TCM. I really think Turner enables them. A couple months ago, The New York Times ran a Table for Three interview with Ben Mankiewicz and Tom Ford, who complained about Turner showing films "in color from the 1970s." He disapproved. I like that Ben didn't entirely agree with him, although he seemed to assure Ford that Turner doesn't air that many '70s films.

Anonymous said...

Surely the bottom is reached via the You Tube "reviewers" videos. These commentators recorded in their bedrooms, complete with Star Wars/comic book memorabilia in the background and underwear on the floor. I've come across a few of these, but now I prefer digging my eyeball out with a fork as a pastime.

Robin said...

I'm one of the Codgers. I have minimal interest in new films. I love watching - and re-watching for the 25th time - films made 50 years ago or more. I admit I lack curiosity, except in one respect. I love discovering old films I have never heard of.

Mitch H. said...

Hello, Joe. I live in Northern California and remember fondly your years of film insight at the Sacramento Bee.

Anyway, just for fun, here's an anti-Codger/anti-TCM perspective: I have a smart Asian friend, born overseas in 1969, who learned his English here but who refuses to watch any movie filmed in black and white ("all too old and boring"). His kind of movie is action-comedy, and his favorite actor young or old, is Jackie Chan.

joe baltake said...

Hi, Mitch! Yes, yes - there are all sorts of movie snobs. Thanks for adding your insight and also for reminding me of glorious Northern California, which I miss very much. -J