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What Type of Movie-Goer Are You?

I saw this piece over at The Cinematical and it got me thinking. The article basically looks at how open-minded viewers can and should be:

Too often, moviegoers seem to clump into camps: I only watch romantic comedies; I stick with horror; I gotta have my action fix; I won’t watch anything made after 1950; I won’t watch anything in black and white; I won’t watch anything with subtitles. To some extent, we’re pushed that way by modern media, as niche marketing gets more and more specific. Go to Netflix or Amazon, search for A Room with a View, and suggestions for other similar, period dramas may pop up as recommended choices for you, as determined by computer algorithms. The computer won’t recommend The Crazies.

Are we too close-minded about films?

Ah, the classic "vampire/cop" movie genre...

This is an old chestnut frequently thrown out at family holiday movie choices. We’re a large extended family and we like to be together for family occasions or Christmas or holidays, so we like to stick on a Friday or a Saturday night film. Anybody cooking for a large family with a variety of tastes knows how ridiculously difficult it can be, and movie choosing is no different. On one hand, my mum has an instant dislike of hard science-fiction and won’t watch a horror (trust me, she lasted through the first three rules of Zombieland and that was it); on the other, the only romances or dramas my brother will watch are those featuring actors he’s fond of; my aunt dislikes the superhero genre (with the bizarre exception of X-Men); and my girlfriend has a very low threshold for gore.

In fairness, there are exceptions to every rule, if we push hard enough. My brother sat through The Proposal in the interests of family unity. My mum actually managed to make it through the original Saw, with a pillow over her face. Still, it’s a perfect storm of a movie that can please all of these tastes.

And, to be honest, I’m not so impartial myself. I know that I run a film blog and I should be compeltely open-minded, but I recognise that I am slightly skewed myself. I think you can make the case that a lot of critics are equally or more skewed – the stereotypical portrayal of the snooty established film critic with his taste for Oscarbait and disdain for anything labeled ‘mainstream’ or the equally exaggerated image of the blogger with his championing of niche and genre films at the expense of anything conventional. I don’t suggest that either case is the norm, just as an example of how personal taste may influence critics.

The great Roger Ebert had the phrase “generic expectations” to summarise his theory on how a critic should deal with such bias. I’ll let him explain:

The star ratings are relative, not absolute. If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose.

In other words, the critic should acknowledge what is expected of a certain genre in rating a film, rather than adopting a completely absolutist attitude. On the other hand, he does acknowledge that some aspects must be treated as absolute:

Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean I’d give four stars to the best possible chainsaw movie. In my mind, four stars and, for that matter, one star, are absolute, not relative. They move outside “generic expectations” and triumph or fail on their own.

The key here seems to be balance rather than a stringent relativistic or absolutist approach to rating films.

In my own case, I am inherently mistrustful of slasher movies, as most are little more than misogynist fantasies (seriously, the knife is always a phallus). I have a big problem with traditional romantic comedies, believing a fair portion to be incredibly sexist. These things play on my mind, and I’m conscious of them. I think that’s the best that can be expected, as nobody’s perfect – all you can do is hope to recognise your weaknesses and acknowledge them.

On the other hand, I like to think that I am relatively open-minded, even bearing in mind skepticism towards certain genres of film. I am willing to recognise examples from both of the above genres with are classics and essential viewing for any cinema buff. The Shining may just be the best horror film ever made. When Harry Met Sally is similarly a classic.

I try not to rule out certain films just because of their film classification – I am arguably more concerned about the track record of the talent involved than the type of film we lump it with (whether that’s appropriate is an argument for another day, to be honest). If a film gets good reviews, it’s on my radar regardless of what tags I can label it with. The Crazies is now on there, for example – reviewing very well for a horror film. If everyone I know tells me a film is worth my time, I will give it my time.

The Cinematical is right to observe that this sort of prejudice arises from the desire to breakdown and organise absolutely everything, and to apply labels to films based on, let’s face it, arbitrary criteria. Inglourious Basterds is classified as a war film because it takes place during the Second World War, but it stands prouder beside Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy than Saving Private Ryan. Avatar won’t find itself sitting next to Dances With Wolves on any videostore shelves, but that’s arguably where it belongs.

And the above article is equally correct to note that preferences don’t flow logically along these convenient fault lines. Taste is a relative thing, varying from person to person. Breaking items down into genres doesn’t necessarily help with that. I like Unforgiven, but it doesn’t flow from that that I will enjoy every film set in a desert in the past. I imagine that most of the audiences who pick up Avatar when it comes out on DVD will be left scratching their heads at Moon, which is shelved right next to it.

The idea of classifying movies by genre is a topic that is well explored by critics and analysts, a key component of any film studies course, with Film Theory: An Introduction serving as a common starting point. There’s a notion that they are just the product of over-analysis and that they aren’t really all that helpful:

Are genres really “out there” in the world, or are they merely the constructs of analysts? Is there a finite taxonomy of genres or are they in principle infinite? Are genres timeless Platonic essences or ephemeral, time-bound entities?Are genres culture-bound or transcultural? Does the term “melodrama” have the same meaning in Britain, France, Egypt and Mexico? Should genre analysis be descriptive or proscriptive?

But such is life. We are creatures who like to put order on things – it’s just the way we are. We like to fit things into tidy little boxes and order them accordingly, based on what may seem to be rational criteria. Sure, there may be the odd exception, a film which ends up on the wrong shelf despite matching the necessary criteria, but these only serve to reinforce the rule. It’s the part of our brain which detects recognisable shapes in random cloud coverage and believes in complicated conspiracy theories because they put some notion of order upon random events.

But are we putting the chicken before the egg here? Does the existence of genres create this close-mindedness, or is it merely a product of it? Does the guy pick up Cliffhanger off the shelf because it’s classified as an action movie, or is it put there because he group to have it with the type of movies he likes? Is classifying movies into genres the cause of prejudice against certain types of movies, or the result of it? Do I avoid watching Last House on the Left because it’s a slasher, or do I group movies into the same the category exclusively because I don’t want to watch another movie like that? Or is it part of a cycle?

In fairness, I don’t think we judge our movie selections on genre alone. As alluded above, the talent involved and the reviews influence our decision. I’d argue genre is still a bigger factor, as no matter whether it stars George Clooney or gets the best reviews of the year, you won’t get my mum to watch a zombie film.

And I’ll speak out a little in defense of this classification and prejudging our selections. Just a bit. I’m not a professional critic. There’s only so much I can watch – and even hen I watch more than most regular people. Is it wrong for me to use a guideline like genre to help me avoid wasting two hours of my life? It’s different if I was doing this for a living and being paid to see everything, but I’m not – and, even if I wanted to, I can’t. And if guidelines like genre and classification help me pick a masterpiece like Up In The Air rather than a ‘turgid’ film like Leap Year, surely we can mount some sort of defense of the classification.

If some people honestly don’t enjoy zombie films, why should we assume that the decision is invalid, just because it rules out classics like Night of the Living Dead or Dawn on the Dead? Film is subjective, and it’s arrogant to assume that everyone will enjoy certain films. Yes, it is a case of being close-minded, but you might argue it’s a fair one. Who are we to judge? In the end – no matter how you look at it or how great or iconic the film is – the ‘loss’ is only for that person, and – being honest – they don’t necessarily feel it.

So what about you, are you in anyway close-minded? Are there certain films you prejudge before you go in or do you manage to be that wonderful hypothetical clean slate?

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