Thursday, December 02, 2004

Movie Nerds 101

Did you try to convince your girlfriend to watch an African circumcision movie with you your first night back from a vacation? Do you plan on being an hour and a half late to a pal's birthday party so you can squeeze in the rare screening of Ozu's Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family? If so, congratulations! You're a certified movie nerd!

Of course, it's no fun being a movie nerd. You watch a ton of movies all by your lonesome, sacrifice your social life for the sake of completism, compile lists that nobody cares about, and acquire a ton of knowledge too obscure for even Trivial Pursuit and completely off-limits at cocktail parties. (Social no-no: "Funny you should mention Milla Jovovich's bizarre outfits, as Bresson, of all people, made a weird, fascinating movie on Joan of Arc in 1962, during his conventional middle period, which I just saw last Friday evening at the Cinematheque.") It's like being a dorky wonk who knows every detail about East African debt forgiveness programs, except you're not helping anybody and you can't get paid. Worst of all, art connoisseurs (artfags, movie nerds, bookworms, indiegeeks, classic music buffs) have a particularly obnoxious reputation -- just one step above snotty foodies and wine snobs -- so it takes blood, sweat and much tongue-biting to not make yourself a social pest.

Funny thing about the internet: It makes obsessives more obsessive, mainly by connecting you to other strange birds similarly enchanted by celluloid (and listmaking). A cultish cinephilia has flowered online, watered by an endless stream of trivia and reconsiderations, so that "priority" moviegoing never ceases. Just when you thought you've covered the canon, you learn that Walter Reade has just uncovered a hitherto unknown masterpiece by Polish great Andrzej Munk! What?!? How can you dare presume to know anything about postwar Polish cinema without seeing this precursor to Wadja and Polanski? And did you know the Jean-Claude Van-Damme/Rob Schneider turkey Knock Off is some kind of gonzo classic? Have you seen it? Yeah? But have you really seen it?

As you can see, the connoisseurship never ends.

I became a much bigger movie nerd after I joined a group of nerds, selected by Esquire critic Mike D'Angelo from posters to the now-dead rec.arts.movies.current-films, to participate in a movie survey now called the Skandies. I joined in 1997. (Mike has helpfully provided a short history of the group, as well as last year's results, on his blog.) Most Skandies participants take their voting obligations with the utmost seriousness, busy tracking down screeners of Undertow just to make sure they aren't missing out. Call me biased, but I think the Skandies results are more consistently interesting and "correct" than awards from any other group. (Witness deserving Best Picture wins for In the Mood for Love, Yi Yi, Out of Sight, and Being John Malkovich, in their respective years.) Only the Village Voice and Film Comment polls come close, and those polls don't highlight overlooked performances/movies the way the Skandies does.

But really, nobody cares about the results except Skandies voters and a handful of groupies. The more significant thing is the comraderie that's developed between the "regulars." Those of you who browse this blog regularly -- those who are not part of the nerd posse, that is -- surely have detected this. It's weird. In a way these guys are just "movie nerds I know from the nerd discussion group". But I know some things about them -- namely, taste -- that their parents and s.o.'s probably don't know, and they me.

Thus an internet "community" formed. Ours is emblematic, but there are pockets of movie nerd communities all over, from the Kubrick fanboys at alt.movies.kubrick, to the cultists on the Mobius discussion group, to various HK cinema aficionados, to Cinemarati and the Rotten Tomatoes message board, and finally, the Little D'Angelistas and the Auteurist Zombies, who emerged from our wake. With the blog explosion, I've stumbled across a whole another community of movie nerds that exists in parallel to our own, the links of which the Greencine blog collects. This includes, Like Anna Karina's Sweater (which has some great stuff on Korean cinema), Rashomon and Cynthia Rockwell (both of whom I've linked to), and some others.

There's not enough idle time to keep track of it all, but one thing's sure about the internet: no matter how peculiar your obsessions may be, you'll find likeminded folks just a click away.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Red state superstar

Every year around Christmas, it seems, a new comedy with Tim Allen arrives in the nation's multiplexes. And every Christmas, they invariably go unseen by most everyone I know. It's that time of the year, and, sure enough, Allen's got a movie out, Christmas With something or another...I've already forgotten the title. This new Allen movie is making good money ($22 million over the weekend, higher than the much more highly publicized Alexander), just as other Tim Allen movies (the titles of which I can't begin to remember) have made good money. Most have broken $100 million, and Allen, for his part, is paid at a $20 million a picture clip. In terms of box office clout, Allen's star power blows George Clooney and Jude Law's out of the water. But strangely, you never see his mug gracing the cover of GQ.

So who the heck watches these movies? The Left Behind crowd?

Often, when conservatives mock the liberal-urban blue bubble, they'd trot out Pauline Kael, who was said to have remarked (I'm sure jokingly) that "nobody [she] knew voted for Nixon" in expressing (I'm sure mock) shock at the 1972 election results. In a way, Allen's an even weirder cultural phenomenon: a Hollywood profit machine who is almost completely invisible in Hollywood. His movies are almost completely quarantined from my infoworld: Not only do I not know anyone who've seen his pictures, nobody considers seeing his pictures, and weirdest of all, nobody even talks about them. Not in real life, and not on the internet movie sites I peruse. It's as if they don't exist at all. In his own mundane way, Tim Allen turns out to be the perfect cultural signifier of the great divide. David Brooks, are you taking notes?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

This just in...

...uh, yesterday. Ken Jennings, the Stormin' Mormon, finally lost. He ended up winning an amazing 75 times on Jeopardy, beating such trivia luminaries as movie nerd Adam "Milli" Villani, undisputed master of topography. The guy is officially the Andre the Giant of trivia.

Abercrombie & Fitch forced to add color

Old news, but I've recently learned that Abercrombie & Fitch settled an employment discrimination lawsuit with its workers for $40 million. Interesting case, this one: allegedly, minority Abercrombie employees were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that Abercrombie liked the sales staff to have a certain image, and that they viewed minority employees as fit for the stock room.

From the bare facts, it certainly sounds like the plaintiffs have got a good discrimination case. The settlement called for Abercrombie to implement some diversity and outreach programs as well as payout to the litigants, but please excuse me for not waving my poms poms here. Equity for the victims aside, this seems to me another case of misplaced activism. I mean, think about it: this is Abercrombie & Fitch here, the store of choice of white frat boys and sorority chicks -- classic Orange County apparel. You know that bleach they use for Wonder Bread? That's the stuff A & F uses to clone the interchangeable walking mannequins that ask you if you need help. So what in the world are these colored folks thinking working at Abercrombie when the store has spent tens of millions to market and brand their lilywhite image? Not knowing is no excuse. What did they expect? The studied multiculti-chic of (the United Colors of) Bennetton? Please. And frankly, why can't Abercrombie have the right to brand themselves as the clothes of choice for suburban white tools? (Sorry if I offend any Abercrombie devotees reading this.)

Stepped into an Abercrombie store maybe once. Thought the designs were flat and unremarkable, and the qualitity of its merchandise inferior to a retailer like Banana Republic. Worse is the vibe: place felt as if I walked on the set of Starship Troopers, with aggressive Aryans flashing confident grins everywhere you turn. Very unpleasant, and frankly, you can pick up better threads at Macy's. Last couple of years I've gotten some e-mails asking for a boycott of the store (due to some mock-Chinese outfit they had stocked). Boycotts seem to me the right approach. If you offended by this store's marketing strategy of pandering exclusively to tanned spoiled bluebloods (and those aspiring to be such), don't shop there and kindly tell your pals to not do so as well.

My friend Joanne made a good point, though: folks trying to get hired by retail stores are likely teenagers, and minority teens (Asian teens especially) are prone to wishing they were white. So they might not have the common sense to go seek work at Express or wherever. But you know what? Abercrombie makes a perfect introduction to the world of hard knocks. They might learn that, in the real world: (1) they are not white; (2) there are (some) white people who like to be with only white people; and (3) whiteness sells. It's funny how often you meet Asian people who don't understand those three fundamental precepts.

To spin it another way. During college, my girlfriend-at-the-time Caro...I mean, Sally Yeh once saw a help wanted sign posted by an Indian restaurant and decided to inquire within. She was told there was no opening. But the sign remained out for some time until (presumably) the position filled. By a person of Indian descent. Sally was semi-outraged, but shouldn't the store have the perogative to protect their ethnic image, for their business? I know some of my relatives avoid Chinese restaurants that employ Mexican chefs.

Employment law distinguishes between small and large employers, meaning that little mom and pop restaurants may (implicitly) discriminate in hiring while large companies have to abide by more stringent requirements. Legally, it looks like the plaintiffs may have strong claims. I'm glad they were compensated for enduring this alleged discrimination. But as a matter of politics, I'd have devoted those precious energy and resources elsewhere, like putting up sites that relentlessly mock the lameness of the Abercrombie look.

(This whole thing also reminded me of an article idea I had while dining at used-to-be-trendy fusion spot Slanted Door in SF: trendy fusion restaurant's ethnic division of labor as metaphor for the California workforce: Latinos do the cleaning and dishwashing, Asian cooks behind the scenes, and white maitre d's and wait staff. Of course, I never wrote that article.)