Throughout my career as a film student, I carried a chip on my shoulder that I don’t wholly regret: I was constantly disappointed by what I perceived as a lack of intellectuality surrounding my peers’ approach to the medium, a blatant disregard for film history that sullied their own projects. Of course, I’ll admit to a measure of pretension and, in some cases, hypocrisy, on my part, but I felt slighted when I sat in a film studies course and overheard a complaint like, “Why do we have to watch all these black-and-white movies?” I didn’t feel instructors should have to include such joking disclaimers as, “I know, it’s another old, dead, white man,” when discussing Hitchcock. There’s probably a more delicate way to express all this, but I won’t be bothered to look for it; these were surprisingly raw feelings at the time, and I won’t go to great lengths to refine them now. Today I’m more forgiving and less inclined to force people with a supposed interest in film to contextualize it the way I imagine they should. After all, I’m certainly no expert, and I’ve realized that it’s often better to take a more organic route to one’s knowledge of a given subject, allowing myself to enjoy various areas of film without the undue stress that comes with “needing” to view the films I “should” see.
That being said, I’ve held on to some sense of righteous indignation, and it flared up most recently on my first visit to Filmzilla, a DVD rental store in Minneapolis that claims—and I believe them—to offer more titles than Netflix. Formerly Nicollet Video Village, the name change came with relocation to the Seward neighborhood, but the establishment retained its notoriously irascible staff. Being that I spent my college years in Chicago, I automatically compare any claims of “abusive” employee-customer relations to the legendary Wiener’s Circle on that city’s north side, and while I didn’t expect to hear anyone at Filmzilla tell me to fuck myself if I, say, argued against a given film’s inclusion in the Criterion collection, I assumed their reputation for surliness at least indicated a deep appreciation for such an extensive library of titles. (And it really is an impressive collection; I spent nearly two hours browsing stuffed shelves that mixed broad categorizations like “Drama,” “Classics” and “Horror” with narrower labels like “War & Western,” “Cult” and “Asian Action.”) Of course, I’m not encouraging rental store clerks to treat their customers like philistines, but I will admit to thoughtlessly confusing a snobbish front with actual knowledge. Which isn’t to say the staff at Filmzilla isn’t knowledgeable about their selection; I would have to spend a lot more time in the store and either engage them in or overhear a lot more conversations to even begin to make a claim of that sort. But I had trumped up Filmzilla as some cinematic think-tank, a second film school with a drastically cheaper tuition fee (four movies for four days for five dollars).
What Filmzilla’s staff—at least the two working that day, one of whom I identified as the employee who repeatedly caught flak for his rudeness in a handful of somewhat unreasonable Yelp reviews of the store—engendered was something more akin to fanboy enthusiasm. I arrived at this hasty conclusion within my first five minutes there, when a heterosexual couple in their early twenties walked into the store looking for “hilariously bad movies.” What I wish the clerk had said in response to their request: “Fuck yourself.” What he actually said: “What flavor of bad?” What followed was a cringe-inducing conversation during which the phrase “flavor of bad” was uttered at least ten times (and once was too many).
According to the girlfriend, the couple was looking for something like Troll 2 or The Room. Big surprise. These films have become the Dracula and Frankenstein of midnight movie audiences, frequently spoken of in the same conversation as cult-classics at the vanguard of “so-bad-it’s-good.” It is incredibly doubtful that Tommy Wiseau, the producer-writer-director-star of The Room, will one day enjoy critical acclaim, but, held aloft on the gleefully ironic guffaws of dorky youngsters, he’ll never want for exposure.
Okay, these movies are really bad, but where does the conversation go from there? Part of their appeal is they don’t encourage discussion beyond their complete lack of quality and that they don’t have to. Which is fine! I’m not against just having fun with something; I’ve been to a screening of The Room and indulged in drinking games centered on how many times Troll 2’s young protagonist cried out for his grandfather (and if we’re comparing the two, I’ll choose Troll 2 over The Room, regardless of alcohol’s involvement in either viewing). But based on how many conversations I’ve heard between friends that sounded almost identical to the one this couple had, with the girlfriend enthusiastically describing each film’s astounding, mind-blowing awfulness, I wonder how many more genuinely good films are being ignored, films that might otherwise be considered essential viewing if the hilariously bad ones didn’t apparently demand so much attention. It’s sort of like tee-hee-ing over Harlequin romance novels at the grocery store with your friends while dismissing the fact that none of you has picked up anything remotely “literary” in over a month.
Predictably, both The Room and Troll 2 had already been snatched up. So what did the clerk recommend, representing the various flavors of bad? There was something he kept referring to as “Nazi porn,” but I never heard the title. Then there was Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which is, of course, a really good movie, and finally, to my surprise, Derek Jarman’s Blue. “It’s just a blue screen with people talking over it…. Yeah… I would definitely be doing something else while you have it on.” This is by far the most ignorant statement I’ve ever encountered regarding Jarman’s experimental offering, his final film before succumbing to AIDS-related complications, and I didn’t expect it to come from this guy. Again, I’d built him up as a connoisseur of cinema with opinions that I could totally get behind, just because he happens to work in a store with an uncommonly large selection of DVDs. That’s by no means a guarantee that he has a working knowledge of every DVD in the store.
And I should have kept that in mind when I took it upon myself to barge into their conversation and awkwardly inform them that they should feel uncomfortable about making fun of Blue because “it was the director’s last, uh, testament before he died…from AIDS.” The nervous laughter I got in response, along with the polite smiles that barely concealed thoughts that read something like, Who the fuck is this douchebag?, didn’t mollify me, and I certainly hadn’t enlightened anyone on the subject. Worse, I haven’t even seen Blue! I’ve enjoyed all the Jarman films I have seen, but in this case I was vapidly speaking on behalf of a film I had no firsthand experience with, thoughtlessly reciting facts I’d gleaned from a number of write-ups that I couldn’t specifically cite. In a way, it wasn’t all that different from the girlfriend’s espousal of Troll 2 and The Room. Humbled, I went back to browsing.
So what is it I want? I can aim for the impossible: to speak with absolute accuracy and knowledge on any subject related to film, expecting others to do the same. Or I can avoid these subjects altogether, resigning myself to disappointment. Then there’s the middle-ground—often the best way to go and the option I prefer in this case—which is to just relax and remind myself that everyone’s experience is their own, even if I’ve already experienced it.