Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Should and the Have To: Life as a Movie Lover

by Rob DiCristino
“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland in search of our better selves?”

A while back, I wrote a kind of introductory “origin story” about my movie habits that I thought would help ingratiate me with the F This Movie! community. I was kind of an unknown commodity at that point, and I needed to shrug off the imposter syndrome that came with suddenly being a contributor to my favorite site. I mean, Patrick knew from my portfolio that I could write and that I was really, really handsome, but I knew it would take more than just his say-so for me to earn any kind of credibility from such a rabid and knowledgeable pack of movie lovers. I talked a little bit about my grandfather’s chain of video rental stores — how my dad managed the inventory and that he met my mom when she interviewed for a job behind the counter — as well as about how much of my early movie-watching was done via the VHS tapes I copied from that inventory. I gushed about my maternal grandfather’s meticulous cataloging of his own tapes and how that continues to influence my preoccupation with physical media. It was nice to reflect on how lucky we all are to have each other and to share such a strange and complicated obsession.
That obsession has grown like a weed in just a few months. I recently crossed four hu-dred first-time viewings in the last year and a half, and I’m hoping to hit five hundred by Christmas. That number probably sounds like weak sauce to some of you; others might find it insanely high. All I know is that it’s far more than I’ve ever watched in such a short amount of time. I’ve considered myself pretty well-versed in mainstream films for most of my life — like most of you reading, I’m the “weird movie person” (or “weird, movie person”) in my circles — but my general interest in new material has just explod-ed. Part of it, I think, is due to my responsibilities at F This Movie! (Junesploitation, Reserved Seating, trying to convince Patrick I’m cool), and part of it is due to my role as a film study teacher. Those of you who teach will know that there’s tremendous pressure to be the authority in your classroom — it’s a huge bummer to tell a student that you haven’t seen the movie they want to have a genuine conversation about, so I’ve invested a lot of time into seeing as much as I possibly can. Honestly, I’m proud of it. I’m a far better and more knowledgeable cinephile than I’ve ever been before.

But here’s the thing: I’m thirty years old. They could stop making movies tomorrow and I still wouldn’t have enough life left to see everything that already exists. I know this is a frequent joke between Patrick and Erika — she says his mission is to see all the movies ever made — and I’m starting to see why. The truth is that I have no interest in seeing everything, nor even 90% of things. I’m not an insane person. I don’t have Adam Riske’s stamina, nor will I ever observe or remember as much as JB. All I really want is a frame of reference that I can build on. I want to talk kung fu with Mark Ahn and understand some of the Italian horror jokes that Ale and the Girl Gang make on Twitter. Just once, I want to look at one of Chaybee’s comments and think, “I’ve seen that! I know what the hell he’s talking about!” And I think we all do. We want our little community to thrive on a big IV of shared experience. The problem comes when deciding where to aim all that intensity: do I finally clean out my Netflix queue, or do I hunt down every Walter Hill movie I haven’t seen? Do I subscribe to Filmstruck and finally watch Burden of Dreams, or do I put Central Intelligence on ironically and pretend I’m not enjoying it?
I’ll tell you what I’m not doing: I’m not revisiting anything. There are masterpieces, flat-out works of art that I’ll never watch as many times as I’ve seen Mallrats simply because I have so much more work to do than I did as a kid. Try as I might, I’ll never retain The Witch as well as I did GoldenEye. A lot of us have this problem, and we seem to find the burden of movie watching — the “should” and the “have to” — equally frustrating. I’ve seen a lot of you using the same language: “I should be watching (unseen film), but I’m watching (old favorite) for the five-hundredth time instead.” There’s a bizarre kind of guilt tied to stoking familiar fires, like we should be allocating our time with greater effi-ciency and purpose. Every hour spent on Parks and Recreation reruns is another hour in the shame corner. But then I’ll be driving and think to myself, “Death isn’t going to wait around for me to see L’Avventura. What am I even doing? None of this amounts to anything.” And so my brain ends up converting a nebulous metaphysical concept into a bizarre tactile reward system; I’ve started getting a small dopamine rush whenever I add a movie to my watched list and a pang of pain if I can’t remember how many are on it. But is that movie love?

I’m doing this with my disc collection, too. I remember when DVDs hit the market and thinking that special features were the coolest goddamn things to ever happen (I know LaserDiscs also had them, but I was too young and poor for that phase of technology). I watched every featurette and listened to every commentary. Multiple times! I looked through the photo galleries! Who even does that? It was less about entertainment and more about completing a goal — I had to wring out every disc like a wet rag. These days, I get a Blu-ray and immediately place in its alphabetical spot on the shelf. With a few exceptions, I don’t even watch it first. Hell, I know a lot of you blind buy stuff and leave it on the shelf, unwatched, for years. In the plastic! I bet it’s because you get that same rush from seeing the spines all lined up in order, a feeling completely separate from the actual experience of watching the film. I’ve also noticed that if I give myself $20 in a pay period to buy Blu-rays, I’ll end up buying two or three movies I only kind of want rather than one more expensive Shout! or Criterion I may want more. I’m in a mad rush to fill shelf space — I’m a doomsday prepper who thinks our post-apocalyptic currency will be John McTiernan movies.
I guess my questions to you are these: how do we cope with the enormity of our individual cinematic experiences? How much time are you devoting to your watch lists, and how often do you revisit newer favorites? Do you have pre-determined themes in mind when you seek things out, or do you make random selections based on mood? What are some nostalgia movies you always make time for? Do you have rules for yourself in terms of your intake? What happens when you don’t follow them? Put simply, what propels your movie love?


  1. I buy a lot of blu-rays. My only rule is to watch everything i buy, at least once

    Beyond that, i go with the flow. What's my mood and if i'm watching it with somebody

    With 600+ movies watched each year for the last 2 years, and well on my way to hit it again this year, i can't discriminate anymore. But some movies i wait and buy the blu (the ones i really care about) others i'll go on netflix in low res, and borrow a dvd here and there.

  2. Get the movie channels on cable. They decide what you'll watch for you.

  3. We have a bunch of secondhand movie stores in my area, that buy and sell. So I've been selling a bunch of stuff that I will never watch again (sorry Pride and Glory) in favor of hard-to-find stuff I've never had a chance to see. I picked up the only copies of Pieces and Darren Lyn Bousman's Mother's Day in Northeast Ohio for $8 yesterday. That's a cause for celebration.

    Other than that, I try to watch 12-15 "new to me" movies per month. Sometimes I hit more (I'll probably get in 30 in October) but 12 is a pretty easy bar to clear. It's easy for me because I don't watch many TV shows in the summer, and the only sport on is boring baseball.

  4. I've been trying to watch as many things that are new to me as possible also. If I'm revisiting something I've already seen it's usually because it's something I'm trying to expose friends to (which does happen a lot) or it's just something on in the background because I've got something else that I have to focus on.

    Outside of work-related movie viewing (typically test screening at least one movie a week), I have a bit of a habit of gamifiying things when it comes to deciding what to watch. Last year for me was largely about quantity as I had given myself the goal of watching an average of 50 movies per month. That led to watching a lot of shorter movies like a bunch of the Universal Monster sequels that I hadn't seen.

    Currently, I've picked up an idea I had a little ways back and started with the Jazz Singer from 1927 and am working my way up each year with a movie that was the first at doing something. I also have an ongoing thing where I seek out movies that feature fictional bands. Aside from that I generally have enough recommendations from reading/listening to a lot of you guys and from there it's just a matter of what's easiest/most cost effective to come by.

  5. For me, diversity is key, a mix of old and new. First-time viewings are crucial, but every once in a while a palate cleanser of an old time favourite is needed, especially if you get in a funk with new to you movies that just don't hit the spot. Also, rewatches are great to take in something under a different light. A movie that didn't move you the first time could become a new stand out. Or, a movie you've seen a hundred times gets you in the mood to discover new titles.

    For the first time, I'm keeping tabs on what I've watched this year and approaching the 250 mark with probably 80-85% being first time viewings. Keeping a list also drives me to watch more movies even if it can get overwhelming at times.

    I've also had the "brilliant" idea to actually write down a list of movies I want/have to see instead of saying "I should watch that" and promptly forget about it five minutes later. The downside to the list is that it's completely unmanageable and it keeps growing. Motivating and a punch to the gut at the same time.

    Aside from that, I go for mood as to what to watch. There's never a shortage so forcing a specific title to check off the list doesn't lend itself to optimal experience.

  6. I always have a list, whether it's from watching docs or reading Easy Riders Raging Bulls or listening to F This Movie. Sometimes I'll watch that movie that night or it may be months, but if I list it, I always watch it. Sometimes it can feel like homework, but as past film students we know by the end of that homework assignment we may have found an all time favorite (The Celebration; Vinterberg).

    In terms of newer movies, I see them all (well I mean like 90%) just to keep up with the conversation. Posting on film forums and having actual great discussions about newer films drives a lot of my money spending on newer stuff. Some forums are more serious than others, like Gold Derby and Awards Watch where it's all about Oscars and awards (yes I love awards shows and give them too much credit, probably). I'm also 30. I teach History and am known to all my colleagues as the movie guy.

  7. Good write up Rob,

    I always feel that guilt when I open up my watch list and pick something I've seen before. However I also take a strange comfort in knowing that my list is very long and ever-growing, and that I will never run out of something to watch.

    I find myself going back to old noirs a lot like Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, or Double Indemnity. Those always inspire my creativity when I'm writing. I always feel the guilt but I don't want to watch anything new while I'm doing work.

    That being said I don't think I will ever feel guilty about rewatching any Carpenter movies, my appreciation and love for his work grows with every viewing. I have yet to have my God-like ascension into the movie buff big leagues by picking up what Chaybees laying down. Someday.

  8. I perceive an even bigger question poking out from the subject of this article: When does the drive to watch all the movies that we desire to get in the way of experiencing and getting the most out of life? I look back at certain periods in the past and in more recent times with a little bit of regret in that regard. The guilt has shifted away from not watching movies but what I have given up to follow my cinema obsession. Some relationships and experiences I already know I will not appreciate, but one does need to have them to build on in order to get to a better place in life. A classic example is finding a job. If I had focused on that more while I was in graduate school, I may not be in the present bad situation. In any case, we have to live with the decisions we make.

    1. It probably is just a bigger question to me. Life has compelled me to reevaluate my choices these last few years.

    2. This is an easy question to answer for me, and anybody who pauses to read the answer and doesn't react with immediate disgust will learn 90% of what matters re: movies for me; I don't believe it's possible to get anything out of life. Family, religion, work, pets, sex, drugs, art: all dead ends evolved out of a need to establish a self-identity that will hopefully outweigh my knowledge of my own mortality and justify the effort I put into continuing to exist. Movies are the only pursuit that I can embrace without creating internal guilt, because by being one-hundred percent artificial, they are in effect the same thing as real life: limited, inaccurate, out of our control. To watch a movie with honesty is to stare the idea that living is a lie in the face.

      That bullshit said, I use the lists at, watchlists on imdb, amazon, and youtube, buying hard copies of whatever looks interesting that I can afford, keeping lists of candidates for junesploitation and scary movie month, clearing through director filmographies, conferring with potential guests over what would be of interest for the Watching Machine podcast, and poring over the Psychotronic books and movie blogs. It all gets noted and watched somewhere and somehow, and I try to bang through about four movies a day. Movies as a lifestyle, more than as hobby.

  9. In my head there is a long list of films I would like to see. It only seems to get longer.

    I believe that having a satisfying movie life entails giving in to what interests you at a particular moment. Although you may feel it is important to see every Orson Welles film, you are probably not always in the mood to tackle CHIMES OF MIDNIGHT or THE TRIAL. There is no use in having a personal viewing feel like homework. It is often the case for me that an obscure genre film is a more enjoyable viewing experience than a respected mainstream film or an art-house classic. I know another time will come when films like L'AVVENTURA or JEANNE DIELMAN will appeal to me.

    When I watch films, I try to vary the types of films and the time periods they come from. Over the last eight years a large percentage of the feature films I have covered were produced between 1960 and the late 1980s, my favorite period of movie-making. For the last year I have been trying to get back to seeing things made before 1960 and get better acquainted with films that have a release date in the 2000s. (The 1990s is a largely a cinematic wasteland to me.) FThisMovie has definitely helped me learn about what is happening in cinema today.

    1. dude, you're speaking my language, though i'm well aware of the 90s

      to me, the best decade was the 70s, but my favorite movies are from the 80s

  10. A lot of thoughtful comments on here. Thanks, everyone!

  11. I wouldn't call myself a cinephile or even major movie lover, per se, but I do keep an alphabetical list of every movie I've seen (in full) on a Word document, like so:

    Movie ('99): Brief review; B+ ('17)

    Where the number after the title is the release year, and the number after the grade is the most recent year I've seen it. (Maybe someday, I'll need three digits to specify years, but I haven't yet.) For series with four or more entries, I give them a subsection to themselves, and list them in order of release. Also, the review must be short enough so that each entry sticks to its one line. This way, I feel that I've accomplished something after watching a movie, without going overboard about it. As for which movies I watch, it's pretty much 3/4rds new, mainstream stuff, with 1/4 older/offbeat/foreign.

    I used to keep logs of TV episodes, too, but it seems as though increased serialization has largely eliminated the quality variance within shows. Time was, you'd get an excellent and delightful episode of Star Trek: Voyager or Smallville followed by an absolutely putrid one; these days, shows like Agents of SHIELD or Louie may gradually get better or worse over a course of seasons, but their episode-to-episode quality tend to be remarkably consistent, even when (as is decreasingly the case) the stories themselves show significant variety. I still update my Trek logs when I watch a new one, but that's about it.

  12. My fav class in college was a film class about movies made in Francoist Spain. At the end of the semester we had to find a meaningful theme tying the films together, and the only theme I could draw from all of them was...they were mostly about girls and women! It was such a pleasant surprise when I sat down to think and write my final essay. (If I took that film class now I would be like DEMANDING films about girls and women, but I was more kind of wide eyed then and it only hit me at the end of the class). Anyway, so much respect for that film teacher. Oh, and I watch movies from a yoga mat at the gym mostly. Or on airplanes. But I don't care, I still consider myself a movie lover.

  13. I have been cataloging my watching for the past year and a half. Around 250 "new to me" films in that stretch. I know what youre talking about. The rush I feel when adding a new film to the list is really exciting. Its been tough to revisit things (typically only if a film is on TV will I rewatch)especially when there is so much out there to discover. I do really enjoy turning friends onto things they may have never thought about. That experience when they also enjoy it is like discovering it myself all over again.

    Btw, I can't recommend Filmstruck enough. It really is incredible. It feels like being in a film masters program or something.