Tuesday, February 21, 2017

10 Ways to Become a Classic Movie Fan

We are currently in the highest of holy months in my house, and no it's not because it's the month of the Oscars (though that's admittedly part of it).  No, it's because the Oscars bring about the greatest of television events-TCM's 31 Days of Oscar.  I have been wonderfully recording movies in this annual event for over ten years, and still there's always a number of movies that I haven't seen in my Oscar project, and I'm delighted to get to know some new film that perhaps I'd never even heard of prior.

But with Oscar season, and me randomly talking to people I don't know about the films of Burt Lancaster or Marion Davies or Louise Beavers (I saw films from all three this weekend), I usually come up with a series of looks.  It's either "John, get back to a subject that the rest of have an actual interest in" or "I'm not going to remember the names of the three different actresses who played Beulah" to, more frequently, "I wish I could get into movies like you, but I don't know where to start."

That last one might just be polite chit-chat (I do live in Minnesota, after all), but the reality is that it's kind of hard to start in on classic cinema, or to go from someone who sees the occasional movie to someone who wants a bit more reference when it comes to the movies.  If you're that person, embarrassed when films like Gone with the Wind or The Godfather are referenced, or who have seen those films and loved them, but don't know where to go next, I figured I'd create a handy-dandy guide of ten ways you can better become a classic cinema fan.

1. Don't Be a Genre Snob

One of the most common questions I get from people is "what kinds of movies do you like" which is usually code for "what genre of films do you like."  This is a tough question though, since really the answer to that question for me is always "a good movie."  I have answers to this query, admittedly (detective films, caper films, noir, romantic dramas/melodramas, cheesy horror films that predate 1960, and epics), but the reality is that there is no genre that cannot produce a great movie in the hands of a truly superb director or actor.  If you're going to be a classic film fan, you can't be pigeon-holed in by seeing only a select type of film, or assume that just because it's a musical or a western (the two genres that most frequently are "I don't care for that" styles based on conversations I've had with people), doesn't mean that it can't be wonderful.  I used to feel the same way about westerns, assuming they were all the same John Wayne movie over and over again (this had some backing in my personal history as my grandfather seemed to watch the same three John Wayne movies over-and-over-and-over again), but then I saw Once Upon a Time in the West and Shane and No Country for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain and suddenly the western was a much more diverse and interesting field of movies for me, and now it's another genre that I tend to gravitate toward.  So go into this with an open mind-you might actually learn something about your own movie-watching tastes as you go.

2. Don't Be a Time Period Snob

Conversely, you can't get stuck on black-and-white or adjusting to an older movie if you want to get into classic cinema or be a hard-core movie fan.  If movies prior to Jaws scare you (in theory, not in practice, as Jaws is actually quite scary), you either need to get over it or this endeavor is pointless.  Movies from other eras occasionally sound a bit different, but you get used to their cadence after a while and they are their own reward, particularly as you start to see the nuances of a certain era or how film started to string together historically (you tend to get why Citizen Kane is so revered, and not just because it's really good on its own).  So you need to push yourself outside of your boundaries a little bit if you aren't familiar.

3. AFI's 100 Years is Your New Best Friend

By far the best place to start when you're looking for a way into the world of classical cinema is to begin with the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Films list.  While any one of the lists is a good place to start (and it's by no means comprehensive, after all, it ignores foreign film), it's pretty representative of a lot of base conversations about classic cinema culture and all of these films are referenced repeatedly and give you a wide variety of major movie stars, eras, directors, and genres.  Not all of these movies are ones I'd recommend, but all of them were important in their time period and will give you a great smattering of ideas of whom you might like or you might want to start pursuing further.

4. The Oscars are a Great Start...But Don't Just Stick to Best Picture

The Oscars are another wonderful way to get into the world of cinema, though obviously there's a bit more bias here toward a specific type of film (biopics and serious-minded dramas tend to dominate pretty much everyone else in this regard).  Still, Oscar can give you a great idea of what was critically (and commercially) popular in a year, particularly if you start moving down to categories like screenplay or costume.  Cinematography, in particular, is my favorite to revisit as it's the branch that most consistently kept up with select trends in my opinion, and even when they stayed behind, they still did so in a lovely way (I saw The Flame and the Arrow this weekend and thought it was marvelous).

5. Just Turn on Turner Classic Movies

If neither of these have films that are easy to get a-hold of right away (Netflix isn't the mecca for film-lovers it once was, particularly when it comes to streaming), just turn on Turner Classic Movies.  It cannot be said enough, but this is easily the most catered, classy, and consistent channel on television when it comes to delivering for its rabid core audience.  The commercials are usually informative, the introductions always have some tidbits about select actors or production, and the movies run the gamut from mega-classics (Gone with the Wind or Stagecoach will inevitably run next month), to the somewhat obscure (looking at what is airing literally right now, you'll find Betty Hutton playing a silent movie star in The Perils of Pauline).  It's fun just to talk about TCM, much less to watch it-I will oftentimes on a Saturday morning just flip over, in hopes of catching it during the commercial break, knowing a movie is about to start.  It's always time well-spent.

6. Subtitles Don't Bite

That being said, none of these venues are particularly good at producing foreign language film options, an essential place for a budding cinephile.  After all, you can't just stick to John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock-Fellini, Bergman, and Truffaut are waiting for your perusal as well.  I've found through the years that comprehensive lists of foreign films are hard to come by, though my favorite is Edward Copeland's 100 Greatest Foreign Language Films, one that I've used as a jumping off point into multiple different areas of world cinema.  The Oscar Foreign Language film race is also a decent spot to go, though they tend to be a bit more staid the further back you get; the Palme d'Or is another particularly strong list of contenders that you can get into, and if you like a particular country's cinema, almost every major world film industry has a regional Oscars of sorts (the Cesars, the Davids, etc), that you can peruse if you want to delve further into an area.

7. Start Kevin Bacon-ing Yourself

If you're getting a little bit bored with just hitting classics, and want to start diving into truly random movies, start playing the Kevin Bacon game with yourself, connecting from a movie to a movie.  I've done this before and found it marvelous fun (I'm still convinced I should do this for a full month at some point).  What you do is this: every movie, and I mean every movie, you watch you need to have a common cast member from the previous one you watched.  This gets you into some obscure films if you're trying to connect, say, a repeat viewing of Gone with the Wind with your girlfriends asking you to see Fifty Shades Darker in theaters, but it allows you to see a truly wide breadth of movies, and that's sort of the point here-like being "well-read" (a very common New Year's resolution) or good at trivia, the best way to learn about something is to just immerse yourself in it, even if not everything has the cultural cache of Casablanca.

8. Visit Some Film Blogs

Once you're actually into the world of classic cinema watching, it's hard to know where to start talking about it.  This is, after all, why people create blogs and Twitter.  It was one of the main reasons I created this blog, but it's also hard to find blogs, particularly since every area of the internet has a strange subset of rules that you don't want to disrupt.  Therefore, I want to point out two blogs that I have visited for decades with wonderful hosts who make it easy for newcomers and long-time fans to come into the fold: The Film Experience and Nick's Flick Picks.  I've made both regular stops on my internet routines for over ten years (I've visited The Film Experience since well before it was even a blog), and it helps that they both not only love movies, but love to celebrate obscure ones, whether that means a complete retrospective on the Cannes Film Festival from a random year or a celebration of the Best Supporting Actresses of 1947 could be on the docket.  It's always a good time.

Also, visit my blog.  I post a lot and also look at comments from old articles so if you find a review of a movie I wrote four years ago, please go ahead and discuss-I promise I'll find you. :)

9. Be Prepared for Some Bad Movies

One of the harder things about movie-watching for me is making recommendations or "picking the movie."  I've seen so many movies that I tend to be slightly pickier than other people about a new movie (it comes with seeing hundreds of them a year), but really it's the "picking of a film" that throws me, mostly because I don't mind seeing a bad movie; it helps remind me of how fun the good ones are.  I also have never seen a movie where I genuinely regretted seeing it (though I have Suicide Squad coming up, so...), as even the worst of movies make you think differently coming out of the film and wanting to wonder the motives of those involved.  So this is my warning to say that you are eventually going to see some crap, and just be mentally prepared for that.

10. Don't Get Overwhelmed

The last bit is-don't get overwhelmed.  These are all tips-it's not a "you have to do all of these things" situation.  I think the biggest hurdle for taking on a new hobby as an adult is more that you know you're "behind" the people who have been doing it for twenty years.  I found this out when I came to tennis-watching as a hobby later than a lot of people and felt like an outsider in some respects.  But movies are fun-genuinely, everyone likes the movies.  So take it at your own speed, and see it as an adventure that you'll get better at over time.  And enjoy-it's a hobby that's actually fun!

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