After one too many Apatovian comedies in 2014, I felt like I needed to break out of some lazy consumption habits and expand my tastes a bit. So, last year, I made a resolution to abstain from all English-language films made after 1980. Here’s how I went about it, and how you can too.
Seek out a critic who seems to share your tastes. Ideally, they should give star ratings or letter grades. Anything that’s at least 4 stars or a B+ should immediately go on your to-watch list. Never read the full review. Never watch the trailer. Avoid looking at the poster if you can, or learning who’s in it. Stay surprised.
Look through your local alternative weekly for limited-run screenings in your area. Find film festivals playing near you, and search on Indiewire or Variety for the title of that obscure African melodrama that’s playing on opening night. If the last sentence of their review doesn’t end on a sour note, book a ticket. Don’t read the whole review.
Investigate your favorite directors’ influences, and their favorite films. It’s more likely than not they’ll list some pretentious shit you’ve never heard of. Devour it. Look at the Criterion Top 10s written by people you respect, get a
Hulu FilmStruck subscription, and go nuts.
Get out of your comfort zone. Go beyond France and Hong Kong: find films produced in countries whose movies you’ve never seen. Look through Reverse Shot’s year-end Best Of lists. Look through Reverse Shot’s Best of the Decade list. Look through the questionably sourced but weirdly comprehensive Wikipedia article on women’s cinema. See if your local art museum contains a theater. Do they screen anything to the public?
Find theaters that screen films in 35mm. A good director of photography might be able to make digital video look as aesthetically sumptuous as celluloid, but that’s not the point. Film prints are organic; they decay. And so when you watch an old print, it’s changing before your eyes. No one’s ever seen the film you’re watching quite the way you’re seeing it at that moment, and no one will again.
Turn off your phone before you enter the theater. Sit as close as you can bear without straining your neck: you want the screen to envelop your peripheral vision. If a trailer looks bad, feel free to laugh out loud. If a trailer looks good, cover your eyes to avoid being spoiled. Make a note to see it later. If you live in a rural area, or are otherwise confined to watching films at home, that’s OK too. I find it hard to stay fully engaged while watching something on TV. Not only is the screen difficult to calibrate correctly, your media center is usually surrounded with distractions: the blinking LCD display of your Blu-Ray player, the indicator light on your Apple TV. Best to save the set for the game or the awards show (depending on your preferred pretense for viewing parties.)
Watch on a computer instead, where you have a bit more control over your environment. Turn off or hide all the surrounding lights: lay your alarm clocks on their sides and your phone against your desk. Set your desktop notifications to “Do Not Disturb.” If you want to be obsessive, place electrical tape over the indicator light on your laptop’s charger.
Once the movie actually starts, all that’s left is patience and an open mind. That’s easy. The hard part is what comes beforehand, the work of discovery. Without that, it’s easy to fall back on ingrained habits, or the tastes of those you follow on Twitter. Did you know that recommendation algorithms aren’t designed to actually show us true novelty, only what they predict we might like? Serendipity requires real effort in our age. It takes work to go beyond your current preferences and uncover the unexpected.
It’s OK if you hate something that’s critically acclaimed, or simply don’t understand its appeal. The point is to expose yourself. You must further the quest of developing your own tastes.
This past year, I saw very few movies that I immediately loved, but so, so many that were interesting: either novel, or unexpected, or in a style I was unaccustomed to. As I make my way through American critics’ “Best of 2015” lists and often find myself dissatisfied, I realized that’s what I now value most: that novelty, that diversity. It’s a constant reminder than humanity is so much larger, more bizarre and more unique than our everyday breadth of experience.
My resolution for 2016: get even weirder.
Some of my favorite cinematic experiences in 2015 were a bit unconventional: like Phoebe Tooke’s triptychs projected on multiple walls at Shapeshifters in Oakland, or Other Cinema’s Chromadepth 3‑D tour of its own screening room in San Francisco. But one of the films I watched and loved the most this year is straight from old Hollywood: Ernest Lubitsch’s 1942 Nazi comedy, To Be or Not to Be. Really funny, surprisingly thrilling, beautifully shot, with a cast that brings their A-game. Showing it to my family over Thanksgiving felt like wearing a warm, extremely comfortable sweater. I’m going to be revisiting this one for decades.
Richard Dyer’s Lighting for Whiteness is a critical essay that came to my attention via, of all things, a review of Magic Mike XXL. Don’t get me wrong, I love the look of conventional film and get excited when video moves closer to emulating it, but it’s upsetting to discover that a beloved aesthetic is inherently racist. (Now that I think about it, same goes for those Kodak-emulating Instagram filters, right?)
Cibele is technically a computer game, but it’s more of an interactive narrative. You don’t even need any aptitude in games to start playing — not even the ability to navigate 3‑D space, like Gone Home, another unconventional game, requires. Its developer says it’s “based on a true story about love, sex, and the Internet.” Takes two hours to play at most, but will move you deeply.
Finally, I’m on Chapter 3 of The Humane Interface by Jef Raskin, one of the engineers behind the original Macintosh. It’s a brilliant, canonical text for interface designers, but I wish it was more widely known. Published in 2000, but still so relevant today, the introduction contains this gem of a quote: My definition of an operating system: What you have to hassle with before you get to hassle with the application.
I love the phrase “to hassle with”, as used in relation to software. Interfaces provide a bridge between humans and capabilities they lack. And since mind-controlled UIs don’t exist yet, any interface (from voice commands to icons on a screen) introduces a fundamental tension. An interface designer’s craft isn’t in making something beautiful, it’s in sandpapering over the technology humans must hassle with. A humbling thought.
Originally published in my newsletter.