Your Favorite Movie Is Not What You Think

12 04 2010

I always expect there to come a day when I’ll look around my apartment–maybe by then a house–and all the shit I’ve accumulated since I’ve been old enough to start accumulating shit will have been responsibly disposed of. So, for example, I will have thrown out my old campaign signs and stuffed moose and local band 7 inches. I assume Future Ramsin, who pays his bills on time and in fact sets aside a specific day of the month to do so, will make a big boy decision to throw away the cardboard and construction paper coffin with “R.I.P. G.O.P.” written on it from my 2006 election return watch party.

I can’t wait for that day, because until then I will continue to waste hours of precious, rapidly expiring life doing things like trying to find my Billy Ripken error card, seeing if I can finally beat the “on the satellite” level of Goldeneye for N64, and comparing the “student survey” results of my 7th and 8th grade yearbooks.

Hey, so I came across a section of my 7th grade yearbook that included the results of “survey” taken each grade level. It asked questions like, “Favorite song”, “favorite band”, “favorite actor”, “favorite teacher catchphrase” and “favorite movie.” Here’s a couple facts it revealed: in 1994, 7th graders’ favorite musical act was Mariah Carey, and girl 7th graders were more reliable survey respondents than 7th grade boys.

But a pang of guilt I felt after rolling my eyes in playful shame at the choice of The Bodyguard as “our” favorite movie stayed with me long enough to get me thinking: “Who’re you, Troy Dyer? What would a ‘good’ answer to that question be?”

Pop culture is the most reliable social currency, for all debts public and private. And like money, it’s a signifier of your place in the social order. Your favorite comedy is There’s Something About Mary or The Hangover or Wet Hot American Summer? Each of these answers sends a signal: “I’m this general sort of person.” When you answer that question, are you supposed to pick a movie that demonstrates what kind of movie you like? Your favorite movie to watch? Or the movie you never turn off, if it’s on?

This is an increasingly vexing question for me, because depending on how it’s resolved, my favorite movie could be The Fugitive or Aladdin.

I have to admit that I cringe when a casual social situation turns to politics talk. This is just because there is such a variation in individual planes of “giving a shit about politics” between people, and so conversation usually gets stuck in a momentumless rut, with visible discomfort and gaps in conversation caused by people being too polite or uncaring to engage in a serious debate. Take the same group of people, and talk about cultural products like movies turns into a weirdly enthusiastic badge display, as people search for the “right” answer to send a message about who they are. It wouldn’t be cynical to guess that many if not most people in my age cohort change their answer depending on the crowd. Not only isn’t it cynical, but it isn’t really a criticism: after all, what does it mean for something to be your favorite?

My favorite ice cream flavor, for example, is “anything with chocolate chip cookie dough in it”, not some specific brand and type of ice cream. In a different vein, my favorite food is “my mom’s kubba hamouth,” and it is not “that insanely expensive and delicious filet I had at that ridiculous fancy restaurant,” indicating that craftsmanship or objective quality isn’t really the most important criterion for my favorite. If my mom’s kubba hamouth is in front of me, I’ll eat it. Even if I’m full, I’ll have a few bites. Food is meant for consumption, and it is the food I will never not consume.

So when I tell people my favorite movie is The Third Man, which I typically do, how honest am I being? Or am I just trying to show off how sophisticated I am–mmm, yes, a David O. Selznick movie written by Graham Greene and starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten? I do love The Third Man (the soundtrack alone makes repeat viewing a pleasure), and watch it fairly often–several times a year. You know what movie I’ve watched way more often? Not Another Teen Movie. That movie cracks me up, and in a certain self-inflicted state of mind is the perfect way to spend the 90 minutes it takes to get me to fall asleep. The “I smell a bet!” scene is just brilliant. “No! Not Janie Briggs…”

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Listen to the albino hippie’s lyrics.

If at any given moment I’m more likely to want to watch Die Another Day than Volver (another of my “favorites”), why am I more willing to give the latter as my answer to the question–even if listing my top 5 (or 10)?

It can’t just be that I’m a snob or impossibly vain. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, and pretty much everybody I’ve had this discussion with walks away rolling their own eyes and thanking their friend for getting them out of a conversation with a self-important blowhard. I sincerely don’t think that’s the case, though, because I don’t like the “bad” movies I like ironically, nor do I feel any disdain for people who like “stupid” movies (with significant caveats: You’ve Got Mail, Fighting, Waking Life, Pretty Woman–really, most romantic comedies), just as I don’t expect them to see me as some be-monocled dandy because I bought Bob Le Flambeur on DVD, or that I own Infernal Affairs but not The Departed. Or, sorry, The Depaahted.

Just thinking about all of this is a bit exhausting, because there’s certainly some guy out there I’d consider a movie snob because the movies I’ve cited as my “high brow” fare he’d snort at as pedestrian middle brow indulgences meant to make average guys like me feel smart (probably true). Yet even that insufferable son of a bitch is guilty of the same type of posturing: how often does he really watch Waltz With Bashir? Yet, when that same Little Lord Fuckpants is flipping channels and The Fugitive is on, does he have the gall to change the channel?

I certainly don’t. I have entire scenes of that movie dedicated to memory. Maybe I’m partial to that one because of all the cool Chicago scenes that some fifteen years later are beginning to look historical (same goes for Dial North Side 777, yet another “favorite”–with a not dissimilar plot, come to think of it) . Can you not recite the fallout from Dr. Kimball’s ill-conceived phone call from below an El train?

“That bell’s on the Wells Street bridge, it’s six blocks from here!”

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You’re welcome.

I can’t hear the word “protocol” without thinking the line, “It was Devlin-MacGregor and Lenz. Lenz was supervising the protocol for RDU-90”. It’s not that The Fugitive is an artistically great movie, or the best, but given that I will pretty much always watch it when it’s on, and that I’ve got most of it committed to memory (while about 90% of the things I learned to earn my degrees have disappeared in puffs of smoke and been reduced to resin) how can I deny that it is one of my favorite movies?

Which brings me to the disconcerting, inescapable fact that Aladdin may be my favorite movie, by this criteria. I know every word to every song, and have even caught myself pointing out to people that at one point the Genie tells (or sings to) Aladdin that he’s “got a genie for a charge d’affaires,” a fairly obscurantist term considering the core audience plays The Nervous Game at sleepovers. Aladdin also contains possibly my favoritely-delivered line from any movie, the oddly disappointed, exhausted and incredulous, “Another suitor for the Princess,” of a poor Agrabah merchant who probably has bigger things on his plate, like not getting eaten by magical sand lions.

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Trust me, go to 38 seconds.

Look, Aladdin is awesome, even given the wildly offensive Middle Eastern stereotypes. The songs are awesome, the bad guy is truly bad, Robin Williams has just enough screen time to not piss you off, and Gilbert Gottfried is in it. For a bonus, go to 1:08 in that video for the best cartoon dis of all time.

Pop culture gives us a vocabulary to find people with like interests and sensibilities, but it starts to get a little sad when that vocabulary subsumes a personality and the signifiers replace the referent. Have you ever rearranged your books or movies to place your respectable ones in the room’s eyelines and shamefully stuffed Clue down on the bottom shelf? Be nicer to yourself: you know and I know that you (I) watch The Three Amigos more often than Raise the Red Lantern.

The days of hiding your “guilty pleasures” behind irony is dead. What you like is what you like; that you can appreciate the artistry of Chungking Express can’t be taken away from you because you think Fearless is fucking awesome. Gone are the days of Make Out Club (though, unbelievably, it is still a thing) laundry lists of cultural products meant to create a personality out of preference or taste. Give up on whimsy and just understand that you like Aladdin because Aladdin is good. As the wise vizier once said, “So, Ali turns out to be merely Aladdin.” That doesn’t really apply, I justed want to remind you that there’s a cool “evil” reprise of the “Prince Ali Theme”.

I’d like to note one allowance in DVD shelf planning: two years ago on my birthday a friend gave me a DVD of Bill Engvall’s Here’s Your Sign act, because he knew both (a) I’m incapable of throwing things away; and (b) I’d rather gargle toenail clippings and poison than watch Engvall’s schlocky horseshit. Man that guy is terrible. That one I hide. Right behind my Animaniacs box set.


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2 responses

12 04 2010
Joe O.

Great post, sir.

However, I have the answer to your problem: just pick one movie and stick with it. Make sure that you can make the argument for that one movie in front of any crowd of people. For instance, mine is “Back to the Future.” Even if I am hanging out with a crowd consisting of the Gambian aristocracy, and the age-old question is inevitably asked … “what is your favorite movie?” … my old stand-by is never second guessed. Even in the unlikely event that somebody wishes to challenge that film, I can discuss many of the artistic, technical, and philosophical aspects of that film that make it not only my favorite … but arguably the best one of all time.

4 05 2010
Michelle F.

I hate movie snobs. You know what they always love? Harmony Korinne movies; Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy especially. How could either of those movies be taken seriously, much less be some poor soul’s favorite?! It’s worrisome.

I have no qualms admitting to people that 16 Candles is, was and will always be my favorite movie of all time. God bless you, John Hughes.

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