A recent episode of the Film Comment podcast brought back “Movie Gifts,” a roundtable conversation where the four participants “gift” two films to another member of the group who must watch and discuss the titles for the first time. One of the gifts is a genuine recommendation of a film the giver holds dear and believes the recipient will appreciate. The more entertaining gift is the other film, one that the giver merely wants to hear the other person talk about.
Dropping the requirement that either party has to like the film means the inflicted films usually create more entertaining discussions than the endorsed ones. The latter may be more apparent in their worthiness, but the former produce way more memorable moments from the regular cast of demonstratively discerning film connoisseurs. Moments such as Nick Pinkerton grappling with 1988’s Andrew Dice Clay vehicle Casual Sex? or Aliza Ma trying to describe Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back without having seen any of the previous movies by Kevin Smith. Contributor Michael Koresky points out how the strategy of finding something valuable (or at least memorable) that the others somehow haven’t seen means searching neither the top shelf nor the bottom of the barrel. Instead they tend to stick their receiving partner with something so “heinously middlebrow” that it wouldn’t occur to the recipient to bother with it without an explicit recommendation, a recommendation that a good Film Commenter wouldn’t give outside a game like Movie Gifts.
And yet all of the participants recalled these films easily enough to include them in the gift pile, even though it’s been many a year since anyone has had occasion to pontificate on The Green Mile or Yentil. What’s more, with the exception of Ma and her sudden immersion into the View Askewniverse, the recipients always find something redeeming and interesting in whatever white elephant the giver has dredged up from the crowded basement of their movie memory.
How can a properly credentialed cinephile respond to the heinously middlebrow? The answer is the same reason any movie buff will sift through thousands of hours of movies knowing that the vast majority won’t be memorable classics: because a movie can be 95% junk and still go out of book.
Chess has an extensive catalog of games played. Formerly, these catalogs were accessible only to obsessives in large volumes where thousands of games had been recorded move by move. Inevitably, and somewhat controversially, these volumes were digitized so that patterns of movement that previously took lifetimes to study and memorize could be crunched and retrieved in moments (I find it entertaining that the man who initiated this digitization process has been roundly booed at tournaments).
WNYC’s Radio Lab has a great description of this process (the relevant section starts at 5:23). Basically, there are sets of opening moves and responses memorized by tournament chess players. Several moves or occasionally entire games may be duplicated move by move from previous games, to the irritation of the watching chess community. What chess aficionados look for is the moment when a move deviates from all other recorded chess games over the past 500 years. This move is called a novelty. After the novelty, the game is said to be “out of book.”
And that’s what I’m seeking when I watch movies – that moment when it goes out of book.
Every film unfolds according to a set of expectations dictated primarily by genre, the filmmakers involved and contemporary trends. Most movies are going to follow a set pattern of moves. Your opening credits, introduction of characters and setting, inciting incident etc. are the cinematic equivalents of the Spanish opening. You can deviate from common opening moves – same as you can open a game of chess by trotting your knight around the board – at your own peril. There’s no crime in staying with the tried and true when positioning. But safely follow the book for a full game and, well, been there, done that.
The movie novelty can take many forms. It can be an unexpected combination of genres, like the heist movie structure of otherwise sci-fi fantasy Inception. It can be an unexpected resolution of conflict like Indiana Jones using a pistol in a sword fight in Raiders of the Lost Ark or a new take on a familiar character type like Johnny Depp’s iconic Jack Sparrow. It can be a small thing. Perhaps a single shot, like when Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton uses the flicker of a fluorescent light like Hendrix playing amplifier feedback. Many iconic directors make a habit of working out of book, but all of them are aware of the book.
“Out of book” is exciting but shouldn’t be confused with “successful.” There are plenty of films that stray from formula to lesser returns. Grappling with experimental films without practice is difficult because they deliberately attempt to stay out of book. Knocking over the pieces and replacing them with Lucky Charms is a valid move, unless you were wanting to see a game of chess.
On the other hand, I’ll watch cerealwinks all day if the alternative is a game I’ve seen played out a hundred other times.
There’s a special joy to recognizing an out of book experience in the moment. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah marks a surprising departure into darkness with the literal extinguishing of a light in Noah’s hand. The film flirts with going out of book (or Book) from the get-go with the inclusion of the fantasy creatures The Watchers and the stowaway Tubal-cain. These changes allow a thin passage from the Bible to occupy space in the much larger Book of Screenwriting Tropes. But then that light goes out and Noah ends his description of creation with a declaration that he will supervise the extinction of humanity. Noah, usually the consummate savior of the Old Testament, now reasons himself a prophet of God’s wrath and condemnation. We’ve moved outside both the Sunday School and the Hollywood versions of a protagonist. We’re out of book, and who can say what moves are coming next.
Noah is one of those middle of the road movies with too many silly rock monsters to be respectable and too much intelligence to be dumb entertainment. Its generic movie star collage poster, warmed-over Bible topic and lackluster title all justify keeping it out of the streaming queue. It also contains an instance of the most sublime kind of experience in movie-watching, the kind of gift that keeps us watching.