I was trying to explain about The Tree of Life to my boyfriend the other day, I forget why, and in order to summarize the plot, I did things the simple way. I went and looked up my old review. And one of the things that I mentioned was that people were saying that you couldn’t call yourself a cinephile if you didn’t like The Tree of Life. I didn’t like that then, and I don’t like it now.
Actually, one thing I’ve mellowed on in the years since I wrote that piece is the word “cinephile” itself. I still don’t love it, and I still think it’s a hair pretentious, but okay. I accept it now in a way that I didn’t four years ago. “Film buff” is still a syllable shorter, but I won’t actively roll my eyes if you say “cinephile” instead. That’s fine.
What still rankles, though, is the idea that there is any movie that you have to like in order to call yourself a film buff or cinephile or whatever word you choose. Even Citizen Kane, if you’ve at least got good reasons for not liking it. Certainly I know that there are plenty of people who don’t like plenty of movies, even classics. I’ve talked to people who don’t like Roman Holiday, my own absolute favourite. They’re wrong, but they’re allowed to be. I’ll even let ’em call themselves film buffs, though I don’t believe they’re Audrey Hepburn fans.
The fact is, you like what you like. This is a thing I’ve talked about as recently as last week. It’s come up quite a few times, in fact. Partially this is because some of my tastes are considered atypical for a person of my specific demographic, but partially it’s that I’m aware that a fair few of my preferences don’t fit into “cinephile” territory. I don’t much like Quentin Tarantino (I’m wondering, now I think about it, if that’s because he’s so clearly influenced by the ’70s), and I mostly do like Tim Burton. I’m not a big fan of the French New Wave, and I do like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, yes, I have disliked just about every Terence Malick movie I’ve seen that wasn’t Badlands, and I do like live action Disney movies, up until The Rocketeer or so.
I can defend most of my preferences. Sometimes in fairly strong language, one way or the other. I have in any number of articles here, not to mention reviews of individual films. Some people, though, do like a litmus test, which is something else I’ve discussed before. Even Roger Ebert had one—he didn’t think you were allowed to say you disliked a whole genre.
Litmus tests work in chemistry because chemistry is an exact science. That little slip of paper is always going to respond the exact same way in the presence of an acid or a base. People are not so specific. People have quirks. They are influenced by their histories and their surroundings. Odd things can serve as triggers or as draws. One of the (many) reasons I didn’t like The Amazing Spider-Man was that Andrew Garfield looks like someone with whom I had a disastrous relationship eighteen years ago. Even if you’d had a better movie to work with, I wouldn’t have liked it. Not his fault, but it doesn’t matter.
So how do you define a film buff? I guess I do have a litmus test at that—you have to love film. You have to want to watch more movies than you’re ever going to have time to see, because you have to sleep sometimes, and they never stop making movies. You have to care about it as a medium, and you have to want to talk about it with other people who love it. This isn’t just “Is the new Michael Bay movie playing at the multiplex?” On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be “Is the new Almodóvar continuing his established motifs?” And, come to that, you can like both Michael Bay and Pedro Almodóvar. That’s allowed, too.
We are here, and we were at The Dissolve, because we want to talk about film with other people who know things about film. That right there is what makes us film buffs, no matter what we like or dislike. We are, with Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, Nathan Rabin and Tasha Robinson, alone in the dark. But it’s always more fun when the lights come up and there’s someone else who saw what you saw and wants to talk it over.