Ex-Film Students are no fun to watch movies with

My friend Nate is building one of those collaborative recommendations engines — you know, like the amazon.com “people who liked this also liked X, Y, and Z” thing, or the netflix movie ratings. His is for movies; he’s got a complicated but interesting-sounding algorithm which I don’t fully understand and so won’t even attempt to explain here — the point is, it worked pretty well for the first few people he tested it out on. Then he tried it out on me (by letting me feed in a set of 1-to-5 star ratings of films I’d seen). And it failed catastrophically.

Practically every film it suggested was the sort of pretentious, artsier-than-thou, cinéastes only, please film that draws reviews like this:

[The director] displays a unique fascination with the unattractive naked bodies of his non-professional actors and a poetic distancing from the narrative of the film itself.

Poetic distancing from the narrative, my ass; give me a plot to hang on to.

The reason I find this funny is that it’s probably not Nate’s fault: that’s exactly the kind of film that, five or ten years ago, I’d have fawned over. (I was, in fact, a pretentious, artsier-than-thou cinéaste, and have the USC film degree to prove it.) So it’s not so much a matter of his algorithm breaking, as of it being all too insidiously correct: the ratings I was feeding into the system were based on old memories of films I used to like, skewing the recommendations it fed back to me.

When we first got our Netflix account, I happily plowed through the foreign, indie, and special interest categories, adding movies to our queue that I thought sure I’d want to watch someday, all the Antonioni and Kurosawa and Fellini classics that, for the most part, have just hovered near the bottom of the queue for years, perpetually bumped down in favor of the MST3K and Sopranos episodes we actually want to watch right now.

Don’t get me wrong, my tastes haven’t gone totally plebian; I’ll still pick Hal Hartley over Jerry Bruckheimer any day of the week. (But then, what sane person wouldn’t?) It’s just that my tolerance for certain forms of artsiness has dropped really low:

Your shaky camerawork, bad composition and poor focus isn’t artistic, it’s just poor craft. Your nonprofessional cast isn’t earthy and real, it’s a group of people who don’t know how to act. Your endless pans across the landscape aren’t homages to Tarkovsky, they’re just boring. And neither Eisenstein nor MTV would have been impressed by your quick-cut jerky montages. And your ironic juxtaposition of unrelated images and unexplained dialogue is neither ironic nor, frankly, all that interesting. But most of all, for god’s sake, stop preening moodily into the camera and reading your poetry at us. Your angst is not special.

This whole rant, of course, was prompted by the movie Tarnation, which bubbled up to the top of the Netflix queue while we weren’t paying attention, my reaction to which can pretty much be summed up as “I’m sorry you had such a shitty life, but that doesn’t mean I want to sit through a shitty movie about it.”

…and, of course, it was also prompted by the fact that I just went through tapes of my old film-school projects, a vaguely related part of a far-too-long-procrastinated-on favor to a friend — Hi, Carter; the fleem gun will be ready soon, I promise — and discovered that time and memory had lent a rosy glow to what now look to be some pretty awesomely bad movies of my own.

I’m going to be posting some of them here, soon. But not the one in which I preen moodily in front of the camera and read my poetry at you.






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