Before it’s possible to entertain the question of movie snobbery—and are you or aren’t you?—it’s necessary to arrive at some kind definition of what constitutes a movie snob. One way and another, almost all of us are some kind of movie snob. I think I once heard of someone who wasn’t, but he ended up as curator of the Martin and Lewis archives and was never heard from again (apart from strangled cries in the night of “Hey, Dino!”). We won’t mention him again. There is, after all, a very fine line between “discerning viewer”—generally defined as being capable of recognizing that anything from Michael Bay should be avoided—and the outright “movie snob”—an altogether more slippery proposition. I tend to think of the true movie snob as looking like Ernest Thesiger at his most condescending in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Of course, the movie snob in his or her purest form is the one who looks down on movies of any kind. You can find this expressed quite clearly in Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band, where one character tells another that he can understand having an interest in the theatre, “but movies are such junk.” He is somewhat put in his snobby place by the other character apologizing that there was “no Shubert Theatre in Hot Coffee, Mississippi,” making it also a kind of regional snobbery that culture can only be found in certain places.
I’ve encountered this same thing in my own life, though not for many years. Back in the late fall of 1977, a friend of mine (who had accompanied me on four out of my five trips to see Ken Russell’s Valentino) and I were asked by an excessively pretentious gentleman bearing an umbrella what the best movie we’d seen recently had been. We both answered in something like unison, “Valentino,” to which the bumbershoot-brandisher looked pained and sneered, “I simply couldn’t believe that Nureyev had lowered himself to the point of making a … movie.” My friend later commented that it required his best self-control (which frankly was none too hot at the best of times) to not do something proctological involving the umbrella and the questioner.
These, of course, are examples of an extreme form of essentially anti-movie thought that isn’t central to this idea. I mean, chances are that anyone reading a column on movies probably doesn’t have this attitude. We can then move that notion to one side and look within movie fandom proper for our purposes. This is much more tricky, because it comes a wide variety of styles and is constantly in flux. I can reasonably state, for instance, that I started out as what I’d now call a nostalgist.
The youthful nostalgist is a curious creature, because it requires he or she to be nostalgic for a time of which he or she has no personal experience whatever. It is perhaps a case expressed by the immortal words of the great Preston Sturges—“People always like what they don’t know anything about.” (Of course, it’s perhaps worth noting that I’m citing a line from a film released 13 years before I was born, and from a man who died slightly before my fourth birthday.) In my case, I tend to blame it on the frequently awful movies I was dragged to by my parents in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There’s nothing like a dose of ‘50s-‘60s soap, Doris Day and live-action Disney to send you in search of a different era.
That doesn’t explain why forms of it are still evident in some young people today. I know what seems like an inordinate amount of people in their 20s who are more attuned to older movies—which now includes movies that were new when I was their age—than are wholly comfortable with today’s offerings. That’s not an across the board thing, of course, and neither was mine, since I recognized a connection between myself and some contemporary films. This at least kept me out of the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” mindset. Considering that nearly every great movie is the result of someone—from whatever era—going out of their way to not “make ‘em like they used to,” it’s basically reactionary nonsense.
Fortunately, I grew out of the nostalgia phase in my teens when I started to realize that a great deal of contemporary film simply never penetrated into the provincial world of my own version of Hot Coffee, Mississippi, known as Central Florida (vaguely defined). I don’t think I even conceived of such a thing as a subtitled movie until PBS’ “Film Odyssey,” which came about during the second half of my senior year in high school. I know I never saw a subtitled film on a movie screen till I started seeing them at the University of South Florida that same year, followed by seeing them at rep houses a little later. It’s sobering to realize that I didn’t start seeing subtitled films as first-run releases until I moved to Asheville in 2000, and now I take them for granted, which is very wrong of me.
However, subtitled movies—which is to say foreign-language films—are frequently a point of departure for a certain variety of movie snob. “The chaps who run film festivals think that an event is cultural if it’s foreign,” proclaims TV announer Robert Robinson in Ken Russell’s debut feature French Dressing (1964), but it’s an idea that seems to permeate a much broader world than that. The idea is not new. W.S. Gilbert made sport of it back in 1885 in The Mikado by including “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country of his own” on his list of people who would not be missed. (He kind of skewers the nostalgist, too.)
There is undeniably a certain type of film snob, who invariably believes that a film that is made in a foreign language is superior in some magical way to one that is made in English. Why? Well, apart from the implicit sense of cultural inferiority, I can come up with no good reason. (And Americans don’t hold the exclusive rights to this.) I often think that some people mistake things which are merely cultural differences for depth. Then again, let’s also consider the fact that we get just about everything of note that’s churned out by American movies—and to some degree by the British, though less now than was the case in the 1960s and 70s—but we rarely get anything other than the most acclaimed foreign-language films.
For that matter, the foreign-language playing field is not itself a particularly even one. I’ve seen some pretty unalloyed crap get a free pass into American art houses because it’s French. A classic example of this was when the flat, unfunny and creepily reactionary My Wife Is an Actress (2001) played locally. This was not much removed from the time when Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) did not play here. That, however, was before Spanish-language cinema that wasn’t signed by Almodovar exploded in the moviegoing consciousness. But French film still has a certain edge in some corners.
Of course, there’s also the interesting tendency evidenced in other viewers to prefer only the most obscure foreign films. The idea seems to be that the more obscure a movie is, the better it is. I’ve never bought into this, though I kind of understand its appeal. It’s always cool, after all, to be one of what you at least perceive to be “the select few.” This, of course, is not limited to foreign-language movies. Nothing—no, not even The Beach (2000)—damaged Danny Boyle’s standing with the art film crowd as the popularity and acclaim for Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Nevermind that it was a low-budget movie that very nearly didn’t even get a theatrical release, it made him too popular for the cult set.
This goes hand-in-hand with those who think that any movie that’s popular is automatically bad. I grant you that one should be cautious of the movie that appeals to a very wide audience. After all, the thing that is designed to appeal to “everyone” is generally compromised in some significant way in that attempt. However, the idea that something is bad simply because it’s popular is patently ridiculous.
That brings us to the terminally trendy. These are the folks who are always on the prowl for the next “in” thing. I think their numbers have grown with the internet, since it has increased the ability to be clued in what this next thing might be. And many times, it seems to me that they’ve already decided to love what they’ve been told to love—just as vehemently as a lot of us are primed to loathe anything from Michael Bay or his more comical counterpart Roland Emmerich. The only difference is that the trendy don’t always require previous knowledge of the filmmaker’s work. The mere fact that it’s “in” can be enough.
We might also consider the “Nasty Medicine” school of movie snobbery. This one works on the basis that movies are inherently important if they are—for one reason or another—difficult to sit through. It doesn’t particularly matter why, just as long as they are. It can be because they’re relentlessly ugly, utterly depressing, or just plain butt-numbing dull. The movie that dares to entertain is out of bounds for the adherents of this school. Personally, I have nothing against the ugly or the depressing—as long as there’s a point to it all—but I don’t want a steady diet of it, I don’t find it an automatic plus, and I draw the line at dullness.
No mention of movie snobs would be complete without some mention of that most virulent of creatures—the ones who look down on others because of their taste. OK, this is a game that all of play one way and another, but usually that’s based on a fairly comprehensive knowledge of someone’s taste. It, however, is also used to denigrate anyone who likes a film that the snob thinks is unworthy or insufficiently serious to be liked. Readers may recall that someone recently decided that I wasn’t worth reading because I liked Drive Angry 3D, though quite honestly I doubt he was the “regular reader” he claimed to be. (Too bad he presumably won’t be around for the edition of June 8, when I’ll wax ecstatic over Hobo with a Shotgun.) There is, of course, a fanboy version of this where anyone who doesn’t like a given movie becomes anathema.
One thing about the school of “if you liked this movie, you are in idiot” is that it’s not infrequently found in the same folks who think movies that are not in English are magically superior to movies that are. That’s actually pretty funny, especially if these same people like French New Wave film, since that movement was in part the result of 1950s French critics and theorists turned filmmaker—Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer etc. And they had been fed a heavy diet of American movies by Henri Langlois (at right) at the legendary Cinematheque Francais. Langlois was a man who indiscriminately showed and housed all movies. These men were not being primed on the great American classics, but on films that might traditionally be labeled junk or trash. Bear in mind, that Godard’s Breathless (1960) was, in fact, dedicated to Monogram Pictures, the poverty-row studio that churned out Bela Lugosi B-horror movies, the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys, later day Charlie Chan pictures, mysteries, and cheesy crime thrillers.
So with all this in mind, are you a movie snob? I know that in some ways I am, because I bristle at the idea that movies like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Spider-Man 2 are among the truly greatest films ever made. Oh, my, no, I can’t go there.