We often define ourselves by the art we like. I’ve already detailed this phenomenon in regards to music, and I maintain that much of what I wrote there is applicable to most other art, and especially to commercialized media like television and film. However, movies are almost in a class of their own simply by virtue of how huge their audiences are.
Music audiences are fractured into numerous (and often tiny) niche markets. Even a massive pop star with huge crossover appeal, say Michael Jackson, can only hope to move about 27 million albums. That may seem like a lot, but just to put things in perspective, estimates place the number of tickets sold for Gone With the Wind at just over 200 million. That movie was released twice officially, and those numbers may include ticket sales from multiple unofficial releases. I’d hate for a detail like that to muck up my calculation, so I’ll instead rely on a movie that was released only once: Jurassic Park, coming in with an estimated 86 million tickets sold. (Actually, while I’m acknowledging that I’m cherry-picking my examples, I should point out that the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 actually outsold Thriller by a couple million, but I think we’ll all feel better if this is the last time we have to think about an Eagles greatest hits album). Even with its (relatively) modest ticket sales, JP far outpaces MJ.
There are a lot of factors that account for this phenomenon, including big differences in the way we consume music and movies, as well as the fact that movies are marketed much more aggressively, but I’m not really interested in what causes this disparity, just how we react to it. Having heard a song on the radio doesn’t require any explanation — you have no control over what songs come on the radio, or what is playing at the mall or at the half-time show of your favorite sporting event. Going to the movies requires an actual monetary investment, and thus isn’t entered into as willy-nilly. Paying money to see a film is an endorsement of what you believe that film to be. This is why anybody who isn’t a teenage boy feels like they need to explain their decision to see Tranformers 3, or why anybody who isn’t a Wayans feels like they need to explain their decision to see White Chicks. (Is it too late to point out that White Chicks was no Citizen Kane?) With music, it’s the opinions you form about a song or artist that say something about you, but with movies, the fact that you thought enough of a film to even see it says something.
As with music, the movies you chose to consume can paint you as dumb:
or really anywhere in between:
Obviously, anything that can act as such a powerful indicator of personality and intelligence is going to trigger my poseurphobia.
The result is that I vet the movies I see very carefully. I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie without reading at least two reviews of it. I like to know what I’m getting myself into, from beginning to end. I distinctly remember being so infuriated with the twist ending of Signs (which I actually enjoyed up until those final moments) that I was honestly embarrassed to be walking out of a movie with such a stupid ending. My girlfriend is the exact opposite. Knowing even the sketchiest details of the plot or even who’s in the film are experience-ruining spoilers in her mind. I think this largely speaks to our different expectations from the filmgoing experience and what we each value in watching a movie, but my poseurphobia doesn’t allow me to understand how she can possibly do this. What if the movie has a reputation for being homophobic or anti-Semitic, or just bad? Or what if the reviews agree that, while the trailers made the movie look good, it was actually a huge waste of time? At best, endorsement-by-viewing of such films indicates that I’m uninformed, which I never want to be. That it could also serve as an endorsement of bigotry only makes things worse.
Okay, these examples are a little heavy-handed. I’m honestly not worried that people will interpret my movie tastes as those of a neo-nazi, but I do worry that they’ll reveal that I have a bad sense of humor or am unintelligent. I’m so aware of what my movie tastes might mean that this isn’t a daily concern, but there is a fear somewhere in the back of my mind that my tastes may reveal more about me than I realize.
One of my current roommates has a modest DVD collection on display in our living room. When he was unpacking, he made a point of distinguishing between the movies he wanted to display and those that end up in the cupboard underneath the TV. This kind of self-awareness is in itself a kind of poseurism, but one that I must also count myself guilty for. I’ll get to what that says about the both of us in a moment, but for now, I’m more interested in examining the movies he chooses to display; quasi-cultish-but-still-very-popular movies that usually feature a narcissistic and violent protagonist and may be a little misogynistic. The second half of that description may simply describe modern film in general, but when combined with the first half, it generates a pretty specific list of movies high school seniors think are awesome: Donnie Darko, Fight Club, Memento, American Psycho, etc. On their own, I think any one of these films could justify being in someone’s movie collection, but the fact that these were the movies chosen for display reveals a lot about my roommate. He’s chosen to show that he doesn’t like mainstream hits, but he also doesn’t like movies you haven’t heard of. It’s a collection seemingly designed to confirm that he’s a cool dude who likes cool things.
My former roommate, on the other hand, was not nearly as obsessed with image. He bought movies with a regularity that outpaces even my consumption of comic books. His movie collection ranges from terrible movies he liked as a kid to certifiable classics to movies he heard were alright and saw in the discount bin at blockbuster. He’ll sometimes purchase movies without ever having seen them, something that would make both me and my current roommate very uncomfortable. He treats his movie collection the same way I treat my music collection; more like a personal TV or radio station than a profound personal expression. He can get away with this attitude because his collection is so large. Sure, there might be some embarrassing things in there, but any one movie is such a small part of the collection that its implications on his taste are negligible. This isn’t possible for me, whose collection tops out around a dozen or so movies, most of which have “Batman” somewhere in the title. I’m not embarrassed by any of the movies that I own, but that the number is so small that it suggests that these are my 10 favorite movies.
People always ask what’s the one movie or album or book you would bring with you if you were stranded on a desert island because our answers will reveal something interesting about us. When it’s just one movie, it ends up being much more specific in what choosing it might mean. That’s a lot of pressure, and is something that usually incapacitates me with poseurphobia. I can do better with a list of three or five, and probably better still with an even longer list. I imagine I would feel no pressure at all if I had to list my favorite 100 movies (heck, I don’t even know if I could name 100 movies), and wouldn’t really worry about what that specific collection might say about me. This seems like the only solution for me, as I really don’t like the idea of what sculpting a movie collection that says something about me might say about me.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the inclination to build up such a large library. In fact, I’m not sure I feel a need to own movies going forward. Digital rental (or piracy) is both more convenient and less likely to aggravate my poseurphobia, since there’s no physical evidence. Essentially all movies are at my fingertips anyway, so why spend the extra bucks to have a physical copy I’ll just need to pack up the next time I move? Adopting this attitude avoids most of what might trigger my poseurphobia, but it still leaves me with my tiny and awkward movie collection, which I guess I’m going to have to own up to sooner or later. As long as people know that my other movie collection is the internet, I guess I won’t feel that embarrassed. Still, it’s kind of weird that I have a copy of Batman and Robin but not, you know, movies I actually like.