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Why I joined Rotten Tomatoes

Big world on a big screen

Over a recent weekend, I listened to the audiobook of Patton Oswalt’s memoir Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. At one point, the actor and comedian recounts a 1996 trip back to his Virginia hometown; there, he hooks up with an old friend and the two decide to take in Walter Hill’s film Last Man Standing at the local discount theater. Before it starts, Oswalt — by this point, full of directorial ambition and deep in the throes of his unhealthy attachment to moviegoing — points out to his friend that they’re about to see a gangster film that is based on a Western (Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars), which is based on a Samurai movie (Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), which some folks argue is itself based on Dashiell Hammett’s political novel Red Harvest. After the film, his friend chewed him out, asking angrily, “Why’d you tell me that? Why’d you put that in my head?” Subtext: Who cares?

Well, I do, for one. I love the conversational aspect of film. I love the conversation among critics, which is why I joined Rotten Tomatoes despite the reductive dangers inherent in attaching numbers and percentages to movies. All those critics in one place, tossing their opening gambit onto the film’s RT webpage and seeing if anyone wants to hear more. I love the conversation among movies, illustrated in a very particular way by the above collection — a common character and scenario played out among different cultures, eras, and genres. (Former Reader critic Duncan Shepherd’s review of Last Man Standing makes a telling point about the particular weapons employed in each.) Most of all, I love the conversation between viewer and film: Why are you telling me this story, and telling it this way? What’s in your head that you’re trying to get across? What response do you hope to elicit from me? By engaging other visions, I enlarge and enrich my own.

Not so, social media, which isolates me via algorithm. Not so, binge TV, which becomes less memorable the more it’s binged upon. But movies — some movies, anyway — still manage to burst our various bubbles and get us talking. Granted, a lot of that talk will consist of Hot Takes, click-hungry lampreys latched onto the sides of a cultural whale. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has a race problem. Call Me By Your Name has a gay problem. Star Wars: The Last Jedi has a woman problem. (Can’t we talk about the way Rian Johnson dragged the franchise back to its samurai roots, the way Ignatiy Vishnevetsky did over at The AV Club? No? Sigh.) But if we’re all talking about the same movie, maybe we might hear each other a little bit?

So there’s my thesis: movies take us out of ourselves for a sustained period of time and take us on a directed journey through someone else’s world, and that’s a good thing. (Oswalt’s addiction sprang, not from a love of movies, but from artistic ambition: he watched in the hopes it would make him a better filmmaker.) And if they require us to sit in a roomful of strangers for the duration, so much the better. The self gets awfully lonely with only itself for company.

Maybe start small. Maybe check out the Asian fare that AMC regularly carries. (As I write, Fashion Valley has Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds; the trailer indicates a crazypants journey into an afterlife filled with purgatorial challenges.) Or the Indian epics that screen at AMC Poway. Or the Noir on the Boulevard series put on by FilmGeeks SD at the Digital Gym. I Wake Up Screaming, The Long Goodbye, Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, Chinatown, Fallen Angel, Out of the Past, and more. Get to know the genre: why it’s there and what it offers.

And if that works for you, maybe consider the concentrated but kaleidoscopic display that is a film festival: the San Diego Jewish Film Festival (February 8–18), Film Consortium San Diego’s San Diego Film Week (March 2–11), the San Diego Latino Film Festival (March 15–25), the San Diego Black Film Festival (April 26–29), the San Diego LGBT Film Festival (June 7–10), the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival (September 7), the German Currents San Diego Film Festival (October), the San Diego Asian Film Festival (November 9–18), the San Diego Italian Film Festival, the San Diego Surf Film Festival, and more.

It’s a big world. Get out there and see it on a big screen.

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Yojimbo, some folks argue, is based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.
Yojimbo, some folks argue, is based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

Over a recent weekend, I listened to the audiobook of Patton Oswalt’s memoir Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. At one point, the actor and comedian recounts a 1996 trip back to his Virginia hometown; there, he hooks up with an old friend and the two decide to take in Walter Hill’s film Last Man Standing at the local discount theater. Before it starts, Oswalt — by this point, full of directorial ambition and deep in the throes of his unhealthy attachment to moviegoing — points out to his friend that they’re about to see a gangster film that is based on a Western (Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars), which is based on a Samurai movie (Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), which some folks argue is itself based on Dashiell Hammett’s political novel Red Harvest. After the film, his friend chewed him out, asking angrily, “Why’d you tell me that? Why’d you put that in my head?” Subtext: Who cares?

Well, I do, for one. I love the conversational aspect of film. I love the conversation among critics, which is why I joined Rotten Tomatoes despite the reductive dangers inherent in attaching numbers and percentages to movies. All those critics in one place, tossing their opening gambit onto the film’s RT webpage and seeing if anyone wants to hear more. I love the conversation among movies, illustrated in a very particular way by the above collection — a common character and scenario played out among different cultures, eras, and genres. (Former Reader critic Duncan Shepherd’s review of Last Man Standing makes a telling point about the particular weapons employed in each.) Most of all, I love the conversation between viewer and film: Why are you telling me this story, and telling it this way? What’s in your head that you’re trying to get across? What response do you hope to elicit from me? By engaging other visions, I enlarge and enrich my own.

Not so, social media, which isolates me via algorithm. Not so, binge TV, which becomes less memorable the more it’s binged upon. But movies — some movies, anyway — still manage to burst our various bubbles and get us talking. Granted, a lot of that talk will consist of Hot Takes, click-hungry lampreys latched onto the sides of a cultural whale. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has a race problem. Call Me By Your Name has a gay problem. Star Wars: The Last Jedi has a woman problem. (Can’t we talk about the way Rian Johnson dragged the franchise back to its samurai roots, the way Ignatiy Vishnevetsky did over at The AV Club? No? Sigh.) But if we’re all talking about the same movie, maybe we might hear each other a little bit?

So there’s my thesis: movies take us out of ourselves for a sustained period of time and take us on a directed journey through someone else’s world, and that’s a good thing. (Oswalt’s addiction sprang, not from a love of movies, but from artistic ambition: he watched in the hopes it would make him a better filmmaker.) And if they require us to sit in a roomful of strangers for the duration, so much the better. The self gets awfully lonely with only itself for company.

Maybe start small. Maybe check out the Asian fare that AMC regularly carries. (As I write, Fashion Valley has Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds; the trailer indicates a crazypants journey into an afterlife filled with purgatorial challenges.) Or the Indian epics that screen at AMC Poway. Or the Noir on the Boulevard series put on by FilmGeeks SD at the Digital Gym. I Wake Up Screaming, The Long Goodbye, Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, Chinatown, Fallen Angel, Out of the Past, and more. Get to know the genre: why it’s there and what it offers.

And if that works for you, maybe consider the concentrated but kaleidoscopic display that is a film festival: the San Diego Jewish Film Festival (February 8–18), Film Consortium San Diego’s San Diego Film Week (March 2–11), the San Diego Latino Film Festival (March 15–25), the San Diego Black Film Festival (April 26–29), the San Diego LGBT Film Festival (June 7–10), the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival (September 7), the German Currents San Diego Film Festival (October), the San Diego Asian Film Festival (November 9–18), the San Diego Italian Film Festival, the San Diego Surf Film Festival, and more.

It’s a big world. Get out there and see it on a big screen.

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