Thursday, February 9, 2012

My Movie Idiolect

A GREAT MOVIE (according to me)
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I begin with a question: What movies make you you? If someone were to ask you to assemble a resume of movie preferences that could somehow define and/or capture who you are, what movies would be on that list?

In linguistics, someone's idiolect is the particular menu of words, phrases, accents and grammar that make up one person's language. For example, while I speak American English, I do NOT speak with a southern or northeastern accent, and I rarely ever use the phrase, "up in here." (I do, however, use the word "however" a lot.)

And the list below constitutes, in a way, my movie idiolect.

A note about preferences: A long time ago, I was in a seminar with the writer John Barth when he got asked about preferring one type of fiction over another. At the time, in the writing classes I was attending, there was hot debate about the merits of realism over fantasy in fiction. Barth's answer stuck with me.
"I hesitate to state a preference," he said (and I'm, of course, paraphrasing), "because so many people think that this means I don't like the thing I'm not preferring. In other words, because I don't prefer a certain choice, I'm implying that it shouldn't exist. But I prefer to live in a world where choices exists. I prefer a world where I get to choose, and I even get to change my mind, especially when it comes to art."
I feel the same way. But, for the sake of discussion, I'm listing movies that are my personal favorites -- my pantheon of great cinematic entertainment. Like Barth's answer, these movies stuck with me in some way. That is, these are movies I can rewatch endlessly and not just from beginning to end. I can just dip into them, revisiting individual scenes out of sheer pleasure, and I often quote from them. After some soul-searching, I've narrowed the list down to these twenty-one, in no particular order:

  1. Glengarry Glen Ross - the best of the all the eminently-quotable Mamet movies, and based on his award-winning play. Alec Baldwin's scene alone is worth the price of admission, though every other member of the ensemble cast also gives a master class in inhabiting their lines.
  2. Grosse Pointe Blank - it turns out that this movie almost exactly fits me in a demographic sense, so its story, its references, and its soundtrack all speak deeply to my own remembrances of high school. Beyond that, it's a really good comedy. It's theme of a prodigal son returning home also strikes me deeply.
  3. Star Wars & The Empire Strikes Back (But NOT Return of the Jedi) - because I see the first 3 movies as a single entity, not to be confused with the latter trilogy which was merely tedious. But the 3rd part of that first trilogy really jumped the shark, as they say. It got too cute, and I knew it, even as an adoring kid.
  4. Blade Runner - Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece still holds up, even after decades of advances in special effects. Of course, having Harrison Ford doing some of his best work helps.
  5. Big Trouble in Little China - perhaps my all-time favorite movie in terms of pure pleasure. Kurt Russell hams it up brilliantly. The dialog is hilarious, and the action is both intense and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. It's a big, pulpy mess, and I love every second of it.
  6. Unforgiven - the capstone of Clint Eastwood's career in westerns. It's dark, dreary and violent -- the perfect antidote to the romanticism that pervades most movies, especially westerns. 
  7. Band of Brothers - okay, so including a whole miniseries is kind of cheating, but this series was so completely engrossing that I just couldn't leave it off the list. Think of it as a more sublime Saving Private Ryan.
  8. Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh - unlike other movie adaptations of Shakespeare's play, this one is a so-called "full-text" adaptation. And I'm a sucker for Shakespeare, anyway. This one's got Branagh himself in the lead, with an inspired supporting cast.
  9. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - if I even need to explain this, then you don't know me. And if you haven't seen it...well, I'll try to forgive you.
  10. Serenity - take the hokey space-opera aspects of Star Trek and Star Wars, but add hilarious dialog and believably likable characters -- and you have this, the cinematic finale of Joss Whedon's single-series TV show, Firefly.
  11. Primer - the only movie involving time-travel (with the possible exception of FAQ About Time Travel) that I can respect. This low-budget, brainy gem is a bravura exercise in fragmented storytelling and narrative economy. The IQ & inventiveness on display in this movie dwarfs the combined quotients of every Star Trek movie ever made.
  12. The Godfather - the best and most groundbreaking of the trilogy, this is the movie that pretty much cemented the American gangster ethos, so much so that real gangsters have adopted it as gospel. Its sequel is excellent, even though it's really just more of the same. But that third one...
  13. Ghost Dog: the way of the samurai - Jim Jarmusch's skewering of the gangster/warrior ethos also embodies it in the form of one of Forest Whitaker's finest roles.
  14. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension - a comic book lover's movie, if there ever was one. And John Lithgow is pure awesomeness.
  15. Pulp Fiction - Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece does it all. It's funny, sad, mind-bendingly self-aware, and an homage to movies, especially of a certain era. What I like about it is that every character who comes on-screen pretty much gets their stage-time, even the minor ones. In that way, it's not just a flick; it's a whole world.
  16. High Fidelity - I know, another John Cusack movie. But I just can't help myself. This one also hits so close to home that it's hard to discuss. Let's just say that, in my past, I've made my share of mix tapes. And Jack Black's closing number is a moment of perfect pitch.
  17. Miller's Crossing - My favorite of all of the Coen brothers' movies, a gangster epic inspired by Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key but recast into something even greater.
  18. Fight Club - a movie adaptation of a good novel that's actually better than the novel! (And I say this as an aspiring novelist.) And that's all I can say. (See rules 1 and 2.)
  19. The Blues Brothers - Just watch it. It's a movie that's so full of great gags and iconic moments that I'm hard-pressed to understand why anyone would NOT put this movie on their list. But that's just me.
  20. Much Ado About Nothing - yeah, it's Shakespeare by Branagh again, but the play between actors in this movie is a joy to behold. Even the wooden Keanu Reeves can't ruin the magic. And Michael Keaton very nearly steals the whole show!
  21. Apocalypse Now: Redux - Coppola's recasting of Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a hot mess. It's also incredibly beautiful, hauntingly true, and bafflingly alien, all at the same time. We shall probably never see its like again.
This is by no means a definitive or comprehensive list, but I'm struck by the absence of more so-called greatness. No Kubrick or Kurosawa, no Spielberg or Scorsese, no Monty Python or Mel Brooks, all of whom I adore and revere. Maybe that's just a symptom of my lowbrow soul. After all, we're all the products of our upbringings, and, as you can probably tell from the list above, mine was full of science-fiction, comic books, and comedy of all stripes.

Now, I'd like to know, what movies make up your idiolect?

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