How to Become a Movie Expert... Or Not
I don’t know about you, but I often reflect upon the fact that I’ll never be an expert on anything, particularly movies. This sobering fact is brought home to me frequently, but is usually most pointed when I’m listening to an audio commentary on a DVD or Blu-ray, reading a well-researched book, or talking to someone who’s had a lifetime’s worth of experience on a single topic. When people call me a “movie expert” after an in-person or online movie presentation/discussion, I’m always quick to correct this mistake. “I’m not an expert,” I tell them, “just a movie lover.” I truly am not an expert, and I regret the fact that I never will be one. I’ve started too late, and there’s simply too much to know. I’m not sure we can accurately quantify when someone has reached the level of “expert,” or how close they are to becoming one.
My problem (perhaps it’s yours, too) is that I’m interested in too many things. Even if you narrow the scope to movies only, I’m still interested in too many things: genres of film, film history, the lives and work of actors, directors, cinematographers, etc. There’s just too much out there to know and keep track of, to remember and attempt to intelligently convey to others.
My job as a librarian makes this even tougher. Yes, I’m very fortunate to be able to run a movie discussion group (now online weekly instead of in-person monthly) at the library, but when I’m not doing that, I’m just a regular public librarian. I should also point out that, at least in our library system, we have no experts. We’re all generalists, so we don’t have a “children’s librarian” or a “young adult librarian” or a “reference librarian.” We all do everything, including attempting to answer any and all questions, and I love that. As generalists, few of us ever become experts in any aspect of library work. But again, we have the flexibility to dabble in many different areas.
This is both a blessing and a curse.
Not long ago, I was listening to a Film Comment podcast featuring David Bordwell and Imogen Sara Smith, two of my favorite writers on film. Their conversation drifted to Japanese cinema, and I was hooked and drawn in like a bass at a fishing tournament. I had to read up on Japanese cinema. I had to watch Japanese cinema.
I remembered a book I’d bought several months ago at my local used bookstore (when you could do such things) called Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context by Keiko I. McDonald. The first film discussed in that book is Mizoguchi’s Sisters of Gion (1936), so I watched it. The next one is Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948). I’ve seen it, but it’s been a few years, so I have to see it again.
Several weeks ago, in planning for my online library movie discussion, I picked Seven Samurai, a film I’ve seen before (and own), but thought, “This will be a good excuse for me to learn about the movie.” Last year, after years of searching, I tracked down The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune by Stuart Galbraith IV.
And we're off...
If you said that I have an insatiable desire to know more about movies, you’d be correct. A passion for film and film knowledge does not necessarily equate with expertise. An “expert” can be anyone who knows more about a subject than you do. But you’ll never learn it all.
I greatly enjoy listening to The Movies That Made Me podcast, hosted by Josh Olson and Joe Dante. In almost every episode, an obscure or nearly forgotten film title is mentioned, prompting Josh to ask Joe, “Joe, do you know this movie? You’ve seen everything,” to which Joe always answers, “I haven’t seen everything.” But if Joe hasn’t seen everything, he comes pretty close. Not only can he tell you if he’s seen it, but when he saw it, where he saw it (city, theater, and maybe even weather conditions), and can usually come up with a vast array of information about the film including actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, you name it. I’ve even heard Josh ask, “Hey, Joe, what’s the running time of _____________?” and Joe either nails it or is off by one minute.
Joe Dante is clearly an expert. So is Leonard Maltin. Even if they’re not perfect, I’d put them in at least the 98th percentile of movie knowledge. I’d be in the single digits. On a really good day, I might crack into the low double digits.
When I was in high school, I once heard a teacher mention that he believed the happiest athletes were those who played on good, but not great teams. Going 11-0 for a high school (or any level) football team is a tremendous amount of pressure, requiring much effort, physical and mental preparation, sacrifice, and probably a good bit of tunnel vision. (At a high school near where I grew up, their football team not only went undefeated for an entire year, they also never allowed a single point to be scored against them. I can't imagine that kind of pressure.) The athletes who were the most well-adjusted (and who probably had the best time) where the teams that went 9-2, 8-3, maybe even 7-4. They worked hard and were mostly successful. They were dedicated, but also had time (and interest) in other things pursuing other interests.
Of course, this is just one aspect of a multi-faceted examination of what it means to be an expert, and not a very scientific one. Maybe I’m just trying to justify my own desire to learn so many things in one lifetime.
So I think I can live comfortably not being an expert. But I can’t live without pursing knowledge. I’m too inquisitive. There are simply too many things I want to know, especially about movies. I’ll never learn it all, but I can go to bed tonight knowing more than I did when I got up. And I might even be able to share what I’ve learned.
In about 60 hours, I’m going to lead an online library movie discussion of Seven Samurai. By the time my research is finished Friday afternoon, I’ll probably know more than most of my audience about the film, Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, and maybe Japanese cinema in general, but I’m sure there will be at least one person (perhaps more) who know more than I do about Japanese culture and will be better able to put the film in a cultural/historical context better than I can. And I’m okay with that. If I can learn something from them, that’s great. If I can impart anything to my audience, that’s also great, not because it’s coming from me, but because I want to get them excited about as many aspects of movies as possible. With most movie experts I’ve talked to, it’s not about them. It’s about the movies.
And it’s about community. We’re here for each other, to share, to enjoy, and to keep it going.
So let’s keep it going, okay?
Photos: Getty Images, Faber & Faber, University of Hawai’i Press, Film Comment, The Movies That Made Me podcast