Monday, November 15, 2010

The Criterion Challenge (any disciplined person can be a film buff/ connoiseur in two years)

I've had some thought lately, and for some time, about regular people breaking outside the box of popular American media into a media experience that is more worthwhile.  I know cinema is, on the one hand, a personal interest of mine not to be shared at the same magnitude with others, but on the other hand, everyone watches movies (and television), and this day in age, it seems most people do it quite often, thus people should wish to improve the quality of a large portion of their lives.  I've developed a system for regular people to become film buffs (or at least connoisseurs) that, while it does take some discipline, involves no reading of books and not watching any more movies or television than you already do.  I call it the Criterion Challenge.

Step 1: Take a week to a month (ideally two weeks) where you consume no audiovisual entertainment media.  That means no movies, no TV and no Youtube or internet videos.  Absolutely none.  It's a way to clean out your system and end your dependency.  Find other things to do with yourself in this time.  Perhaps remove other forms of recreational internet, too.  Once you quit viewing television as a necessary, or perhaps the only, boredom killer, you are ready to begin.  A movie is one option among many things to do and something worthwhile to be savored.  When I was in Europe for a semester of school, I watched a number of great movies because there were so many things to do there that I wasn't going to turn my back on better, real activities for a movie, unless it was darn good.  People who consume less media are more equipped to be connoisseurs.

Step 2: After the two-week period, you should ideally cut your TV intake by 100%.  Occasional exceptions can be made if you have one TV show a week that is important to you or if you have an important sporting event such as a football game.  If you are making exceptions for a daily baseball game, you are not up to the challenge.  Don't forget that the internet is essentially more screen time, too.  Keep your recreational internet to a minimum, maybe less than a half-hour a week.

Now the challenge begins.  You may only watch movies and only Criterion Collection movies.  The point of the system is that you only watch movies from an objective third-party list of great movies.  The Criterion list is not a best-of or an absolute must-see list, but it is a list of generally great films that encompasses many countries, time-periods, and varying content and form.  In all, there are over five hundred movies to choose from and the list is growing.  I'm not saying this list is impeccable, but it is the best I have found for the purposes here.  In terms of where to start, one way I recommend is separating the movies by country and then by director and then chronologically by release date within a director's filmography.  You can start with any country you want.  By staying within a single country it creates a certain level of continuity in the viewing choices.  I'm a firm believer that familiarity breeds appreciation.  Another option, if you just want a nice mix, is to start from spine number one and watch anything you haven't seen before.  The last way and probably the best for many is to watch whatever you want because it doesn't matter much once you are within the system and this will lead to more enjoyment.  Nearly any choice is worthwhile.  The handful of movies that don't seem to fit are so few that they don't really hurt the system when it's played out over time.  The system can also potentially be expanded to include movies from the Chronological Viewing List and Most Cited Movies sections of this blog, as well as tailored to couples where you can watch movies that at least one party hasn't seen.

Step 3: It is probably not necessary to watch any more television than you currently do.  Continue with Criterion movies as your only audiovisual entertainment media for two years.  You should probably try to watch one or two movies a week, no more than a movie a day.  Only watch things you haven't seen before. All this should be according to your media consumption habits.  I know people who almost never watch TV and people who consume a lot.  Over time, you should come more to appreciate more types of movies than when you started.  Watching lots of regular television in the middle will be like starting from scratch every time, though.  You have to get lost in the challenge.  Hollywood and the average American experience has led most Americans to only accept a very narrow type of movie.  A bad symptom of our indulgent, consumerist culture is the belief that something is only worthwhile if one immediately likes it.  I believe that most of life's pleasures are acquired tastes.  This does not make them any less genuine.  Art appreciation, and experiencing life in general, must involve a certain amount of open-mindedness and experiencing things you don't initially like and some things that you may never like.  Ultimately, these movies, however different, were made for an audience and (usually) not made with the intent of alienating people.  Many of them were in fact commercial in their time and place.  Once you have broken free from unconsciously held American prejudices you can find your true and cosmopolitan tastes.  These will incorporate elements of your previously held ideas on film mixed with your new perspective.

The last thing I recommend is that you keep track of directors, countries and time periods as you watch the movies. Maybe just glance at those pieces of information before and after you watch the movie.  If you're really into movies or want to make it more intense, you could also follow producers and cinematographers or any other important position.  Following directors gives a good idea of what to look for in the future.

The two ultimate goals of the Criterion Challenge are to increase your palette as a viewer and to give you a base knowledge to use as a jumping off point for future movie viewing.  Being a movie connoisseur can be very rewarding while surprisingly casual and not dorky.  The Criterion Challenge is especially meant for casual viewers with an open mind and a desire for something more.

One final personal remark is that while I heartily endorse the Criterion Collection in a general way, I do not particularly endorse watching every single Criterion movie and I especially do not endorse the vain consumerism of buying every single Criterion movie.  This is a two-year discipline that is meant to be a starter in film appreciation. 

Here is a link to the Criterion Collection.

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