By Caio Major
/ Nonfiction /
Riding in the passenger seat of my first boyfriend’s truck, either shortly before or shortly after we made the relationship official, in 2009. We’d been discussing our favorite pieces of media, still in that exploratory phase of discovering one another’s tastes. I already knew that G’s music taste was “better” than mine: he’d made me a fantastic mix CD, filled with songs I loved from bands I’d never heard of and obscure gems from bands I was familiar with, but didn’t know deeply. At the time my favorite bands were Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and Brand New. The only posture that felt available to me in conversations with other serious music fans was a poptimist one of “no guilty pleasures” defiance.
Although he may have had better taste, G largely shared this ethos, and never made me feel judged for my music fandom. In the truck, he said, “If there’s one thing I am kind of a snob about, it’s movies.”
I was immediately skeptical, on guard. This was the first time anything he’d said gave me pause over whether dating him was a good idea. As he talked reverently about his cinephilia and how much he loved movies, I turned over this new personality trait in my mind, trying to decide if it was a red flag. Did I really want to date a guy who was a self-professed film snob?
* * *
In Zadie Smith’s 2012 essay, Some Notes on Attunement, she writes about coming to love Joni Mitchell later in life, after years of thinking that the musician was not for her. I’m sure that I had heard and read the word “philistine” before this essay, but I don’t remember engaging with the concept and whether or not it could apply to me before I read Smith’s moving account of opening herself to Joni Mitchell. Smith writes, “I will admit that in the past, when I have met connoisseurs, I’ve found it a bit hard to entirely believe in them. Philistinism often comes with a side order of distrust. How can this person possibly love as many things as she appears to love?”
I had never before considered that my opposition towards what I viewed as snobbery at best and gatekeeping at worst might just be cover for philistinism. I spent my formative culture-loving years in the milieu of comic book fandom in the ‘00s, and the misogyny in those spaces shaped my suspicion towards any men who claimed to have the knowledge of a connoisseur in any particular cultural field. To enter a comic book store as a teenaged girl in 2004 meant wading through clouds of silent scorn at best, or being greeted with open derisive hostility at worst. Male nerds in those days made no secret of the fact that they didn’t want girls in their clubhouse, and to keep us out they frequently fell back on the old cliché of “You think you love X? Name ____ of his _____” style gatekeeping.
I embraced the rhetoric of insisting that I had every right to engage in those spaces and consider myself a fan even if I couldn’t name ______ of ______. I found online communities of other women who loved comic books and encouraged new fans instead of shutting them out. When my fandom shifted to emo music instead, my anti-snob attitude felt even more necessary, considering how much the dude music fans of my generation reviled emo bands at their cultural height, and often for thinly veiled misogynistic reasons.
In dismissing snobs, on some level I also dismissed the art that snobs love. Or at least, my desire to not be a snob acted as a demotivating factor for seeking out the art I associated with them. Smith’s essay, in which she wrote so movingly about a musician I also love, gave me pause. In closing myself off to any perceived cultural snobbery, was I simply being a philistine?
* * *
I did not break up with G because he self-identified as a film snob. Over the course of our four-year relationship, he introduced me to some of my favorite movies and directors. Before we dated I had never seen Boogie Nights or In The Mood for Love or Breathless . It turned out that I loved David Lynch and Wong Kar Wai and Paul Thomas Anderson, and it took a film snob to turn me on to them. At the time I never felt like our cultural exchange was one-sided; I introduced him to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series, which he adored. Given how Joss Whedon’s legacy has tarnished and how badly these shows have aged, I feel that I got the better part of the deal.
We had a habit of getting into terrible, screaming fights, sometimes over big things and often over nothing. One of them stands out in my memory because it must be the worst fight I have ever had over the silliest reason. The impetus for the fight was the trailer for Zack Snyder’s 2011 movie Sucker Punch. Not the movie itself, which had not yet been released: the trailer.
G was an avowed hater of Zack Snyder, and I didn’t care much for Snyder (I had not liked his adaptation of Watchmen, a comic book I adored) but I was intrigued by the seemingly feminist slant of Sucker Punch. I thought that maybe it could be good, and G was adamant that it couldn’t because he saw Snyder’s filmmaking as inherently fascistic. It turned into a fight about feminism, of course. I felt like he was dismissive of the fact that my excitement for the movie was based on wanting more reflections of myself onscreen, and he felt that I was arguing in favor of fascist films.
By the time the movie came out and I read reviews, I had come around to G’s side of things and did not think the movie held feminist promise. I never actually saw it. G did, and predictably hated it, and got into many arguments about it online. Most of the superhero movies that have come out in the years since have been flavored by fascism to one degree or another. I am no longer a woman, and it is obvious in retrospect that the onscreen representation I actually needed was not yet something I could name.
* * *
I have hesitated to write about G because beyond Zack Snyder, the underlying cause of our screaming fights–the reasons that led him to scream at me–are rooted in someone else’s trauma, a story that is not mine to tell. And yet I was also impacted by that story, and it has shaped my life just as PTSD shaped his. It was not an abusive relationship, though it was a relationship that often prompted me to enter search terms like ‘am I in an abusive relationship’ into Google to determine whether I should leave. I cannot write about the way G screamed at me without an urge to spend the same number of words defending his behavior and insisting upon the positives I got in exchange for allowing myself to become his scapegoat, the person he screamed at because he could not scream at his abuser.
We broke up in 2014, during a period when we were having fewer screaming fights, leaving me with enough quiet to discover that I had outgrown even our relationship’s best case scenarios. In the months and years that followed, I drifted away from the cinephilia that our relationship had briefly instilled in me. Why? Partly because movies were guilty by association, and I told myself it was a relief to no longer have to watch the Oscars every year or sit through three-hour movies in the theater, that I had done such things to be a good girlfriend and now I was free. Partly for the same reasons that many other Americans have stopped going to the movies: movie theaters were expensive, superhero fatigue set in, and all the best stories seemed to be on TV.
For most of the past decade, I went to the movies less and less with each successive year. I went to the movies when family and friends dragged me, or when a new queer movie had come out which I felt obliged to see for political reasons. I rarely streamed movies at home. I haven’t owned a DVD player since 2016 and the few DVDs I’ve held onto gather dust.
Then something shifted. Movies became interesting to me again. I absorbed think pieces and video essays that gave me a sense that cinema was in crisis; I paid attention to the hate that Martin Scorsese received for drawing a line between cinema and superhero movies, and recognized that the hate originated with the same breed of chuds who tried to keep me out of comic book shops as a teenager. Taxi Driver was another movie that G introduced me to and which I loved, and Wolf of Wall Street was another movie that triggered a screaming fight in our living room.
The shift began in 2022, when I saw Everything Everywhere All at Once and NOPE and Decision to Leave in theaters and loved them. It massively accelerated in January when I took a 6-week medical leave from work to recover from surgery on my wrist. This was the third medical leave I’d taken in two years, and during the previous two leaves I’d watched a few movies but mostly stuck to binging TV. After the previous leaves and in the third year of a pandemic, I felt profoundly bored with TV, and experienced numbing decision paralysis every time I tried to decide what show to watch.
So I got into movies. I had never before felt motivated to seek out old movies or educate myself on film in any serious way, but with six weeks of time on my hands and little to do except sit on my couch or in a movie theater, why not give it a shot? I half-expected this attempt to end in failure, that my attention span and tastes would not be up to the task of true film ardor, but instead I struck gold and hit upon the kind of hyperfixation and sincere fannish love that I always longed for but has been harder to grasp as I’ve aged. Old movies, art movies, challenging movies, proved far easier to love than I had imagined.
For most of my medical leave, I watched 2-3 movies a day. I ignored social media in favor of obsessively curating my watchlist on Letterboxd. I watched most of the 2022 movies nominated for Best Picture, the first year I’ve managed that in who knows how long. With a purple cast covering my left elbow to my fingertips, I took myself alone to matinees. I got a subscription to the Criterion Channel streaming service.
I also began gobbling up film criticism. As a child, I would grab my father’s New Yorkers and skip to the back, reading reviews of movies I’d never see. I loved the magazines for their splashy covers and cartoons, but being a child, I wasn’t interested in the articles in the middle about foreign policy or whatever. But something about those movie reviews drew me in. I loved Anthony Lane, and felt painfully betrayed at age 13 when he gave a bad review to Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, a pan that wouldn’t have come as a shock had I been older.
I feel connected to my childhood tastes now that I have rediscovered film criticism’s alluring quality, the way good film criticism can be as hard to put down as a suspenseful novel. The way some critics can seem to explain the whole world through the lens of an interesting movie. Last year I struggled with finishing books due to standard millennial attention span issues, but in the past few months I have read Pauline Kael’s tome The Age of Movies and A.S. Hamrah’s excellent The Earth Dies Streaming and I am in the middle of Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies. In Ebert’s essay about Erich von Stroheim’s silent movie Greed, he describes the punishing nature of von Stroheim’s direction:
“Von Stroheim slept with his pistol, and as his two actors engaged in their death struggle, he screamed, ‘Fight! Fight! Try to hate each other as you hate me!’”
Reading that quote called G to my mind like a phantom. We could have followed this kind of direction in our living room arguments perfectly. Try to hate each other as you hate your abusive parent; try to hate each other as you hate your own gendered body.
* * *
The trouble with reading film criticism is you end up reading about movies at a much faster pace than you can watch them. As curious as I am about the film after reading Ebert’s writing, will I ever get around to watching Greed? Maybe, maybe not. Life is long, but it might not be long enough to watch all the movies that are worth watching. There are 391 movies in my current watchlist on Letterboxd, and now that I’m back at work I can’t chip away at this number at my former rate. I regret spending so much of my adult life not watching good movies, and not watching old movies in particular. I regret that now that I care deeply about cinema, my film education is still so lacking that I’m embarrassed to participate in the cultural conversation.
Embarrassment must be the foundational floor of philistinism, of anti-intellectualism. You witness others who know more than you (and the Internet makes that witnessing perilously easy), you feel shame about your lack of knowledge, you bury your shame beneath the insistence that this knowledge is not worth having anyway. You refuse to see the art behind the snob who has embarrassed you. When G screamed at me for daring to have had sexual experiences with others before we’d even met, he was subject to a similar shame cycle writ over life instead of art. To the extent that I was open to his tastes in art despite the fact that I knew less than he did, it was because my love for him engendered an open mind, a winding side road to get around my anti-intellectual defenses. He tried over and over to find this side road to forgiving me, to seeing me for myself instead of as a stand-in for his trauma, but it was always disappearing on him.
Embarrassment is also what kept me in the closet for all of my twenties, for years after my relationship with G had become a dot in my rearview mirror. After having made feminism such a cornerstone of my identity, it was mortifying to even consider the thought that I couldn’t make a permanent home in a feminine body. Mortifying to have had deep discussions about gender with trans friends, during which I always represented the cisgender perspective, and later have to admit that this perspective had been a pose, wish-fulfillment on my part.
Obviously, changing my gender has had a greater impact on my life than becoming a cinephile, but both changes required an opening within myself, a willingness to question assumptions that I had long considered core to my identity. The color of my regret over both is tinged with a similar hue. Why couldn’t my mind have opened sooner? Why did I waste so much time wearing dresses and watching Marvel movies? Why couldn’t I have known back then that there was so much better to be had?
I can’t go back in time and start HRT as a teenager, but I can watch old movies. I can engage. I can listen to the words of people that know more than me and choose curiosity over defensiveness. Curiosity is the necessary first step of any transition.