Film Code (Thru My Eyes First)

Critique is to Conversation,
as Sweat is to Sex

“Have you read the new..., tried the lunch specials at..., seen the most recent...?” Everyone is—and wants everyone else to be—a critic. It just makes economic sense.

If Julio has already bought, and read, the twenty-eight dollar hard-back copy and if he makes that scrunchy wrinkled-nose expression accompanied by a quick shoulder-shrug when describing it; you’ll wait for your sister to lend you her paperback once it comes out next spring.

When Julio learns you spent the same twenty-eight on two tickets and two large combo’s, stood in line for forty minutes, sat behind an obese man who afforded you the opportunity to hear his every inhale and exhale—even over the dialog—for the entire ninety minutes, he’ll wait for Enrique to being it home after it comes out on dvd next year.

My sister refuses to eat shellfish at Morrie’s on Eighth, because she heard that our Uncle Jim had a real bad night after a plate of oysters there, last spring.

I waited for the video release of the Madonna-as-dictator’s-wife musical, because JP, my musical-film-critic-neighbor’s-wife, tried to over sell me on it.

She exclaimed, “it’s the absolute best movie I’ve ever seen in years.”

I could tell from her tone and hand-movements that JP wanted to like it more than she actually did, couldn’t figure out why, and wanted me to see it and then clue her in (JP: Antonio fucked up the timing and your ability to stay in the story; sorry I didn’t tell you sooner).

Although JP didn’t know it at the time, she was saying — in her way — that it would not be a wise investment of my time and money to see the movie in a theater. I’ve since learned an abbreviated verbiage to use when discussing films, so as to quickly and accurately tell someone (you, at the present moment) if and when they should see what I’ve already seen.

”...Riiiggt...Yeaahh, Were Usin’ Code Words!”
KEEPER: Refer to a picture as a Keeper, and you are proclaiming this film is worth the price of first-run admission (currently, 2 person occupancy with snacks: thirty bucks).

The word ‘keeper’ is film collector jargon; used when an auspicious film contains qualities the collector prefers and has been deemed good enough to be ‘kept’ in his collection.

CHEAPER: A film qualifies as a Cheaper if it is only worth the price of a matinee show or viewing at a second-run theater (costs can vary from ten to twenty bucks).

D – Movie: Refer to a film as a D movie and you are saying everyone should WFD, 'Wait For the DVD'. In six to nine months (more or less) it will be available for rent at your local video store (with gas, sno-caps and an occasional late-fee: six bucks).  2011 Update:  Although Netflix has almost completely supplanted DVD stores (and they plan to completely make DVD's unnecessiary by 2013; every movie available on 'instant download') this category will remain.  D movie works for Wait For the Download. 

This term should not be confused with the term B - movie, a Hollywood slang term for “budget movies”.

C – Movie: Consider a film a C movie when you believe the viewing audience should WFC, 'Wait For Cable'. You are saying ‘it is no problem’ on the year-wait for it to come out on subscription movie channels. To determine the dollar value, begin with the amount you pay for the service. Subtract all the Keepers, Cheapers and D movies you already watched and you end up with the value of a C movie: around three dollars.

T – Movie: The remaining detritus are the T movies. Every film that qualifies as a WFT, 'waste of fucking time' ('wait for TV', for those who don’t speak French) is a T-Movie. These are all the movies you would never pay to see (if they weren’t full of T&A and included in your monthly subscription cable price).
When I read reviews written by other film critics, I translate: 4 stars = Keeper, 3 stars = Cheaper, 2 stars = D movie, 1 star = C movie, O stars = T movie.
I round 1/2 stars down; unless the written review grossly contradicts the number of stars or it is a Mileau film (my personal favorite of the four catagories).

Always Recruit From Outside

for the position of Umpire

People are always testing the opinions of others against their own: “Bobby said the latest Stephen King sucked; boy, was he right.” “I know you said their Chicken Caeser Salad was dry, but I thought it was OK.” “You mean she said it smelled terrible? I really like that potpourri!”

Once you discover someone with tastes similar to yours, you allow their opinion to guide your future decisions. You decide to ‘hire them as your umpire’. Everyone needs an umpire for things they are less than expert in. Just be as discriminating for the position as you would be for the baby-sitter of your four-month old.

Here is why you should never hire your film-ump from within your family circle:

My mother said many years ago (after I had just seen the film) “Well, don’t waste your money on that new Pulp Fiction garbage; it was so confusing, I walked out.”

My Mother—like a four-year old to cartoons—connects herself umbilically to news and home-shopping channels. I absolutely, positively, never ask my mother about films and would never consider her to fill a film ump position.

But, I’d fallen into my own trap. I had foolishly commented, “I’m so busy, I haven’t seen a new film in months.”

A tale I was unsuccessfully weaving, to explain my lack of sitting down with things I once wrote with—pens—inscribing on processed dead-tree flesh—paper—and then providing their combination—letters—to a long parade of couriers, for a fee; so they would deliver them to Mom next week. During that conversation I asked if giving her my old laptop would entice her to obtain an Internet account and an electronic address.

“Mom, they call it e-mail; it’s NOT as hard as programming one of those VCR things so you can catch the fashion jewelry hour while at the dentist.”

I Wore This Uncomfortable Chunk of Metal…”

I don’t have an old laptop. Saying I did, was just an innocent fib. If she had agreed, then I would have had a good excuse to refer to my laptop as my old one, which would (obviously) need replacing. My second fib was: that working with computer on the Internet is slightly harder than programming a VCR. But, goddamn it, that is only as simple as reading the manual, which got thrown away with the box, ten minutes after it was plugged in.

(For those reading this who ‘walked out because you didn’t understand the film’): If you had given a small amount of attention to the Milieu (the setting and all the visible details in the film environment) you would have noticed the main character’s clothing change and the varying times of day provided sufficient hints to assist in mentally un-shuffling Quentin’s fantabulous job of editing. Which would have been no more difficult than, say, remembering your partner’s last two plays in Euchre.

I didn’t allow any of these comments to escape my brain and travel across phone lines all those years ago, which is probably why Mom still calls and asks when I’m going to write.

A few years back, one of my film umpires said, “You should make a list of films I need to catch-up on.”

I had just expressed shock at the number of quality films she had never seen. I think my expression of surprise was actually a combination of fear and sadness, which caused my face muscles to convulse so that they could prevent my skull, jawbone, and all my teeth from jumping out of my mouth. It wasn’t just that she had never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, or The Wizard of Oz (among other classics); but I was now probably going to have to fire another ump.

For a few years I had assumed the existence of film-umpire credentials based on her outstanding record of recommendations. Now, I had discovered her opinions were foundationless. I was afraid to learn what other films she had never considered renting. The idea of incessantly re-watching craft movies by John Hughes in preference to meeting Clarence the angel or the witches of Oz caused me to shudder.

“I’m the Dude, Man.”

My film ump and I had previously agreed on films like Jaws, The Big Lebowski, and The Blair Witch Project, and on movies made (and re-made) for the movie masses.

Here’s a simple test to see if you are part of the movie masses (the target audience of Hollywood movie producers who are in the money-making business and will spend millions on advertising and hope that your film-ump won’t tell you it’s a WFD, WFC or worst of all a WFT):
Movie Masses Test

Consider yourself a member of the movie masses if:

You think the film remake of The War of the Worlds, (H.G. Wells’ tale of Martians attempting to conquer Earth) was improved with computer effects, snappy one-liners and big explosions.

If you were unaware it was re-done or thought the Will Smith movie released on the 4th of July several years ago was an original script, then you are not only a member of the masses, but a full-fledged voting member (and every producer in Hollywood should include you on their Christmas card list).
A few months after I learned that my film ump had poor credentials, she questioned my failure to see the last Stanley Kubrick film. I then made her aware of her status as my film-umpire, when I reminded her of her critique: D-movie.

I had been waiting for the DVD, as she had suggested.

She immediately recanted. Claiming she distrusted her initial impression, she said that she saw the FILM again (notice her intentional use of film instead of movie) and was now diligently waiving me around the bases and through the theater doors. Which, at the time, meant I should find it at a second-run theater.

I still waited for the DVD. My intuition told me to contemplate the reason she felt obligated to go see a D-movie again. I considered her credentials and flavored her latest critique with a peppering of: maybe there was too much of a desire to like it. Maybe a pinch of, “By god I didn’t like Kubrick! The director of Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket; I must be wrong.”

At the time I thought, Maybe this grand-master of film was trying to squeeze one last message from his addled-brain. Maybe he should have left the Cruise-Kidman intimacy off-screen, in it’s rightful place? Even if that’s not true, master artists and film-makers are fallible. Remember Kubrick’s three-hour, pretty, but tediously boring attempt at making a milieu film? The title, which was the main character’s name, was as forgettable as the film itself. You don’t remember it? There’s a good reason; the same reason I’ve not included the title here.
Steven King’s Laundry List is Worth About a Buck-Fiddy

I always laugh when I hear that someone believes a well known author could sell any worthless list. In one of Mister King’s latest conversations with himself, he quotes someone who said he was at the stage in his career where he could, “…publish his laundry list.” (I think he actually used grocery list, but I think laundry list reads better).

This farce makes good magazine print, which makes for publicity—of which there is no bad—but it is not at all the truth. Why? Because Steven King has written some godawful shit. Some so bad, I'm glad I borrowed and didn't pay for them. But, with that said, there are enough real gems which came out of his head that you can still check out his next one to see if it is a Keeper or a WFT. Which reminds me of:
Rule of Thumb #86: If the subject matter of the art work is the profession of the artist, it is a WFT. If the film is about film-making; if the painting shows a painting being painted; if the novel's main character is a novelist; if the song is about the music industry; if the poem is about poetry: they are unworthy of consideration. In all these cases, the writer, painter, author, musician or poet, ran out of ideas and decided to jump-start the idea machine by 'writing what he or she knows' (and what they know is boring shit). The exception which proves the rule (there's always one) is Adaptation a film about the writing of the film's screenplay by the screenwriter of the film.
I thought about my list. Jotting down a quick list of films my film-ump should catch-up on became a bunch of catagories, like listing favorite foods or music: when in the mood for...; only when there’s time for...; if I’m alone or with..., (sometimes fast-food, other times a full-course, expensive restaurant).

Then I thought, "Why should MY list of films to catch-up on be considered? Why would I be a good film-ump?"

I came up with three reasons: experience, objectivity and my willingness to take the time and explain.

The Passage of Time is Experience,

My Bald Spot is Age

1. I’m qualified to be a film-ump because of my considerably extensive film-watcher background. I’m old (not Roger Ebert old, but close) and I’ve been watching films and movies my whole life (something I’ve got on Gene Siskel, but, so do you). There may be millions of people just like me: aging, avid watchers of moving pictures, but only a small percentage have the experience to know what they prefer and why. And only a small number of those people can explain why you enjoy what you do. I have that ability.

Vincent's Paramour Didn't Have an Artist's Eye,

Just an Ear.

2. I possess the eye of an artist. I am not claiming to be an artist (nor am I claiming not to be, it’s irrelevant). I have the ability to see and evaluate things from an objective standpoint. Most people see (smell, taste, hear) things through a personal subjective-screen.

Here is a test to determine if you have the ‘eye of an artist’:
Artist's Eye?

Pick something you strongly dislike to see or hear.

Now sit through it - all the way to the end.

Make a list of three redeeming qualities (with no influencing prejudice).
If you think there’s no need to sit through the entire Disney film Fantasia to know what you like or dislike about animation and classical music; or if you believe you don’t need to listen to an entire disc of trance music to have an opinion about it, you do not have an artist’s eye and should rely on someone with an artists eye to be your umpire.

Without an artist’s eye, one claims, “I could do that,” when regarding a wall-sized rectangle of spill-splashed paint.

With the eye of an artist, one understands the painting is the culmination of a process which began with an idea, led to the combination of specific materials into a creation, and ended with it’s display (probably by someone with the eye of an artist). Willingness to embrace the unknown and anticipate that around the next corner or over one's horizon is something that might teach, thrill or excite, is an indicator of an artist’s eye.

A child’s unwillingness to try a new food, a xenophobe’s fear of foreign travel, and an egotist’s recalcitrance to read an unfamiliar topic are all refusals to experience life. Those willing to try new food (after someone they trust says it’s good), travel to a foreign country (with a tour group), or read an unfamiliar story (as long as the cover has an ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ circle on it) are relying on someone else with an artist’s eye to be their umpire.

"You talkin to me?

You must be talkin to me. I'm the only one here.

3. My purpose for this essay is the same as why any artist creates anything: because there is an inner drive—an inner flame—that needs quenched. The completion of this list is as much a personal discovery as it is a vehicle for others to use.

If the primary motivation to create anything is personal gain, the craftsman (movie-maker, journalist, lounge singer, advertising layout designer, short-order cook) is merely focused on the end product: cash. An artist, however, focuses on the process of creating and is pleasantly surprised with the final product. Michelangelo, the Renaissance painter and sculptor, has been attributed with the following quote:
“I begin with a block of marble, chip the not-statue parts away, and discover I am finished when all the not-statue parts are on the floor.”
Conversely, Roger Corman, director of a large number of WFT movies, has been attributed with saying:
“Movie making would be a business I could enjoy if it weren’t for producers, actors, distributors and all the other fucks who turn it into a job.”


There are only four film types: MILIEU, PROBLEM, CHARACTER and RE-ORDER. Most people prefer one type over the others.


A milieu film has one over-riding premise: show the audience an exotic, new location or one it's never seen. The viewer is introduced to the location and moved around until the director has finished displaying his created environment; then the film is done.

Examples of milieu films are: Baraka, The Last Waltz, and Waking Life. Some science fiction, fantasy and animated films, and a majority of adult films, are milieu films.


At the beginning of a problem film a question, fantastic idea, or problem is presented. The film is finished once there is resolution, an answer, or the idea comes full circle.

Cube, The Seven Samauri, and The Exorcist are problem films. Mysteries, Horror, and some Action Adventures are problem films.


A character film is primarily about the protagonist (or antagonist) trying to change his life. It begins when the main character discovers something intolerable in life and ends when he finds a new role, returns to his old role (which he discovers wasn’t as bad as he thought) or gives up trying.

Clerks, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Harold and Maude and American Beauty are character films. A large amount of comedies and many true-life stories and dramas are character films.


The focus of re-order films are on either restoring the old order or establishing a new order. The scale can be as small as the reorganization of inter-personal relationships to as vast as the establishment of a new world order. Re-order films begin when the main character becomes involved in restoring or healing the event which is bringing about a change (or initiating the re-order itself) and ends when he finally succeeds, utterly fails, or quits trying.

Twelve Monkeys, Playing by Heart, and Fight Club are re-order films. Romantic films, thrillers, and action-adventure movies usually fall into the re-order film type.


Determining a film’s dominant type is not difficult (if you try). Film-makers and screenwriters frequently apply more than one theme. Some use all four. Effectively incorporating two or more of these themes produces a multi-layered film - not, necessiarily, a better one.

The Matrix is a re-order film with a desire to be a milieu film.

These two films begin as character films and become problem films: Psycho, directed by Hitchcock, and Breaking The Waves, directed by Von Trier.

Apocalypse Now is a problem film that could easily be confused as a milieu film.

Bad Boy Bubby is a re-order film with a strong character film quality.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a character film containing elements of all four themes. Sixty years has provided the milieu film qualities, the problem film theme is integral to the plot, and the re-order film elements are evident in the alternate reality.

Consider The Wizard of Oz: a character film wrapped around a problem film that becomes a milieu film.

Catch up on films in your favorite film type, from my list:
Blade Runner
Clockwork Orange
The Fifth Element
The Last Waltz
Metropolis (both the aname and Fritz Lang's silent)
Waking Life


A Boy and His Dog
American Beauty
Bad Boy Bubby
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
The Big Lebowski
Breaking the Waves
Harold and Maude
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
High Fidelity
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Wizard of Oz


Apocalypse Now
The Blair Witch Project
Brotherhood of the Wolf
The Exorcist
Kill Bill 1&2
My Name is Nobody
The Seven Samurai
War of the Worlds


Requiem For a Dream
13 Conversations about the same thing
Dark City
The Fight Club
Full Metal Jacket
The Matrix
Monsoon Wedding
Playing By Heart
Pulp Fiction
The Quiet Earth
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring
Twelve Monkeys
Vanilla Sky


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HippyChix said...

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