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Film Studies, Movies, Oscars

Consumption and Cultural Currency, or: Why I Forced Myself to Watch The Blind Side

I have a confession to make: I sometimes watch a movie just so I can say that I’ve seen it.

When you watch as many movies as I do, I guess this isn’t too surprising, but I sometimes wonder how many great films I’m missing out on because I’ve been busy watching something else, and I bet other film buffs sometimes feel the same way.

Take, for example, one of my annual traditions: I always make sure to see all of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees before awards night – and usually before the nominations are even announced. This is something I’ve been doing since before I went to film school, and it’s not rooted in any great affection or respect for the Oscars themselves; if there’s anything I’ve learned from studying film full-time, it’s that film critics/theorists, Academy voters, and the public at large all have very different ideas of what constitutes quality cinema.

The real reason I watch all of the nominees is because I feel I should. For better or worse, the Academy Awards are a cultural touchstone and, one might say, Hollywood’s annual time capsule. If you’re interested in what happened in film in a given year, there’s a pretty good chance that checking out which films were nominated for Best Picture is going to be one of the first things you do.

This sometimes leads to disappointment. I can think of dozens of movies I would have rather seen last year instead of The Blind Side, which, though not completely terrible, was cheesy, predictable, and vaguely condescending towards African-Americans – in short, exactly what I expected it to be.

In film studies (and, indeed, cultural studies of all types), we sometimes talk about “cultural currency,” meaning some sort of socially agreed upon construct that gives people a heightened cultural standing. Movies are a perfect example. Think about conversations you’ve had with your friends about movies. Chances are they sound something like this:

“Dude, have you seen Fight Club?”

“No, but The Usual Suspects was awesome. Have you seen it?”

“Not yet, but I just saw American Psycho. You?”

And so on. In my experience, conversations about movies frequently sound like a competition over who’s more in-the-know. Increasingly, web sites catering to this type of focus on consumption have sprung up, including the likes of ListsofBests.com and ICheckMovies.com. These places ask you to check off which movies you’ve seen, presumably for the purpose of comparing your totals with those of others and keeping track of which movies you’ve seen from various categories and lists (like the AFI Top 100 list, Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list, and, yes, Oscar nominees). This emphasis on box-ticking completely overshadows any intellectual or emotional value that you might have found in a particular movie, and it certainly doesn’t ask you to think critically.

But you know what the weird part is? I love sites like that. I’ve wasted countless hours of my life pouring over these lists and checking off all of the obscure movies I’ve seen, and, minor OCD tendencies aside, I chalk it up to the simple fact that it’s tough to have a meaningful conversation about film unless you have a common frame of reference – a movie that you’ve both seen. Compare the above conversation with this possible alternative:

“Dude, have you seen Donnie Darko?”

“Dude! The bunny! WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”

And before you know it, you’re on your way to a (potentially) meaningful discussion.

So I guess the question remains: was it worth it watching The Blind Side, and all of the other movies I’ve seen just so I can say I’ve seen them?

Yes. Because if I hadn’t watched them, I wouldn’t have been able to make references to them, and if other people hadn’t seen them, they couldn’t be plausibly expected to understand my references. There wouldn’t be a common frame of reference. (And to prove my point, I’m guessing you’re pretty confused about the bunny right now if you haven’t seen Donnie Darko.) As any addict will tell you (and no question I’m a media addict), sometimes consumption is an end unto itself.

So go see a whole bunch of movies. Even if they suck, at least we can commiserate together.


About A.J. Simpson

Creator and moderator of I Wonder if You Wonder.


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  1. Pingback: Listmania: The “I Wonder If You Wonder” Top 10 Movies of 2011 « I Wonder If You Wonder - February 24, 2012

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