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Film Snobbery Explained

Read a selection of entries from the Film Snob’s Dictionary

The Film Snob’s stance is one of proprietary knowingness—the pleasure he takes in movies derives not only from the sensory experience of watching them, but also from knowing more about them than you do, and from zealously guarding this knowledge from the cheesy, Julia Roberts-loving masses, who have no right whatsoever to be fluent in the works of Samuel (White Dog) Fuller and Andrei (the original Solaris) Tarkovsky. The Film Snob fairly revels, in fact, in the notion that The Public Is Stupid and Ineducable, which is what sets him apart from the more benevolent film buff, the effervescent, Scorsese-style enthusiast who delights in introducing novitiates to The Bicycle Thief and Powell-Pressburger movies.

The Film Snob*s Dictionary seeks to redress the knowledge gap between Snobs and non-Snobs, so that normal, non-sociopathic, movie-loving people may A) become privy to some of the good stuff that Film Snobs zealously hoard for themselves; and B) avoid or approach cautiously the vast quantities of iffy or downright crappy material that Snobs embrace in the name of Snobbery. This second service is especially valuable, because the Film Snob is willfully perverse in his taste, glorifying drecky Hong Kong martial –arts flicks and such misunderstood works of genius as Mike Judge’s Office Space and Michael Mann’s Heat for no rational reason whatsoever. The authors of this book, in compiling its entries, have sought to strike the right balance between intellectual curiosity and Snob madness, so that the reader will feel less intimidated about renting a genuinely entertaining film such as Fritz Lang’s M just because it is “German Expressionist,” but liberated from the burden of ever having to watch a Peter Greenaway film.

Who Is the Film Snob?

The archetypal Film Snob is familiar to anyone who has walked through the doors of an independent video store and encountered a surly clerk—hostile of mien, short on patience, apt to chastise you for not intuiting that Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket is grouped in the “James L. Brooks” section “because Brooks was the movie’s executive producer!!!” Perhaps this clerk has a shelf-ful of his own recommendations on display—David Cronenberg’s Scanners, the complete filmography of Steve Zahn, the Italian women-in-prison pic Women of Devil’s Island, and, oh, The Human Tornado, the second of the raunchy “Dolemite” features that starred the blaxploitation comic Rudy Ray Moore in the 1970s. As you walk up to the counter with your copy of Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, this clerk heaves an audible, exasperated sigh, dutifully but contemptuously processing the transaction and sending you on your way with your wretched cinematic piffle.

Before videotape players and pay-cable movie channels, the ranks of such Snobs were thin. Film buffs enlisted in campus film societies or went to repertory cinemas for their old-movie and foreign-film fixes, or simply watched whatever faded offerings were indifferently shoved on television via “the late show,” the “Million Dollar Movie,” or some other grim rubric. Diehard cineasts who wished to watch one film over and over again really had to work at it, attending the same theater for several consecutive days, or gaining access to a projector by joining their school’s “AV club” (and thereby consigning themselves to leper status socially). But the rise of VCRs and such services as HBO and Cinemax in the late 1970s and early ’80s effected a huge change, enabling multiple viewings and wholesale absorption of a film’s content and technique. Youngsters who sat impatiently through HBO’s airings of Peter Bogdanovich’s wilderness-period film Saint Jack (1979) because the cable guide promised “nudity” and “adult situations” soon found themselves contemplating Bogdanovich’s camera angles, Ben Gazzara’s line readings, and cinematographer Robby Müller’s lighting. Lo, Film Snobs were being born.

Bogdanovich himself was a transitional figure, an old-school movie buff of the repeat-attendance variety, who, once he managed to insinuate himself into Hollywood in the 1960s, packed his films with knowing echoes of the movies he’d taken in as a youth, parroting Howard Hawks in this picture, John Ford in that. But he didn’t come close to being the kind of out-and-out freak that emerged with the eighties boom in video stores and studio re-releases of their back catalogues. Suddenly, nearly all of film history was laid out for youngsters to pick over, scan, rewind, and dissect, often with the help of Snob-fomenting reissue companies like Criterion, which specialized in laser-disc (and later DVD) “director’s cuts” of such films as Blade Runner that were abrim with such bonus features as directorial commentary, excised footage, production stills, trivia quizzes, and so on. Video stores themselves emerged as alternatives to film schools, their staffs swelled with dweebs who watched and deconstructed movies all day, occasionally making time to help out customers.

One such video store, Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California, employed an excitable movie fanatic named Quentin Tarantino. From 1985 to 1987, the young Tarantino evangelized to his skeptical customers on behalf of such movies as the seventies girl-gang picture Switchblade Sisters (taking pains to distinguish its genre from the women-in-prison genre exemplified by Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat), and engaged in furious arguments with his co-workers on the merits of Shaw Brothers kung fu pix and the shooty-booty oeuvre of the statuesque Pam Grier. Within a few years, Tarantino was the internationally known auteur behind Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction—a huge validation for the growing Snob community, since Tarantino’s success proved that Snobs knew better than Armani-suited studio schmucks and aged Sydney Pollack types how to make vital cinema, and that it was okay to flaunt one’s Snob credentials by relentlessly referencing other movies and earlier cinematic conventions in one’s own pictures. Tarantino’s triumph also brought to light a crucial difference between the Film Snob and his marginally more presentable cousin, the Rock Snob: The Rock Snob seldom becomes a rock star—he may be thoroughly versed in the ins and outs of what’s cool about Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, but he lacks the idiot-savant charisma and communicativeness of the lithe half-wits who actually perform rock music. Film, by contrast, is a director’s medium, naturally hospitable to behind-the-scenes brainiacs with poor dress sense; it’s not a huge step from being a maladjusted Douglas Sirk obsessive to being an Academy Award nominee. (For more information on Rock Snobs, see The Rock Snob*s Dictionary, by David Kamp and Steven Daly, Broadway Books, 2004).

The 1990s and 2000s have witnessed an unprecedented flourishing of Film Snobbery, with extra features now a given on any DVD release—enabling you to watch the French- and Spanish-dubbed versions of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 if you wish, along with the requisite outtakes, making-of documentary, and an “Ock-umentary” about the Doc Ock character’s graduation from comic books to the screen—and a surge in the ranks of Film Snobs turned filmmakers.

Readers knowledgable of film will notice the conspicious absence from The Film Snob*s Dictionary, apart from passing references, of such titans of foreign cinema as Federico Fellini (8 1/2), Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal), Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai), and Satyajit Ray (the “Apu” trilogy). The Film Snob may indeed know a fair amount about these filmmakers (Fellini in particular, given that his movie’s soundtracks were often composed by Snob cause célèbré Nino Rota), but he generally scoffs at them, deeming them to be mere name-drops for bourgeois losers wishing to seem cultured. Watching a Bergman film is so PBS tote-bag, so Mom-and-Dad-on-a-date-in-college, so baguettes-and-Chardonnay. The Snob prides himself on his populist, un-arty taste, favoring, for example, the soapy, over-emotive schlock of India’s Bombay-based “Bollywood” film industry over the artful, nuanced films of the Calcutta-born Ray, and the Spaghetti Westerns of the Sergios Leone and Corbucci over anything Fellini ever made. It’s a Reverse Snobbery more powerful than the Snobbery it’s rebelling against.

Nevertheless, there are certain areas of the received film-study canon that the Snob deems worthy of his attention, if only because they bear an obvious influence on his pet predilections. Without the insouciant sexuality and casual criminality of the French New Wave films, for example, there would have been no Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn in 1967, and therefore no lasting American vogue for nihilistic road pictures and shoot-’em-ups, and therefore no 1990s scuzz-cinema capers starring Tim Roth, Patricia Arquette, Vincent Gallo, Juliette Lewis, et al. Likewise, the cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s work for Bergman may not cause the Snob any particular excitement, but this same Snob might declare, in his vernacular, that the Sven-ster’s camera setups for Phil Kaufman and Bob Rafelson kicked ass! And so, nestled among the entries addressing such Snob lodestars as chop-socky and Film Threat are entries on Eric Rohmer and German Expressionism. What the Snob lacks in manners, he makes up for in eclecticism.

Oh, and the only Tom Cruise movie it’s okay for Snobs to like is Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985).

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