What Are We Talking About?

Given the content of this here website, what I’m about to say might come as something of a surprise: Except under certain circumstances, I really hate to talk about movies, literature, religion, and politics. Yesterday Joanna and I went to a 4th of July picnic where we knew only the host and one other couple. At some point I found myself talking to a guy who, after learning about my dissertation and my film writing, used my interests as an excuse to tell me about Ayn Rand and Memento. I got the sense that this guy was accustomed to being the most knowledgeable (or at least the loudest) guy in the room, so I was content to let him talk until he ran out of steam, hoping all the while that Joanna would wander back in our direction or that a meteor would destroy the apartment complex across the street. Anything that would give us an excuse to change the subject.

But nothing like that happened. And the guy wouldn’t let me off the hook. “So what’s the best film you’ve seen in the theater this year?” Um, Pin Boy, probably. It’s from Brazil, I think, or maybe Argentina. I forget which. It’s a great little film about . . . “I don’t know anything about Pin Boy. What about American films?” This year? I guess The Life Aquatic was the most interesting American film I’ve seen this year, but I was actually a bit disa . . . “Okay, what about the last ten years? Did you see Memento? How about Fight Club? The Usual Suspects?”

And on and on it went. At some point his friend joined us and, after listening for a while, added, “Oh, I get it. You’re one of those ‘I don’t watch summer blockbuster movies’ types, right?” And if you’re guessing that he said that in an effete, high-pitched voice, then you’d be right. “Don’t stereotype the guy,” Mr. Memento said. Hey, sometimes the stereotype fits, I joked.

Eventually the subject changed to The Lord of the Rings, which drew Joanna’s attention and which gave me an excuse to slide over to the one couple I knew. I asked them about their upcoming trip to California — a brief tour of Hollywood, followed by a four-day drive up the coast and a long weekend in San Francisco — and, quite unexpectedly, I soon found myself talking about movies again. After telling me about California, they asked if Joanna and I had any trips planned and I mentioned Toronto.

“You know, many Iranian directors make films for that festival in Toronto.” Yeah, Kiarostami had a new film there last year. And I think Makhmalbaf’s daughter did, too. I forget her first name. “Yes, they make these films for Western audiences that are so depressing. Poverty is a part of Iran. I don’t deny that. But I can’t understand why festivals love these films.”

Assana is in my ESL class. I had known her for several months before learning that in Tehran she had been a doctor. On Thursday I plied her with questions about the election, and she seemed grateful to have found an American who was interested. Yesterday, I told her a bit about Kiarostami’s Ten, which had given me my first glimpse of middle class Tehran.

I’m not sure what this story illustrates exactly. (Joanna would say it illustrates that Mr. Memento is an asshole.) Sociologists have been saying for years that popular culture serves an organizational function in America. The people who line up on opening night at theaters in Anchorage, Kansas City, and Miami (or who watch the Super Bowl or who read the latest Harry Potter or Purpose-Driven whatever) are actors in a shared experience. Pop culture guarantees some kind of connection between strangers. But it’s always the most superficial of connections, and so small talk becomes a discussion of which film has the most realistic depiction of human evisceration, The War of the Worlds or Independence Day. And it makes me crazy.

Maybe I’m the asshole.