When Geeks Collide: Life with a Movie Critic

Before I began my relationship with Paul, I might have known that February is designated by the film-savvy community as “Oscars Season.” But in all likelihood, me possessing that information would be predicated upon someone hosting an Oscar party or bringing up the Oscars in a way that prompted me to ask, “Oh yeah. Those. When do those happen again?”

There are few things I claim to know with certainty, but one thing I can say without qualification is that I will never again NOT know that it is Oscars Season. If you stepped inside our living room, you would immediately understand why: crammed into that tiny space is a veritable cornucopia of DVDs and film scores on compact disc. Biographies of such personages as Orson Welles, Tim Burton and Jim Henson burst from our jam-packed, loosely-titled “American Literature” bookcase.  Above our television (an appropriate enough location), an original Chuck Jones illustration adorns the wall. To be fair, some of the DVDs belonged to me before they became part of the larger Cote-Vorona collective (though, for the record, “Spice World” belonged to Paul). Regardless, beginning a life with Paul meant that my Victorian novels and Pre-Raphaelite picture books could not consume every spare millimeter of the bookcases. And I would have to accept that, given Paul’s aesthetic preferences, it would be unfair for me to smother the walls in Pre-Raphaelite artwork and 19th Century magazine prints. As it stands, our living room exists in a liminal aesthetic space between 20th Century American pop culture and Victoriana. If you leave the framed Oingo Boingo record cover out of the equation, I’m dealing pretty well with this.

My purpose of writing this post was not, however, to grieve my inability to decorate our apartment like the parlors of Thornfield, Thrushcross Grange, or Pemberley. I have always loved movies: watching them in the theatre, thinking about them, and debating their various strengths and limitations with friends. I am a card carrying worshipper of Emma Thompson. Thanks to Tom Hiddleston, I have a renewed interest in Norse mythology. But I do not love movies as much as Paul does. Nor do I possess the inherent ability to unpack them and assess them in the brilliant way that he can. He is a rare, film-whispering, breed of a guy. I love this about him. But I am not always capable of accommodating his passion.

A little modification: When I wrote in the above paragraph that I do not love movies as much as Paul does, I should have added that, in all likelihood, 95 percent of the population does not either. And truly, I believe that it is his depth of perception and innate ability to understand the filmic genre that cultivates his profound appreciation for it. That does not change the insane fact that you could awaken Paul at 3:30 a.m., ask him to rank Martin Scorcese’s five best films, and he would do so with barely a yawn and a blink (in part because there is a very decent chance that Paul would still be awake, watching a movie or writing about one). We once, in the fledgling stages of our romance, completed the grueling, 12 hour ordeal of moving me out of one apartment and into to another. As we staggered back to his place to shower our aching bodies and settle into sleep’s luscious oblivion, I made an offhand comment about a Woody Allen film.** I was under the impression that Paul, like me, was struggling to maintain both consciousness and an upright position as we headed home. And perhaps that was the case…until I brought up Woody. Renewed by the sweet nectar of filmic discourse, Paul dwelled on Woody Allen’s oeuvre for the rest of our walk home – and perhaps even after that. My memory of the circumstances remains foggy because, as astonished as I was by this impromptu verbal dissertation, I was, as I mentioned, exhausted as hell. Yet, even in that bleary, half-conscious state, my mind somehow grasped the realization that Paul had a very particular relationship with film, one that I had never before witnessed. And it was intense.

My own limitations regarding film-talk arise most frequently when Paul and I actually see a movie together. Previously, I tended to be rather lazy about going to the movies. Unless a movie had me frothing at the mouth (i.e.”Titanic” in 7th grade), I would not prioritize seeing it. In fact, I’ve been doing a fair amount of mouth-frothing lately over the new Dickens film, “The Invisible Woman,” and I still haven’t seen that. Being of the loquacious variety, I generally gravitate toward activities that do not require me to sit still and be silent for two hours. Paul, on the other hand, integrates movies into his schedule. He will catch a matinée by himself, on the way home – a practice that has always made perfect sense, but has never been something my exceedingly-extroverted self has been able to try. Sit in a dark theater silently and completely absorbed in a film ALONE? But who will I crawl over when I need to go to the bathroom?

Now that it is Oscar Season, Paul’s “need to see” list of films has both lengthened and become more urgent. (Note: I do not think, before dating Paul, that I ever said that I “needed” to see a movie, which just goes to show how oblivious I was to the critical work involved in viewing a film and, more generally, working in the field.) For one thing, as a member of the International Film Music Critics Association, he needs to vote on the best scores of the year. Working on film in an academic context also means that he needs to be up-to-date on the films being released, especially because he writes on contemporary directors like Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson. And, like me, he blogs–albeit in a more professional context–and it does not make much sense to write a movie review three weeks after a release date.

So, Paul and I have been seeing a number of movies together this winter, and there are more to cross off the list. And while he never complains, I can only imagine that I am a pretty aggravating movie-going companion. If I am confused during the film, I will almost certainly nudge Paul to ask him to explain (I always assume that Paul knows how a plot will unfold by the end of the opening scene). But after the film has ended, I often require a 24 hour grace period before I will enter into any sort of sustained discussion that is not primarily superficial. And if I really loved a movie, I refuse to hear any critique–no matter how small–until the afterglow has dissipated. This can be problematic, because, once the credits are rolling, Paul has about fifty different thoughts prepared to spring from his mouth simultaneously. And these generally are not thoughts of the “OMG NO SHE DID NOT” variety.

For example, while I have been thinking about Spike Jonze’s “Her” almost nonstop since seeing it, my initial conversation with Paul while leaving the theater went something like this:

Me: (sniffling) Wow. That was amazing. Wow wowee wow wowsers.

Paul: Yeah, that was really great.

Me: (immediately indignant because Paul’s reasonable level of enthusiasm does not match my off-the-rails, tearful effusion) IT WAS AMAZING AND FANTASTIC AND I LOVED IT.

Paul: Oh, I did too. It was a phenomenal film.

Rachel: (almost screeching with euphoria) And the performances! I was so impressed with Scarlett Johansson, and that is not something I would normally say.

Paul: (of the mistaken opinion that we are finally getting somewhere in this conversation) She was wonderful, yes, and the relationship between Samantha and Theodore really makes me wonder whether that is the most accurate depiction of romantic intimacy on-screen to date.

Rachel: (Paul’s intellectual remark cannot be matched while inside The Cloud of Many Feelings. Want to feel the feelings, not think the thinks. Unreasonable levels of indignation return.) I don’t wanna talk about this anymore tonight.

Paul: Ooooookay…?

This is not an uncommon scenario in the life of the Cote-Voronas. In many ways, I am probably the filmmaker’s version of Wolfgang Iser’s Ideal Reader. Unless my skepticism precludes–and that means I must find a film VERY problematic–I generally feel just about everything that a film wants me to feel. I am an emotional sponge, absorbing and emitting in equal measure. When Feist released the song “I Feel It All,” I was deeply grateful to her for penning a line that I could steal for all of my online bios. So, when I am moved by a film–particularly one that I loved as much as “Her”–I have to let the emotional waves subside before I can do much critical thinking or be open to hearing any pointed critique. For about twenty-four hours, any variety of the latter will feel like utter blasphemy, and the former will feel like a cold shower.

This is not to say that Paul does not experience these films as profoundly as I do – the beginning of this post testifies to his keen enthusiasm. In fact, one of the things that drew us to one another was the similar way that we experience an especially riveting movie score. Danny Elfman’s “Black Beauty” (yes, I do like Elfman after he sheds the ridiculouslessness of Oingo Boingo), Michael Nyman’s “The Piano,” Patrick Doyle’s “Great Expectations,” Elliot Goldenthal’s “Frida,” Thomas Newman’s “Little Women,” Dario Marinelli’s “Jane Eyre” — Paul and I love listening to this music together, and it all claims, in various ways, intense emotional importance in my life. “Black Beauty” and “Little Women” in particular will always remind me of my childhood with my little sisters, in part because we watched these movies on a weekly basis growing up, but also, more simply, because the music seems to articulate how I love them both. Similarly, many of the scores Paul and I enjoy together become reimagined texts for the ways I love him. (I will also divulge that I cannot so much as hear the first notes of the music from the Season Five finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” without dissolving into sobs. By now, the response is almost Pavlovian.)

Paul possesses a more emotionally measured disposition than I do (surprise!), and, at this point, he is a seasoned film critic. So he can exist in a space where he is both experiencing the affective impact of a film and, simultaneously, thinking about its technical intricacies and larger implications. I often wish that I could do the same so that I was a better movie buddy for him. Still, my experience of watching movies seems to be an enjoyable experience for him (primarily a comical one). And while his film-critic mind might not be as compelled by the “WHY DID HE HAVE TO LEAVE HER?” “WASN’T IT SO MEAN WHEN SHE SAID THAT? JEEZY CREEZY!” variety of questions, these are the sorts of things I need to talk about while I am still emotionally processing a film. He gets that, I think, and he humors me accordingly.

And, in turn, he knows that he can always wake me up in the middle of the night after watching “Breaking Bad” in order to tell me of the horrors he has just witnessed. Because even the most experienced film critics have their limitations. (I have not watched “Breaking Bad” myself, but have rather experienced it vicariously through Paul. I am his “Breaking Bad” trauma counselor, if you will.)

As Oscar Season continues, and Paul and I continue to work through his list of must-sees (many of which are on my list too), I anticipate all manner of conversations: the post-viewing chats that inevitably will end with me in a snit and, the following night, long debates over wine – when I am finally willing to submit that, no, that movie was not the Platonic ideal of cinema and, yes, there is more to discuss than its most melodramatic of plot twists.

What’s more, I was actually just as excited for the release of the Oscar nominees as Paul was this year. I guess his enthusiasm has been catching over the years, as much as I loathe to give him credit for that (ask him one day about what a delight I am). And I am eager to watch the Oscars with him–his Superbowl, for those whose minds are turned to that particular sporting event today. The fact that I refer to it as a “sporting event” probably gives you a sense of my own investment in the game as well, although I do hope there will be cute animals in some of the commercials. Also, regarding the Oscars, red carpet fashion, anyone?

Ultimately, I suppose I can say with confidence that our individualized movie viewing experiences will not tear asunder the bonds my beloved and I have forged. That is, unless he persists in criticizing Michael Fassbender’s performance as Rochester in the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. My charity only extends so far.

**NOTE: At the time that I made this comment, I was unaware that Allen had been accused of sexual assault. Having just read Dylan Farrow’s open letter, I do not know that I will be able to watch another one of his films. We do worlds of harm when we suppress the voices of those who have suffered such violence and cruelty – and even more so when we continue to champion their (in this case, probable) perpetrators.


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