Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Daily Poll

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

I’ve often mentioned the Internet Movie Database ( in this column, because in a relatively few years it’s become all but indispensable. I can’t remember the last time I referred to Maltin’s movie guide, nor to one of my now aging stack of film encyclopedias (excepting David Thomson, but that’s for the turns of phrase, not for basic information, which was never his book’s strong suit to begin with). There’s probably barely a day in my life when some stray strand of movie imagining doesn’t float through my mind – earlier today, for example, I found myself wondering what Virginie Ledoyen has done lately – and with the imdb, the answer’s right there. For sure it’s not wholly reliable – particularly, by its nature, in the data on future projects – but for someone of my limited preoccupations, it’s one of the most compelling examples of how the Internet has changed our relationship to information.

The Daily Poll

There’s a lot of clutter on the site, which is also a characteristic of the Internet of course. For example, I had never really paid attention to the daily poll of registered users, although it’s too prominent to miss altogether. But right after the Oscars, the following question grabbed me: “Now that Martin Scorsese has won an Academy Award for directing, who now holds the title of ‘Best contemporary American director who has never won a Best Director Oscar?’” I hate to admit it, but I spend too much time on such philosophical issues; more so, in truth, than the current status of Virginie Ledoyen. So I checked it out, and the winner (based on 13,127 votes) was Quentin Tarantino, followed by Tim Burton. Then I looked back at the results again a few days later, and the winner (by then based on 26,057 votes) was Alexander Payne. Tarantino now had fewer votes than he did first time round, which I’m not sure how to interpret. Maybe it’s the work of Sideways-crazy hackers.

Anyway, scrolling back over past polls turns out to be an intriguing window on the ebbs and flows of…well, something. Obviously the voters are dedicated film lovers. But bear in mind that based on the imdb’s user ratings, The Shawshank Redemption is the second best movie of all time (after The Godfather). On the other hand, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and The Third Man all make the top 100, so that’s not so far removed from the standard critical consensus. On the other hand, so do The Departed, Life is Beautiful, and weirdest of all to me, Luc Besson’s Leon (The Professional). In general of course, people tend to react more strongly to their current passions. But that aside, who knows what degree of orchestration, cult programming and maybe outright Satanic influence acts upon these things?

Blair Witch vs. Samantha!

Well, back to the poll results. They had an inauspicious beginning: the first ever question, on October 25, 1999, asked who would win in a fight between the Blair Witch (which was freaking out the country at the time) and Samantha from Bewitched. No surprise that a long-nurtured loyalty vote carried Samantha home on that one. A month or so later, we find a consensus that the 1990’s was the decade that produced the best movies. The 60’s came in last. The 30’s and earlier didn’t even make the ballot!

At various points we learn that Monty Python & the Holy Grail is the favourite British film of all time; that the most underappreciated film in Steven Spielberg’s filmography is not Empire of the Sun but rather Hook; that the quintessential movie quote of the 70’s is not “Are you talking to me?” but rather “May the Force be with you”; that the best Bond theme song is the strained Live and Let Die. So you start to get a sense of the plurality of the group – pop-culture literate, enthusiastic, not real heavy.

We’re not talking here about anything statistically too significant. On the day I write this, yesterday’s poll attracted 27,235 votes; the previous day 25,764; before that 22,284. But a year ago the numbers were usually below 10,000, so it’s growing fast. Maybe every day, a dozen people pick this up as a regular habit, and others start to tune in depending on the question or on the vicissitudes of their day.

For half a minute or so I sat during my lunch break in front of the question of the day (“How stoked are you for 300?” – a question it’s already hard to believe anyone ever cared about the answer to) and kept pressing the refresh button. And about two out of three times when I did that, one or two more people voted. I found this somewhat mesmerizing, as one of those crystallizing moments when you feel the wonder of Internet connectivity. I don’t like live messaging, and I don’t use any of the hot profiling sites or anything like that, so this was probably as close to I ever come to intersecting in real time with a human life on the other end. Which I know must sound kind of pathetic.

But that’s cinema for you. I think it’s fair to say that a website called “The Internet TV Database” could never be as successful (and not just because the imdb subsumes all the TV stuff anyway). It instantly sounds tackier, (even) geekier; it doesn’t hold the same promise of potential universality. True, even a lesser-performing network show gets a bigger audience than your average hit movie. But with a handful of exceptions, tuning into that lame show feels like a filler experience even as you watch it. Cinema is still an event, and events spawn conversation, follow-up, engagement. If only because going out of the house is (hopefully) at least incrementally galvanizing.

Alive or Dead?

But what is that follow-up engagement to be? Traditionally, for film buffs, the answer doesn’t make you look so good. You create scrap books, lists, collect memorabilia, you just do anything to try and solidify your connection with this ever-fleeting passion you have yourself caught up in. You become an eccentric, always living in the next movie. Unusually for such an affliction, the film festival prompts hundreds of people to become voluntary addicts for ten days or so, once a year, then they shake it off and go back to seeing maybe a film a month. For others, there’s no relief.

Cinema, I think, can make you feel more alive than any of the other arts, if you bring enough of yourself to it; otherwise it might render you deader. The Internet offers a vast new coping mechanism. Even if you’re basically in control, as I would claim for myself, you probably can’t afford to ignore all these strands of community. I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of it. I mean, imdb also has message boards. But that’s too much interaction, too much like dealing with people. So much better to maintain a large chunk of one’s energy to invest in people on the screen, and then simply to know that others are out there, running up the poll numbers one by one. 

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