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INTERVIEW: Rob Christopher On Queue Tips And Some Of His Favorite Cinema

By Maggie Hellwig in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 14, 2012 5:00PM

Rob Christopher, writer for Chicagoist and author of Queue Tips.
Let's face it: We're a society of movie viewers. We watch movies while we fuss around on Facebook, while we eat our dinners. We put on that one movie we've seen about twenty times while we clean our house on a Sunday afternoon. Plenty of the inside jokes that we share with our friends and family come from movies we've seen, and movies we've enjoyed.

The way we watch our films is radically different from how we did 10 years ago. If we had been told in 2002 that the main source of our movie viewing would come from websites with an infinite number of options, not to mention algorithms which form suggestions based on what we watch, we might have been a little perplexed to say the least. With the quick transition, yielding so many options and so little advice on how to navigate through them, it's a bit of a relief to find a book like longtime Chicagoist contributor Rob Christopher's Queue Tips.

In the book, Christopher not only gives short synopses of some real cinematic gems, but he lumps them into neat chapters with titles like, "Man <3 Sheep, Teen <3 1958 Plymouth Fury, and Seven Other Unusual Romances," or, "Nine Westerns That Aren't Westerns." There is also a great line-up of "guest stars," who have contributed chapters to the book. MacArthur grant-winning jazz musician Ken Vandermark speaks about his favorite soundtracks in the chapter, "Extraordinary Sound, Music, and Film." Former SNL cast member, Julia Sweeney shares some of her favorites in, "Movies on My Mind." All-in-all, Queue Tips makes for a pretty well-rounded and well-informed movie guide.

In light of Christopher's new book and the release party on Thursday that we're all hyped up for, we had a chance to ask one of our favorite film critics a few questions about the book and some insights into his own film preferences.

Chicagoist: Let's start off at the basics. What prompted you to write Queue Tips? You obviously possess a lot of knowledge, having viewed and reviewed so many films. Was the book a good way to cumulate this knowledge?

Rob Christopher: The American Library Association decided to launch a new book imprint, Huron Street Press, last year as a way to reach out to the general public about its mission and the importance of libraries. Kind of on a whim, I submitted a proposal for a book of a movie lists, and then before I knew it I was given the green light. The stipulation being: we need your manuscript in nine months. Whoa! So, I hunkered down.

In high school and college I worked part-time for a while at Blockbuster Video. Basically my idea was: let me pretend I'm behind the counter and someone comes up to me and says, "What should I rent tonight?" Naturally you wouldn't launch into a 10-minute long monologue on why such-and-such a movie is great. You just cut to the chase and say in a few sentences why this movie is really cool and why the person should watch it. The book for me was a great excuse to be able to talk about some movies that are personal favorites, or ones that don't necessarily get mentioned a lot. There are just so many movies out there and an awful lot of great ones fall through the cracks.

C: Each chapter is so specifically categorized, with very catchy titles I might add. Were there any other categories under consideration for the book that were not included in the final copy? How did you arrive at the categories that you did?

RC: I launched into writing the book based on a few ideas I had, and a number of movies I wanted to write about. As I went along, I ended up tossing out some ideas that didn't work or didn't flow. I really wanted to do a list of horror movie anthologies, for instance, but I just couldn't make it work--maybe next time around.

My brain is filled with all kinds of weird trivia and I just played around a lot. For example, I remembered reading that Psycho is actually a Christmas movie. When they were shooting the second unit footage it happened to be during the holidays, and Hitchcock noticed that you could see Christmas decorations in the background during certain scenes, so he added these titles in the beginning of the movie: "Friday, December the eleventh." That got me thinking about other unusual Christmastime movies like Brazil and Silent Partner, so there was a list right there. The chapters grew out of sticking different movies together and seeing what they had in common.

Mostly I just want to encourage people to look at movies differently. I hate the way that studios and marketers are so quick to label a movie. You know: here's an action movie, here's a romance, here's a horror movie. I don't like those labels because they limit how you think about a movie. It's a lot more fun to forget about genre sometimes, or play against it. Like the list that's in the book: "Westerns That Aren't Westerns."

C: There's no doubt that most of the films recommended are highly esteemed movies. When selecting the films that you discuss, were there a certain criteria that they had to meet?

RC: I was doing my best to avoid the usual suspects--in the sense that I wanted to feature movies that were to some extent less well-known, or least movies that I could try to tackle from a fresh angle. Beyond that I tried to make sure that I was going with movies that you'd have a decent chance of finding somewhere, whether on DVD, or streaming, or some other way. There are a lot of awesome movies I wanted to write about that unfortunately are out of circulation at the moment. As much as I wanted to include Diary of a Mad Housewife, I didn't think it was fair to include it since it's still very hard to find.

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, cocktail personality extraordinaire, lends his two cents in the chapter, "Tropical Cocktails at the Movies."

C: The lineup of guest writers is quite impressive, and their expertise ranges from film critic to famous cocktail personality. How did you choose such a diverse group of individuals to contribute to your book? Were you well acquainted with them beforehand, or was there a process of reaching out to them?

RC: Frankly, it was like: well, I have nine months to get this thing finished--who do I know that owes me a favor?! It was important to me to have a very diverse group of "guest stars." People whose names you'd see together on the book cover and think, "What are Julia Sweeney, Ken Vandermark, and Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry doing in the same book? This looks interesting." In addition to asking some of the contributors directly, I also had some friends do some reaching out on their own. I kind of cobbled an eclectic bunch of people together.

C: Queue Tips promotes the use of the public library system and other prestigious resources as a reliable film database. Also, you do make note of that fact that streaming hosts are limiting, and create misleading recommendations. Do you think the trending ways in which the public accesses films (i.e. Redbox, Netflix, Hulu Plus) is detrimental to the viewing of quality cinema? Or, is it a method--when used correctly--can lift some of said limitations?

RC: The more ways there are to see movies, the better it is for everyone--not just for the hardcore cinephile, but also the casual movie viewer who just wants to something to watch while they eat their pizza. But the weird thing is that even as our viewing options have increased, as far as the different ways there are to see movies, there's been a narrowing of actual movies to choose from.

I single out Redbox in my introduction because it's the most pathetic example. I mean, earlier today I went to Walgreens and there was a line of five or six people waiting to get something from Redbox. On my way to Walgreens I passed Specialty Video, a really awesome "old school" video store--and the place was almost empty! You have a line of people waiting for Redbox, where they can choose from maybe a few dozen of the most run-of-the-mill, mainstream movies, and meanwhile there's no one in Specialty, and they've got a couple thousand movies of all different kinds.

Generally speaking, public libraries have a really great selection of movies, and to check them out it's either free or maybe costs a $1. Why should we mindlessly pay $80 a month for cable when it's mostly crap anyway? Now I think streaming video is clearly where movie watching is headed, probably where it already is. If it broadens your choices and allows you to be a more discerning movie watcher, then I'm all for it. No matter how you end up watching something, I believe that what you're watching is more important than how you're watching it, with some exceptions of course. Just like David Lynch said, "If you watch a movie on a freaking cell phone then it's a really sad situation."

C: In the Intro, "At the Heart of Cinema is a Library," you talk about frequent use of the library to peruse through films in college, and later on (in the chapter "Great Movies for Tweens, Teens, and Other Kids Under the Age of 99") you mention that your parents exposed you to great movies at an early age. Was there a defining moment, movie, or director that made you fall in love with the art of film?

RC: As far back I can remember, I loved watching movies. For about five years when I was growing up, we had cable. This meant that there were a few movies I ended up watching over and over again: Time Bandits, Flash Gordon. I guess that was the start of realizing that the more closely you watch a movie, the more it reveals itself to you. Then VHS came along and made it even easier to make discoveries. When I was about 12 I watched David Byrne's movie True Stories, and that blew my mind, because it was the first time I understood that a movie can do more than just tell a story. Hitchcock, Lynch, Robert Altman, Luis Buñuel: I can pretty much trace my movie craziness to those four filmmakers.

C: Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to a certain film, director, or genre?

RC: Well, there are plenty of so-called terrible movies I really enjoy, but there's no guilt involved! I'm a sucker for any 70s disaster movie; any bloated super-production with an all-star cast where you can just bask in the shag carpeting, bad clothes, and ridiculous dialog. As I said before, I also have a thing for horror anthology movies--like the original Tales from the Crypt, even though the plot twists are usually lame and they're not scary. It's fun to read between the lines of those kinds of movies, focus on the subtext and enjoy them as artifacts of their time. Supposedly Fellini once said that in every movie there are five good minutes. You just have to keep your eyes peeled.