Inherent Traits Affecting Tastes

Are the films we love, the artwork we’re drawn to, or the entertainment we ‘choose’, less of a choice than we think?

Recently I began to explore the underlying reasons why I love the films that I do. I can explain why I think certain cinematographic choices are good or bad—this framing subtly reinforces the film’s message, this choice in set design serves as a portentous omen, etc. But why do I enjoy them? Why do I like films with longer takes more than those with heavy cuts? Is it because I find them more dreamlike? More realistic? I’m not quite sure, but these thought experiments have given me the chance to think more deeply about the films I love, which I find invaluable.

But when it comes to color, there is a more easily identifiable reason, and it’s caused a great deal of existential worry.

I love films that experiment with color and shades, both those which assign artistic meaning to color and those which use color to appeal to cineaste’s soft-spot for visual bliss. One of my favorite cinematic choices ever is Douglas Sirk’s costume changes for the white characters in Imitation of Life, which I’ve previously discussed here. I’ve spent multiple hours reading scholarly articles just about the use of green in Vertigo (highly recommend it). I went out of my way to go to a theater to RE-watch an obscure film from 1945 (Yolanda and the Thief), just because it was showing on 35 mm from a copy of the original Technicolor negatives. I think every film should be required to use Minnelli yellow. The reds of Le Mepris haunt my dreams:

In summation, I LOVE to look at color in film. The richer the better.

But, as many people in my life already know, I am colorblind. I have trouble distinguishing subtle differences in shade, I can’t tell the difference between certain colors, and colleagues have to “color check” graphs I make at work, so I don’t send lime green bars to the VP. Hang this image on a wall (as one roommate of mine almost did):

and all I would see is an abstract collection of dots [hopefully my editor didn’t change the image just to fuck with me]. This is a genetic trait, one I’ve had since birth. The only form of vision that I know is one with deuteranomaly.

So it begs the question: do I love rich, saturated colors so much because of my colorblindness?

As far as scientists are concerned, yep. Us colorblind tend to like yellow way more than the rest of y’all, and we tend to favor things we can see well, as one study found “colors named more accurately and quickly being more preferred”. The richer the color, the more it pops out, and the easier it is to identify. It follows that my colorblindness has directly influenced my preference for rich colors.

I found this nugget of research profoundly disappointing when I first read it. We don’t often think about the origins of our preferences, and for some reason I found it disconcerting to think that I love the things I love thanks to a blip in a genetic code. That the emotions roused in me by a lush cinematic landscape were merely an accident of nature.

The idea of nature vs. nurture has been *ahem* in our culture’s DNA for a long time; often as a point of debate against asinine socially conservative bigots. But it’s fascinating to consider just how much our genetics influence the things we think are wholly of our own accord.

Certainly our experiences shape our reactions to art. I can attest to that fairly easily. After my father died I was much more susceptible to tearing up at father-son stories. I read The Road about a year later and it immediately became one of my favorite novels ever. Would it have made the same impact had I not experienced that loss? Perhaps. But I doubt it.

People intuitively understand this. The events of our lives—both momentous and trivial—mold our outlook on the world, and it follows that what we like and dislike fits into that mold. It is far more difficult to grasp that something as personal as what gives us pleasure, what speaks to us, or what we hold dear could have been decided before we were sentient.

If you’re anything like me, you’re scared that if you think too hard about this you’ll come to hate the things you once loved, all thanks to some colorblind jackass with too much time on his hands. I know when I first realized just how much my colorblindness influences my taste in films, I found it profoundly unnerving. But I’ve come to love this circumstance of my birth.

You see, it gives me a unique perspective which allows me to appreciate beauty in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I consider myself lucky. It’s possible that I would never have fallen in love with color in the same way I have without my colorblindness. I think of the joy that the aforementioned screening of Yolanda and the Thief gave me, and how I wouldn’t get the same rush of abject pleasure if I saw colors ‘correctly’. Would I still love it? Maybe. But it wouldn’t have been quite the same. Indeed, I first saw Yolanda in a course at college, and the overwhelming sentiment of my classmates was “Yeah the colors popped. So what?” I suppose we saw things differently.

Everyone is born with a perspective all their own. We can all find beauty in our own way, and the art that we are drawn to all speaks to us differently, even if these differences are minuscule.

Think deeply about the things you enjoy, and why they bring you happiness. Whether gathered by experience or encoded via genetics, they are what make you distinct, and they allow you to have an outlook that can only be your own. Every time someone shares the perspectives that make them unique, the world becomes a better, more colorful place.

Photographs taken from Vertigo (1958), Le Mepris (1963), and Yolanda and the Thief (1945).

Streaming Reccomendation: Y Tu Mamá También

On a general level, my attitude toward most of the streaming services’ catalogs can be described as such:


The big online streaming platforms (which for simplicity’s sake I’m counting as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube) have done a disservice to the vast expanse of film history, paring down their movie offerings to either the exceptionally popular or titles that are cheap to purchase the streaming rights for (clearly things are different on the television side of the equation, but that’s not my lane). Hardcore cinephiles have had to turn elsewhere for their classic/indie/international kicks, and luckily we have been gifted the incomparable FilmStruck and the exceptional Fandor.

If you find yourself craving an excellent film, but don’t have the extra $10/month to shell out for these services, it’s easy to feel like you’re SOL with the major streaming services. But fear not! Here at NQN, we are launching our Streaming Recommendations series, where we recommend the great slices of film history that hide in plain sight on the big streaming platforms.

First, the 2001 Alfonso Cuarón film, Y Tu Mamá También.


Y Tu Mamá También is a genre-bending film. Google identifies it as a “Drama/Comedy-Drama”, so basically the ultimate search engine just spits out genre buzzwords when asked. Y Tu Mamá También has been identified as “coming of age”, as a “sex comedy”, and, if you ask me, a “politically driven coming of age sex dramedy”.

The film follows best friends Julio and Tenoch in the days immediately following their graduation from high school. Both their girlfriends are going abroad to Europe, so the boys are left to gallivant and embrace their hedonistic tendencies to their hearts’ content. They meet an older woman, Louisa, at a wedding, and, despite being married to Tenoch’s cousin, attempt to seduce her by inviting her on a trip to a far-off beach. The main section of the film deals with their road trip across Mexico, the people they encounter along the way, the conversations had while hotboxing the car, and the toxicity associated with Julio and Tenoch’s competition to sleep with Louisa.

I am loath to spoil any of the details of said trip, but suffice it to say that Y Tu Mamá También earns every label I ascribed it in my attempt to identify its genre. While the ostensible plot moves rather slowly, everything else moves at breakneck speed, bouncing from conversations on drugs to sex to the lives of working class Mexicans and all the way back in a span of a few minutes. Every time I’ve watched Y Tu Mamá También I’ve found something new, either a side-splitting joke or a poignant new socio-political message.

The politics of Y Tu Mamá También are difficult to describe, as most of it is either presented visually or inferred through plot details. If you aren’t up on Mexican history (I wasn’t when I first saw it), a lot of it can go over your head. There are two important things to know before watching. First is that one party held control of the government for 71 years (elections were not considered “free” by anyone outside Mexico up until the 90s) and Y Tu Mamá También takes place during the election that voted them out of power. Second is that NAFTA was enacted in 1994, and played a huge role in the stratification of wealth among rich and poor Mexicans. There were very few middle-class citizens (though, critically, Julio is one of them).

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s technical chops have never been questioned (he won an Academy Award off of them via Gravity), and Y Tu Mamá También is no exception. The film is a masterwork of neo-realism, able to simultaneously weave long takes and “slow” moments into a commercially appealing work. Cuarón doesn’t think we’re all impatient nitwits, and is willing to linger in scenes and shots in the service of both character development, and replicating Mexico as realistically as possible. The film also contains my favorite long-take ever, see if you can spot it.

Y Tu Mamá También is one of the funniest films ever made. It is one of the more sexually explicit films ever made. It is also one of the best examples of how to make an extremely potent political film that is also immensely entertaining. You can enjoy Y Tu Mamá También without looking for what it’s really about. But once you start reading between the lines, that’s where the best things are hidden.

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Where to watch: Netflix
When to watch: A good weekend romp. Friday or Saturday evening.
Who to watch with: Some good friends, or a significant other. Do NOT watch with family.
What to look for:

  • Look for details in the background. What’s hanging on the walls? Who’s in the background? What are they doing?
  • If our non-diegetic narrator pops in, PAY ATTENTION.
  • What does Tenoch’s father do? Why does it matter? Pay close attention whenever he’s brought up.
  • What’s Julio’s last name? What does it reference?
  • What’s the name of Julio and Tenoch’s group? What’s their “code” called?
  • Who pays? Why?

Phantom Thread’s Demme Influence

I absolutely adore Phantom Thread. Many of its qualities seem handpicked to whet the cinephile’s appetite, from the delicacy and precision of character movement, to the dreamlike quality of the score, to the range of emotions that emanate from Alma, Reynolds, and Cyril in every frame. Similar to many of my personal favorites, it is a film which makes the ordinary hypnotic.


Another quality which endears cinephiles to Phantom Thread is the obvious reverence that it has for film history. Director Paul Thomas Anderson repeatedly mentioned Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) as the main inspiration for the film, but other images and styles from the annals of film history pulsate through Phantom Thread. A simple Google of “Phantom Thread influences” finds numerous essays and videos attempting to showcase Anderson’s appreciation for the masters of the form who came before him:

However, there is one influencer of Anderson (and consequently Phantom Thread) who seems to be missing from the conversation.

Paul Thomas Anderson loved Jonathan Demme. Following Demme’s passing in April 2017, Anderson moderated an entire weekend’s worth of discussions and panels on Demme’s oeuvre. Anderson made note of a number of motifs which stood out to him during the screenings, a few of which you can see clearly imprinted upon Phantom Thread:

“One thing I would say about all of Jonathan [Demme]’s films is that there’s not background in the traditional way that you see like somebody mindlessly crossing in the background of an office. Literally everything, every person in the frame seems to have some role or story going on.” –Paul Thomas Anderson

While Phantom Thread is an intensely personal film, chronicling the dynamic relationships of Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, Anderson ensures that any scene with extras shows said extras with some ulterior action or motive. In taking this cue from Demme, Anderson creates an entirely new multi-dimensional world with Phantom Thread. A world alive with people of all shapes and walks of life, not merely a sandbox for our central characters to roam in. For a film which deals with wealth, opulence, and luxury, such a grounding in reality is crucial. It allows the viewer to engage with the piece in a manner not possible while residing strictly in the realms of fantasy.

Another aspect of Deme’s film-making that is imprinted in Phantom Thread (and Anderson’s filmography in general) is Demme’s choice in shot angles and framing. Demme loved to experiment with what he called the “subjective camera”, and expand upon “the little snippets you see in Hitchcock and Sam Fuller”. In most cases, Demme represented this via extreme closeups directly in front of a character’s face. Demme fully admits to not inventing this type of shot, but he did take it further than almost anyone else (except Yasujirō Ozu). In some film circles, the shorthand term for this type of shot is “the Demme closeup”. And indeed, both Demme and Anderson make heavy use of these extreme closeups, which have a tendency to make characters appear to pierce the fourth wall and make eye contact with the viewer. This angle has appeared throughout both of the directors’ filmography, shown below from Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Beloved (1998); and Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017):


While this is a solid starting point, there’s even more to be found be delving into Demme’s idea of the “subjective camera”, and how it relates to Phantom Thread.

Take, for example, Demme’s Swimming To Cambodia. It is, ostensibly, nothing more than a recording of Spalding Gray’s on-stage monologue of the same name. But Demme’s choice of when to use the subjective camera is of note. One such example comes when Gray is imitating his girlfriend yelling at a neighbor (below). Demme places the viewer in the yellee’s shoes, to punctuate the intensity of moment:

But if we go beyond this initial analysis, we find more levels of subjectivity in this shot. As much as it may feel like it, we aren’t being put in Gray’s neighbor’s shoes, because we are receiving the tale secondhand. Gray is merely conveying his girlfriend’s shouting to the audience as he understands it, and Demme is conveying his understanding of Gray’s attempt to replicate the scenario. The layered meaning of the “subjective camera” throughout Demme’s filmography lies beyond the innovative framing of perspective shots.

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Anderson takes this idea of subjectivity even further in Phantom Thread. The film’s story is framed as being told to Reynolds’ doctor by Alma, following her ‘mild’ poisoning of Reynolds to “calm him down”. This easily forgotten detail is crucial, and informs how Phantom Thread should be watched by an active viewer. Alma is our guide through the world of London couture and House Woodcock. This detail is the raison d’être for the dreamlike quality of banal sequences, the hypnotic rhythm of the day-to-day, and the overall intensity of the film. It is one Alma removed from reality, thus coloring the world seen on screen as she sees fit. It contains a filter that could be said to contain a mixture of nostalgia, and either exaggeration or understatement.

Was Reynolds truly as overbearing, anal, controlling, and possessive as he is portrayed in Phantom Thread? Or is Alma remembering it that way to justify her actions in poisoning him? Or is the opposite true? Could Alma be underselling Reynolds’ toxicity to justify her love for him and fend off a doctor that clearly desires her? Ultimately it is for the viewer to determine.

But it is vital to recognize that we are not observing Phantom Thread through anyone’s eyes but Alma’s, and the entire film is viewed through this “subjective camera”. Anderson has taken Demme’s love for the subjective camera to its limits, by subtly making an entire film told via this view, all while weaving elements of Demme, Hitchcock, and over a century of film history into the tale.

Phantom Thread is a fitting homage to one of the great directors of the modern popular cinema, who himself was an avid student of film history. It takes elements of Demme’s style, mixes them with the things Demme loved, and creates a masterwork of subjective storytelling. Anderson provides a wonderful send off, for the mentor who influenced him most.