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Ultimate Film Fanatic

     It's only on a cable quiz show that ex-underaged porn princess, Traci Lords, can be resuscitated as a weekly panelist. There on IFC's Ultimate Film Fanatic, a summer series Fridays at 10:30 through August 27, anything goes: "In which movie," asked Chris Gore, the un-Bob Barker-like host, "does Kevin Costner drink his own piss?" A contestant gave the answer instantly. "Waterworld." What else?

     Movie-obsessed contestants could field questions on "Fellatio in Films," about memorable scenes of celluloid orality, and on "Horny High," concerning teen promiscuity in the cinema. The bulk of categories are less scatalogical than they are adolescent and narrow, the range of cinema interests of a 19-year-old loose in a video store: Superheroes, Harrison Ford movies, the Coen Brothers, etc.

     There was one simpleton question about 1941's Citizen Kane. Otherwise, the starting date of cinema for this program is 1977, the year of Star Wars, followed by 1978, the year of Dawn of the Dead (the original). As George Washington is Father of Our Country, Ultimate Film Fanatic adheres to the amnesiac myth that the Georges, Lucas and Romero, spawned American cinema. In the seven episodes I watched, nobody was grilled about a foreign-language film other than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. No one was interrogated about an experimental film, or about any talent more independent than Tarantino. Only once was a documentary category brought up.

     The trivia answers demanded of contestants are truly trivial: "What's the name of the pet rat in The Abyss?" Queries like that are amusing, but a whole program devoted to them? "Name the stolen sword in Crouching Tiger." A whole series? IFC is reaching for a demographic which they must view as philistine, America-centered (except for Asian animes), and genre-hooked: collegians and post-collegians, who are dedicated DVD movie freaks, as long as the movie has razzle-dazzle digital special effects and action sequences but no perplexing subtitles.

     What happens in an Ultimate Film Fanatic half hour? Six contestants leap from behind a screen and scream out why they're worthy to win $5,000: "Because I need to pay off my film school debt," "Because I've watched Braveheart forty times," Three pairs are pumped with silly movie questions. Bungle one question and you're history, and Gore, with cruel glee, hands you an airplane ticket home. You exit the show in slo-mo and with taunting music, a two-second rip-off of the elaborate eliminations of Survivor.

     Then there are three, and this trio engage in sweaty, stuttery ten-second debates on such exalted topics as: "Does Sylvester Stallone suck?" Lincoln-Douglas this isn't, and here's where a three-celeb panel enters the fray to judge. Traci Lords (whose porno days are never mentioned) seems proud to be here. Actor Richard Roundtree, retired Shaft of 1970s blacksploitation classics, looks embarrassed, and put off by the geekiness of most of the contestants. That leaves ghost-faced, hopelessly inarticulate Jason Mewes, the same dead meat he's been in Kevin Smith movies.

     Three are narrowed to two, and these, vying in an "Obsession War," show and tell their weirdest, most fetishist film-related objects. Some of the things displayed: movie ticket stubs, lists of films seen since 1998, action figures of Oscar-nominated stars, a tattoo with the proud word, "Cinema." Episode 1 set the tone, with a guy named Mark winning the $5,000 because he possessed every movie and TV episode featuring cult actress, Cynthia Stevenson. His victory speech: "I'm not married, which is just as well," because what spouse could put up with his endless crush?

     The contestants: mostly, dreadfully dressed, unexercised, with at-home haircuts, and fuzzy beards and retro whiskers. Stereotyped marginalized, flee-from-life nerds, who look at a thousand movies without ever glancing in the mirror. Far, far more guys than gals, and, with one exception, the women contestants, alas, never got past the first round. Quite a few African-American movie experts, including two of the more genuinely cerebral, both Bertolucci fans.

     How would this snobby movie critic do on this show? I'd never get past the first-round trivia. But if I somehow did, and I shined in the ten-second debates, then I could bring in my unused, autographed John Waters Odorama card, or the file cards from my 2,000 paperback novels made into film, or... When I sneered at some of the contestants, my wife, watching also, reminded me: "You're a movie nerd, too."

(The Boston Phoenix - August, 2004)


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