When I first took up birding about 15 years ago, what surprised me most was how, well, interesting so many of the common birds suddenly became, the ones I’d always taken for granted—robins, house sparrows, even, every once in a while, pigeons (or “rock doves,” as one of the state’s top birders insisted they be called … no snickering over “flying rats” for this guy). Rather than contempt, what familiarity evidently bred was a kind of general affection that indiscriminately rubbed off on everything feathered (as well as nonfeathered—but let’s stick to avian life for now). Which makes me wonder why it’s apparently so different with films, where typically the more you see and think you know, the less generous your critical responses are.

Not that I’m immune to the bilious critiques, the incessant rating and comparing that come so close to the heart of what we do. But: does it really have to be like that … or at least so much of the time? This film isn’t as “good” as that one, this performance only a shadow of what Russell or Nicole did in [fill in the blanks]—always on the ladder of relativity, inching our way up or down, as if the only available option for talking about “new” movie experience, its zero-degree phenomenology, involved ad hoc comparison with preexisting models. Which to a certain extent it does—we don’t reinvent language ex nihilo, we’re only as good as the concepts crammed into our heads. But: “To the things themselves!” Shouldn’t that be the beau ideal? Experiencing film sui generis, inside-out and through the accessible surface, rather than as category instances with value indicators determined in advance. Only more and more that possibility seems to be closed off …

As a matter of ideology, I used to think that even the “humblest” film, whatever that implies, had something unique to offer that was ultimately worth digging out. Probably I still do, only now the effort of finding those nuggets sometimes seems too daunting. What brought on the shift, from my (arguably) being open to everything to seeking out only 150-odd new films a year, was one excruciating make-or-break encounter—with Savage Steve Holland‘s How I Got Into College (1989), a coming-of-age comedy of the “screaming teen ferret” persuasion. What compromised swill! Obviously I broke, couldn’t handle it anymore. Like catastrophe theory in action, or Malcolm McDowell’s behavioral-aversion descent in A Clockwork Orange—for which I’m still having poor Judd Apatow pay the exacting psychic price.

So now there’s no going back, and I take “discriminating” shortcuts like everyone else—history, context, “the ladder”—which I can’t blame anyone for doing. But the all-inclusive way of the birder never seemed more inviting.