The Movie Game

I have a long relationship with a time-wasting game that is aptly called The Movie Game. The rules are simple: One person names a movie or an actor. If you name a movie, the next person says an actor from that film. If you name an actor, the next person has to name a film that person was in. You continue like that, going clockwise. If you can’t think of an answer, or you get it wrong, then you get a strike. 3 strikes and you’re out.

I started playing this game in high school as a way to pass the time in a theater class. The games were fun, but no one took it too seriously. I had no idea what I was getting into when, 2 years ago, I reintroduced the Movie Game back into my life. The length, competitiveness and intensity got ratcheted up to a whole new level.

The Movie Game was resurrected in order to break up the monotony of long bus trips.  As far as I was concerned, almost any game was a better use of time than my other go-to bus activities, which included:

-Listening to podcasts and staring out the window (#1 with a bullet)

-Trying to sleep but being unable to because my hoodie wasn’t thick enough to prevent the vibrations of the bus window from rattling my skull

-Being astonished that guys don’t even make a pretense of lowering their voices when they tell abusurdly offensive, self incriminating stories that the coaches would have to be deaf not to hear.

-Challenging people to impromptu rock, paper, scissors games and getting upset when they want to say “shoot” before the final reveal instead of just showing their hand after “scissors.”

I trotted The Movie Game out on one of my first bus trips with my team in Haifa. Only a couple of guys were interested in playing. I don’t remember the exact results of that first battle. What matters is that people quickly realized playing a game, especially one where they could try to best the Harvard guy on an intellectual level, was more appealing than playing Smurf Village on their iPads.

The games soon took on a life of their own. There were about 6 guys that got REALLY into it. We would play game after game, only stopping when the bus pulled into the gym parking lot. Everyone would boast about their win totals. It became an important thing to be able to hold your own. No one likes being the worst at anything, especially not hyper-competitive professional athletes.

That made it all the more difficult for me to accept my role as the doormat of the game. I was getting crushed from the get go.

I quickly ascertained the problem. It had to do with my suburban whiteness. Due to my upbringing, I was operating with an almost completely different set of movie knowledge than my opponents.

Now, I am not huge cinema fan to begin with. I have a (semi) well-known distaste for going to the movies. That alone put me at a disadvantage, but add in the fact that I don’t think I’ve seen even one Taye Diggs movie and I was like a one-armed man in a bench press contest.

I became mired in a world of movies and actors that were just not on my radar.

A typical round would go like this:

Guy 1: Sanaa Lathan
Guy 2: The Best Man
Guy 3: Nia Long
Guy 4: In Too Deep
Me: Arghhhhhhh!

I would get all messed up trying to keep everything straight. The self-criticism didn’t help either:

“Wait, was Kerry Washington in Brown Sugar, or was that someone else? Maybe she was in Waiting to Exhale? No! Was Morris Chestnut in The Wood? He had to have been, right? Hold on, how have I never seen a movie called LOVE AND BASKETBALL?!”

That does not look like the most comfortable way to embrace each other. Just drop the ball, it’ll still be there when you’re done.

I am not ashamed to admit that I started studying. Not all the time, but I would try to brush up on stuff before long road trips. I would scour IMDB, imploring myself to remember that Michael Jai White was the star of Spawn. I tried to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of the cast of Deliver Us From Eva.

I got significantly better, but I was still like an algebra student going against guys in advanced calc. I no longer got an automatic strike at every mention of Angela Basset, but I couldn’t quite compete with the big boys.

That started to change when we began moving toward a group format. The 3 most committed players who sat toward the front of the bus formed a team. We would do battle with the 3 best players in the back. This was good for me. I could hide my weaknesses and chip in every now and then by knowing that Spawn also starred Martin Sheen, who was in Apocalypse Now, a movie no one else had seen.

The group format kept all the same rules, but now you could collaborate. We played as teams partly just to change things up, and partly to deal with the cheating epidemic that was threatening to destroy the fabric of the game.

Almost from the beginning, recently outed players began trying to give illegal help. These players usually had a bone to pick with the player who just bounced them from the competition. This led to fishy scenarios where a player would appear to be totally stumped, then he would miraculously come up with the answer after “checking a text from a girl real quick.” Allegations would fly, there would be denials all around, and tempers would flare.

Another problem we faced had to do with the broad, open to interpretation rules of The Movie Game. The old rules worked just fine when the game was played by a bunch of apathetic high schoolers. Everything changes when the game morphs into a testosterone fueled battle for ultimate bragging rights. When insanely aggressive people are playing for their reputations, you better have all the logistics down pat.

This put me in a tough spot, because when questions arise during heated moments you do not want to be the person who “invented” the game. That makes you responsible for determining what constitutes fair play. You will be the recipient of some dirty, scathing looks.

One of the original sticking points I had to deal with was determining how many guesses a person should be able to make. People quickly tired of players going “Will Smith. No, was he in that? Robin Givens. Hold on, I’m going with Jamie Foxx.” That one was relatively easy to deal with, as most people were cool with instituting a rigid policy that left no room for wishy-washiness. You got to say one name, and that’s it.

Then we had to deal with whether you were allowed to use stage names. There could be a progression of “Mekhi Phifer, 8 Mile, Eminem” and then there would be an uproar. Some people thought that saying Eminem should be a strike, because Eminem’s real name is Marshall Mathers. The ruling on this one surprised me, as the majority were in favor of using only real names. That seemed excessively harsh, especially for someone like me who was already struggling. Like I said, these guys were hardcore.

Would Eminem wear a pink Alf shirt? No, but Marshall Mathers would.

And just like that it became an important thing in my life that I knew DMX’s real name was Earl Simmons, should someone ever try to stump me by using the movie Belly. Never thought I’d see the day.

The last major impediment was dealing with what constituted a usable movie. The general idea was that we were only allowing movies that were released in theaters. You couldn’t whip out some unverifiable student film you saw in college and swear that Denzel Washington was in it.

But there are grey areas to everything, and in this case the drama started when someone tried to use a movie called Baller Blockin. This was a (presumably) low-budget film starring a bunch of southern rappers playing drug dealers.

An art film of the highest quality.

People were skeptical as to whether this should count, as no one could remember it being played in theaters. Then someone from the South made an impassioned case that this movie was not only in theaters, but that it was wildly successful. People didn’t want to believe him, but he was from New Orleans. If there were ever a place where a movie starring Juvenile could draw a crowd, it was New Orleans.

I could not find any information on what Baller Blockin grossed at the box office, so I was hesitant to allow the play. But what can you do if someone swears it is legitimate? Also, it is probably a safe move to give someone the benefit of the doubt when they are 6’8, pissed off, and giving you crazy eyes.

Side note on Baller Blockin: I noticed that according to IMDB the movie went “quadruple platinum in combined video and DVD sales.” Does that mean it sold 4 million copies? That can’t be true, can it? Maybe Lil Wayne bought 3,999,500 copies after he became a star just so a commercial flop would never show up on his record.
(Update! According to Rotten Tomatoes this had a wide release in theaters! Thank god I let it stand. The integrity of the Movie Game might have been forever tainted.)

Once we had all the basic rules squared away, I assumed we could continue our team battles with slightly less issues. Alas, this was far from the truth. It proved impossible to stop people from inventing loopholes, or complaining about precedents that had been set. The passion that made the game so fun in the beginning was ultimately its undoing.

Every point against your team would be bitterly contested. Every glance at a phone came at the cost of a torrent of accusations that you were going online. Someone would properly say Calvin Broadus instead of Snoop Dogg, and the other side would refuse to accept the answer because his full name is Calvin Broadus Jr.

The will to beat the system was so great that some guys started insisting they could use Phil Jackson because he makes an appearance in a 45 min documentary called Michael Jordan to the Max. Now, I am sure they showed that in theaters. I even have a vague memory of going to see it. But was Phil Jackson “acting” in this documentary? Is it even really a movie? It’s 45 minutes long!

Noted thespian Phil Jackson prepping for a role.
Noted thespian Phil Jackson prepping for a role.

As the de facto arbiter of the rules, closing off loopholes made me feel like someone in charge of finding a way to secure the borders in California. It was simply ot gonna happen. It all reminds me of a Jay-Z line: “Build your fences, we diggin tunnels.” I couldn’t keep up.

I know I am prone to hyperbole, but I am not kidding when I say that I would not have been surprised if a legitimate, “I’m no longer passing to you in the game,” type of argument had broken out after someone won a round by using a controversial tactic.

Once it got to that point, it stopped being fun. I remember going through the airport, playing as we walked along, when the first person finally said “f*#k this game,” and called it quits. It wasn’t too much longer until everyone else felt the same way.

It was fun while it lasted. And maybe some of the knowledge I gained over that few month stretch will come in handy one day. If someone takes the President hostage and threatens to kill him unless I can name the top billed actress from Set it Off, let’s just say America is in good hands. (What up Jada Pinkett!)

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