The magic of cinema revealed itself to Shea Serrano early in his life.
"Mortal Kombat is one of the first movies I ever went to go see at a movie theater," he recalls. "I very clearly remember when Scorpion and Sub-Zero walked in and being like, 'Holy fucking shit, this is everything I've ever wanted in a movie.'"
Not many cinephiles would admit to having their eyes opened to the possibilities of the medium by an adaptation of an ultraviolent video game, but then, Serrano, 38, isn't too worried about proving his FilmStruck bona fides. In his new book, Movies (And Other Things) (Twelve, 256 pages, $25), the former schoolteacher-turned-bestselling author pushes aside the accepted film canon and instead drills down into his personal cinematic obsessions: romcoms and gangster flicks; Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give and the Rock in everything; big, populist blockbusters; and his beloved Fast & Furious franchise.
As with his previous books, The Rap Yearbook and Basketball (And Other Things), Serrano approaches movies less as a scholar than a well-studied fan, with a writing style so conversational it's like shooting the shit with your geekiest friend in their living room. Each chapter is headlined with a query, allowing Serrano to dig into such important questions as "Who gets it the worst in Kill Bill?" and "Were the Jurassic Park raptors misunderstood?" It's funny, and sometimes willfully silly, but also genuinely insightful—as the title implies, it's not just a book about movies but the way movies fit into and inform our lives, and how art doesn't need critical consensus to resonate with anyone.
But we still had questions. So we spoke on the phone with the San Antonio native to get some answers.
Willamette Week: When you were a kid, did you think about movies in a similar way to how you do in Movies (And Other Things)?
Shea Serrano: I think the extent of my movie discussions after watching a movie were like, "Wasn't a cool when blank happened?" But I think I've probably always felt pulled toward the smaller stuff—when a thing sticks out to you, it sticks out to you. And then I ended up in this job where a dedication to a piece of minutia is something other people will, on occasion, respond to or at least sort of respect or understand.
You've emphasized that you're not writing from the position of a film critic, but you've also said you feel like many of the movies in the book have never really gotten their proper due. Do you see the book at all as a corrective to that?
Ultimately, this is just me writing about the movies that I like, and movies that meant something to me growing up. Everybody's list is going to be at least a little bit different. My list is probably much different than a traditional, cinephile movie person. Number one, I just didn't grow up watching that kind of stuff. Number two, different things speak to me than your traditional movie critic, which is, you know, a middle-aged white guy at this point. They went to school at a certain place and they lived a certain life, so they watch movies and things that touched them didn't affect me the same way.
Here's an easy example. If you watch something like Reality Bites—a bunch of the people I know who are writers who were growing up around the same time as me but living a totally different life, they watch Reality Bites and they're like, "I recognize this part of my life. I recognize the Ethan Hawke character and the Ben Stiller character, the Winona [Ryder] character. I know those people intimately." Because that's what their life looked like. When I watch Reality Bites, it's voyeurism for me. These aren't my people. I don't know any of these people. I don't know any of these things they're concerned with, this sort of existential dread from your early 20s or whatever. It didn't touch me the way that it touched other people because I did not live what they lived.
But I might watch something like Blood In Blood Out, and, oh shit, I know this character. I know this mom's voice, I know this storyline, I know this person intimately. I think that's what everybody is looking for [in a movie]: Did it make me feel something in my chest?
Speaking of Blood In Blood Out, you dedicated the book to a character from the movie, and it's been your Twitter avatar forever. Why didn't you write a whole chapter to that movie if it means that much to you?
Some of the stuff you just want to keep to yourself in your brain. It's the same reason there's not a Tim Duncan chapter in the basketball book. I could've very easily written six chapters about Tim Duncan, but some of this stuff you just want to enjoy in a very pure sense.
How did having kids change how you experience movies?
The easiest answer here is it just became really, really hard to watch a movie where a bad thing happens to a kid. Before you have a kid, this is just like a 2D person on a screen that you have no connection to. You watch Pet Sematary when you're 12 years old or whatever, you see the youngest kid get hit by the 18 wheeler, and you're like, "All right, there's a dead kid who's gonna come back later on." But when you watch it and you're a parent, it just feels different, because you know what the parent on that screen is feeling. You have a sense of how terrible it must be to have to live through something like that.
Have you shown your kids any of the movies that meant a lot to you growing up yet?
We did watch Indiana Jones not too long ago. And it's really funny to watch them watch these movies, especially now that the twins are 12 and they're starting to develop their own taste. And more than that, they have developed a familiarity with really, really good-looking movies. Like, imagine we go to the movie theater and we watch Avengers: Endgame, which is just incredible to watch on a big screen. The special effects are outrageous and everything looks so, so real. Then you go home, and several weeks later you watch Indiana Jones, and they do the part where they jump out of the airplane onto that yellow raft, and it's very clearly just fucking mannequins. If you watch something like that, they just sort of roll their eyes. And I watch it, and I'm like, "This still looks incredible to me. I can't believe how good this is." It's the same sort of shit I was giving my dad about his John Wayne movies—like, "Fuck this bullshit. This doesn't look cool." They're doing that to me now with the movies that I liked.
You faced a minor backlash for saying something similar in an interview, about how you don't really enjoy movies from before you came of age mostly because of how outdated they look.
This is just a matter of, what do you like, what do you not like, and what do you want to spend your time with? And if I'm going to write a book, and I know how much work is going to go into it, I want to spend as much time as I can with the stuff that I like the most. That's not to say some stuff is better than other stuff, but some stuff you connect to and some stuff you don't. And I think if there's a thing you like, you should absolutely defend it. I know people shit on the Fast & the Furious movies, and I'm coming to their defense when somebody does. If I said, "I don't want to watch Casablanca," if you like Casablanca, shit, stand up for it.
So when your kids shit on the movies you love, do you defend them?
I am personally offended if they don't like a thing. I mean, these are my sons. I'm like, "I can't wait for y'all to watch Gremlins. You're gonna love this." Then we watch Gremlins and they're like, "Number one, this looks awful. Two, I just watched an old woman get murdered. Why are you making me watch this?" I remember when I started seeing a bunch of people getting mad that I said I didn't like old movies, and I 100 percent understood exactly what they're feeling because my sons have been doing that to me for a couple of years now. I understand the subjective nature of all this, and even though I do this for a living, when one of my sons says, "I do not like Gremlins," I get mad about it even though I know I should not.
I wanted to ask you some questions in the spirit of the book. First of all, speaking as a former educator, which schoolteacher in the movies had the most positive influence on their students?
The actual good answer here is Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver. He actually taught his students something. But if we're talking about who did more for their community, Tom Berenger had a movie called The Substitute that came out in the late '90s. It's a goofy action movie. In that movie he becomes a substitute teacher and he goes into a school, then he has to fight a drug-smuggling ring and take them down. That's a pretty good teacher. He went the extra mile. I think you could pick one of those two.
Martin Scorsese famously said last year that Marvel movies aren't cinema but rather "theme parks." Which Scorsese movie do you think would make the best actual theme park ride?
I would want to go on the Goodfellas ride. That's my favorite Scorsese movie, and it's also my favorite gangster movie. I don't know what that ride looks like, but I know it's going to have the fucking Rolling Stones playing in the background at some point.
What is the ideal cast for an all-rapper Ghostbusters movie?
Give me DMX. I'd like to see DMX fight a ghost. Give me Missy Elliott. Give me Kendrick Lamar. And give me Jay-Z. Action Bronson can be the receptionist, sort of like a play on the gag they did in the Ghostbusters reboot with [Chris] Hemsworth. Then Awkwafina can be a reporter who's doing a profile on the Ghostbusters for The New Yorker.
Which basketball player from the movies should the San Antonio Spurs trade for?
If this guy was real, there's no way he would be available. He was just too good, too dominant. But if we're just pushing stuff together, there was a movie that came out in 2000 [Bedazzled], where Brendan Frasier is making wishes to the devil, played by Elizabeth Hurley. During one of those wishes, she turns him into a professional basketball player named Elliot Richards. He's like 7-foot-6 or something, 285, 300 pounds, and he just, like, can dunk it from outside the 3-point line. He scores 104 points in a game, with 45 rebounds, 32 assists, 37 steals, 28 blocks. That's his line in one game. If we get him, it's a wrap, baby.
Would the following movies be better, worse or the same with Baby Yoda in them: Gremlins, with Baby Yoda replacing Gizmo?
Look Who's Talking, with Baby Yoda replacing the baby voiced by Bruce Willis?
One hundred percent better. Fuck that baby.
Training Day, with Baby Yoda replacing Ethan Hawke's character?
That'd be worse, only because I don't want to see bad stuff happen to Baby Yoda. But put him as Denzel and it's better.
A Star Is Born, with Baby Yoda replacing Lady Gaga?
We haven't heard Baby Yoda talk yet. He may have a terrible voice. So I'm going to stick with Lady Gaga in this one.
Who wins in a fight: Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club or Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood?
Cliff was a killer—an actual killer. [Tyler Durden] was just fighting to prove something to himself. Cliff was fighting to kill you. That's the kind of guy you don't want to get into it with. And he picked up Bruce Lee and threw him into a car.
What is the correct way for the Fast & Furious franchise to end?
We go back to the beginning. Dom goes back to California. He gets back into street racing. We find out that Dom has a younger sister who is an incredible street racer as well, played by Zendaya, and the movie ends with them having to race each other. For the first time ever, Dominic Toretto loses a race—he's never lost a race when he was trying to win. It's like the passing of the torch, and Zendaya takes the franchise over.
What is the opening scene of the film adaptation of Movies (and Other Things)?
I like when movies start with a big bang, like the Mission: Impossible with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Remember how it started out and you're like, "Oh fuck, this is going to be a ride"? I want something like that. Give me, like, an underground street fight. That's where we're opening. And I don't know what happens from there, I don't know how we get to anything else, but I would like to start with just a bare-knuckle underground street fight, shot by John Woo. That's what I want.
SEE IT: Shea Serrano is at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., powells.com, on Wednesday, Jan. 8. 7:30 pm.