Josh Perlmutter

October 20, 2023

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Geeking Out With…is a new feature in which we talk to GSAS students about their passions. In case you missed the September 2023 Geeking Out With..., you can check it out now.

Josh Perlmutter is a third-year PhD student in Mathematics. He studies geometric group theory with a focus on graph products. Josh joined “Geeking Out With…” to talk about his passion for film. He has been a film fan for many years; during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he joined with high school friends to form a weekly movie watching group and tracked their rankings of all the films through spreadsheets and coding.

This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you become interested in film?

Growing up, my parents would take my brother and me to the movies fairly frequently--I definitely had film-interested parents, which I think provided some of the background. But the thing that really kicked it into gear happened by chance. In my freshman year of high school, I got to take an elective, and as a math and science person, I wanted to take meteorology. It was full, so I got put into cinematography. I was so down in the dumps! But it was a transformative experience that changed my interests. I got to study films and focus on composition, framing, and other things that are always there but that you’re not necessarily aware of when watching a movie. I got to shoot my own movies with my classmates, and I fell in love with it. Throughout high school and college, I would make movies with my friends and my brother. We would look up internet film contests and make films to enter them.

How did your movie watching group get started?

I’ve stayed in close contact with my friends from high school. Our project started around March or April of 2020. The pandemic hit, and everyone was at home, not sure what to do with all the time on our hands. We were in a group chat, trying to figure out a way to stay in touch and hang out, and we came up with the idea of weekly movie nights. One of my high school friends is also very into film--he actually lives in Los Angeles and is trying to make it in the entertainment industry. The two of us had frequently seen movies together and saw this as a chance to take our interest and showcase it to our other friends. There are seven of us in total, all in different locations, and we take turns picking a movie, watch it individually at the same time, and then discuss it. We’ve been doing this for three years now, and I’ve tracked all the movies in a spreadsheet with one tab per year. This may be the final year of the project as scheduling has become so much harder. During the pandemic, it was easy-peasy; now, it’s literally impossible.

Tell me more about your spreadsheet.
On each tab, we first have the movies listed in order watched and color-coded based on who picked. In the following columns, we have each person’s individual rankings, color-coded based on their personal tiers. It’s cool to see how each person characterizes the films, but I was interested in seeing how an individual film stacked up among the group. If one person puts a movie near the top and another puts it near the bottom, how do we understand the aggregate group feeling about it? I was familiar with spreadsheets from previous internships I’d had, so I wrote an “aggregate group percent” script in Google Sheets. It gives each person’s top movie 100% and then each additional movie on the list a percentage as well; it’s set up so that each movie has equally weighted ratings, even if one person missed watching it. The script then takes the average of the numbers for each person who has seen it. I also have a separate spreadsheet that has the code, which looks through every column to compute all the numbers. I definitely didn’t write the most efficient script, but it gets the job done! Something we really appreciate is that when we pick a film, we can see how it does among all of us. This year, our top movie so far is the Brazilian film City of God.
A spreadsheet with 8 columns. In the first column are listed movies in different colored cells; each subsequent column re-lists the movies in a different order in color-coded ranks. The second column is labeled "Josh," while the others have the names of the rankers blacked out. Tabs at the bottom list years and movies each person picked.

The individual rankings section of Josh's spreadsheet. The leftmost column lists all the movies for this year, color-coded by who chose them; the other columns list each group member's individual rankings, color-coded by personal tier.

A bar graph entitled "Percentage versus Movie." Down the left are listed movies, each with a line next to it in descending order of length.  The movies listed are City of God, The Nice Guys, It's a Wonderful Life, Blade Runner 2049, Marriage Story, La La Land, The Prince of Egypt, The Sting, Blade Runner, The Bourne Ultimatum, Porco Rosso, Mary and Max, The Bourne Identity, Rush, The Sea Beast, The Bourne Supremacy, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Much Ado About Nothing, Lord of War, The Night is Short Walk On Girl, Smokey and the Bandit, Wallace and Gromit, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Licorice Pizza, and The Fundamentals of Caring.

The group percentage ranking section of Josh's spreadsheet. Movies are color-coded by who selected them.

How do you select what films to watch?

We want the movies to be new to people, so if at least two people in the group have seen a movie, you cannot choose it. If you’re the only one who’s seen a movie and you want to show it to others, that’s great; if one other person is the only one who has seen it, you have to get their permission to choose it. You want to play to the crowd and pick something people are going to have a good time watching--the aggregate percent helps with this! At the end of the year, I also color code the spreadsheet to see who picked the most popular films. My own picks are a little bit more controversial--I like to pick some of the weirder things.

At the end of the year, we also hold our own Oscars with that year’s films. We each pick five nominees and a winner for the different categories, and I then aggregate those to find the “official” winner. So when it comes to choosing films, each person has a different philosophy--some will choose a favorite, some will pick something they’ve never seen to find out what it’s like, some will pick something with a strong performance in the hopes of doing well at the Oscars. It’s been quite a fun few years getting to do this and compiling it all together.

What have been some of the group’s favorite movies?

Our favorites included The Social Network, The Nice Guys, It’s a Wonderful Life, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (a favorite that the person who chose it wanted to share with us all), and The Invisible Guest (a Spanish thriller that I heard about by chance). An especially big hit was Kung Fu Hustle, which was the top of its year for three of us, who each put it in its own tier. It is a very zany, goofy, over the top Chinese comedy martial arts film; none of us had seen it previously, and it had people howling with laughter. It’s cool that there’s a mix of well-known films and random movies we would have never heard of otherwise except for this project.

What have been some of the flops?

One of the lowest-rated was The Passion of Joan of Arc; my cinephile friend and I could at least see its influence, but everyone else was very bored. Hardcore Henry was at the very bottom of two people’s lists and near several others–it’s an action movie shot from a first-person view, which made people physically ill. We were briefly doing “so bad it’s good” extra movies, which didn’t do very well, and slower or very long movies don’t work as well with this group. Some documentaries do poorly too, but some do very well--The Dawn Wall, a documentary about rock climbers trying to scale a very challenging cliff in Yosemite, was really good despite having little buzz.

Do you feel like your own taste in movies has evolved through this experience?

At first, absolutely. When we were first forming the process, people were picking all kinds of movies from all over the map. I’ve liked foreign language films a lot in the past, but this gave me an opportunity to watch some that I’d never heard of. It’s been a great opportunity for exposure to films from foreign countries. As we've moved forward through the years and it's become clear what kind of movies play well with the group, our choices have become a little more homogenized as we want to finish this year and keep the momentum going.

What movie recommendations do you have for us?

I’d like to recommend some lesser-known foreign films here:

  • City of God is an incredible Brazilian film. It’s a must-see if you like gangster movies or crime dramas.
  • House is an absolutely bonkers Japanese horror film. If you’re afraid of horror movies, don’t be afraid of House! It’s basically a comedy. It would be great to watch in October for Halloween.
  • The Invisible Guest is a Spanish thriller that’s almost a procedural.
  • Tangerines is an Estonian war film.
  • Bad Genius is a Thai film about a very intelligent high school student who starts a cheating ring to make money.
When you’re not watching and ranking movies, what are you involved with?

At Brandeis, I’m a Graduate Department Representative for the Math department. I also teach undergraduate math, which I really enjoy--I’m currently teaching Calculus I--and conduct research on geometric group theory with Professor Carolyn Abbott. I like to play ultimate frisbee with friends when it’s warm out.

What advice do you have for other students exploring their passions?

Give yourself time to engage with activities you are passionate about. It can be really easy to push things off when you have a busy schedule, so blocking off time in a calendar to spend on passions makes it easier to commit to spending time doing activities you enjoy. Another major piece of advice is to find others who share the same passion and try to get a group going so that you can develop your interest while learning from others.