Lost in the Movies: The Big Picture: The Movies and Me

The Big Picture: The Movies and Me

A memoir, a confession, a manifesto, a declaration of principles...

"The real crux, I think, is this. The cinephile loves the idea of film.

That means loving not only its accomplishments but its potential, its promise and prospects. It's as if individual films, delectable and overpowering as they can be, are but glimpses of something far grander. That distant horizon, impossible to describe fully, is cinema and it is this art form, or medium, that is the ultimate object of devotion." - David Bordwell

I had known movies for a while, but I discovered the cinema sometime between the first day of school and Christmas Eve in 1990. I was seven years old, and the discovery took several forms at once, all of which have stayed with me ever since.

The first inspiration was found at a relative's house, in my cousin's video collection. He was thirteen years old, and the 80s had just ended, so it consisted of some classics (Platoon and Full Metal Jacket) mixed with some rather dubious entries (Turner and Hootch and Flatliners). To my young eyes, they all looked impressive, even slightly intimidating (I particularly remember the case for Platoon, all black with gold embossed letters pounded into the cardboard). They stood proudly on the shelf, disparate but organized into a single entity. I envied it, and wanted a collection to call my own.

The second inspiration was found in the school library, in the form of a dozen or so square, orange books. Each one covered a different monster movie, from Frankenstein to Dracula to Godzilla to King Kong. They all dealt not just with the story, but the inspirations for the film, its production, and its legacy. I was fascinated not only with the individual books and films themselves, but the fact that they all belonged to a series and were different aspects of the same phenomenon.

The third inspiration was found at Hampton Cinemas, the local movie theater, where a daisy chain of coming attractions led me from Home Alone to Kindergarten Cop to Edward Scissorhands. The first was a mega-blockbuster kids' movie, the second a high-concept action comedy meant more for teens and young adults, the third a gothic fairy tale with a unique directorial vision. None of these films had much in common (except that two, or maybe three of them, took place around Christmas) but to me they were all connected, merely by playing at the same theater, coming out around the same time and being, well, movies.

I watched all three (my father hesitated after reading how violent the Schwarzenegger film was, but relented by making me cover my eyes during the opening shootouts; I got my fix at Scissorhands instead, cheering when the bully - once dweeby Anthony Michael Hall of all people - got stabbed and thrown out the window). And I borrowed all those books from the library and read them cover to cover, several times. And on Christmas Day, I unwrapped Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and later Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I had seen a few months earlier by borrowing my cousins' copies), the first entries in a collection that would continue growing to the present day.

That collection will, in two and half days' time, yield one of this blog's more ambitious endeavors. Perhaps that's why I'm writing this now, or perhaps it's because my life is approaching a personal crossroads, and as I take stock and reflect before moving on, my relationship to "the movies" is one aspect I just can't ignore.

I've told most of the above stories, mundane as they may seem, several times before so apologies for the redundancy. I repeat them now because, rather than isolate them as anecdotes, I want to draw out their common ties and their connections to the film buff I am today.

From the movies and the posters and the previews at the theater, I developed the idea that movies were part of a continuous stream of revelations, connected beneath the surface just as islands are connected beneath the sea. From my cousin's collection and my desire to start my own I drew the conclusion that films can be "ours" - a movie in the theater is a bit overwhelming, and one approaches it timidly, like an angry god, but a video is like our own personal idol, which we can make to do our bidding. I learned that movies can belong to us, just as we can belong to movies.

And from the books I learned that movies are not magical objects, but creations; the notion of their interconnectedness, already fostered by those diverse coming attractions and clustered shelves, was reinforced by what I learned about a history, a history that contained all these films like the waters of the earth contain fishes. The fishes were the individual movies, but the sea was cinema, and though I didn't call it that initially (and still prefer "the movies" to any other, more formal term) that was what I had fallen for.

Though only seven, I was not a blank slate. From an age before I could probably even understand what was on the page, I was a voracious reader - reading for facts, for stories, for escape and revelation. I drew pictures, and wrote (or dictated to my parents, who wrote more legibly), and performed incomprehensible plays involving werewolves and hunters and ghosts.

Later I would shoot even more incomprehensible movies on my father's video camera, involving hodgepodges of various Spielberg films. (My debut, titled When a Star Moves - because when it does so it is, apparently, a spaceship - involved an alien and pet dinosaurs kidnapped and sent to a theme park where a killer shark eats one of the villains; it would require a running commentary to decipher the mysterious events on screen - actors who had supposedly died reappearing as different characters, in the same clothing, a creature concocted from tin foil launching into a rambling five-minute monologue about Pepsi, and dinosaur action figures filmed in close-ups intercut with screaming ten-year-olds in an effort that would have made Kuleshov blush.)

Like many children, I picked up various passions and then left them behind. First of course there were dinosaurs - how four-year-olds could pronounce let alone understand the various Latin names of these prehistoric beasts, I don't know, but they could and still do. Then I obsessed over UFOs and other supernatural phenomena during the early X-Files years, though my parents wouldn't let me watch the show. (Once, a friend and I snuck upstairs at his aunt's house and tuned in to the proper channel to sneak a look, only we were in a different town and in this town the station in question was actually PBS; we watched a strangely sedate and nonviolent episode - with no David Duchovney or Gillian Anderson in sight - for about half an hour before realizing it was not X-Files at all, but Masterpiece Theater.)

I pored over Civil War history for about six months and then hardly paid attention to it again, I became a Star Wars fanatic (quite apart from my movie-love; it was a very independent phenomenon) for a year or two before that subsided, I became a political junkie for a brief season before exhaustion with the fast-paced but brittle world of elections and issues and platforms set in.

I grew curious about music, fell away from it, and then in college fell head over heels, exploring albums and artists with a desperate passion (if cinema was my wife than music was, for a time anyway, my mistress). Also in my early twenties I began to tiptoe into the realm of mysticism, religion, spirituality, riveted by Aldous Huxley and Carl Jung, whose words resonated inside me in ways I didn't quite understand (and still don't), but found fascinating. At times I read history books voraciously, overcome by random bursts of enthusiastic interest in the Spanish Civil War, the sixties, or the Battle of Thermopylae.

However, amidst all these passions, there was always "the movies." Oh, my interest lay dormant at times - months could go by with nary a ticket bought or a video rented. Yet I always came back. I was at home here, I knew this ground, understood it, yet there was always more to explore.

What I loved was not so easy to define. It was not merely the collection of singular films I enjoyed - and I was probably never a particularly voracious collector for that very reason. While I loved viewing a movie and falling into its world, my passion was not limited to or maybe even defined by this action, central as it is to the movie religion. This was the visionary encounter at its center, to be sure, but there were other rituals, other practices, and prayers, and holy texts which were an essential part of the experience (reading about movies, talking about them, thinking about them, drawing up lists, looking at pictures, watching clips, planning movies you would make, dreaming that you saw a movie and then waking up to realize you hadn't and it still lay undiscovered on the horizon).

I was, and still am, as Bordwell put it, in love with the idea of film. My description of such an affair can only be partial without acknowledgement of my desire to direct movies myself but (aside from recognition of my comical attempts as a nine-year-old) I'm hesitant to get into this right now. Suffice to say that one reason I returned to "the movies" was that, unlike with my other interests, I was not merely a passive recipient but at least held the potential to be an active participant.

Maybe that was my key into the world of film, my way of unlocking the gate of the specific, and flinging the doors open to the abstract, the Platonic ideal of cinema, the, as Jean-Luc Godard put it in Masculin Feminin (perhaps my favorite movie of all time) "film we imagined, the perfect film each of us carried within, the film we would like to have made, or perhaps even to have lived."

The full passage (cribbed, in fact, from the 1965 novel Les Choses by Georges Perec, but then as Chaplin once said, doubtless taking the line from another, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal") is actually an expression of disappointment, a recognition that such a film does not exist, and perhaps cannot. Yet it is also a beautiful expression of hope, romantic melancholy, the type of yearning passion necessary to foster bittersweet disillusionment in the first place and to facilitate a maturity which can be nostalgic without being sentimental.

All movie buffs must lose their religion at some point, or rather keep it worn and ragged within, huddling to preserve the flickering flame, but no longer feeling its connection to the surrounding world. This is especially true in an age of DVD and streaming video, a "cinema of loneliness" indeed.

Long ago, I lost interest in contemporary cinema - at least contemporary American cinema, and to a certain extent contemporary Western cinema - and while I try not to become overwhelmed by resentments about my stolen art and requiems for my muted entertainment, I also recognize that these are, in a way, healthy prejudices. Unlike other mediums, particularly popular music and rock criticism, cinephilia has never quite indulged in Oedipal passions, trying to kill its forefathers and reinvent itself anew. Instead it suffers from a poignant Hamlet syndrome, sensing that an imposter has destroyed its true parent, determining to forge a new future out of memories and indignation.

Hence war is usually declared on the present in the interest of creating a future inspired by the past. If that sounds too convoluted, think of the young Turks of Cahiers du Cinema, scorning the "tradition of quality" and the hidebound French film industry by wandering through the Cinematheque. There they screened Diary of a Lost Girl on the stairway and Sunrise in the main screening room, yearning after the beauty of years gone by and, in their efforts to evoke this spirit, creating something entirely new.

Or witness the auteurs of New Hollywood sweeping aside the fossilized big-budget spectacles of a dead industry to make movies that, yes, dealt with the new reality of the 70s but did so while lighting a candle to the magical enthusiasm of the Golden Age and the freedom of the New Waves already crested.

Pauline Kael said, in her uncharitable but observant way, that she could not comprehend the people who didn't cotton to cinema until it became "serious." She herself loved international art films like Rules of the Game, Breathless, Jules and Jim, L'Avventura, and Smiles of a Summer Night, but not, as she put it, because they were substantially different from the trashy, enjoyable escapism of her youth but because they were extensions of what was good in those films: "the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings."

I have always agreed. I did not come to love Godard because he was opposite to the Indiana Jones films I had adored in first grade, but because he grew out of the same spirit, because I recognized those two Frenchmen gunning each other down in a mock shootout in Band of Outsiders, because any director who says that "all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun" comes from the same place I do. Where he goes with that, where I go, where anyone goes, is up to the individual but one can't go anywhere without a starting point (a destination, on the other hand, is not necessary).

This love of film, a love of film as romance, excitement, exoticism, mystery, love, passion (as Sam Fuller put it in Pierrot le Fou: "Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word...emotion") is a foundation, a nexus, not a roof or a boundary. Upon it or from it anything is possible. It is not a limitation, but a license. Part of this giddy, heady enthusiasm entails not limiting oneself to one type of film (hence Bordwell's distinction between the "cinephile" and the "cinemaniac") but embracing all the possibilities, and making this diverse array of potential experiences the very essence of cinema, the multitudinous manifestations of the godhead.

Must one start from this point, understand this position, to love the movies, to truly get cinema at its core? I might have said so at one point but recent years and internet encounters with other cinephiles of various stripes have led me to doubt this. I know too many people with vast knowledge of cinema, bubbling passion for various movies, sharp insight about how films work, and yet seeming little interest in the idea of the medium-as-a-whole (meaning they have, and don't mind, various blind spots, or even confess not loving cinema for its own sake, but rather individual films). They shouldn't be dismissed, a condescending statement which suggests I have that power in the first place - I couldn't dismiss them even if I wanted to.

So must cinephilia stem from this blind passion, this all-embracing interest I knew when I was so young? No, I suppose not. It can grow too from something more focused, or more intra-medium ecumenical, or even more restrained. I respect that. Yet this will never be my own love of movies, of "the movies," and I wouldn't want it to be. For me, as I wrote once in a celebration of a favorite movie book, "the dream of a kind of Cinematic Nirvana where movies past and present, of all genres and nationalities and styles, are beheld simultaneously, so that the richness of the seventh art is illuminated as if in a vast panorama."

This essay was not written with any arc in mind, and it may have wandered to and fro like a madman in the desert. Like said madman, I wonder if I have been preaching only to the converted, but hope the bystander only vaguely guessing at my meaning can still perceive my passion and relate it, in whatever way possible, to their own love for a movie, the movies, cinema, art in general, or something else entirely.

I don't know where I go from here, nor where the cinema goes from here, but I do know where I came from, and that's a start.

End of essay. Not quite end of cinema ... not yet anyway.

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Jason Bellamy said...

Joel: As I said on Twitter in promotion of this piece, every movie fan has a story like this, but few have expressed it as touchingly as you have here. The allure of movies is a difficult thing to fully capture, and indeed it comes not just from the movies themselves but from the provocative posters and covers, etc.

Thanks for writing this!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Jason! And I've been twitted/tweeted/twittered too - I had no idea, thanks for that as well...

Joel Bocko said...

I'll also add that between fellow bloggers and professional film writers I had a lot of good material to help me process this. I referenced Pauline Kael (still have fond memories of that blogathon/discussion forum you did in her honor) & Bordwell in the piece but I feel like a lot of pieces & discussions on movies over the years have helped me clarify my thoughts on this.

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