I remember the cinema well. It was cold and uncomfortable. There was no popcorn, no nachos or New York Fries. Nope, none of that. You were only allowed to bring in water. It wasn’t the cinema, anyway, it was the cinemathèque.
The movie, er, film was half over and I had stopped looking at the screen. I just couldn’t anymore. Two characters were walking through a slaughterhouse, and while one character delivers a monologue on the challenges of manhood the camera pans across cows being butchered and dismembered. Oh and did I mention it was in German? Rather than look at the screen, I looked around at all the cinemathèque people who were studying the screen in earnest.
What was I doing at a Fassbinder retrospective in the middle of freezing cold January on a Tuesday night?
More importantly, how did I get here?
I’ve always loved movies. My father used to take me to the movies when I was a kid and I relished the experience. I remember being dazzled by Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Napoleon and Samantha, The Little Prince and The Pink Panther to name just a few of my first movies. I loved the drama of going to the movies: the lights go down, everyone gets quiet and the screen holds your attention.
My first movie without parental accompaniment was Thank God it’s Friday. I was eleven, I went with my friend Lori and I had just been hit hard. “I can’t believe it’s over already! That was so short!” Lori, who tried to match my enthusiasm, assured me “That means you really really liked it!”
And that is the story behind my very first film review.
I still stand by it by the way: If a movie whizzes by, it’s amazing; if it’s interminable like, oh I don’t know, Gandhi or Dancer in the Dark it’s the worst.
The next movie I saw with Lori was the boxing melodrama The Champ starring Jon Voight and little Ricky Schroeder. Jon Voight dies at the end, after winning the big climactic fight. Ricky Schroeder who plays Voight’s son won’t have it, however. Watching this little blond angel scream at his lifeless father to wake up over and over again was schmaltz perfection. I bawled on cue.
And then came Grease, which I saw in the cinema eleven times. I used to recreate the penultimate scene in my living room, when Olivia Newton-John finally finally permed her hair, pierced her ears and started smoking. Has there ever been a better reveal than that makeover? That smoking, saucy 30 year old high school senior who skips and shimmies in a pair of Candies was who I wanted to be. I’d play “You’re the one that I want” on the stereo” and coo “Tell me about it stud” to an imaginary John Travolta. Then I’d shimmy and skip around my living room in my jeans, black ballet leotard and my mother’s high heeled boots lip syncing both parts.
So, let’s sum it up so far shall we? A great movie watching experience is a movie that goes by too fast, makes you cry and or inspires mimicry.
When Annie Hall came out, my parents took me and I was excited because I thought we were going to see that musical about the little orphan with the giant red afro and adorable dog. Nope, wrong. In this film there is a lot of talking, and a lot of “jokes” that I don’t get except when Woody Allen sneezes on some cocaine. That was lowbrow enough for me to get. But the references about going to Lourdes and Leopold and Loeb….nah. My 11 year old brain did not compute.
I also remember being taken to a very important movie about politics at around the same age. It was All the President’s Men. I didn’t absorb much, but the sound of typewriters clattering away was very lulling and I did have a good sleep in the cinema.
By the time I entered high school, I had a very distinct need to not be like everybody else. But actually that’s not true, I had a very distinct need to be like the people I hung out with who had a very distinct need to not be like everybody else. So we distinguished ourselves by hating sports, listening to college radio and worshipping arthouse films. We would spend our weekends watching the likes of Eraserhead, A Clockwork Orange or Rashomon. What followed was not just watching these films but actually talking about them which could be….excruciating.
As freshmen my boyfriend and I went to see Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with a couple who was in their third year of university. I would now call that couple pretentious, but at the time I found them intense and intimidating. I enjoyed the violence of Full Metal Jacket and the soundtrack, and I got the irony of Matthew Modine’s Joker character. But the couple obsessed over little things and expected us to have opinions about them too. “But why did Kubrick choose that transcendent shade of blue for the towels in that scene?” I’m sure I looked like I was pondering that very important question, but in my mind I had checked out. (Everyone likes to think that they can mask their boredom with a look that suggests they’re deep in thought, but I’d like to venture that it is one of my top soft skills).
I still kept up with that crowd though. I sought them out, even if it meant sitting through films like Dersu Uzala or My Dinner with Andre. They were interesting looking people. I never knew what to say then the films were over, but I liked standing in the lobby with them. They were all such snappy dressers with their trench coats and little round glasses.
It was all for show, because in the comfort of my home, I would go to the video store and stock up on comforting movies like Seven Minutes in Heaven, Falling in Love and Rich Kids.
But there came a point when I actually did fall in love with the Criterion collection.
I blame French cinema.
Actually, I blame Diva.
Diva was an art film for people who don’t really like art films, and that was definitely me. It laughed at the genre while celebrating it. A French messenger obsessed with opera? Yes! A zen master who lives in a lighthouse and talks in riddles? Yes and yes! It was an unbelievably cool and sexy movie. Within a week of watching it, I started buying Gitanes and drinking coffee out of a bowl.
Then came Betty Blue, which inspired a generation of young men who fancied themselves writers to head off to France in search of their own Betty: the muse who would screw them, type their novels for them and then go crazy. It was another very sexy and stylish and arty movie.
And that’s where it started: from Jean-Jacques Beneix to Louis Malle to Goddard and Truffaut and the next thing you know I have become insufferable.
That’s me in the second row of thecinemathèque swooning at the pickpocketing scene in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket; there I am watching The Bicycle Thief and tearing up. (I wish I could shut up about how Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure borrows from that movie, but I need to tell you. It’s important!) And while we’re talking, what do you make of appearance versus reality in Blow Up? Mimes playing tennis with an imaginary ball?! What an extraordinary conceit! I love a lot of these movies still. But I had oversimplified movies thinking that everything that came out of Europe was genius and every that came out of Hollywood was trash. I have never done acid, but I can honestly tell you that watching Satyricon was the worst acid trip of my life. I wish I had just walked out, but I felt that I needed to watch it for my film edification. You know, Fellini!
Though I had reached a turning point after seeing Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons, I didn’t officially snap out of my film snobbery until I first fell in love.
Before him, I had refused lovers if their taste in film was pedestrian. You don’t know who Pauline Kael is? Next! You liked anything that was a box office smash? I can’t wait to laugh about it and you with my friends over a double espresso.
On our first date, M and I were searching for things to say to each other, so far, the conversation had been minimal.
Struggling, I asked, “What kind of movies do you like?”
He looked at me and smiled and then shrugged.
“Okay, well what is your favourite movie?”
His eyes widened and he answered, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
I was amazed. He had said it so earnestly, without shame.
“Really?” I asked
“I love how that movie makes you feel”
Too right, I thought.
I liked Mrs. Doubtfire. It went by fast.