February 17, 2010

What made you first realize the potential and/or power of film?

For today's post I'm going to dive into a bit of personal history, hopefully encouraging others to do the same and share. I'm talking specifically about when I first learned that movies could be more than flickering images and fleeting entertainment.

As a kid, I didn't really care about movies - at least no more than other kids. I dug the classic Disney fare and such, but strangely, I was at no point in my childhood or adolescence exposed to the movies considered nostalgic staples of my generation. I'm talking Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Goonies, ET. I don't know how this happened. I don't take any personal responsibility (for that time) because those are the films that your parents or peers sit you down to watch. And they just didn't. The closest I came was sort-of watching Back to the Future II at a sleepover while drifting in and out of consciousness.

I think the first step to discovering greatness in cinema is discovering awfulness. I remember starting to think somewhere in the 11 or 12 year old range that some of the goofy comedies I was seeing with groups of friends were objectively bad. I didn't dare voice this out loud, of course.

But the movie that opened my eyes and changed everything was The Royal Tenenbaums.

Before that, it didn't occur to me that movies could have style. Movies were just vehicles for things happening and people doing things. They were a contained dojo where characters went to fight and fall in love. But the idea that some hand of God (the director, I later learned) could guide these proceedings and imbue them with a unique perspective? Revolutionary!

Watching it on DVD alone in the basement of my newly-divorced dad's house, age 15, I was entranced by the bizarre cast of characters with their strange affectations, interspersed with dead-on inserts of objects and people. It was like nothing I had ever seen. And yeah, I understand it's not exactly Eisenstein or Godard, but you gotta start somewhere.

When my dad casually asked what I thought of whatever that movie was that I watched, I literally lacked the vocabulary to describe it. I remember my reply very distinctly, for two reasons: 1) looking back, it was kind of silly and 2) my dad mocked me mercilessly for it (in a mean-spirited way). What I said was: "The cinematography was very...crisp."

Crisp. This was all I could muster to describe what I had witnessed. Sharp, dead-on shots...I mean, I suppose it's not a terrible description from someone who doesn't know any better.

A less influential but still memorable footnote in my cinephile development was when I discovered realism in filmmaking. This happened when I watched Soderbergh's Traffic, which I was forced to watch by my dad so I wouldn't do drugs. (Where the perceived risk was in a straight-A student with straitlaced friends, I don't know.) I remember being struck by the verite style, and delivering this rather poorly stated verdict after viewing: "For the part that was supposed to be rich soccer moms hanging out, it REALLY SEEMED like there were rich soccer moms hanging out." That's actually kind of a big revelation after you get used to the strange rules of the cinematic dojo, where you just accept that every kiss is accompanied by an orchestral swell and everyone is strangely articulate and on-the-nose.

From there my fate was set. I started to seek out indies voraciously. There were four major obstacles to that goal: 1) I lived in the suburbs and the closest remnant of culture was a mall and multiplex a 25-minute drive away 2) I didn't have a car 3) my parents were not remotely interested in any of these films or facilitating me seeing them and 4) neither were my friends. Thank God for DVD. I started watching now-forgotten indies like The Good Girl and Pumpkin, finding out about them from the newspaper. I was almost more open-minded then, because in my desire to devour as many indies as possible I was less snobby about how good they were rumored to be. It was okay as long as they were trying. My father responded to this newfound interest by saying things like "Oh, we'll be in here watching Armageddon, but you'll hate it because it's not artsy." This is a challenge I continue to face for my tastes. Now, however, I at least have a kindred spirit in my boyfriend, who not only is a fellow cinephile but also attributes his love of film to the first time he saw The Royal Tenenbaums. Awww.

So, what's your story? When did you realize / what made you realize the potential of film beyond the formulaic fare at the multiplex?


Luchi said...

Is it yours real story! Friend i have full sympathy with you.

DGB said...

It's a strange film to have had this effect on me, but mine was Dead Poet's Society. For some reason, I watched that film and for the first time looked at the composition of the shots and wanted to know how it was made.

filmgeek said...

I went to the cinema a lot with my best friend when we were younger to see silly teen films and comedies. The first film that I remember making me go "woah" was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It was so unlike anything I had seen before and from then on I started checking out more 'alternative' films

Joshua said...

Psycho...thirteen...totally manipulated and freaked me out...made me think about how it was set-up and why..