Evolution of a Cinephile

My Movie Life

Is it embarrassing to admit that Joe Dante’s The Howling introduced me to full frontal female nudity at age eleven? That John Badham’s Whose Life Is It Anyway? is the drama that made me feel like I grasped adult issues when I was twelve? That Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange made me conscious of the artistry of film technique at thirteen? It’s said that cinema is the 20th century’s greatest art form, and that was certainly true for me. Combining elements from theater, photography, music, and even dance and architecture, film is that most gestalt of arts. It is also the most spectacular and gaudy, which explains why it appealed so much to me as a child.

The first movie I can remember seeing in a movie theater is Sleeping Beauty, and that terrifying but awe-inducing black dragon is still etched into me. At the age of five, I was already in love with the old Universal horror movies and the idea that the unnatural was somehow magical. My mother would even wake my brother and me up at 11:00 p.m. to catch the late show of Frankenstein or Dracula or The Wolf Man on TV because she knew how much we enjoyed them. Like many pre-adolescents, though, it was Star Wars that made the first big impression on me as to how powerful movies could be. John Williams’ rousing score along with that infinitely long star destroyer attained a level of cinematic spectacle I had never before encountered. The ultimate allure of the film, though, was just how immersive its fantasy world was. Long before I loved movies for challenging my ideas, I loved them for making me forget everything else.

With my parents both Chinese immigrants, my father guided me toward Hong Kong martial arts movies. He regularly drove my brother, my friends, and me to the drive-in in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. There we watched the movies of Bruce Lee, his rip-offs Bruce Li and Bruce Lo, and some awfully dubbed Shaw Brothers films while swatting mosquitoes. The fake blood in these movies looked like someone had smeared cherry pie on the bodies, and the death scenes seemed to last hours. These kung fu heroes could take two swords in the belly, five arrows in the back, and keep on fighting as if they were only suffering from constipation. We ate it up. This early seed also prepped my love for Hong Kong cinema’s late-’80s/early-’90s renaissance from to the likes of Ching Siu-Tung, Tsui Hark, Wong Kar-Wai, and John Woo.

One day, when I was ten, my father brought home a borrowed movie projector and a 16-mm print of Jackie Chan’s 1978 comic actioner Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. He was going to show it at some Chinese Association function. I learned how to thread and use the projector, and we must have watched that movie half-dozen times on our wall. Then my brother and I would run off, using our newly acquired snake fist and cat’s claw techniques on each other. Somehow my fourth grade teachers became aware of my projectionist skills, and I would get called out of class to go to another room to fix other teachers’ projector problems. I’m sure that gave my ten-year old self an enormous head.

In the early ’80s, nerdy little boy that I was (and still am), I was into science fiction and fantasy movies, gleeful at the likes of Conan the Barbarian, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Road Warrior. Strangely, it was the John Boorman film Excalibur that made me fall in love with classical music (and for a while begat “Carmina Burana” in every movie trailer). As a twelve-year old, I loved the soundtrack but wondered who this Wagner guy was. At fourteen, I was introduced to Mozart through Amadeus, and soon I owned half his symphonies and concertos. Classical music is a world of wonder unto itself, but I’ll always thank the movies for leading me there.

I loved movies, but I didn’t really become an obsessive cinephile until I started watching foreign art films. Given my impulse toward fantasy, naturally, the first was Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. I imagine this movie is a gateway to a much larger film experience for many young boys. The story is about a medieval knight playing chess with Death. How cool is that? But it’s also about questioning the silence of God, which was tackling some weighty issues for this agnostic born and raised in the Bible Belt South. Up until this point, movies for me were mostly escapist or didactic preaching on social issues, but now I had found a film incorporating existential philosophy! The existence of Bergman opened up a whole new world of cinematic experience I never knew existed.

As soon as it occurred to me that there was a canon of great movies, I had to see them all. Sure, every art form has its hierarchy of artists and works, their Picassos and Van Goghs, but experts in their respective areas usually aren’t such stat geeks that they break them down in highly specific order. Film nerds are, and this makes it easy to prioritize one’s viewing experiences. This mentality is spoofed in A Cock and Bull Story when Steve Coogan says, “Tristram Shandy, it was actually number eight in the top one hundred books of all time, ” and Tony Wilson replies, all blasé, “That was a chronological list. ”

Long before Entertainment Weekly, or Rolling Stone became obsessed with ranking everything, film buffs could count on the British magazine Sight & Sound, to poll film aficionados once a decade and present the results. The first Sight & Sound poll came out in 1952 (topped by Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves). With Sight & Sound lists and books like John Kobol’s Top 100 Movies in my hands, I devoured the film canon like Chicago deep-dish pizza.

This was easy in college. I joined the movie club Filmboard at Washington University, where I became manager of the student-run theater. We showed 16mm prints every day of the week: Mondays and Tuesdays were devoted to English-language classics, Wednesdays and Thursdays to foreign-language films, and the weekends to popular commercial movies, with a cult film shown at midnight. I selfishly programmed the Monday-Thursday slots with movies that I wanted to see, with little regard to how they would perform at the box office. While Wash U gave Filmboard a generous budget, renting films is very expensive. We still had to make up a significant amount through revenue generated by the films themselves; but that was what the weekends were for. Celine and Julie Go Boating may have only sold 6 tickets, but The Terminator would sell 600. My personal triumph, which in hindsight seems quite bizarre, was in programming Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover as a weekend blockbuster and seeing it generate the second highest Filmboard gross ever as nearly every show sold out (the highest gross belonged to A Fish Called Wanda).

I personally enjoyed being a projectionist and sat through almost every foreign film we showed (Babette’s Feast, which I did not want to program, was a test, though). Occasionally the film would be so obscure that it would just be me and these two old homeless people, Betty and Sam, in the theater. The two were brother and sister, and they were almost always there Mondays through Thursdays. Long before I arrived, it was Filmboard tradition to let them in for free. Of course they smelled, but they huddled in a far corner of the balcony away from everyone else. Surprisingly, they were very cultured and knowledgeable, not just about movies but everything, and eventually I got to know them well. Both very much enjoyed my playing classical music over the speakers before the movies, something they didn’t get from the other projectionists. In the rare instance when they didn’t show up, I always worried that one had died. (Alas, an impulsive Google search just now indicates that Betty Wynn died just a few weeks ago at age 91.)

This was how I spent my four years in St. Louis catching all the Buñuel, Fellini, Ford, Godard, Hawks, Herzog, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Resnais, and Rohmer that I could. Washington University didn’t have a film studies program at the time, but it did have one adjunct film professor named Barbara Jones. I became her favorite student when I was the only one who loved Godard’s Weekend after she showed it in class. My major was philosophy, but when it came time to apply to graduate schools, in addition to the dozen applications I sent to philosophy departments around the country, I sent one to New York University in Cinema Studies on a lark. I got in and went. It was probably a mistake.

In those days — and this may still be the case — film studies programs seemed so very insecure that they had to justify their importance by spouting Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, you name it. Everything was psychoanalysis this and poststructuralist that. The professors and students treated movies with utmost sociopolitical importance as if every single film could transform the world — or destroy it. Just about everything was talked about except aesthetic pleasure, and when pleasure entered into it, it was all about how it was in the service of voyeurism or the male gaze or ideological power relationships. Ugh. Suffice to say I didn’t go on to pursue a Ph.D. I’m not even touching how financially useless a Masters degree is in this field of study.

One hang-up I had to get over as a teenager watching these canonical movies was second-guessing my reactions to them. Who am I to find Robert Bresson’s acclaimed Lancelot du Lac idiotic, Max Ophul’s classic Letter from an Unknown Woman to be an experience in masochism, or Jacques Tati’s dry humor to be unbearably boring? Did I really like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, or did I think I did because it’s supposed to be good for me, like Brussels sprouts? Didn’t movie experts far older and more knowledgeable than myself already proclaim the greatness of these films? Didn’t Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris sound awfully sure of themselves? Am I blind because I don’t have enough life experience, or don’t understand the contexts in which these works fall in cinematic history?

The more I watched, though, the more I learned to trust my own instincts, and the more naïve I realized my previous outlook was. There certainly is some truth to the idea that knowledge and experience are relevant to appreciating some movies, but the pressure to find greatness in canonized movies gradually gave way to confidence in knowing what is and isn’t enjoyable to me personally. Movies can be astounding, transporting, even spiritual experiences, but any single work is going to be experienced differently by different people based on what we bring to it. It no longer bothers me that I don’t care for a critically lauded movie.

I’m more bothered when I love a movie that fellow cinephiles fail to cherish, at least, to the extent that I, egotistical cinemaster that I am, think they should. I have yet to get Armond White Syndrome and believe the rest of the world are all morons, but I remain puzzled by why I’m among the few championing the likes of My Sex Life…or How I Got into an Argument, Morvern Callar, Toto le Heros, and of late, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. It’s not that I feel pressured to think less of the under-appreciated, but that I feel so many people are missing out.

Seeing everything and keeping up with everything new is also an arduous task and can easily go too far (see the movie Cinemania). Being a cinephile is about enjoying movies, not being force-fed them. When seeking out movies and watching them feels like work is when I can’t see the forest for the trees. During my college days, I probably consumed over 400 movies a year theatrically, on VHS, and on cable combined. It didn’t feel excessive then. Today, with a full-time day job and a wife and daughter, I’m lucky to see 200 movies a year. Even then, it feels hard to fit it all in and keep up when I know people who see double that. Stupid bachelors! (This is where all the people who watch one movie a month think my complaining about 200 movies a year makes me certifiable.)

Of course, what I like in movies have changed over time. When I was a child, I was all about exotic escapism (Indiana Jones, Star Wars). As I got older, I became more interested in the human condition (Koyaanisqatsi, Umberto D), and then human relationships (Liebelei, Heavenly Creatures). And the older I’ve gotten the more I appreciate film form and technique over content.

I’m biased toward formally austere works with careful compositions (The Time To Live and the Time to Die), long takes (Sátántangó), and elaborate tracking shots (The Red and the White) contrasted with a lyrical tone (Badlands) and passionate characters (Chung King Express) — basically a cool surface with heat bubbling underneath, as in most Kubrick films. I like ambition in my movies. Failed ambition is better than when I feel like the filmmaker isn’t even trying. I like a strong sense of place and space. I prefer naturalistic acting. I like movies that ask existential questions, that have elaborately choreographed action scenes, and admittedly, beautiful actresses (if they can act) don’t hurt. Escapism is fine, but now I’m more inclined toward movies that have me constantly thinking throughout — movies that make the viewing experience active instead of passive, that challenge and provoke instead of pander and lull. What I prize most of all is the cinematic experience that feels fresh and new — when I can say, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything quite like that before. ” This can happen in a film that was just released, like Perfume, or a silent from the 1920s like The Docks of New York.

I don’t know if this is true of most people or just me, but the movies that got me interested in movies have remained among my personal favorites. Maybe it’s because I attribute my love of the medium to these films. Maybe because I saw them first, they represent to me what movies should be and all other films that came afterward are measured against them. So despite whatever critical eye or indifference that might be leveled against The Howling or Whose Life Is It Anyway?, I still watch them today and enjoy them with the immense pleasure I did in my youth.