Reconstructing a Life

(My first contribution to my own damned Self-Involvement Blog-a-thon.)

For many years, I’ve said honestly that I have no idea what trigger pushed me from being an ardent consumer of movies to a film lover. Alternatively (and ultimately less truthfully), I’ve said that there was no specific movie/incident, instead placing the transformation some time in the early 1990s. Occasionally, I’ve credited seeing Fearless in fall 1993, and the connection between Peter Weir’s movie and my father’s death.

The vagueness of my answers has long bothered me, but I didn’t do much about it. Watching the new Criterion release of Before the Rain was epiphanic, though: I recognized that the movie was a critical event for me.

So I decided to piece together my movie history in a way less random than previous efforts; I wanted to construct something coherent and meaningful.

Using release dates and memories, I’ve built a biographical cinematic timeline. It makes me wish I had the equivalent of a Netflix rental history for my whole whole life, because there’s uncertainty all around. Most dates are approximate, but some (marked with question marks) are more approximate than others. What was fascinating to me was how one memory or movie led naturally to others, and this little thing that I expected to be about a handful of films has grown into this. The dates and order of events might not be accurate, but it’s truthful.

Summer 1977: Star Wars. I saw it eight times in the theater. Or seven times in the theater and once at the drive-in. The first movie I remember loving.

1980-ish(?): Picnic at Hanging Rock. Probably my first experience with a genuinely elusive movie, when I was roughly nine. It made quite an impression, and I’d like to think my refusal to dismiss it from my mind suggested future tastes.

Spring 1985: Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment. Included for humility’s sake, and because I still remember Bobcat Goldthwait tumbling down cement stairs, repeatedly blurting, “That didn’t hurt.” If the memory is accurate, I am very, very ashamed. Please, tell me I’m wrong.

Summer 1987(?): Vertigo. At age 16 or so, I was utterly baffled by the Hitchcock classic. Points for trying, I guess. The movie finally clicked for me the third time I saw it, many years later.

November 1991: Cape Fear. Scorsese’s remake gave me a headache the first time I saw it, but I loved it, and thought Juliette Lewis was wonderfully authentic in it. I note it here because the movie was instructive in the base and visceral power of cinema. Natural Born Killers clarified those concepts for me in 1994, but they were introduced to me with Cape Fear.

1992: JFK. The first time I wrote an essay about a movie, and I think perhaps the first time I wrote an essay outside of a class assignment. If my memory is accurate, it was about the movie as an act of mourning, despite its procedural and conspiratorial thrust.

October 1992: Candyman. I knew it was a more complex movie than it was given credit for, although I couldn’t articulate it at the time.

October 1993: Fearless. I was attracted to it because it was a hailed as a return for Peter Weir to the enigmatic and mysterious. Without Picnic at Hanging Rock, I might never have seen it, and I might never have written this. And if I had never written that, I probably would never have started Culture Snob. So blame Owen Gleiberman.

Late 1993: The Piano. My interest in artsier movies was firmly established at this point, but my sensitivity to nuance wasn’t. The ending seemed too obvious and blunt to me then. It rings true to me now.

1995: A Little Princess. I had long read movie reviews, but this was the first time I remember that the adamance of critics — in this case, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert — made me see something I would have otherwise skipped.

June 1995: Batman Forever. I enjoyed it. Liked it, even. A lot — maybe? Let’s just say that my tastes were still underdeveloped. This probably marks the end of my enjoyment of crappy movies.

Early 1996(?): Before the Rain. I was spending a lot of my time in the foreign-language section of my video store, discovering movies such as this and Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, and discussing them primarily with my friend Lynn. The movies that intrigued us the most were the ones that were puzzles, in the sense that their structures added meaning. With Three Colors, the mystery to be solved was how they fit together — there are chance encounters between the films — and how the order of the series affects how one reads it. Before the Rain is less an enigma than an unresolvable contradiction, but the elegance and simplicity of its loop awed me. I hope to write about Before the Rain in depth soon.

Early 1997(?): Antonia’s Line. Probably the first movie I fell in love with as an adult. I had crushes and intellectual affairs, and I admired, and I grew to love, but this was instantaneous and still defies rational analysis. It’s not that I think the movie couldn’t withstand such scrutiny, but what’s the point?

Early 1997(?): Breaking the Waves. Although the opinion of critics was important in helping me decide what to see, my own judgments were not bound by theirs. I found the pop-music interludes symptomatic of something gravely amiss in Lars von Trier’s acclaimed movie.

Spring 1997: The Godfather. How had I made it 26 years without watching this? I saw the re-release in a theater, and while I didn’t love it initially, I recognized that I’d seen something special. (A big limb to go out on, I know.) I rented a pan-and-scan The Godfather: Part II shortly thereafter and loathed it. And I actually liked Part III better at that point. Still much learning to do.

Summer 1997: Contact and Men in Black. A double feature in the first summer I reviewed movies for the alternative weekly newspaper at which I worked. That season was my first experience writing about movies on deadline, and while I’m sure I would wince at much of what I wrote, it was forced weekly practice.

June 1997: Batman and Robin. I reviewed this, too, and the violence of my reaction against it suggested that much had changed in me since Batman Forever. Obviously, for the better.

Fall 1997: L.A. Confidential. Another movie I reviewed, and the first I gushed about in print. While I had gotten the hang of nitpicking, I wasn’t yet equipped to adequately support my reasons for glee. From the movie I learned to appreciate the challenge of adaptation; Brian Helgeland’s script remains a marvel of reinvention, hacking away at James Ellroy’s massive novel without losing much.

Late 1997(?): Trees Lounge. At some point in 1997, I began writing about every movie I saw, and I began to produce essays that I thought transcended “reviews” and spoke to something deeper; I felt like I at least had developed the vocabulary and the tools to say something about movies. One of my favorite essays (most likely lost forever at this point) dealt with Trees Lounge. Steve Buscemi’s feature debut as a writer and director is a small picture, but it has an unerring sense of people, places, relationships, and alcoholism, and while it is bleak, it’s also full of life.

Late 1997(?): Calendar. It taught me that austerity can be exciting. I had liked Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and would adore his The Sweet Hereafter, but Calendar opened up movies for me. As the antithesis of the frenzy of contemporary mainstream filmmaking, it serves as a reminder that everything should matter — every word, every shot, every cut, every movement.

Early 1998(?): Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Errol Morris’ delightful film changed my understanding of the possibilities of the documentary. And like Three Colors, the reasonable interpretations are myriad depending on how you look at it. It has an easy surface charm for casual consumption, and a thematic and structural complexity that’s invigorating.

Late 2000(?): Magnolia. Having disliked Boogie Nights, I avoided Magnolia for a long time. I had appreciated many aspects of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, but the economical, clipped style seemed to have given way to self-indulgence in his porn-culture epic. When I finally gave in to Magnolia, I found it an endless source of inspiration. It continues to teach me that you can’t wear out the best movies.

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