Learning film

I came late to film, but early to movies. Even before school age, I watched hundreds of movies on TV. At that age, there is no critical sense. They were just movies and I didn’t have any sense that one might be better than another. They wiggled on the screen and that was sufficient. I watched it all like drinking water from a tap. 

As I grew up, I decided I liked some kinds of movies better than others. First, from before I entered kindergarten, there were the Westerns from the 1930s and ’40s that ran in the afternoons. I loved Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson. When I became older, there were the science fiction movies from the 1950s. I gobbled them all up: The Crawling Eye, Gog, Rodan

And because so many of those I watched were on TV’s Million Dollar Movie, I also absorbed a surprising number of “kitchen sink” movies from England, made during the “Angry Young Man” phase of British cinema: The L-Shaped Room, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Did I know what they were about? No, they were just a fact of life. TV life. “A bit of a plodder, myself,” said Michael Redgrave. (“What’s a ‘plodder,’ ” I wondered, the word not yet in my vocabulary at the age of 7). Later, in my early awkward pubescent years, I became obsessed with classic monster movies, a period in my life that the less said, the better. But at one point, I could name you every actor who ever played the Frankenstein monster — including Glenn Strange.

Not that I understood these movies, mind you, but they were what was on. I may have been five or six and watching The Boy With Green Hair on the Million Dollar Movie, with neither an understanding of what the movie was about, nor the sense that I should understand what the movie was about. I was unaware of taste or choice; I just watched what was offered. 

My earliest memory of a movie is of watching King Kong from behind a chair when I was perhaps in first grade; I was terrified. I would peek out to see what was happening when I dared. My baby brother watched, too, but he just sat there, three years younger than me and I’m sure just happy to see things wiggling on the screen. (He later made a career teaching animation and filmmaking.) 

Nothing like a film education came my way until I entered college. I was young; I was ignorant. 

British film critic Mark Kermode talked on YouTube about the moment he first became fascinated by movies. It was when he was a kid and saw Krakatoa: East of Java, a 1968 disaster film (the volcano Krakatoa is actually west of Java, but you know: the movies). It was shot in Cinerama and starred Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Brian Keith, Sal Mineo and Rossano Brazzi. 

It was 1968, a significant year in film, balanced uncomfortably between Cleopatra and M*A*S*H. It was the moment the big studios were dinosaurs and young Turks were meteors waiting to descend. Doris Day and Rock Hudson were leaving the building by the back exit while Dustin Hoffman and Gena Rowlands were breaking down the front door. The studios could still believe that making a Western with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot was a good idea, but in the wings were Francis Coppola, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, George Romero and Peter Bogdanovich. 

I’m grossly oversimplifying, or course. Hollywood continued to pump out high-budget pap in the following years — as it continues to do today in the age of Michael Bay and comic-book superheroes — but by the late ’60s, the studio apparatus was becoming increasingly irrelevant in an era of Easy Rider, Medium Cool, and Alice’s Restaurant (all just a year after Krakatoa). Although, to be fair, in the insurgent camp, there were plenty of well-meaning indie films that have been lost in the passing of their trendiness. Neither all good nor all bad. 

But in the midst of it, there, at age of five or six, was Kermode, blown away by the cheesy explosion of the volcano in Krakatoa. He says that it was then he knew he wanted to spend his life with movies. A single burst of “Eureka.” Kermode admits that he knows others, unlike him, came to movies more gradually. That was me he was talking about. 

(If you don’t know Kermode, he is movie critic for The Observer, the British Sunday newspaper, and counts as probably as close an English equivalent as you can find to Roger Ebert as “national movie critic.” Kermode is in print, on radio and on the tube. It was on the British TV’s The Culture Show in 2006, that filmmaker Werner Herzog was shot, while being interviewed by Kermode; Herzog continued the interview anyway, saying, “It was not a significant bullet.” Ah, Werner. The last time anyone did something like that was when in 1912 Teddy Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee, only to shrug it off — “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose” and went on to give a campaign speech for 90 minutes.)

And so, although Kermode knew at an early age that movies would be his life, I only gradually come to an appreciation of the art form. The thought that there was a film grammar, or that there was a crew of professionals assembled to construct the movie, or that there was a financial aspect to the business — the thought never entered my tiny little head. 

Then I entered college and all that changed for me with the film series offered. Unlike nowadays, when college film programs are chosen by students, and tend toward things such as Caddyshack and Animal House (yes, classics of a sort), the series I was given was curated by school faculty and featured Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. It is where I first saw The Andalusian Dog with its eye-slice, and Birth of a Nation, with its unbearable racism. 

It slowly dawned on me that movies could be as serious an art as poetry, opera or architecture. I had been slapped awake. 

It was also the year (1967) that Antonioni’s Blow Up opened in town, which I watched with my crazy college girlfriend in the commercial theater. Now that was art cinema. We came out into the sunlight considerably more pompous and intellectual than when we went in. I spent years analyzing and decoding the symbolism — that being the defining vice of the young and clever. 

But from then on, film became a significant part of my intellectual life. I haunted the local Janus theater that specialized in art films, and I saw so many: Ikiru, Virgin Spring, La Strada, L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad — I mean, can I get any artier? These were movies to be seen, yes, but then, more importantly, to be talked about. O the symbolism — O the humanity. O Woman in the Dunes

I developed an unhealthy snobbery about cinema and dismissed pretty much anything that came out of Hollywood. I wuz a idiot. But, hey, I was a college student, which is pretty much the same thing.

Years passed, and the veneer of imbecility wore off; I saw thousands of films, from the earliest silents to the most recent offerings at the multiplex. The TV was set by default to Turner Classic Movies. (Just last week, I watched King Kong again, for at least the hundredth time. “How can you watch a movie you’ve already seen?” asked a friend. “How can you listen to your favorite song over and over?” I responded.)

By the early 2000s, I was writing for the Phoenix newspaper and, among other duties, was a backup movie reviewer. The regular critic tended to avoid foreign films, and so he gave many of them to me. Later, in 2006 and 2007, when there was an interregnum between film critics, I served as a temp. I got to see many good films, and many godawful ones, which always gave me the most fun to write: “Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place Love Stinks will not be opening.”

I took shots at art films, too. I really can’t stand the Masterpiece Theater genre of high-toned blather: “Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.”

You know, the 500-page classic Victorian novel brought to life (or not) on the screen: “If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with House of Mirth. It creases where it should drape.” 

I have over 200 entries in Rotten Tomatoes. When I look it up, I don’t remember seeing some of the films I reviewed. The were not all memorable. But the run as movie critic gave me a chance to become a juror at the Palm Springs Short Film Festival in 2000, and learned what it was like to be followed, like a magnet pulling iron filings, by publicists. 

It was fun, but there comes a point when you’ve seen too many movies in a week and they all blur into an Eastmancolor smudge. There is something lost with the deeper awareness of cinema. When I was a wee bairn, all that mattered was the story. With increased knowledge, as any honest movie critic will admit, you notice things like editing and foley work. You are paying double attention, on one hand to the story, and on the other, to how the story is told. You can never unknow how Hitchcock turns time to taffy, or how Godard jump-cuts, or how Marcel Ophuls uses camera motion like a ballet dancer. 

With the coming of Postmodernism, almost everyone is now wise to the process. You can’t watch a film by Christopher Nolan or Charlie Kaufman without commenting on it: They foreground the filmmaking and subordinate story. Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure but that films were more immediately pleasurable before we knew that Alejandro Iñárritu filmed Birdman to look like one long, single take. 

I remember when I learned that Stanley Kubrick used a special f/0.7 lens to film a scene by candlelight in Barry Lyndon. When the Steadicam was introduced in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. When CGI bowed in on Flight of the Navigator (rather crudely by modern standards). When the crane shot was rendered obsolete by the invention of the aerial drone. Drone shots are everywhere now, and have become a visual cliche. In the old days, a movie ended with the hero riding off into the sunset; you can hardly end a movie, TV show or commercial now without the drone shot sweeping back away from the final scene into a wide landscape. (So now, establishing shots come at the end?)

By now, I’ve seen my thousand movies. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand (I haven’t counted recently). Among them are all the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Pedro Amodovar, Werner Herzog and Woody Allen. (At least I think I have all of Herzog; it is impossible to keep accurate track). And nearly all the films of Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, Erich Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Agnes Varda. I’ve fallen behind with Quentin Tarantino. I wish I had more of Martin Scorsese, but my DVD purchases have lagged since my retirement (and shrinking of income). 

It’s been a lifetime of watching movies, learning from movies and about them, a lifetime learning to take them seriously. Even when they’re not serious. 

Next: The List

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