Friday, November 2, 2007


I can’t talk about myself without talking about my love for cinema. The moving image in all its forms can fascinate me, but the projected image thrown onto a big screen has a special potency. I realize that most cinema audiences go to the movies in order to get utterly lost in a story, empathizing with a main character to the point of feeling an emotional response to that character’s fortunes. I go to the movies sometimes for that kind of catharsis, but I usually go to delight in the artful artificiality of the movies themselves. The cinema may do its best to duplicate an audience member’s perceptions of the outside world, but movies are not the outside world — and I revel in their differences.

Lived experience is in three dimensions — film is a two-dimensional light image projected upon a flat surface. Lived experience is usually perceived with binocular vision through two eyes — film usually portrays its on-screen subjects with a monocular image shot through a single camera lens, and our eyes experience the difference between binocular and monocular images. Lived experience is viewed continuously through our two eyes — films rely on editing, dramatically changing perspectives from shot to shot in a way totally alien to how our eyes work. Lived experience makes itself known to us as we discriminate among the hubbub of input from our five senses — film uses photography, sound mixing, and editing to filter through what the movie-making equipment has captured in order to emphasize what the filmmakers think is important. And most obvious of all: lived experience is never in black & white and does not come with a soundtrack played by an invisible orchestra.

So, when it comes to movies that I like, I usually latch on to how these films are different from the outside world, not how successfully they mimic it. Consequently, my taste in movies leans decidedly towards features, documentaries, and experimental cinema that emphasize and skillfully harness the artificiality of the medium. What about movies where identification with the lead character is (ahem) paramount, and where the cinematography, sound, and editing try to be as “invisible” as possible to facilitate the audience’s empathy? A few movies like that I count among my favorites, but they are firmly in the minority.

My love for cinema started at an early age. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, the first kind of movies that I really got into as a kid was old horror films, especially the ones from Universal in the 1930s and ’40s. I think that the attraction to horror movies by kids is easily understandable: children have all of these inchoate fears about the big, bad world, and monsters become a momentary physical embodiment of such fears. I checked books out of my local library to read up on the history of horror movies — and on occasion, the history of a few non-horror movies would slip through the cracks. I learned about the history of the twentieth century by learning about the history of movies: for instance, my knowledge about World War II largely came from my realization that American movies made during that super-patriotic time were somewhat different than films made during other times. And in my childhood days before home video, catching an old black & white movie on broadcast television was easier than it is today. As I grew, monster movies would point me in the direction of other kinds of film: an interest in horror movies led to an interest in Abbott and Costello, which led to an interest in the Marx Brothers, which led to an interest in Golden Age Hollywood in general, which led to an interest in foreign films…

However, as my interest in monsters waned, my fascination for film never went away. Perhaps the greatest whetter of my celluloid appetite was a T.V. show on channel 26, the Washington-area PBS station, called Cinema 26. As I said, these were the pre-VCR days, and the nearest revival theatre was a healthy hike away. But here was a movie showcase, broadcast both on weekday afternoons and on Saturday evenings, that featured the magnificent catalogue of films distributed in the U.S. by the arthouse exemplar Janus Films. My first viewings of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon, Federico Fellini’s La Strada, several films by Ingmar Bergman, several Ealing comedies, and many others all were on Cinema 26 — often on a small portable black & white set on the kitchen counter (even on such a small screen, these films lost none of their impact). On much rarer occasions, I was able to get out to the American Film Institute Theatre in Washington, where, on the big screen, I first saw Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.

First viewing Citizen Kane at age 15 especially enraptured me. I left the theatre that afternoon feeling that I had never seen a better motion picture; all these years later, my feeling hasn’t changed. Welles’s masterpiece (his first feature-length film, directed at age 25) has faced some challengers for my personal top spot over the years — Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Sergei Paradzhanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, the films of Wong Kar-Wai — but Kane is still my favorite.

Because of cinema, I wound up making a pilgrimage to Hollywood and studying film history and theory at the University of Southern California. After getting my Master’s degree there, I worked for a while in the lower echelons of the motion-picture industry. At the moment, I’m still in Los Angeles, between jobs, recovering from major surgery, and tapping away at a keyboard writing something for people I don’t know. Funny what the movies can do.

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