The quote is actually Chris Lowe talking about music but it’s a handy summation of my slightly wayward tastes. Good friend Stripey was talking with mutual friend Marco once in e-mail, I came up, and Marco confessed that he couldn’t get an exact bead on my cinematic preferences — Stripey said something similar to the quote above, saying that while I tended to like films seemingly at random, when I did get into a film I adored in particular I would be all for it from then on in.
It’s an honest assessment, and more so than other art forms describes my sense of strange surface engagements and deeper spelunking in odd caverns than with any kind of grappling with a canon per se. I was a much more active filmgoer as such when I was a kid and a teen, though admittedly this was a situation where it was more based around the whim of what we all wanted to see as a family — there were very few films I ever saw flat out on my own, though there were specific exceptions (I can lay claim to having seen Dune on first release, and I think there were maybe five other people in the theater with me — would have been cooler if I could have seen Blade Runner similarly but I was just a little too young…).
Those earliest film memories are, unsurprisingly, kids movies from the seventies — latter day live action Disney backwash for a large part (The Cat From Outer Space, anyone?) plus actual straight up Disney full-length animated features, though mostly revivals (I remember Bambi and Peter Pan dimly from the early seventies) while I might or might not be one of the few defenders of The Rescuers. Then there was Pete’s Dragon, which I think inhabits its own universe, somewhat uncomfortably.
One BIG film memory will always stay with me, though — I’m six years old and my folks have decided to take me to this new movie that friends of theirs have absolutely raved about. I’m excited enough, though without any frame of reference to draw on, just that it’s supposed to be a really, really cool movie. The theater is packed, the lights go down, there’s all these words on the screen and then this HUGE spaceship rolls overhead. Damaged for life by Star Wars, that’s me. Quite happily too, no matter how much second guessing or guilt-tripping or ‘Joss Whedon is my master now’ nonsense came along from people in later years, but that’s another story.
Meantime there were always random old films on TV, though I can’t say I watched any of them systematically, so I’m sure more than a few classics bounced off my head and away again — though the sense of sporadic idiosyncracy was getting well entrenched at a certain point. For instance, a favorite film of mine is one that initially I saw once and only once on a local station in upstate New York, hanging around at home one afternoon in the den with my mom nearby doing some ironing or the like. The film was a fantastic Ray Milland vehicle from the forties called The Unearthly, a supernatural thriller that still creeps me out, thanks to some all around top-notch performances, state of the art studio system filmmaking, some (I think) ahead of its time editing and a sense of when NOT to use music. It was the kind of film that glued itself into me so well that when I finally had a chance to tape it off TV ten years later — I still think it hasn’t made it to DVD, annoyingly — I was gratified to see how much I did remember various details.
By that time HBO had long been an established part of the household too so I was used to all sorts of odd things popping up there — in the era before full balkanization, something like HBO seemed to have access to a wide range of material and every so often would show film classics for the heck of it amid all the various things of the time that formed regular presentations. Disney even licensed a few things to HBO to screen before they figured out they should control their own revenue streams. On the contemporary front, early ‘watch ’em every chance I get’ efforts from 1982 on included 9 to 5, The Great Muppet Caper, Battle Beyond the Stars I’m pretty sure (thanks Corman!) — and perhaps the granddaddy of random obsession for me, The Cannonball Run. I think I can still quote every line.
The other piece of the puzzle was of course a VCR, which we were a little late to the game in getting — 1986, I think — but once we did get it, off to the races. I taped all sorts of random things like mad, and once I figured out the principle of delayed timing so I could snag things late at night, the doors were really opened. It’s how I finally saw, after endless references to it in Peanuts, Citizen Kane — and sure, because of those references, I knew what Rosebud was going on, but that didn’t stop me from being bowled over at what shockingly realized was a film that turned over the conventions of ‘classic film’ as I had haphazardly learned them. The stiff staginess and on-point moves were utterly disrupted in the opening newsreel-review-room sequence, which felt far more now than then — an obvious conclusion and all, and evidence of the influence of Welles and his collaborators down the line, but forget Cahiers du Cinema and Bogdanovich and all that, I just plain loved the film and still regard it as something of deserved canonization.
So that’s an obvious enough choice — as was my love for cinematic trash, the Medved-popularized embrace of camp classics and general dubiousness perfectly at home with a generation able to see or rent most of such things easily enough and conditioned by a snarky worldview. Less obvious were some of my watch-into-the-ground selections like Vampire on Bikini Beach, but you can find out more about what I think about that and bad films in general via this archival piece from Freaky Trigger. You’ll also note the rather combative start about ‘recent films,’ so to tie that in with this — while I was making all the discoveries outlined above in the late eighties, I was also regularly watching the products of my time in the theater itself, though again, not in any sort of systematic way, and mostly very well known. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (the only John Hughes film I EVER liked, BTW), The Lost Boys, Labyrinth, A Fish Called Wanda, The Living Daylights — there were others but they don’t stick in the memory much, honestly.
Then I went to UCLA for undergrad life and…a funny thing happened. I really stopped going to current movies at all, or rather, only did so rarely. All four years I was there, and living right next to Westwood Village and its oodles of theaters at that, I remember…let’s see, Batman, Dangerous Liaisons, The Hunt for Red October, Star Trek VI…that was it? Maybe? A couple more at visits home. But something gave in a way that I’ve never quite returned to, and ‘the moviegoing experience’ became something observed as a very irregular event, while the vast majority of films released became part of a larger cultural context that I observed and slipped into without participating much in.
Which I didn’t mind — more so than most artistic efforts, films to me are prone to being utterly uninteresting most of the time, or rather maybe more accurately this was the moment when I finally realized that to be the case. There has to be something, some kind of hook or spark if I’m not otherwise presold on a film (like anyone needed to presell Tolkien adaptations to me, for instance), and most of the time those indescribable hooks are completely lacking. I don’t follow directors much, I follow actors very little, I’m not a hyper genre obsessive…something has to somehow intrigue me enough to get me to make the effort. Something.
And yet most of the time it’s not there, and I can’t really describe a negative very well. So instead I have pursued my own ‘sometimes I am fully in the moment and sometimes I am fully OUT of it’ path since, to my unparalleled delight. I’ve got enough DVDs around so I’m never bored on that front (I refuse to give in to Netflix, though — I’m an impulse watcher, I’ve got to see something right at that point, not wait for it to be delivered, so once iTV or whatever gets some proper traction for download screening, combined with better download times in general, I’ll be fine). There are just enough films out each year that I’ll want to see them in the theater, though by just enough I sometimes can mean as little as five, maybe even two or three (in the past month’s time it’s only been Ratatouille, which was a treat — this year all told it’s been four, I think, so right now I’m ahead of the average), but most of the time being trapped with noisy audiences and suffering through ‘the Twenty’ is a pleasure I’ll happily forego.
Instead I just kinda keep my eyes open — order a film every so often, find Criterion releases for cheap used (one of my specialties, I think — I keep finding great ones that way!), sink into bits of film history as I choose and don’t overly sweat about not getting around to things yet. I can’t get around to everything, therefore I’m hardly going to try; plus there’s no good dollar theater around here. Other things I’ll just wait for that impulse to seize me — so for instance, I found the double-disc DVD of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West about a year back for something like nine bucks, but I still haven’t watched it. I’m not saying that to be proud or contrary, it just means that while I’m interested and will want to see it one day, that day just hasn’t hit me yet! (But you get a sense of why I can’t wait for a better download world as I’ve noted above.)
So the upshot of all this is an explanation as to why I have Children of Paradise, In the Mood for Love, They Saved Hitler’s Brain and Road House around the place, to name four, and why I love them all, all for rather different reasons, all of which may help explain my random film posts as they emerge here. Don’t ask me to explain my tastes in film, the overkill knowledge and the huge gaps — they just are and they mutate as they do, and I’d rather be in my head than in Kevin Smith’s, I’ll tell you that right now.