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A Personal Film Biography

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Recently in conversation with a new acquaintance, I was asked if there was a specific film that turned me into an avid cinemaphile. I started to respond, but my answer got too long and I realized this was the perfect sort of thing for DMS.

The short answer is that there isn’t really a single film that turned me into film nut #1,489,324. In my case, it was a slow seduction perpetrated over several decades by a series of films. Even people who know me pretty well may be surprised by some of the films I cite below.

We’ll do this in my personal chronological order:

Time Bandits (1981 Terry Gilliam)

At the age of seven, this was the first film I ever went to without my parents. Ever since, I’ve had a taste for quirky directors, including the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch (when he’s not overtly being annoying), dry Scandinavian comedy directors like Bent Hamer, and almost every dark British comedy ever made (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, Shaun of the Dead, etc).

Batman (1989 Tim Burton)

I think of Batman as the turning point for me, where I started to develop my first overt preferences for movies. In particular, at that time it was for visually inventive fantasy. On the down side, Batman also laid the groundwork for my disappointment in directors who pull off a few visionary films only to then get caught in a cycle of cribbing from their own work. In Burton’s case, Sleepy Hollow may be the last of his “great” films if I were asked to draw a line. This is why, to this day, I have an almost knee-jerk aversion to directors identified as modern savants when they aren’t even a third of the way through their careers (Aronofsky, Nolan, etc).

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948 John Huston)

I don’t know what it has to do with high school biology class, but that’s where I saw it. For a long time it was the only black and white film I thought was cool enough to bother watching. After laying dormant for a decade, its effect developed into an interest in classic American cinema, especially those films which delved into the darker side of personality. That of course puts me into Film Noir in a hurry (The Third Man, The Big Sleep, The Big Heat, etc).

Sideways (2004 Payne)

Sideways was the first indie that really hooked me. I lived three blocks from an art house theater in Connecticut at the time, but that was the only film I saw there before I moved to Indiana. Sideways made me realize that, at the age of 30, the majority of films were manufactured for a younger generation. I had this realization about popular music when I was only 22 or 23 and Britney Spears ruined it all.

Sideways definitely reflects my preferences for art film. I like a focus on good characterizations and stories which have at least a bit of an uplifting payoff at the end (Juno, Up in the Air, Amelie, Slumdog Millionaire, An Education, etc). I like my art films to have a little bit of sense of humor, even if they aren’t exactly comedies. Even Hamlet, with all its tragedy, had the gravedigger scene just when some tension needed to be released.

All About Eve (1950 Mankiewicz)

When I went back to library school I got my first library job working at the media desk for minimum wage. It quickly occurred to me that I knew very little about the “old” movies I was handling.

To remedy that, I wanted guidance as to what to watch. I found Roger Ebert’s Great Movies book at the local book store and got sucked in. I also bought All About Eve shortly thereafter, which was the beginning of my attempt to see all of Ebert’s selections. That started in 2005 and I’m about 2/3rds of the way through that ever-expanding list.

All About Eve and Mr. Ebert turned me into a collector, because your average rental chain doesn’t keep a sufficient back-list collection. All About Eve also made me interested comedies that have aged well. Why do we still laugh at Keaton’s Our Hospitality and not at the Amos and Andy movie Check and Double Check? Okay, maybe that’s a bad example as it’s painfully obvious why Check and Double Check stinks.

Pride and Prejudice (2005 Wright)

This totally girly film did two things to me: 1. Appreciate the quality of the UK film industry relative to the American. 2. Turn me into an obnoxious, brimming reservoir of film trivia. From memory I can tell you most of the non-head lining cast and what some of their other films are:

  • Matthew MacFayden (Darby): Frost/Nixon, last year’s Robin Hood, The Bank Job
  • Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennett): An Education, Surrogates
  • Talulah Riley (Mary Bennett): St. Tristan’s
  • Carey Mulligan (Kitty Bennett): An Education, Wall Street and everything else to be made in the next two years
  • Brenda Blethyn (Mrs. Bennett): Secrets and Lies
  • Kelly Reilly (Caroline Bingley): The Spanish Apartment, Russian Dolls, Mrs. Henderson Presents
  • Rupert Friend (Wickham): Young Victoria, Cheri
  • Tom Hollander (Lady Catherine Deberg…er Mr. Collins): In the Loop

Then if you then link the discussion to Atonement via Knightley and Wright, one falls into the whirlpool of Romola Garai’s film career. She seems to show up in everything I’ve liked. She’s probably even in the background of that GEICO commercial with Charley Daniels.

This knowledge of British costume drama is why I get a chuckle when Colin Firth is introduced to Jennifer Ehle in The King’s Speech. They were another Darby and Lizzie combo…

Someday I’m going to map the six degrees of Pride and Prejudice.

Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001 Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Also known in the U.S. as just Amélie, this film broke the last boundary for me–the foreign language film. I’d seen quite a bit of foreign language cinema, especially working on Ebert’s great movie list, before I watched Amélie, but this was the first French film to really steal my heart. It’s probably because Jeunet is a sort of narrative-focused director with a visual style to which I’m already susceptible (see Burton, Tim). The real irony is that a friend of mine with a very similar preferences for books and movies had been pestering me for years to see this movie. Naturally, I resisted for a long time.

I appreciate why foreign language films are a tough hurdle for people. Subtitle reading is a bit of a skill. That’s why it’s important for people to run into a seductive film like Amélie, which stays close to film and genre forms we’re familiar with while still having a distinct cultural style. Others in this category include Tell No One, a French thriller adapted from a Harlan Coben novel, Wasabi, a French buddy-cop comedy, or The Spanish Apartment, a multi-lingual comedy about coming of age and many other things.

Written by Bill

February 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Posted in Movies

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