On a very personal journey through cinema Getintothis’ Chris Leathley explains why film means so much and why he remains obsessed by the Silver Screen.
My first abiding memory of a trip to the movies was seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 89/90. Or maybe it was The Little Mermaid? Still, Indy is cooler, so I’ll stick with that little tranche of self-mythologising…
Memories are fickle constructions but I do recall being with my Auntie (big Sam Raimi fan, as it happens, which has been passed on to yours truly).
Popcorn was purchased, sweet not salty. Eyes widened at the consequences of making a bad choice in the movies (the cup proving that all that glitters is not gold). At the end, as Indy rode off to further escapades, I emerged dazed, a little scared but…
Exhilarated. And so it began…
That custom of self-mythologising that I indulged in at the start is incidentally one of the many reasons that I fell so hard for cinema. The capacity for the cinematic world to leap forth from the screen (the fantasy of so many directors including Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo) was profligate and intoxicating.
Actors and directors became three-dimensional, paradoxically, in the two-dimensional universe of tabloids, gossip columns and critical soundbites. Tales of scandal, of tragedy, of talent elevated or indeed thwarted. These were quite simply impossible people living impossible lives, or at least, that was how it appeared to me.
It was, of course, a mythology around a mythology. Little, if any of it, was true.
Besides, I wasn’t conscious of this aged 8! Only later did I become fascinated by lurid stories and legends.
Was Errol Flynn really a prodigious lover?
Did Jayne Mansfield truly become a Satanist?
The mystery of the movies began with these fictitious mysteries surrounding their lives away from the studios.
It continued though, and deepened, because that willingness to suspend logic, to go with the flow of fantasy over reality, extended to the local picture house.
Life at home wasn’t great.
From the age of 6 on, it was just Dad, my brother and I (and from the age of 13, it was just Dad and I). I was a lonely kid, living on a council estate whilst attending a plush independent school on a scholarship. Not a great combination if you craved acceptance either at home or at school.
Films didn’t judge though – entry wasn’t exclusive, it was reasonably cheap and nobody noticed if you were with folks or no. Being popular didn’t matter.
Thus, and herein lies a terrible cliché of film and fiction, I found escape. This ‘escape’ extended to the environs of home, both on TV and occasionally on exotic VHS cassettes, usually pirate copies. All roads led to (Celluloid) Rome.
Which stories made up my patchwork viewing during these years? Arnie as Conan embracing Nietzschean struggle with garrulous abandon; Gene Kelly joyfully courting pneumonia as he pirouetted in the rain; Samuel L Jackson daring me, along with all other motherfuckers, to say ‘what’ one more time; and Benicio Del Toro sagely teaching Ryan Phillipe about life (with the help of Juliette Lewis and a shotgun). These were all scenes that stayed with me for years after, indeed, they live with me still.
Obviously there were more scenes. Many, many more. Yet to list them drily and without context would strip them of their power and importance to me.
Lest this read like a narrative of sub-Dickensian woe, the movies were a proactive choice too. They proffered stimulation that I desperately wanted, not just an exit from life. We didn’t have many books at home, although those that I did have were cherished. Cinema however, proved to be a more accessible forum for me to engage in fictional worlds.
As such, cinema and home media made me think in ways which were much more critical, direct and provocative than literature, art or music. Late night B movies or Sunday matinees were always going to trump gallery visits or more rarefied texts in my febrile imagination. Consequently, I gorged on all that was available. That appetite has never since abated.
What else? I mean that in the sense that, after time had passed and life had normalised (as far it ever does for any of us), the need for escape and illusion became less pressing, if still desirable. For a nerdy lifelong obsession to flourish and endure, more would be required of cinema.
For starters, films offered an entry to worlds beyond my kith and kin.
Language barriers dissolved in subtitles (of variable quality) whilst visual frames of reference were so much more diverse than those chained by Hollywood orthodoxy. World cinema nosed around in the by-ways of life that were neglected or ignored elsewhere.
Once I was outside English-speaking cinema, it seemed to me that the films that were made were more regularly courageous, more aggressive in their conceptual heft than the cinema that I had been raised upon. Both transgressive and reverential, this was movie-making designed to startle and seduce.
Did I comprehend it all? Certainly not and I still don’t (anybody who claims otherwise is either a liar or a fool), but that didn’t matter in the least. Global filmmaking encouraged within me a life-long tolerance of ambiguity. The pungent obscurity of dramatic metaphor and the strikingly abstract imagery only enhanced the mysteries of celluloid and my ardour for them.
That is not to imply that my film experiences had by my late teens become a farrago of the formless and meaningless only, feeding that curious desire of youth to be as pretentious as possible in order to validate one’s intellect. They were not.
Indeed, just as often, movies became about a search for meaning.
Frankly, I lacked a steady compass of meaning at home and mistrusted the blueprint provided by school. Movies furnished me with points of moral direction that were multitudinous, frequently contradictory but emotionally virile. Impressionable as I was (and still am, I guess), I didn’t absorb all this without question. Cinema did not present templates to be followed ruthlessly and remorselessly.
Instead, films became about sharpening my ethical faculties as well as my critical ones. Judgements were made, subtleties appreciated and nuances addressed. Films were forums for thought and offered space for reflection that was not afforded elsewhere in contemporary culture. What’s more, as movies became an open-ended discussion, I began to have much more fun in taking ownership of cinematic meaning rather than simply accepting canonical diktats.
Inevitably then, movies became more and more focused on questions.
What did the disappearance of Anna signify in L’Avventura? Where did Keir Dullea go to in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Why is Bill Pullman replaced midway through Lost Highway by Balthazar Getty? What’s in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction?
Your answer to any of these questions is literally as valuable as any that I or anybody else can give. Movies are democratised by this heavy emphasis on audience participation. High Art transfigures into Popular Art and vice versa.
We all have our own takes on great works of cinema. This multiplicity of meaning certainly appealed to the iconoclast in me. It might even have fed the ego too but then, as a young man with self-esteem issues, this was no disaster.
As I enter my late thirties, cinema has acquired new aspects of attraction, new routes for that amorous interaction that I have already referenced more than once. For instance, the older you get, the more you ponder time and its passage. We inevitably reflect on what was, what is and what might be.
No other artform is as uniquely placed as film with which to ruminate upon temporality.
Tarkovsky dealt with it audaciously in Mirror by placing two versions of his mother, one younger and one older, in the same shot.
Nic Roeg often fractured time in films like Don’t Look Now and Walkabout, revealing that our lives might actually be circular rather than linear after all.
Carol Morley plays with multiple times and places in her recent movie Out of Blue, perhaps hinting at universes that might parallel our own. Most great directors are pre-occupied with these themes, just as their ageing audiences are too.
Moreover, films, even atrocious films, become time capsules as soon as they are produced.
They contain glimpses of lives, thought and personalities that will never be the same again. Not only that, movies can capture change, transition and metamorphosis. While photography or Art can memorialize a single moment, great works of cinema can memorialize moments.
Finally, and much more crucially than anything else, films have made me happy, even when they have been melancholy in form or content.
Happy understates it really. Almost nothing in my life (bar the heady lust of relationships or the warm comfort of enduring friendships) has surpassed that adrenaline-fuelled rush on leaving the cinema after experiencing a great movie.
These halcyon moments, fleeting and tenuous, but vivid beyond rhyme or reason have, for better or worse, shaped much of my life.
Does that sound like hyperbole? Maybe it is, but it explains why I watch in excess of 100 new films in any given year. All in the hope, often quixotic hope, that I will achieve one of those moments. The Arts do this to people – they elicit this kind of untrammelled rapture in a way that few other things can in our lives.
Without cinema then, my life would be a more pallid, featureless place. For me, now and perhaps forever more, the magic really is at the movies.
In way of context then, here are the ten films that have shaped my viewing and understanding of cinema over the years…
The Maltese Falcon – John Huston (1941)
‘Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.’
Bogie was the first film star to capture my imagination. Was he a chancer? A hero? A villain? He was all three and that was a valuable lesson to a naïve child. I have watched many films that have been better constructed, more profoundly moving and all the rest but, this is still my most-watched movie. Every 6 months without fail.
Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness – Sam Raimi (1992)
‘Yo…She-Bitch. Let’s go!’
Between this and 1990’s Darkman, Sam Raimi blew my mind with how pulp sensibilities could be re-constituted into something fresh, self-aware and insanely fun.
Bruce Campbell was my spirit animal until my mid-teens (when I realised that he was more than a touch chauvinistic). Endlessly quotable dialogue was supplemented with Harryhausen-esque effects; this was a child’s fable updated to suit cynical adolescents.
Miller’s Crossing – The Coen Bros (1990)
‘I open my mouth and the whole world turns smart.’
The Coen Brothers are architects of some of the most literate screenplays in Hollywood.
Never mind the Tommy guns of this gangster epic, the rat-a-tat-tat of witty repartee made this a film that I would never forget.
Gabriel Byrne as the ultimate anti-hero, full of unexpected noblesse oblige and reptilian cruelty, blew other actors of the era out of the water. Yet the film fared poorly at the box office. I began to understand that my path would not always, nor even often, match those of my peers at the cinema.
Suspiria – Dario Argento (1977)
‘Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.’
When people talked to me breathlessly about the opening brilliance of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, I would beckon them conspiratorially and whisper ‘Suspiria’.
No better movie sequence have I seen than the menacing horror of Suspiria’s beginning. Argento was the master of celluloid phantasmagoria.
Not only did his movies scare the crap outta me, they had the swish and the dash of a Highway Dandy who had read one too many Gothic novels. One to satisfy the horror fiend alongside the snootiest aesthete.
Days of Heaven – Terrence Malick (1978)
‘The rich have it all figured out.’
By the time I started watching Malick’s films, I was used to the brash and the bold elements of film. I had not been fully initiated into the poetics of cinema however.
In steps Malick, a Philosophy prof who has imbued all his movies with a sense of wonder at the extent of the infinite and our place within it. Days of Heaven remains his most perfect vision of the cosmos, albeit indirectly via the lens of itinerant workers seeking hope and liberty in the cornfields of the Texan Panhandle. To be watched during the golden hour if possible…
Solaris – Andrei Tarkovsky (1971)
‘Did you ever think of me?’
‘Yes, but not all the time. Only when I felt unhappy.’
This is not Tarkovsky’s best film.
It is however, the first of his that I saw and if any one director could claim to have influenced me most, it would be Tarkovsky.
He chose to adapt and reconfigure a science fiction novel (a fairly wordy and technocratic tome if truth be told) as something concerned with our most sacred needs.
What does it mean to be?
What if we could return to those that we had lost?
Would it be paradise or hell?
Suffice to say, once you see Tarkovsky, nothing else is ever viewed in the same way again.
The Colour of Pomegranates – Sergei Parajanov (1969)
‘Heaven has sent upon us to this world, grief…grief…grief.’
The Colour of Pomegranates proved to be another instance of watching a movie, unsure over what to expect and finishing the film with mouth agape and brain crackling.
Parajanov saw filmmaking in terms that were far closer to a Renaissance painter than Hollywood hack.
Language and diegesis were to be treated with cavalier abandon. Everything in this movie rests on the delicate palettes, the esoteric symbolism and the luminescent interiors. If ever a film could claim to be Art on celluloid, this is it.
Persona – Ingmar Bergman (1966)
‘Your hiding place isn’t watertight enough. Life oozes in from all sides.’
Persona is a film that splits, quite literally at one point, reminding us not only of the artifice at the heart of cinema but also at the heart of our constructed personalities.
It’s bleak and erotic (trademarks of Bergman’s cinematic oeuvre) but it is also clever, wry and illuminating.
Like most of my favourite films, this also led to life-long obsessions with the lead actors – Liv Ulmann and Bibi Andersson. There are images in this film that haunt me still, that thrill me still. What more can you ask of cinema than that?
Beau Travail – Claire Denis (1999)
‘If it weren’t for fornication and blood, we wouldn’t be here.’
Beau Travail is full of rituals – courtship on the dancefloor; physical training in the desert; the extremes of military grooming.
Like all well-conceived rituals, there are hypnotic qualities to this which translate impeccably to the screen.
Wide blue skies, salt crusted wildernesses and crystalline seas are the backdrop to Denis’ examination of human will and how far it can be imposed on worlds far removed from our own. Nothing has seemed quite so foreign to me and yet so relevant since.
My Winnipeg – Guy Maddin (2008)
‘Snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg.’
Documentaries tend to take up a relatively small segment of my film collection at home but when somebody decides to get creative with the medium, you end up with something far more compelling and re-watchable.
Maddin takes every fever dream, every LSD-laced paranoiac nightmare and weaves it into an account of his city of birth and the place within which he still resides.
Winnipeg might not sound a particularly enticing place to make a movie about but Maddin ensures that you are never less than captivated throughout. Can we ever truly escape our origins, physical or otherwise? Maddin helps us find out…