These essays represent my memories of watching and making films during the last forty years. I discuss particular, often well-known films, but with an emphasis upon the setting in which the film is experienced . . . social, cultural, psychological, architectural, supernatural and, on most occasions, eccentrically personal. The idea for this collection of stories began in November, 2015 when Walker Art Center film curator Sheryl Mousley asked me to write a reaction to the Brothers Quay film Street of Crocodiles. Long-time friend Jay Orff read the piece online and said, “Write thirty more like that and you’ll have a book.” I started to assemble a mental list of unusual experiences I’ve had watching movies and now, 34 essays later, I’m summing up the main themes that developed while documenting them.
Writer/producer James Shamus, in a 2015 lecture “23 Fragments on the Future of Cinema,” offered a comically reductive view of filmmaking and film exhibition as an economic system:
The cinema has something to do with the experience of narratives unfolding in or around a couple of hours, more or less, play-acted in front of cameras, assembled into edited products that, at least initially, are projected onto screens in front of audiences who pay to enter and sit in dark spaces together facing those screens.
The entire economy that this idea of cinema supports rests primarily on a business that involves selling sugar water and fat-laden carbohydrates at 90% profit margins to sedentary and lethargic groups of consumers who agree to sit still long enough for their blood sugar levels to go down sufficiently so that they can be sold these sugar and fat products in large enough quantities to justify the expense of operating cinema theaters and making and marketing so-called films.
Though this description of the film as a product and the viewer as consumer is no doubt true within the commercial studio system, I present a contrasting perspective in the following stories: the audience is a congregation and the film is an object of ritual fascination, especially within the subculture of the second run and repertory theater. For the habitual filmgoer, the theater is a church in which the primary transaction that occurs is spiritual rather than economic; assembled in the dark together, facing those screens, we share cultural connectedness and moments of transcendence from our personal narratives.
I draw animated films, traditionally a profession for the shy. Movie going has always felt like an extension of that cloistered world. Art and repertory cinemas inevitably attract a crowd of regulars like myself, introverts (often men) with an encyclopedic knowledge of details that wouldn't interest a casual filmgoer; the films that Robby Müller shot for Wim Wenders in the 1970’s, for example. This prototypical cinephile can also possibly list the jazz albums that Rudy van Gelder engineered for Blue Note records. If you’re nodding your head in recognition, you may also belong to The Congregation for the Retention and Perpetuation of the Arcane. If my description sounds like a waste of time, you’ve likely raised children and maintain eye contact when speaking to people.
To illustrate how The Congregation might develop, let us observe two hypothetical enthusiasts who have emerged from a double feature of Citizen Kane and Casablanca in the lobby of a theater. These two films represent the ne plus ultra of repertory cinema programming. The first person begins, “Initially, I was in the Citizen Kane camp and thought Casablanca conventional and overly sentimental.” The second smiles, and completes the thought, “But as you’ve grown older, you see Citizen Kane as the baroque affectation of a young genius and Casablanca as having more emotional resonance.” They nod together at this self-evident truth. The statement indicates that the viewer has watched these iconic Hollywood films multiple times during different periods of their life and that their understanding of the films has evolved over time. This person cares for and depends upon movies, which provide not merely a momentary amusement, but rather an ongoing relationship.
The conversation continues with a question of a more pointed nature, “What is the most memorable shot in The Shining?” The answer of the uninitiated might be, “The boy on the big wheel pedaling through the hotel” or “the twin girls” or “Jack Nicholson frozen at the end of the film.” Someone who’s read a little about the making of the movie might say, “The aerial shots of the mountain landscape at the film’s beginning” and then add, “Did you know that Ridley Scott borrowed outtakes from that footage for the studio-mandated happy ending of Blade Runner?” The answer of a true obsessive, by virtue of its sheer peculiarity is, “Someone in a bear-suit performing oral sex as observed by Shelley Duvall through a hotel room doorway.” One of our regulars provides the correct answer and the pair laughs loudly together like two travelers of the same nationality meeting in a foreign tourist town.
This warm, mutual recognition now leads the conversation to a bar or coffee shop where we overhear the following question: “When Lila Crane enters Norman Bates’ bedroom in Psycho she picks up a book, opens it and her face registers shock. Hitchcock is shrewd enough not to show us what the book contains. What do you think she saw in the book?” There is no single answer in this case; the new cinema friends merely shiver together with silent horror, considering the possibilities. This intricate play in an obscure corner of Psycho would never even occur until the fourth or fifth viewing. The Congregation has claimed two new members. The next time they see each other in the arthouse theater lobby the bond will be complete.
As an active member of The Congregation myself, I’ve just spent a month writing the stories of my cinema-compulsion. I’ve arranged the essays chronologically so that the overarching narrative feels like a memoir. The main themes that follow are:
Cinema as a church. The movie theater is the church in which the ritual of movie going occurs. The audience is a congregation of like-minded devotees. Watching films in a theater is primarily a social experience, an act of common belief and desire, of spiritual consolation.
Cinema as a window. Not merely images projected upon a screen, the movies are truly a window that opens upon an ambiguous psychological space into which the audience also projects content. Those windows are a frame that calls into question the nature of ‘truth’ by virtue of what is included and what is cropped. Movies are a window through which we peep for voyeuristic thrills.
Cinema as a dream. Historians have long cultivated the notion that movies are collective dreams and nightmares, that Hollywood is a ‘dream factory.’ Movies influence our dreams and our desires, mediating the boundary between our inner world and our social life. If we are dreaming the movies, are the movies also dreaming us?
Cinema as travel. The movies provide us with a means to travel vicariously across the boundaries of language, culture and even beyond the physical constraints of the sensory world. Films provoke our curiosity and encourage us to travel in earnest. Cinema creates its own language, a lingua franca that bridges differences and reveals our common humanity.
Cinema as socialization. The movies plant in us our first expectations for what our gender is and what our romantic relationships will feel like. As children, we model images of adult behavior learned while watching films.
Cinema as time. As a metaphor for our experience of time, movies are both a particle and a stream. A film is composed of twenty-four still frames per second, the photographic particle. The illusion of motion occurs in the mind of the viewer when the projector casts the images rapidly enough upon the screen that a sense of directional flow is created. Occasionally we intuit a fundamental revelation of the static frame at the movies and enter into a circular timelessness.
Cinema as memory. Movies are a past we share, a cultural memory in which we involuntarily participate. Movies also inadvertently preserve the incidental time and place in which they were shot; every film, especially a few decades removed from its production, becomes a documentary. Films serve as an extension of personal memory, intertwining with memory, appropriating memory.
Cinema as obsession. I am obsessed with movies and thus have written the essays that follow: my recollected life reflected through the films that I’ve experienced. The projector lurches into action, feeding celluloid precisely through the gate. The familiar universal head leader flashes picture start upon the screen and counts down: eight, seven, six, five, four, three . . . beep.