This collection of essays documents 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, professional, supernatural and, on most occasions, eccentrically personal. These short stories depict my shadow life in cinema, the often solitary, sometimes irrational, parallel life that I have spent lucid-dreaming in the darkness of movie theaters, in projection booths, at film festivals and hunched, drawing, over the glow of an animation light table.
The idea for recording these reflections began in November, 2015 when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis invited me to write a reaction to the Brothers Quay film “Street of Crocodiles” for their online magazine. Long-time friend and writer, Jay Orff, read the essay and said, “Write thirty more like that and you’ll have a book.” A week later, lying awake in bed at four in the morning preoccupied with this suggestion, I started to assemble a mental list of specific, unusual experiences I’ve had watching movies. After a dozen quickly presented themselves, I thought, “I do have a lot of these stories” and now, 34 essays later, I’m summing up the predominant themes that developed while writing those stories.
Writer/producer James Shamus, in a 2015 lecture entitled “23 Fragments on the Future of Cinema,” offered a comically reductive depiction 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 fundamentally a product and the viewer as consumer is no doubt true within the commercial studio system, I present a contrasting, and admittedly subcultural, perspective in the following stories: the audience is a congregation and the film is an object of ritual consolation, especially in the second run and repertory theater. For the obsessive 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 experience cultural connectedness and moments of transcendence from our personal limitations.
I draw animated films, traditionally a profession for the shy. I’ve always lived, more than is probably sensible, in my imagination and movie going has felt like an extension of that cloistered world. Art and repertory cinemas around the world magnetically attract a crowd of regulars like myself: older, introverted people (often men) with an encyclopedic knowledge of, for example, the films that Robby Müller shot for Wim Wenders in the 1970’s. This prototypical film buff can also possibly list the jazz albums that Rudy van Gelder engineered for Blue Note records. If you’re nodding your head and smiling knowingly, you may also belong to The Congregation for the Retention and Perpetuation of the Arcane. If, on the other hand, this sounds like a waste of time, you’ve likely raised children and maintain eye contact when speaking to people.
To illustrate my idea of how The Congregation forms, let’s observe two hypothetical cinemaphiles who have emerged from a double feature of “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca” into the lobby of an arthouse 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 tend to see “Citizen Kane” as the baroque affectation of a young genius and “Casablanca” as having more real-life gravity.” They nod together at this self-evident truth. The statement indicates that the viewer has watched these iconic Hollywood films multiple times in 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, arriving at a question of a more pointed nature, “What is the most memorable shot in ‘The Shining?’” The answer of a casual filmgoer 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 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 through the doorway of a hotel room.” One of our film fanatics provides the correct answer and the pair laughs loudly together like two travelers of the same nationality meeting each other in a foreign tourist town.
This flash of 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 correct answer in this case; the new cinema friends merely shiver together with silent horror, considering the possibilities. This intricacy of play in an obscure corner of “Psycho” would never become an object of fascination until the fourth or fifth viewing. The Congregation has claimed two new members. The next time they see each other in the theater lobby, the bond will be complete.
As an active member of The Congregation myself, I’ve just spent a month documenting the following stories of my cinema-compulsion. I’ve arranged the essays chronologically so that the overarching narrative takes the form of a memoir. The main themes that follow are:
Cinema as a window. Not merely images projected upon a screen, the movies are rather a window that opens upon an ambiguous psychological space into which we, the audience, also project content. The movies are a frame placed over our perceptions that heightens and stylizes our experience of the world. Films are a frame that calls into question the nature of a shared ‘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. Writers have long cultivated the notion that movies are collective, cultural 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 waking life. If we are dreaming the movies, are the movies also dreaming us?
Cinema as a church. I’ve presented my idea of The Congregation above. 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 travel. The movies provide us with a means to travel vicariously across the boundaries of language and culture and outside 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 our 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 absorb and model images of adult behavior learned while watching films. As we age, we actively engage with the cinematic models we have internalized, depending upon how effectively they allow us to manage our lives.
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, discrete fixed moments, the photographic particle. The illusion of motion, ‘persistence of vision,’ occurs in the mind of the viewer when the projector casts the images rapidly enough upon the screen and a sense of directional flow is created. Occasionally we revert to 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, an index of our personal history one step removed from direct experience. Movies also inadvertently capture and preserve the incidental time and place in which they were shot, confronting us with our own history; every film, especially a few decades removed from its production, becomes a documentary. Film images serve as an extension of personal memory, substituting for memory, intertwining with memory, appropriating memory.
Cinema as obsession. I am obsessed with movies and thus have written the series of essays that follow: the script of my remembered life reflected and reconstructed through the films that I’ve experienced. The projector lurches to life, feeding celluloid with mechanical precision through the gate at twenty-four frames per second. The familiar universal head leader flashes picture start upon the screen and counts down: eight, seven, six, five, four, three . . . beep.