In September of 1981 my mother drove me east across Wisconsin from Amery to Appleton, where I began my freshman year at Lawrence University. Adapting to unfamiliar environments has never come easily to me. Walking alone during my first night on campus, everything felt unstable and relative. The brief celebrity that I had enjoyed with the Super 8 horror films, for instance, the intense desire to be acknowledged within the small community of Amery High School, appeared now arbitrary and absurd. The year before Amery had been my whole world. I was now being asked, and asking myself, to expand my perspective.
I entered a new circle of friends who had read more than me, travelled more broadly and had grown up in cosmopolitan cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. I pictured myself insecurely as the provincial bumpkin in the group and was shy with my opinions for a few months. Two thirds into my freshman year, after taking an introductory literature class, I changed my major from Mathematics to English (much to my father’s chagrin). And just as importantly . . . I discovered the Lawrence University Film Club.
While growing up in small-town Amery, with notable exceptions such as Walkabout, I had only seen commercial Hollywood movies. Public Television was as foreign as my viewing habits ever got. Monty Python’s Flying Circus gave me a first glimpse of something more idiosyncratic. The anarchic, physical comedy, the mockery of authority and the surreal, non-sequitur structure of the show appealed to me and my Dungeons and Dragons friends; we would reenact skits for each other in school the day after watching an episode on television. One Sunday night in the mid 1970’s I stayed awake past the end credits of Monty Python. After a station-identification, a strange title sequence played: a small sports car approaching from a vast distance, driven by an intense-looking man with a confrontational smirk on his face. A Kafkaesque program followed about a village in which everyone was identified by a number rather than a name. The dream-like pop design of The Prisoner initially captured my interest and, as I watched more episodes, Number Six’s plight resembled my Westworld nightmares of repressive conformity. Having taken the first step of escaping to Lawrence University from my village of Amery, I now embarked enthusiastically upon the more international adventures that the Film Club had to offer me.
The first program that I saw at Lawrence during the fall of 1981 was a double feature of early Ingmar Bergman films from the 1950’s: Summer with Monika and Illicit Interlude. I now remember that Friday night in Appleton as one of the significant turning points in my education. Both movies depicted doomed love suffered by beautiful young Swedes, a glamorous romantic despair. The films moved with a pace and texture that was unfamiliar to me, lulling into unexpected hovering silences. The cinematography was an otherworldly black and white. (I know now that Gunnar Fischer shot them both, Bergman’s first great cinematographer before he began his more famous collaboration with Sven Nyqvist.)
Actors in the commercial films I’d seen to this point reported on their state of mind and made their relationship with other characters explicit. Here the camera lingered on the faces and bodies of the characters in quiet noncommittal observation, inviting the me to actively speculate about their motivations and moods. For a young man of eighteen, these films also had the added attraction of a ‘frank, earthy sensuality’ as one movie poster described it. Monika lay naked on the rocks by the sea with natural ease, displaying the hair in her armpits unselfconsciously; this posture of physicality and self-possession was notably different from the pillow-fighting women that I seen in Animal House.
Most impressively for me, Bergman placed the characters as organic elements of a landscape and that place felt familiar and mysteriously foreign at the same time. In both films, the couples moved back and forth between urban and seaside settings. The sea represented freedom for the young lovers and yet they often stood uncertainly beneath immense skies, drifting against the horizon line of the water; their agency was called into question by their diminished status within the frame. The visual composition maintained an importance equal to the actors and the dialogue, and Bergman asked that I consider the meaning of the relationship between the characters and their setting.
That evening I had my first transformative experience of films as travel. When the show ended, I walked into the night outside the auditorium in a state of heightened mental abstraction. A wet fog hung over Appleton, Wisconsin and I felt that the cinematic fog over the Fjords in Sweden had dissolved directly into the scene through which I now walked. In all of my most memorable film viewings, the aesthetic space created on the screen blurred into and lingered in my psychological space long after the movie had ended.
I was addicted and now understood my immediate destiny. Between the long hours spent reading “The Faerie Queene” in a windowless, basement room (‘disdain did disdain to be called disdain’) and my evenings in the campus science hall attending the Film Club series, I was already cultivating the behaviors that would become my adult habits. My high school Westworld nightmare of self-protective masking gave way to a dream of release into the world of knowledge and culture. I dreamt regularly that I stood in the dining hall on campus at the machine that dispensed water, milk, juice and soda pop. I held a glass in each hand and drank one glass while I filled the other and then filled the first again as I drank the second. I was endlessly thirsty and that thirst could not be satisfied.
Not all of my early Film Club revolutions were as transcendent as Ingmar Bergman. The next black and white double feature I saw, Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small and David Lynch’s Eraserhead overloaded my circuitry in 1981. In Herzog’s early movie, dwarves confined in a psychiatric hospital revolt and assume control of the institution. Two blind twins flail madly with sticks while navigating the grounds, while the others kill a pig and crucify a monkey. They tie the steering wheel and gas pedal of a truck in place and leave it spinning in circles in a dirt courtyard, which is an apt metaphor for the film itself: an inscrutable, wheeling frenzy. Eraserhead was even more disorienting; a baby resembling a skinned rabbit is sick and trouble ensues. Though I've returned to these films eagerly later in life, I was not prepared for them at age eighteen.
Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude occupied a more accessible middle ground at that formative stage of my film obsession. It showed twice on a Friday night and twice on Saturday. Because I went to the late show on Friday, I only saw it three times that weekend; if it had played on Sunday, I would have watched it again. Ruth Gordon was, of course, immensely charismatic in the hippie carpe diem, and Bud Cort’s stoically staged fake deaths played like scenes from my own Super 8 films. But I was most impressed by the narrative use of Cat Stevens’ songs. In 1981, long before MTV had influenced a generation of filmmakers like Spike Jones and Paul Thomas Anderson, music in a film had the same status for me as a brick wall standing behind two characters. If I registered it at all, I experienced it unconsciously as something that was incidentally present during shooting. In Harold and Maude the music shifted to the foreground of the story. Just as the seaside landscape had been a leading actor in the Bergman films, so too was the music a character here.
By my junior year at Lawrence, I had evolved from the most compulsive fan of the Film Club to its president, which meant that I now played an active role in my own film education. The most anticipated moment of every semester was the day that the reels of trailers from the rental companies arrived. Swank and Films Incorporated were two of the distributors in the business of renting 16mm prints to colleges and sent the trailers as ads for their product. The university allotted the Film Club a budget every semester to program the series. The Film Club members gathered in the auditorium to watch two or three hours of movie trailers. We’d then scan through the catalogues to calculate which combination of films we could afford. It occurred to me during one of these programming sessions that someone had a job editing a two minute version of every ninety minute feature film, a short that still made narrative sense. And it was a tribute to the talent of the editor, that the two-minute film was sometimes better than the full-length movie. No one in Amery, Wisconsin had introduced me to the pleasures of William Blake, John Coltrane or Jacques Tati, and certainly no one had suggested that such jobs existed: film trailer editor.
As I familiarized myself with dozens of classic films, I also grew aware that the great directors had peak periods of productivity. Fellini from 1955 to 1965, Godard through the entire 1960’s or Chantal Akerman in the 1970’s. I organized sub-series around the notable decades of these careers in repertory arthouse fashion. I also began to read interviews with the directors in “Sight and Sound” magazine in the campus library. I remember an excerpt of the famous Francois Truffaut interview with Alfred Hitchcock in which they discussed the train arrival scene in Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock described the first few takes as unsatisfactory; the train wasn’t producing enough smoke and it wasn’t black enough. He was after a feeling that the devil himself was arriving in town and so the production halted while a more noxious, smoke-producing substance could be added to the fire. Just as I now understood music to be a premeditated choice rather than an incidental occurrence in Harold and Maude, this story also emphasized that filmmaking was primarily and obsessively intentional. The director controlled the audience’s experience of a film carefully by calculating every aspect of the production. If only I’d known this when my friends and I were shooting Mindless Massacre.
Near the end of my four years at Lawrence University, the school replaced the older 16mm projector with a sophisticated new model. This projector could pause frames and advance through a film one frame at a time with great legibility. A print would typically arrive on Thursday night for a Friday/Saturday screening and then would get shipped back to the distributor, or to another school, on Monday morning. This schedule allowed me Sundays alone with any film on the new projector, studying the prints one frame at a time. I was able to break the illusion of motion back down into the sequence of individual stills, exposing the thinking of the filmmaker at the atomic level. (One has to imagine, in this pre-digital era, how revolutionary this manipulation of the media felt.)
One Sunday in 1984, I mounted Citizen Kane on the projector and slowly worked my way through the movie. I arrived at the scene in which young Charles is taken from his family and put in the care of Mr. Bernstein. The famous sled ‘rosebud’ is left behind in the snow. In the next scene, Charles is unwrapping the gift of a new sled. As I advanced through the unwrapping scene, I saw a suggestive image flash by, something invisible in real time. There were words printed on the sled. I backed up frame by frame until I found it, ‘The Crusader,’ above an image of a medieval knight’s helmet. This image is symbolically meaningful to the next chapter of the story in which Kane becomes a liberal ‘crusader’ with his newspaper. I felt like David Hemmings’ character in Blow Up, which I’d seen recently, enlarging his photographs while searching for evidence of a murder. I ran directly to the library and searched through every article on Citizen Kane and every interview with Orson Welles that I could find. There was no mention of ‘The Crusader’ anywhere. I believed in that moment that I was the archeologist who had discovered a missing link in the hidden layers of what was routinely voted ‘the greatest film of all time’ in “Sight and Sound” magazine; a considerable distinction for the Lawrence University Film Club.