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, I experienced an anxious feeling of relativity. The brief celebrity that I had enjoyed with the Super 8 horror films, for instance, the intense desire to be acknowledged within the circumscribed 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 quarters into my freshman year, after taking an introductory literature class, I transferred out of Calculus and Physics and into an English major (much to my father’s chagrin). And most importantly . . . I discovered the Lawrence University Film Club.
While growing up in Amery, with notable exceptions such as “Walkabout,” I had only watched commercial Hollywood movies. Public Television was as foreign as my viewing experience ever got. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” provided a first taste of something more idiosyncratic. The anarchic, physical comedy, the mocking of authority figures 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 appeared: a small sports car approaching from a vast distance, driven by an intense-looking man wearing a confrontational smirk on his face. A confusing, Kafkaesque program followed about a village in which everyone was identified by a number rather than a name. The dream-like, 1960’s pop design of “The Prisoner” immediately attracted my interest and Number Six’s plight also reminded me of my “Westworld” nightmares in which I sought to escape a world of repressive conformity. At Lawrence University, I had escaped the confines of my own village, Amery, Wisconsin and I now embarked enthusiastically upon the wide-ranging adventures that the Film Club was to offer me.
The first program that I recall seeing at Lawrence during the fall of 1981 was a double feature of early Ingmar Bergman films from the 1950’s: “Summer with Monika” and “Summer Interlude.” As I now remember this Friday night in Appleton, Wisconsin, it stands out as one of the significant turning points in my life. Both movies brooded over a rapturous, doomed love suffered by the young, likely a depiction of Bergman’s own youth of romantic despair. The films moved with a pace and texture that was alien to me. They were photographed in black and white and glowed with an otherworldly softness. I know now that Gunnar Fischer shot them both. He was Bergman’s first great cinematographer before Bergman began his more famous collaboration with Sven Nyqvist.
The ‘summer’ movies lulled frequently into unexpected silences. Actors in the commercial films I’d seen to this point tended to report on their state of mind or make their relationship with other characters explicit. Here the camera often lingered on the faces and bodies of the characters in quiet, noncommittal observation, inviting the viewer to actively speculate about their motivations and moods. These films also conveyed what the movie posters might have described as a ‘frank, earthy sensuality.’ Monika lay naked on the rocks by the sea with a natural ease, displaying the hair in her armpits unselfconsciously; this projection of physicality and self-possession was notably different from the women pillow-fighting in “Animal House.” Most impressively for me, Bergman arranged the characters as organic elements of a landscape and that place was familiar and mysteriously foreign at the same time. In both films, the couples migrated back and forth between urban and seaside settings. The sea represented liberation for the young lovers and yet they were often positioned uncertainly beneath immense skies, drifting against the horizon line of the water; their power and confidence were called into question by their diminished status within the frame. The environment maintained a visual importance equal with the actors, and Bergman insisted that I consider the meaning of the relationship between the characters and their setting.
That evening I had my first compelling experience of films as travel. When the double feature 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 fog over the Fjords in Sweden had dissolved directly into the scene through which I now moved. As with many of the most memorable film experiences in my life, the aesthetic space created on the screen blurred into and lingered in my psychological space long after the movie had ended.
I was instantly addicted and I now understood my destiny. Between the long hours spent reading assigned texts like “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 rituals. My high school “Westworld” nightmare of self-protective concealment gave way to a dream of release into the expansive world of learning. 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 satiated.
Naturally, not everything that I saw at Lawrence felt as revolutionary as Ingmar Bergman; Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” – I’d seen that with my dad and brothers at the Maplewood Mall. There were other Film Club screenings for which I was not prepared: although I’ve subsequently returned to each film multiple times, Werner Herzog’s “Even Dwarves Started Small” and David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” overloaded my senses in 1981. In Herzog’s early feature, 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 set it spinning in circles in a dirt courtyard, which is an apt metaphor for the film itself: an inscrutable, wheeling frenzy. “Eraserhead” is even stranger. Suffice it to say that a baby resembling a skinned rabbit is sick and trouble ensues.
A film that occupied a more accessible middle ground for me at that formative stage of my film obsession was Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude.” It screened twice on a Friday night and twice on Saturday. Because I went to the late show on Friday, I only managed to watch it three times that weekend; if it had shown on Sunday, I would have seen it again. Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort were, of course, immensely charismatic in the hippy carpe diem, and Cort’s stoically staged fake deaths played like scenes from my own Super 8 films. Ultimately though, I was most impressed by the narrative use of Cat Stevens’ songs. One has to remember that this was 1981, long before MTV had influenced a generation of filmmakers like Spike Jones and Paul Thomas Anderson. At this time, music in a film held the same status for me as a brick wall behind two characters or a cactus standing against a background sky. If I registered it at all, I experienced it unconsciously as something that was incidentally captured during shooting. In “Harold and Maude” the music occupied the foreground with the story. Just as the landscape had been a leading actor in the Bergman ‘Summer’ films, so too here was the music a character.
Within a year at Lawrence I made another evolutionary leap, 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. My favorite moment of every semester was the day that the catalogues and the reels of trailers from the film distributors arrived. There were a few distributors primarily in the business of renting 16mm prints to colleges; ‘Swank’ and ‘Films Incorporated’ are two of the names that I remember. The university allotted the Film Club a budget every semester to program the series. The Film Club members gathered in the theater to watch two to three hours of movie trailers. We’d then page through the catalogues to gauge which combination of films we could afford. It dawned upon me, in the middle of one of these Film Club selection sessions, that someone had a job in which they were given a ninety-minute film and were then responsible for cutting a two-minute version of that film that still made narrative sense. It was sometimes the case, and this was a tribute to the talent of the editor, that the two-minute film was superior to the full version. No one in Amery, Wisconsin had exposed me to the wonders of William Blake, John Coltrane or Jacques Tati, and certainly no one had suggested that such professions existed: film trailer editor!
In addition to programming dozens of landmark films individually, I grew aware that certain directors had had peak periods of productivity. Fellini from 1955 to 1965, Godard through the 1960’s or Herzog in the 1970’s. I studied and presented the notable decades of these careers. As research, I also began to read interviews with the directors in “Sight and Sound” magazine in the campus library. I recall 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 sought a feeling that the devil himself was arriving in town and so the production halted briefly while a more noxious, smoke-producing substance could be added to the fire. In the same manner that music felt like a choice rather than an incidental occurrence in “Harold and Maude,” I understood for the first time from this anecdote that filmmaking was primarily and obsessively intentional. One didn’t just accept whatever smoke the train happened to produce as it arrived at the station. One 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 allowed the operator to pause frames and to 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 the print on the new projector, studying films one frame at a time. Essentially, I was able to break the illusion of motion back down into the sequence of constituent stills, exposing the thinking of the filmmaker at the atomic level. (One has to recall that, in this pre-digital era, the manipulation of media as we now know it in 2016 was not as readily available.)
One Sunday I mounted “Citizen Kane” on the projector and slowly worked my way through the film. I arrived at the scene in which young Charles is taken from his family to be put in the care of Mr. Bernstein. The sled ‘rosebud’ is left, significantly, behind in the snow. In the next scene, Charles is unwrapping a new sled. As I passed over the unwrapping scene, I saw a suggestive image flash by quickly, something that was invisible in real time; it was clear that 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 narrative in which Kane initially 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 scanned 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 absolutely in that moment that I was the archeologist who had first discovered a missing link in the soil of what was routinely voted ‘the greatest film of all time’ in “Sight and Sound” magazine.