Or is that an aficionado? Naw, I’m a cinephile. You wanna fight about it?
Because I’ve spent my last few editorials bitching about things, I’ve decided that I’m just going to gush about the things I really, really like about watching films. The things that made me, for lack of a better term, a cinephile. Those seldom moments when a film ignites something within you, that changes the way you perceive not only cinema but the world. There are certain films that can inspire joy, excitement, and that make some people into cinephiles for life.
There are a few films that have done this to me over the years. I’m not thinking of the films I watched as a child, though those certainly had their effect, but the ones I watched as a teenager and a college student. The first that comes to mind – that perhaps caused me to regard films as something beyond entertainment – was Psycho.
I came to Psycho with full knowledge of the ending and a pretty comprehensive grasp of the plot. Then I actually watched it. To this day, I’m not certain what it was about the film that grabbed me. I can go on about the structuring of the plot, about the narrative devices, the depth of characterization, the music, the lighting, the framing of every single shot in the whole brilliant picture … but that to me is really all just parts of a whole. There’s something in Psycho that goes beyond its technical aspects, or the things that I was taught to look for in film classes in college and grad school. True art always must have a grain of brilliance, an extra spark that elevates it, and there’s no telling quite where that spark comes from or how to talk about it in terms other than the words that we cannot quite critically justify: brilliant, genius, masterful, etc. To this day, whenever I turn on Psycho and really pay attention to it, to its humor and horror and pathos, I feel energized. It’s as though I’m watching Hitch make the picture right in front of me, following him on every decision, and wondering just how he manages to do it.
I experienced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a very different way. It is not nearly so technically masterful as Psycho. It also literalizes events in the original book that were perhaps better left metaphorical. It is something like a fever dream – a very weird trip without much of a plot and highly episodic. For all that, it exceeds my idea of a ‘favorite movie’. I had spent much of my life in high school living in the past, wanting to return to the perceived cleanliness of the Victorian era. Fear and Loathing as a film knocked that right out of me. It didn’t matter if it happened in the 1970s, the 1990s or now; it was the spirit of the thing. Long before I ever read the book, the film made me realize the bullshit that was the master narrative of Western society and how invested I was in it. It sent me straight to the bookstore to buy the novel, launching my passion for Hunter S. Thompson and a desire to rage against the machine. It also branded a Gonzo tattoo on my arm that I have never regretted.
Affection for films is not always perfectly directed. My first experience of The Who (my favorite band after The Beatles) was in Tommy, the 1975 film by Ken Russell. Far from a great movie, it’s more of a series of music videos strung together. It falls apart nearing the end. What’s more, instead of casting The Who in the key roles (except for Roger Daltrey at the titular character), Russell cast actors like Oliver Reed (who cannot sing to save his life) and Anne Margret (who can). Random cameos from everyone from Eric Clapton to Elton John round out the picture. Weirdly, The Who, perhaps the most energetic band in rock history, only appear as group briefly, once as Elton John’s backup on ‘Pinball Wizard’ and then again in ‘Sally Simpson’. But, for all its flaws, Tommy remains one of those films that actually changed my perspective on the world. I did not know that rock music could do that. The crazy surrealism of the images mixed with the exceptional music (and a few pretty bizarre turns from Tina Turner, Jack Nicolson, Daltrey and Keith Moon) were my first real introduction to surrealism and, more importantly, the music of The Who. The movie, more than listening to the rock opera (which is much better than Russell’s picture), inspired me to … well, want to blow up some drums and smash some amps.
Finally, I want to say a word about The Passenger. I don’t think any other Antonioni film can match it in my affections, although I acknowledge that much of his earlier work are probably technically better and more complex. Up until The Passenger I had been mildly obsessed with classic films – that is, films made during the studio system in Hollywood. I had seen plenty of art house features – Truffaut, Godard, Renoir, etc. – but none that moved me beyond the mere understanding of them as ‘great’ films. The Passenger changed my perspective in a deep and abiding way. Being a college kid, I believed I identified with Nicholson’s performance as a man with constantly shifting identities, unable to occupy any one space as himself; the depths of the existential crisis that the film, along with its main character, undergoes. The truly remarkable final sequence that cannot be described, and really should not be, is everything that is right with cinema. But what I love about The Passenger is that it is more than sum of its parts. It builds a perfect narrative that is, in essence, quite simple and very much like your average thriller (man takes on dead man’s identity, gets into trouble because of it). But it proved to me that art house films are interesting for a reason, that they need not be boring or long-winded (as far too many are), and that cinema can provide as much depth and elegance as any great work of literature. Which, I admit, I had not known nor understood until The Passenger.
There are other films I could talk about that affected me in a similar way … like The Fearless Vampire Killers, Last Year at Marienbad, A Hard Day’s Night, M, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, How To Steal a Million, or Hugo. When the sum of all the films I have seen so far is added, there are only a few that I can say affected me in a deep way. But when you come across that one film that just gets you … wow. What an experience. I think that’s how you become a cinephile.