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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Meet the Writers: Godfrey Cheshire

Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. Here's Godfrey Cheshire, who will be leading our New York Film Festival coverage this year and currently holds a position as one of our leading film critics.

The Movie Love Questionnaire

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

Raleigh, NC, in the suburbs like "Leave It to Beaver," though on weekends I’d often escape to my mother’s family’s plantation, which was like "Gone With the Wind" and which, as I’ve said before, was for me a realm of imagination akin to what the movie theater later became.

Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

No one else in my family was especially into movies, though when I visited Midway Plantation (see above) as a teen, one of the residents was the Raleigh newspaper’s film critic, a very entertaining guy named Bill Morrison; I don’t think he affected my tastes but I really enjoyed talking with him about movies.

What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

I don’t remember the earliest movies I saw, though as a kid my tastes ran to adventure films, war movies, westerns, Doris Day comedies, lots of Disney releases (a couple of execrable exceptions are noted below), sci-fi, jukebox musicals, Hammer and Roger Corman horror movies, and anything starring Elvis or John Wayne.

What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."

Easy: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." I was eleven. When I saw the title "Directed by John Ford" at the end, I knew this was the person responsible for what I loved about the movie: the elegiac tone, the humor, the bad-assness of Lee Marvin’s villain. I’ve often cited this as the decisive moment when I was set on the path to becoming a film critic. When Ford’s next film, "Cheyenne Autumn," came to town, none of my friends wanted to go because it didn’t have a hit song or John Wayne and the downtown theater was being picketed by civil rights demonstrators, but I snuck through the picket line and saw it by myself.

What's the first movie you ever walked out of?

I don’t recall but I’d like to think it was both/either "Old Yeller" and/or "Bambi" since I think the idiots at Disney responsible for these assaults on the sensitivities of kids must be considered sadists.

What's the funniest film you've ever seen?

A tie: "Cat Ballou" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," both films where I recall laughing till I almost couldn’t breathe.

What's the saddest film you've ever seen?

"Shoah"

What's the scariest film you've ever seen?

"Psycho": I was in eighth grade and spilled an orange soda on my white jeans in guess which scene.

What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?

"Lawrence of Arabia"

What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

I did a lot thinking about this when I was a kid. Some of the shows that stimulated me most were "Combat!," "The Twlight Zone," "77 Sunset Strip," and I recall one two-part episode of the B&W "Gunsmoke" guest-starring John Drew Barrymore that I thought was fantastic. My first published review, for my high-school paper, was of the wonderfully psychedelic Patrick MacGoohan show "The Prisoner."

What book do you think about or revisit the most?

"The Enneads" by Plotinus

What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

The Beatles, by far. I was hitting puberty when they hit America, and they were the first band I ever saw play live. There was no looking back.

Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

Many of the movies I consider great are ones I’m not likely to return to, because there are now so many films going into release, and so little time: this is one of the film critic’s big dilemmas currently.

What movie have you seen more times than any other?

"Moving Midway," which I wrote and directed. It’s amazing you can see your own movie innumerable times and not get tired of it. Next to that one, "Gimme Shelter," starring the Rolling Stones and directed by David and Albert Mayles and Charlotte Zwerin; a great music doc, even a very disturbing one like this, can be played over and over like an album.

What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

I don’t recall, but when I think "R-rated movie," the film that flashes to mind is Nicolas Roeg’s "Don’t Look Now," which had a famously steamy sex scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.

What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?

"2001: A Space Odyssey"

Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole, Clint Eastwood

Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Lillian Gish, Vivien Leigh, Julie Christie, Meryl Streep

Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?

Abbas Kiarostami

Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?

There are a handful but I’d rather not honor them with a mention.

What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

Can’t think of one.

What film do you hate that most people love?

The list is long but "Forrest Gump" would be near the top.

Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

I’m not including this because of where I’m writing. I’ve often said that the most memorable experience I’ve had in a movie theater was showing the Iranian film "Children of Heaven" to a theater full of school children at Ebertfest (then the Overlooked Film Festival) and then fielding their questions afterwards with Roger and Chaz. The kids were completely with the movie from the first to its exciting end, and their comments were wonderful. There was a lot of love in that room.

What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

Video ads before the movies. And too many previews (another kind of ad).

What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

When I was a kid in Raleigh, there were two downtown theaters, the State and the Ambassador, that were old-style movie palaces of a bygone era, even though they had the latest equipment. I remember how grand and impressive they were, and cool in the summer. I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" at the Ambassador in 70mm when it premiered; maybe the most dazzling movie experience I’ve ever had. It’s a shame that Raleigh let both theaters be destroyed; there’ll never be ones like them again.

Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

I disagree with friends all the time about movies. But the only time I can ever recall damaging a friendship was when the friend was a filmmaker who said he wanted me to be completely honest in my review, but didn’t really. That’s why I often steer away from reviewing friends’ movies.

What movies have you dreamed about?

I’d like to turn this question around and say that I used to dream frequently about Midway Plantation, where I spent a lot of time as a child, but when I made a film about the place, the dreams stopped. (For obvious reasons this reminds me of Hitchcock’s "Rebecca.") But it’s been several years since the film was completed, and just recently the dreams have returned.

What concession stand item can you not live without?

None.

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