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Life in movies (and vice versa)

Or: This IS my beautiful life! How did I get here?

The deaths of Andrew Sarris and Bill Sweeney on the same day last week got me to ruminating about my own life with movies and what drew me to them so strongly from an early age. Yes, there's that innate childhood desire to escape into new worlds (see "Moonrise Kingdom), and to create them, too (I started writing stories and shooting live-action and animated movies with my dad's wind-up 8mm Kodak Brownie before I was in my teens). But I think I've always known, too, that movies are like dreams, less about escapism or distraction than about getting closer to an understanding of the relationship between your inner self and the world. Tom Noonan said: "I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." To me, the best movies have always been more real than real. Life, John Lennon sang, is what happens while you're making other plans; art gets to the core of what it means to be alive.

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I've had many life-and-death (and near-death) experiences in waking life that were no more vividly real, memorable, ecstatic, traumatic, or profoundly and indelibly affecting* than certain (sometimes recurring) dreams or, oh, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Sherlock Jr.," "Sansho Dayu," "Chinatown," "Nashville," "Kings of the Road," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Searchers," "Only Angels Have Wings," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Vertigo," "Un Chien Andalou," "No Country for Old Men" -- and those are just a few of the titles that popped into my head as I was typing this sentence. (And yet it's still such a young medium -- only a little more than a century old.) There are familiar places that exist only in my dreams, that I remember from dream to dream, and I revisit them often. Movies are those kinds of places, too.

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The bleak February night that my unconscious was colonized by Wim Wenders' 3-hour masterpiece "Kings of the Road," I impulsively got on the freeway and drove far into the night until finally I got tired enough to turn around and head for home again. (I really, really like my bed, an old brass one that belonged to my maternal grandpa.) When an experience fundamentally alters or crystallizes how you see the world, when you recognize what it reveals of yourself and enlarges your view of life in the world, it becomes part of you and you become an extension of it.

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The brain processes experiences and memories, vicarious or otherwise, in much the same way. You know (I hope) which were movies and which are memories, but by the time they become memories, as the final title of "Barry Lyndon" puts it, they are all equal, with their own deep-rooted, emotional associations. Similarly, my grandfather took lots of 8mm home movies, and many images I have of my own childhood aren't things I actually recall first-hand, but memories of those movies, and the stories my parents and grandparents told about them. That's the way we're wired.

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And that's how it began for me, as a personal relationship between me and the large, luminous rectangle. But later on, another kind of awareness crept in, probably triggered by seeing "2001" at Seattle's Cinerama theater when I was 11 or 12. That might have been the day I "officially" became a critic, whether I realized it or not. All I knew was that I had just witnessed something unforgettably mind-blowing and I needed to understand what it was. As Sarris said to Kent Jones, "What it really is, is first you see something, and you like it, and then it's a mystery, and you go into the mystery -- and that's what's interesting. And the test of criticism is: can you make a case for it."

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I've always needed to "make a case" to myself first, to figure out the movie and my relationship to it -- trying to re-live the movie and couple it with some soul-searching of my own. (Another of my dicta that isn't as simple as it sounds: a movie is about what you go through as you watch it.) My poor mom had to listen to all my unformed theories and turbulent feelings as they came pouring out of my mouth, unfiltered, as she prepared dinner and I walked dizzily in rapid OCD circles around the dining room table. And so, I often found myself seated at that table, like Roy Neary in "CE3K," faced with a pile of mashed potatoes, a lump of mystery on my plate, and an overwhelming feeling of urgency: "This means something. This is important."

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So, I went into the mystery because I knew I liked it, and I knew it was where I would discover myself. And I knew that was important but so was something else that took me a while to get my head around: movies were the art form of the era in which I was alive. Not so much because, in general, the medium was popular and pervasive (although it was and is), but because they were, as I saw it, the culmination of all the other arts, involving not only the eyes and ears (cinema is synesthesia), intellect and emotion, light and shadow, shape and color... It's the apotheosis of human creativity in so many of the arts: music, dance, literature, performance, poetry, painting, theater, sculpture, architecture... (I hope people in their teens and twenties today feel the same way about the creative possibilities of digital media, however they may evolve.)

Andrei Tarkovsky had my favorite phrase for it: "sculpting in time." And, yes, cinema itself -- and writing and talking about cinema -- is indeed like dancing about architecture. That's what it ought to be anyway -- just another form of expression. Or, in Godard's famous words, "In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie." He wasn't necessarily being literal about that. Nobody's used language (printed and spoken) in their films more demonstratively than Godard.

(The short clip above is from Tarkovsky's "Solaris." There's something almost identical in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life.")

In a previous post about 1/24 of a second in "Alien," I mentioned some of the various definitions people have attached to the term mise en scène, and mine is pretty close to what Tarkovsky sees in cinema: "The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame."

And in 2001 (the year not the movie), Sarris also wrote:

I once suggested a definition of mise en scène that includes all the means available to directors to express their attitude toward their subject. This takes in cutting, camera movement, pacing, the direction of players and their placement in the frame, the angle and distance of the camera, and even the content of the shot. Mise en scène as an attitude tends to accept the cinema as it is and enjoy it for what it is -- a sensuous conglomeration of all the other arts, more an emotional recapitulation than an intellectual formulation.

I like that. Godard (who, as I've said before, has said so many things that he's said to have said just about everything at one time or another, even if it was Luc Moullet) made the observation that a tracking shot (and, by extension I would argue, any camera position or motion or composition or cut or transition of images in that part of the narrative cinema that still involves photography) is a "moral statement." It says something about how the movie views its world, and is creating it moment by moment. As long as I'm throwing out all these free-associative quotations, let's acknowledge whoever it was who said something like: "You can't stop movies from meaning things." Even if they don't necessarily mean what you or I or their makers want them to.

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It took me a long time to realize that my compulsive love of photography had to do with trying to preserve and hold onto ephemeral moments, and to idealize them by arranging them into a composition. (If I liked it then I tried to put a frame around it.) I got into this a little bit in my post about the specimen-box compositions of Wes Anderson in "Moonrise Kingdom." It's a hedge against death. Futile, but we all do what we can, doomed to live with the certainty that death is bound to win eventually (which is what "No Country for Old Men" is explicitly about).

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And then, in that way that everything has of connecting up with everything else through a lattice of coincidence (plate o' shrimp), I was editing a Demanders piece on Jonathan Caouette's "Walk Away Renee" (available through SundanceNOW) and while I was looking for images and video for the page layout, I came across an extraordinary interview he did in with Felix von Boehm of cine-fils.com in 2008 that seemed to pull together so much of what I've been thinking about in the last week or so. The subject was cinephilia:

Caouette says:

There was a period for years, like from the time I was about 7 until I was probably about 10 years old where I would go into a movie theater with a dictaphone tape recorder and record the audio from the movies -- or from the TV. And then my granddad would take me to the drug store or wherever and buy me a big think of typing paper with markers and I would draw out, almost frame by frame, the movies based on the audio. And I saved these forever.

I could help but think of the asthmatic child Martin Scorsese creating movie-worlds in the form of drawings and dioramas.

The interviewer asks Caouette if he wanted to possess the films. No hesitation:

Yeah, I did, I did. I wanted to possess the films and I just wanted to be a filmmaker. I was glued to the television as a child. Watching movies, for me, was always a means of escapism. It was the only thing I had and I think, inadvertently, it had become my film school for many, many years. I watched everything. [...]

I knew in some way, in some form or fashion, that I had to be a part of that experience.

That's the epiphany all of us cinephiliac true believers have had, and that changed our lives definitively. Sometimes -- especially when week-to-week openings in mainstream commercial houses are so depressing (popular movies weren't always this dismal for such long stretches at a time, though we complained about 'em back in the 1970s and 1980s, too) -- it's hard to keep the faith, to remember that feeling that drew you irresistibly to the movies in the first place.

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At Ebertfest a few years ago, I had lunch with Jonathan, his boyfriend David Paz and publicist extraordinaire Mickey Cottrell in the green room before the screening of "Tarnation." I had no idea what I was in for. "Tarnation" is one of those rare and invaluable autobiographical constructions, like Christopher Wilcha's "The Target Shoots First" and Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans," that could never have been made at any other point in history, because they rely upon story-savvy people recording their own lives for years with small, consumer-grade video cameras. Afterwards, I was speechless and could only thank Jonathan by telling him how glad I was that he had survived that childhood and young adulthood to make the movie -- on his Mac.

Caouette continues on the subject of movies:

It's a captured dream. It's the only medium where I'm able to fully implement and emulate my dreams onto film.... All movies to me are like recurring dreams that you can just go into... that you can access. And I hope to actually be able to do that one day, in the real dream world. [...]

I think in general I've always loved to engage myself in activities and situations which would enable me to hold on to moments, whether it be recording myself or recording other people. I've been very, very fixated all my life about the idea of holding on to moments.

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This is, of course, the man whose mother's memory and personality has been damaged and greatly erased by more than 200 electroshock treatments.

The interviewer asks Caouette if, in this age when widely available video cameras make the recording of everyday moments possible, that devalues the moments themselves.

No. Not at all. If anything it gains. It's good to hold onto things and it's good to hold onto moments -- at least as a filmmaker. Because you never know when you might need those moments for something...

And the final question, referring to a motif in Caouette's work: "Is life a train?"

Yeah, life is a train. It is sort of looking, gazing out the window and seeing terrain go by very quickly -- to great music. That's what life is to me.

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(Insert images of Bruno Winter and Robert Lander, on diverging routes, near the end of Wim Wenders' "Im Lauf Der Zeit" ["In the Course of Time"/"Kings of the Road," 1976], one of the greatest road/train/movie-movies ever made, here. And Howard K. Smith in "Nashville": "As a matter of fact, Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me.")

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For me, life is the train from Buster Keaton's "Our Hospitality," that goes over rocks and sometimes leaves the rails altogether. Movies are trains because, unlike life, someone has laid down the tracks.

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François Truffaut said: "I still ask myself the question that has tormented me since I was thirty years old: Is cinema more important than life?" I don't know if he ever found an answer for himself (he died at age 52 and he lives in his films), but I question the artificial distinction embedded in the premise. It's like asking whether your interior life is more important than your exterior life, or your intellect is more important than your dreams. They're all extensions of one another, aren't they?

- - - - -

* What happens in your life, in your dreams, in your movies, is in many ways less important than how you absorb and process it. Psychologists and psychiatrists emphasize that the impact of an experience varies greatly according to the individual. An unkind word may be more devastating to one child, and leave more lasting damage, than a physical assault to another.

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For Julia.

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