Saturday, September 13, 2008

Big Screen on a Friday Night

I grew up knowing that the pleasure of films went beyond simply viewing them.

When my oldest brother sent home a record set of the entire soundtrack – music and dialogue – of Mike Nichols’ film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I sniffed the promise of a particular kind of conversation. It was conversation that would draw on understanding the freeing possibilities of art and on asking the hard questions about life itself. My brother’s visits back home were the occasion for invoking the lines of Edward Albee’s play in various situations. Those lines became a kind of private language by which we exchanged impressions about a lot we saw and didn’t see in our parents’ household and the world beyond it. “George and Martha – sad, sad, sad…”

My favorite teacher in high school included me among the students he took to a series of Ingmar Bergman films at a local university. I was frankly intimidated by the world I saw in those films and wondered whether I even understood all the questions that the Swedish filmmaker was raising in them. I approached that teacher on another occasion when I had just seen Julie Christie in the movie Darling; I admitted to him that I didn’t understand why the main character was so taken by the elderly academic whom she visits once in the company of her journalist boyfriend. It took me a while to learn that my teacher was even more interested in my questions about the films I saw than he was in my answers.

My best friend in high school invited me to see my first Eric Rohmer film with subtitles at what was then the Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans. Ted smoked a cigarette as we exited the museum that Sunday afternoon and, after talking about the black-and-white landscapes of My Night at Maud’s, asked whether I would be willing to make a short film with him. His parents had agreed to buy him a Super-8 camera and tripod and projector and provide all the film he needed and cover the developing costs of the film. I became both actor and co-director, and Ted and I discussed what effects we wanted to create in our film and why. Even more valuably, though, we learned what happens inside an artist’s heart when we ended up at times seeing in the developed film something better than any of the effects we had originally planned. And I fell in love with him.

Hearing of my experience making short films, my supervisor at the high school where I did something like student teaching asked me to help with a one-semester arts elective in filmmaking and film appreciation. Of course I learned as much as I taught that semester. Nothing helped me better understand the vocabulary of the filmmaker than a short film available from Janus on the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Watching again and again the series of shots showing Cary Grant gaining access to the wine cellar of a Nazi collaborator and discovering the hiding place for enemy uranium, I got it – got what any filmmaker tries to accomplish with each frame of the movie that escapes the editor’s floor. My cinematic eyes had been opened further.

Movies were a key bond between one of my first work colleagues and his wife Greta and me. Fresh from advanced degree work, Paul and Greta longed for a kind of company that seemed in short supply sometimes in the Florida city where we had all gotten our first teaching jobs. Comparative literature, art history, French literature and theology – our recent academic backgrounds made us natural partners on a Saturday evening. Greta would sit on their sofa, feet tucked under her, and sip the wine Paul had poured and probe one more facet of a character from a film we had just seen. “Who really does things like that when they learn a friend has cancer?!?” Greta did not succumb to the melodrama of a movie like Bobby Deerfield in the way that I might, but her questions came from the delight of talking with friends who said things that she thought mattered. Films mattered in the conversations with which we lengthened weekend evenings. "I'll be curious to see what you think" meant something when we said it to one another.

All this personal film history – and more – came to the surface Friday evening as I settled into a seat by myself at a 7 o’clock showing of North by Northwest. It was a Friday evening on my own, and I had omitted making any plans earlier in the week; a 24-hour bug had left me iffy about committing to anything. At an art house in the university section of the city, I got to do something that I have not done in a long time. I allowed sudden whim to get me somewhere to see something that had nothing more compelling to recommend it than that it called to me. Crop duster and Mount Rushmore and all.

And I enjoyed myself. I gave in to the experience. I yielded to the big screen. I savored the wonder of seeing what was familiar and then seeing things I had forgotten to expect or to notice before. I monitored no one’s enjoyment but my own. Sitting at a hotel bar an hour earlier, I had mentioned to another bar patron my plans to see the Hitchcock at the nearby movie house. “Hitchcock on the big screen – what a treat!” she said. And she was right. I had made a good decision on how to spend the evening. I had made a decision out of the best in my personal history. I had fundamentally said to myself, "I'll be curious to see what you think."

Mine had been one more hopeful face lifted in delight at the show before us all.

Photo from Soundtrack Collector

1 comment:

Ur-spo said...

My favorite teacher of analytical psychiatry used movie clips to illustrate his points.
Oh, I wish I kept better notes and kept a list of the movies we saw to illustrate them!