How I Fell for Film
Godard, Bresson, Kurosawa—it doesn’t get any better than that.
After the cultural wasteland of this summer’s Hollywood releases the oasis of the Canadian film festival season is upon us, and I will be there, once again excited by movies despite all odds. As well as the celebrations in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, hundreds of other film festivals are held annually around the world. It is a growth industry often more akin to reality-TV weddings and celebrity trials than the enjoyment of thoughtful movies. But among the glitterati and the young seeking glimpses of the stars, you can still find my generation, greying and bleary-eyed, mingling nostalgia with incurable optimism. Cinephilia can be controlled but never cured.
In the early 1990s, I stopped telling my students that film was the art of the twentieth century. These children of Blockbuster Video were eager to get industry jobs, not indulge in extravagant dreams. It even seemed cruel to suggest to them that the shelf life of cinema as an art form had been less than a hundred years and they had missed it. Besides, it was faintly embarrassing to recall that for some of us, long ago, cinema had been all-consuming.
It was 1959, shortly after I had refused to be shipped off to that peculiar form of incarceration, the English boarding school. Thwarted in their initial scheme to widen their son’s horizons, my parents turned to Plan B— culture—and persuaded the Peterborough Film Society to let me become a member. On Sunday evenings for the next few winters, my mother and I squeezed into her tiny car and drove across East Anglia to be educated by cinema.
Neither parent had planned on their youngest son being kidnapped by film. Under the girders of a reclaimed Nissen hut, I fell in love with movies with a fanaticism that took almost four decades to shake. Driving home in the dark, I wondered if my mother realized that she was losing a child to Andrzej Wajda, Gillo Pontecorvo, and other great film directors. I was entranced by these brilliant strangers who beckoned from the back streets of unknown cities promising revolution.
I clearly recall that as I entered my teenage years civilization was going through a bad patch. My older sister had returned from Paris to inform us that God was dead, England was still remembering rationing, my left-wing aunts were quarrelling bitterly over Soviet betrayals, and Buddy Holly had just died. Only movies offered hope.
That winter the family drove to London to see John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger. I was bored. Why agonize over pusillanimous England when on any Sunday night I could escape to the exuberance of Federico Fellini’s Italy or the India of Satyajit Ray? My political aunts might despair of Cold War rhetoric, but from socialist Europe came a flood of movies that promised a golden future. I had no doubt that my sister was right and that God was dead, but who cared—I had just discovered the films of Yasujiro Ozu and Jean Renoir. Was neurosis ever more fun than in the films of Bergman, elitism more satisfying than through my new-found passion for Hawks and Ford, anything more wonderful than living in the Paris of Truffaut, Rivette, and Godard? To my parents, brought up on the great Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s, I am sure their movie-obsessed child was like a born-again Christian, strident and annoying, but I would brook no opposition. With nothing else to believe in, I would believe in cinema.
When my parents finally packed me off to boarding school, one of my aunts gave me a handbook on starting a film society. Aimed at rehabilitating inmates of Her Majesty’s prisons, the instructions worked equally well in the more repressive atmosphere of my private school. I think my aunt had hoped that The Wild One, The Battle of Algiers, and Ashes and Diamonds would awaken a spirit of rebellion among these children of privilege, but I had no intention of encouraging democratic tendencies among my classmates. The film club was fed a strict diet of Hitchcock, Ford, and other classics. I had already begun to display the arrogance of a true cinephile. All films might be equal, but some are more equal than others.
At eighteen, rather than head off to university, I crossed the Atlantic to run errands for a film company in Manhattan. Life was wonderful. I shared a sublet with cockroaches on the Upper West Side and was within walking distance of the repertory theatres strung along Broadway. I fraternized with a group of young Jewish and Italian film students who understood that arguing loudly about movies while gulping down Chinese-Cuban food between screenings was the way to live. I was British and had to learn both skills.
The French New Wave and anti-Vietnam War protests were both picking up steam, and we could not bear to miss either. The war enraged us, but it was cinema that dominated our dreams. We were excited by the new, and enough original films were made at this time to win our lifelong loyalty. We were also still of an age when ambition and lust are easily mistaken. In the morning we might respect our hero directors but at night we could not help noticing that Rossellini had rearranged bombed-out Rome to be a backdrop for glorious Anna Magnani; that while the rest of the twentieth century was going to hell, Michelangelo Antonioni’s camera lingered on Monica Vitti’s passive beauty; that even Ingmar Bergman was inspirited by new lovers. In short, that obsession with a beautiful woman was a perfectly sound basis for even the most serious filmmaking.
Hollywood had taught previous generations how to kiss; we were being taught how to dream. By now a few of us had begun to write about cinema, and our new theories, glorifying the director at any cost, mostly glorified our own ambitions. The films we adored were often made by directors hardly older than we were, and if they basked in glory now, why not us tomorrow? Just as millions waited to hear if the Beatles could repeat the freshness of A Hard Day’s Night, we waited to see if Truffaut and the others could match the inspiration of their early films. When these artists grew in stature with each new work we were thrilled.
At work, we argued over the ideas of the critic André Bazin and a writer in California called Pauline Kael who was cutting swaths through the gospel according to Hollywood. In the evenings, Jean-Luc Godard showed us that we could pack almost anything into a movie, while Robert Bresson demonstrated that the deepest film experience could be built on nothing more than the absence of God. During the weekends, we took our borrowed equipment out into the streets and tried to copy the camera moves of Sam Fuller and Akira Kurosawa. We were like adolescent poets growing up in the shadows of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Change was in the air. As I walked south on Broadway to Soho young painters were reinventing abstract art, while uptown in the Bronx equally creative artists were being liberated by graffiti and the sounds of early rap. Great gaps had been ripped in the fabric of tradition. It was a time of innovation and revolution, and we could hardly wait to grow up and become part of it.
That year Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution came to Manhattan, quickly followed by Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and Masculin/Féminin. In Greenwich Village I attended a festival of Antonioni films, and at the Museum of Modern Art watched movies from Quebec by young filmmakers living the dream so many of us had—of making films that would change society. By the time letters began to arrive from my parents demanding to know what I was going to do with my life, I already knew. I was going to make films. The 1960s might not have seen the dawn of film, but to be young and in love with cinema was very heaven.
Were we any different than other generations of film buffs—the star-struck audiences of the 1930s, the young filmmakers in the 1990s who adored all things Tarantino, or my most recent film students, who look obsessively to video games for inspiration? I think those of us who passed so much of the 1960s in the darkness of New York’s Thalia Cinema, the Paris Pullman in London, the Cinemathèque in Paris, and the seconda visione houses in Rome were just lucky. We had been brought up to believe that cinema was important. In Japan, Italy, and across the whole Soviet empire, movies had spoken up for what was most liberal during the tumultuous years after the war. We just assumed that we had inherited this mantle, even if we had done little to deserve it. We had been moved by the ideas as well as the images and took it for granted that one day our own lives would become as cosmopolitan and passionate.
Truthfully, it was more a lucky coincidence that new lightweight cameras and sync-sound had made filmmaking more democratic at the same time as the supremacy of Hollywood was dented by television. Fearful of the new medium, the studios and distributors looked around for any gimmick to hold their audiences—even creativity. Not only could we put our small Aeton camera on a shopping cart to film life in a downtown bar, but we could go to our local cinema and pay to see films that had taken brilliant advantage of the same freedoms.
Each time the theatre lights dimmed, we felt we might see something inspired and original. It took decades for us to lose these expectations, to settle instead for the well-made and somewhat surprising. Later, the studios would regroup and suffocate the film world with their vast budgets and mindless remakes, but, for a tiny window of time, films that were new and poetic were allowed on Main Street and we could believe that art and cinema were one and the same. To grow up in such an era can mark a young dreamer forever.
Of course, we were not alone in our conviction that a new era had dawned. The film company where I worked was on Union Square, and at the end of the day we would cross the square to Max’s Kansas City, a new bar that had become an artists’ hangout. Here we would listen to Robert Rauschenberg harangue Carl Andre on the future of painting, pay attention to Robert Smithson as he explained his latest earth project, or gawk at Andy Warhol and his painted posse in the back room. Even in this brilliant company we felt no need to apologize for our love of movies. Film had been dubbed by many “the art of the twentieth century,” and future stars of the New York art scene were happy to agree. For a short time film led the creative charge.
Since then, decades have passed. Like many of my old friends, I still make movies, still write about movies, still love movies. And yet, is it my generation’s fault that even the idea of commercial film as a dynamic art form seems absurdly self-indulgent? After all, it was my friends, or their friends, who invented the blockbuster, the importance of opening-weekend grosses, and the tent-pole franchise where a movie sells everything but imagination. Are we to blame for the death of movie magic, or are my students right that, like pop songs and poetry, the most wonderful films are always those you adored when you were young?
Festival season best captures this youthful fervour. Ironically, it is the main reason these events attracts a demographic long fled from regular movie houses. For two weeks this autumn we will all be young again, swapping movie gossip in theatre lineups, pretending we are still able to go without sleep as we are dragged to endless film parties, and falling in love with the stranger seated beside us in the theatre who speaks so eloquently of the films of Wong Kar-Wai. With rekindled passion we will count our passes and hold our breath as the lights dim, and, for a moment, we can dream that perhaps, even at this late date, our lives might be changed by a movie.