The Emergence of a Sensibility: The Films of My Life

I started thinking on the subway last night about the films that were my #1 favorites at different ages and stages of my life, starting when I was first beginning to seriously consider the art of filmmaking. Believe it or not, this started around the age of 9. When I was attempting to remember these favorites throughout the ages, I started considering how those films have helped shape my filmmaking sensibility as it is now.

Below, I have listed my #1 favorite film from ages 9 through 26, and a runner-up (i.e. a film that almost -- but didn't quite -- usurp the exalted #1 spot) and have explained how it contributed to the way I make films now. These were (and are), for better or for worse, the films of my life.

 Ages 9-11: The Ipcress File (Sidney J. Furie) - It's as simple as this: I had never seen anything like it, and it still remains one of my favorite films to this day, and a key influence on my deciding to make a career out of film.  The film uses the camera like Jascha Heifitz played his fiddle.  The first shot I ever "stole" for one of my own works was from this film.  The overcast mood of the film remains one of the most affective exploitations of atmosphere to dictate the film's vision.  And it was a spy film, not a hoity-toity art film.  My young self was undoubtedly saying, "How cool is that!"

Runner-Up: Green Card (Peter Weir) - At age 10, I asked everyone and their mother if they had seen this film. If they hadn't, I recommended that they did. It was a most unusual film for a kid that age to be recommending, and it was the first time my parents' heads were turned -- equally in concern and secret delight. It was very much my first obsession with a single film. The New York City depicted in it, the fascinatingly unusual leitmotifs (Africa, African things, the mystification of Georges' non-privileged primitivistic life, et al.), the nuts and bolts of performance (it was the first time I became cognizant of an actor, namely Gerard Depardieu, using his/her "instrument") and so many other things. It was also the first time that I was also aware of directorial voice. My upcoming film, A Simple Game of Catch, actually owes a great deal to this film, more subconsciously than anything else.  Also, my Woody Allen interest was spurred around this time as well. My induction to New York on film was cemented by these, in conjunction with Green Card. By this point, I was also reading and learning non-stop about foreign and arthouse films via my 1991 TLA Guide, the best movie review book ever (yes, that particular edition, which my father bought for me at the Somerset, PA Georgian Place Shops, as a "shut-up-so-your-mom-can-shop-in-peace" present).

Ages 11-12: Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer)
I did what can be regarded as nothing other than a total 180 from Green Card, a pleasant and upbeat (although tonally unusual) romcom, and a half-hearted extension of The Ipcress File with aesthetics not even half as interesting.  I turned my interest to a bleak science fiction tale about mass canabalism. It was the New York in the film that got to me, though, which is especially interesting because the whole film was shot on the MGM backlot in Hollywood! I really don't know why I was so in love with this film at the time. Maybe it was because I was the slightest bit aware of an agenda beyond the actual story, and that this element didn't make itself obnoxiously loud and clear. There was also something fascinating about the VHS pan-and-scan of the film -- no other film I had seen to that point looked like that, and for that reason! The wide 2.35:1 frame had been severely cut to a 4x3 screen-size and, in this particular film, it caused some picture distortions that utterly fascinated me. My love affair with pan-and-scan began here.
Blow-Up (Antonioni) - I simply had never seen anything else like it. I felt cool and mature for appreciating it too. I remember taking pages of virtually worthless notes on one particular viewing of the film. It boggled my mind when I was an 11-year-old.
Diner (Levinson) - I loved it at the time because it felt so unlike bigger studio films that I had seen to that point, no other reason. It was a major film on the fringes. I also recommended it to many, which is something I didn't do with Blow-Up.

Ages 13-14: Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni)
After Blow-Up, it was logical I move on from there. My rapturous cinematic love affair with the "journey film" began with this film -- and my film The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour (2011) owes so much to this one. Even on a pan-and-scan VHS, at the age of 12, I was hypnotized by the airplane dodging the car on that slender open desert road, that sweeping helicopter shot over the dunes to the car, and those rich desert locales, and its depiction of urban American alienation. Also, its 60's political conscience and radicalism and the soundtrack (which, despite being firmly rooted in the 60's, was still way ahead of its time -- especially when you compare it to the awful and just plain putrid "song soundtracks" of other films of its era). The general flavor of the film just spoke to me at that age, perhaps also because the film distinctly honed a European's POV of an America gone awry. My proclivity for the 60's and for the journey in cinema began here. Also, it really got the ball rolling with my comprehensive viewing of every American film made in the late 60's/early 70's -- and it is comprehensive.
Runner-Up: Sometimes a Great Notion (Paul Newman) This was an extension of Zabriskie Point for me at this age, although many people would question why. My attraction towards the Pacific Northwest started here (only to reach its apex on my trips to Humboldt).

Ages 14-16: Far From the Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger)
I loved how this film was both epic and intimate. It had an Overture, an Intermission and an Entr'acte, but there was no war to be seen, no battles to be fought (except for ones of the heart) and nothing traditionally epic -- but it still was. Also, the directorial voice was extremely strong and the period research was the genuine article (right down to the nineteenth century folk songs and the way they were performed). Richard Rodney Bennett's score also had me entranced. Also, this film feels the least like a studio film of any other "big" adaptation, let alone of the time, even though MGM produced and distributed it. It plays like an independent production of a Victorian literary adaptation. Perhaps that has a lot to do with Nic Roeg's camerawork in it.
Runners-Up: Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger) - At this time, John Schlesinger was a favorite director, although I didn't see Midnight Cowboy until a year after this one.

Ages 16-17: Les uns et les autres (Claude Lelouch) (a.k.a. Bolero)
My obsession with the epic -- and, by proxy, the epic length -- continued. I was obsessed with this film and, for a long time, I tried to mimic it in my own treatments of film projects because Lelouch worked with such a gapingly large canvas and tied things together extraordinarily well without being at all conclusive. Also, he directed this film in stylistic long-hand, which was a lesson for me. This film, which I still love, makes me now ask the question "How much stylization is over-stylization?" But I still love(d) everything in this film: the music (the songs and the scoring) by Francis Lai and Michel Legrand, the camerawork by Jean Boffety, how it successfully tells what feels like a zillion parallel stories, and how colorfully it depicts Europe during World War II -- no other film compared for me at the time. It was far and away #1.

Ages 17-18: O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson)
Around the time I graduated high school, I found myself absolutely infatuated with the sheer audacity of this film, yet another epic-length film about a Candide-like coffee salesman on a strange (sometimes surrealist), long and winding road.  Years later, when I met what ultimately became a now very close friend of mine, we discovered that we liked each other even more upon discovering that O Lucky Man! was her favorite film, and was a favorite of mine.  There was a camaraderie and immediate rapport because of our mutual love for this film.  And, I was about to forge my own life of independence, it packed a considerable punch.  Now matter how much we hear the old cliché about life's road never taking you where you expect, this film functions as a quintessential cinematic reminder of that very truthful truism.  I almost believe that it should be required viewing for young people about to live independently for the first time in life.  It should be a reminder for them to "try not to die like the dog."

Ages 18-23: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell and Pressburger)
This is still one of those special films to me -- and my love affair with the epic still continued. My first feature, A Trip to Swadades (2008), owes a majority of its stock to this film. It is just a no-holds-barred masterpiece which cannot be disputed, and the ending still chokes me up whenever I see it. And the color in this film would probably make Vincente Minnelli go into convulsions of envy.
Runner-Up: Kings and Desperate Men (Alexis Kanner) It was just uber-original -- and I liked it even more so because everyone else seemed to hate it.

Ages 23-25: Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette)
Finally, at this time, I had found an artist whose sensibility paralleled my own. I bought a VHS of it at a flea market in Pittsburgh for $2 and just didn't get it the first time I tried to watch it. Then I watched it again, and then again, and I couldn't stop looking at it. By then, my main goal in making a film was realized: to make films that echo beyond the initial experience of viewership, no matter if people dislike it. They can dislike it, but it matters to me more that it echoes and resonates beyond just a simple movie-watching experience, to the point that they can't dash it out of their mind so easily, as one could a cinematic treacle.

Ages 25-26: (tie) Celine and Julie Go Boating / La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette)
La Belle Noiseuse recently snuck up on Celine and Julie Go Boating, and starting sharing the #1 spot. Two Rivettes in the #1 spot. There is no better film about the creative process than La Belle Noiseuse -- it's just as simple as that.

Age 26: Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra)
This film does not fit so neatly into my filmmaking sensibility, but it comes closer to perfection than most any other I have seen. No, Jutra has not dethroned Jacques Rivette as my favorite filmmaker, nor will he ever dethrone him. First of all, Jutra was never consistent enough to usurp Rivette, who is rock solid in consistency. If I felt comfortable with fitting three films into one #1 slot, it would be this film and the two above. But Mon Oncle Antoine just has everything going for it. It will be one of the films I watch every time before I go into a new production.