THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
Recently, I had the urge to write about the films I really love, the films that have demonstrably meant something to me in my life, that have changed my thinking about the world and made me into the person that I am. I wanted to write about these movies and explain them, explain how film as an art-form can hold a deeper meaning and how the art has the ability to get down into a person's soul and do something to them. I wanted to write about films I struggled with and returned to, the decisions I made in life and the ideas I have floating around in my brain that can be directly traced to movies. And not just my suspicion that Marina der Van did something really awful to my toothbrush. The 6 films I am going to write about in this series changed the whole history of my life.
<< part one: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE >>
<< part two: NAKED >>
<< part three: THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD >>
"That was really embarrassing. Thank you for including me."
It was sometime during the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve in 1999. I lived in New Orleans, just behind the Notre Dame seminary, and every morning the heat would wake me up in my sweat-soaked bedsheets. It was no colder than 60 degrees outside, but that was the winter freeze to my landlord, the woman who occupied the other half of the squat little split-level duplex in which I was living. She would turn on the heat and, since there was no way to separately regulate the temperature in my half of the building, I would sleep at night with the windows open, stripped down to my boxer shorts, my wet hair clinging to the base of my neck, the sticky, stifling air blanketing me no what I tried. The winter in Louisiana hardly resembles a winter at all: the Christmas decorations that pop up in early December when it's still too hot to wear a jacket (or even long pants) all look wildly out of place, like it's actually April and everyone in the city just forgot to take down their colored lights and plastic wreaths. It's a brutally humid swamp of a city, so of course there's never any snow and then no sledding or snow-man building and the leaves don't turn into any of those brilliant autumnal shades, the cypress trees and river oaks just turn a little brown and sag down like the heat is even getting to them and they can't even pretend to be bright and green any longer. I suspect some folks in New Orleans do put logs in the hearth and cuddle up beside the fireplace, but only because their sense of hot and cold is so profoundly screwed up. All week long, as soon as I woke up, I had been greeted with the sound of intermittent, spastic, insect-y buzzing. In addition to torturing me with the heater, my landlord had recently sprayed for cockroaches and every morning a handful would sputter out of the walls and find their way into my living room and kitchen to die. Sure, the audible sputtering of dying cockroaches sounds horrible enough, but you're probably not understanding that these were Palmetto bugs: 3-inch long, winged monsters that would use their final ounces of strength to fly up to the ceiling and cling there until they randomly expired over the course of the day, dropping down directly onto my head on more than one occasion. On this particular morning, I sat up - the sheet clinging to my back even as I moved out of the bed - put on Remain in Light and thought about getting ready to make it to the 9:00.am. shift at my second job, a minimum wage endurance test at a soulless chain video store. When "Once in a Lifetime" came on, I thought to myself "Fuck you, David Byrne."
Well, how did I get there? If you want to read something about Whit Stillman's 1990 comedy of manners, you're going to be disappointed to the extent that this article has a very roundabout connection to the movie and I'm not really going to offer some meaningful analysis of the film or Stillman or anything along those lines. Of all of the essays in this series, this one on Metropolitan really won't be about the movie as much as it will be about watching a specific movie, at a specific moment and that specific moment and movie having a life-changing effect. If you like your long stories short, I'm warning you to go ahead and get off the train. The next sentence begins with "When I was five years old..." so you should understand that's where we're going with this - I won't even mention Chris Eigman until page 2. When I was five years old, I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and I instantly wanted to be Indiana Jones. After discussing it with my father, I came to terms with the facts that archeology is a tedious process of parsing minutiae, it's all but impossible to wrap a bull-whip around a small object and yank it back towards yourself, the Sankara stones are more religious hokum no different from any other religious hokum and if you attempt to use an inflatable life raft as a parachute you will die. Indiana Jones is a fantasy and when I grew up, there was zero percent chance of being Indiana Jones. Also: mining-cart tracks are not interchangeable with roller-coasters. Well, if I couldn't be Indiana Jones, then I wanted to be one of the people who created Indiana Jones and come as close to the fantasy world as possible: my dad next explained to me that there were people called "directors" who created those fantasy worlds and confusingly added that Egon from Ghostbusters was a director but not the director of Ghostbusters. It wasn't sure what to make of it, but I came away telling kids I wanted to be Egon. To which more than one replied, "Guess what nerdlinger, you already are." And then the social transaction was sealed with a fart in the face. But that's it. It's all true: from age 5, my sole aspiration in life was to become a filmmaker. My focus never wavered: if you asked me at any age what I wanted more than anything else in this life, my answer would have been "To make movies." It has always been difficult for me to imagine what it is like to not know what career you want. A guy I knew decided midway through college that he wanted to be a dentist. This still seems like one of the most strange and insane things I've ever heard.
When I came of movie-going age in the early 90's, there was a very specific narrative being sold by the media: independently financed cinema, or Indie Film, is breaking through to the mainstream, anyone can make a movie and have it be seen by large audiences! Films like Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990), Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) and Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth (1989) were all movies that I not only liked, but perfectly fit into the prefabricated media tale of scrappy underdogs breaking down barriers with their micro-budgeted films to bring art to the masses. Hell, these Indie Films are such a successful model that giant conglomerates like the Walt Disney corporation are getting into the act and buying small distributors and big-time actors like John Travolta and Julia Roberts are taking pay-cuts and forgoing trailers just to be a part of this amazing madness. Of course, looking back, there's some pretty big holes in the story, not the least of which is the complete debasement of the word "independent" which has led to some truly absurd things like the world's most massive corporations pouring millions into their "indie" boutique divisions with ridiculous names like "Warner Independent." But still, the fact remains that the aforementioned trio of films had budgets ranging from $27,000 to $225,000 and somehow had managed to find their way to me in Southern Chester county Pennsylvania. Because of this prevailing media environment, I don't think I ever doubted for one second that I could be one of these American Indie auteurs making micro-budgeted masterpieces. Of course I was naive: I was 14 years old, had no money or connections and wanted only one thing. If I was conned by the not-necessarily-truthful idea of AmerIndie egalitarianism, it's because it was my only option. I could handle the idea that Indiana Jones didn't exist, but I wouldn't have been able to cope with the idea that Whit Stillman didn't exist either.
A terrible student, filled with the most trying mixture of contrarianism and all but impossible to achieve life-goals, I essentially failed out of high school, stumbling my way down the educational ladder from Advanced Placement to remedial classes to summer school, from getting sympathetic lectures from open-minded teachers on my wasted potential to being ignored altogether. I had no intention of going to college. Even now, I'm not sure that our educational system, university level education in particular, serves much purpose beyond reinforcing pre-existing class structures. Just look at the numbers: if your parents went to a mid-sized state school, you are far more likely to attend a mid-sized state school than an Ivy League or a community college - study after study has popped the bubble of imagined class mobility in the U.S. and institutes of higher learning are undoubtedly a major tool used to enforce our rigid social structures. And as education becomes an increasingly "outcome" based proposition with an emphasis on the measurable utility and practical value of learning, the farther it moves from the original purposes (and meaning) of public education - the only meanings of education that appealed to me for even a moment. Certainly, I had (and have) no use for sitting in a room ingesting cookie-cut information explicitly lacking in value beyond increasing my ability to maximize the profitability of career: the answer starting from kindergarten to the question "why am I learning this?" invariably follows a stupid chain of "you are learning division so you can learn algebra so you can get into a good college so you can get a good job." Excuse me, lady, but you've mistaken me for someone else: work is for suckers. You expect me to put on a name-tag at some convention in Omaha or even once in my life to say "yes, sir" to someone I think is a jackass? And honestly, how is any of this going to get me any closer to making films? Everyone knows the Hollywood system is a bunk game, an impossible to crack network of old connections and flush wallets and even if you somehow buck the odds and weasel your way into that world the payoff is directing t.v. shows about hilarious dogs with dark secrets or soulful lawyers moonlighting as gourmet chefs. And then, maybe if you're lucky, after years of toiling in the pitiable muck of artless art, you can make this romantic comedy about a guy who is bad and doesn't tell the truth to the girl, but she finds out the truth and then after some soul-searching he apologizes.
I had my cinematic idol Werner Herzog and the embodiment of artistic integrity John Sayles both telling me film school was a waste of time: Herzog in particular demanded his acolytes to spit upon the very idea of sitting in a classroom as a path to creating art. The film school brat generation of American filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas left me entirely cold - of the most respected artists associated with the words "film school" there wasn't a one I had any desire to emulate. Going the Hal Hartley/Whit Stillman route seemed like the obvious choice: I often thought about the amusing anecdote that R.W. Fassbinder and Wim Wenders both applied for the National German film school the same year and, of the two, only Wenders was accepted. Fassbinder used the money he saved from school to make his first three feature films and became an international art sensation before Wenders was even done taking notes on how to operate a Bolex. So, when I applied to Hal Hartley's alma mater, the greatest film school on the planet, SUNY Purchase, it was with more than a touch of apprehension. Purchase promised a heavily experimental, hands-on experience: you made films on 16mm right out of the gate and never looked back. I had a friend already in the program and she assured me that it was all about filmmaking and that note-and-test-taking would be at a bare minimum. As much as it sounded like the university program closest to reconciling my desire to make films right away with the fact that I knew in my heart I wasn't Fassbinder and wasn't ready to make a feature film at age 17, I still felt like I was compromising and couldn't mentally commit to my decision. Besides, in the back of my mind, I felt like there was no way I could get in with my horrible academic record and the limited number of slots (they accept only 20 students a year,) so I had an easy out. Just apply and get rejected and be done with it. However, during my interview the dean casually told me I would be accepted and then chatted with me for a while about Bresson and the cathedral in Philadelphia where I shot the short film I had just shown her. So I went to film school and never fully convinced myself that I wasn't a coward and a sellout.
After my sophomore year, I broke mentally, I suppose. School wasn't working. I had one teacher that I adored (the incomparable Greg Taylor) but most of his film history class was stuff I already knew. It really stunned me when I got to college and the students around me didn't know who Roberto Rossellini was and hadn't seen basic classics like The Passion of Joan of Arc. I know that finding non-blockbuster titles was harder back in those days, but are really telling me you decided to devote yourself to the study of film because of Sixteen fucking Candles? Or that you really think Goodfellas is the greatest film ever made? I'm embarrassed looking back at my arrogance and even more embarrassed to understand that so many of my strongest emotions are the result of insecurity and resentment, but at the same time there's a lot of validity to my point of view at the time: "what am I doing here if everyone around me doesn't care about the same things, education is a dubious prospect, I don't have a ton of money to spend on education, my heroes like Herzog tell me I'm a chump for being here and I don't feel like I'm moving towards any of my goals?" Metropolitan had me feeling like anybody could make a movie, but SUNY Purchase had me feeling like almost nobody should. Yeah, sure, when I look back I'm embarrassed, but I don't think I was wrong. Purchase only accepts about 20 students a year and you essentially take all of your classes with that same handful of students. I didn't really get along with them and I wasn't getting much out of our shared experience. At the time, I couldn't see and understand my problems clearly, but to not engage them and chug through another two years of school would've been a waste. I made a documentary my sophomore year where I interviewed teachers and students at off-beat school like St. John's University in Maryland (with its idiosyncratic great books program) and my own SUNY Purchase professors (with their Hal Hartley by way of Stan Brakhage philosophy.) The film was a manifestation of my ambivalence. And not very good. The film world around me felt like it was changing. The studios owned all the "indie" distributors. The media narrative of the early 90's played like an ancient myth. Unabashedly intellectual, verbose, deliberate filmmakers like White Stillman began to disappear from the Indie World, decisively out-weighed by sloppy, pointedly inarticulate, navel-gazing dramas and pop-culture-reference-heavy genre rip-offs. It's only appropriate that Whit Stillman himself seemed to have disappeared altogether after making Last Days of Disco: one year late in 1999, Metropolitan was already beginning to feel like a fossil from a different epoch.
When the year was over, I dropped out of college, moved down to New Orleans, rented half of a crappy duplex and got jobs working as a copy editor and a video store clerk.
(continued on page 2)
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