This blog was started seven years ago—hard to imagine considering the meager output since, but you can check the date on the first post if you’re also predisposed to surprising revelations—but before I begin to outline the story of its inception and the purpose of its existence, an introduction of my background with cinema is pertinent. A close approximation of my journey in cinephilia can be summed up, fittingly enough, with a movie quote. This is an approximation—nothing emblematic, here. Moments before he is assassinated, Barry Shabaka Henley’s character in Michael Mann’s Collateral submits: “I was born in 1945, but that night (jamming with Miles Davis in 1969) was the moment of my true conception.” While the aforementioned director’s earlier film Heat eclipses the referenced film, and towers all else in cinema for me, the moment cinema truly piqued my interest as a craft to be studied, examined, enjoyed, and experienced was perhaps in the anticipation of Brad Anderson’s The Machinist. Shocking, I know, but I will arrive at an explanation in due time!
My exposure to—and opinion of—cinema can be traced along the mode of consumption along time and freedom of selection enjoyed per each age level. At home whether on tape or on TV, at the theater some time later, then on DVD with full control and freedom as allowed by time and budget constraints. I did not always respond to cinema the same way I do today. Nowadays I find it much easier to rebuff and decline recommendations that are either popular and come with some hoopla (ergo biopics of the recent or Hollywoody persuasion) than it is to decide what to watch and do some catching up on essentials and masterpieces. Life is too short for bad coffee, sex and cinema.
Based-ons and inspired-bys barely move the needle for me despite an ability to defend films like Blow and Donnie Brasco. Most other true stories don’t inspire me as they reek of the dearth of original ideas to craft new histories and ideas and seek to capitalize on either nostalgia or from peddling an agenda. The best biopics would get an A for effort if focused on a single defining episode of the subject’s life. Ali, The Two Escobars and Diego Maradona come to mind and all are depictions of sports figures with just one being a dramatized fictional account. The other two are documentaries.
Of nostalgia, reboots are nothing but rehashes of the same moneymaking formula. Remakes of foreign fare for American or global audiences also make me snooze or wag my finger disapprovingly. Ditto sequels, prequels and origins stories for the most part unless in the hands of a maverick like Dennis Villenueve. Though I do lament the moment foreign-born hotshots get big and stop making movies in their native languages and forego some of the edge that made their name and star for them. Cuaron. Inarritu. Del Toro.
A Chronology in Cinema
Movies at home: the only movie I have a recollection of as the first to register in consciousness is possibly recoiling in horror behind the bed in my childhood home while (along with two older siblings) watching T-1000 seriously damage Model 101’s face and arm in The Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Nothing too scarring, I assure you, as the film now will always take me to happier times and that one episode with a chuckle.
At the theater: the first film I caught in the theaters was Bushwacked and shortly afterwards That Thing You Do, two somewhat forgettable films for my younger self for different reasons; one was poor while the other held no appeal for someone unaware of The Beatles. A few years later, I recall Pitch Black at the theaters being somewhat memorable and novel for its presentation of space travel and discovery and celestial phenomenon along with the creative possibilities from marrying science with horror. It blends bits of The Terminator and Alien in having to rely on an antagonist as a protector plus the heroine gets killed. The Blair Witch Project making use of viral marketing during the internet’s nascency presented the perfect conditions to pass it off as a true snuff movie. Years later it still feels as raw and visceral despite the certainty of it being pure creative fiction. The Truman Show was one that left an impression on me, not understanding the craft of showrunning then (and not much more than that now), but damn Laura Linney sure killed just the same.
Paid television: In between stages two and three, I had access to paid TV with uncensored programming and a moderately sizable selection of cinematic offerings. There were regular and defined showtimes that began on the hour in spite of program duration (they’d run ads and previews to fill up the time until the next show) and the schedule was fairly easy to follow from the built-in guide. R-rated films would show at the 11 pm slot ans held instant appeal for the appeal of unflinching subject matter and the promise of nudity. I can only remember five films overall, of which three remained seared into the proverbial retina of my brain; Heat, Angel Heart, and Interview with the Vampire. All three are worthy of standalone posts as tributes that I never mustered the clarity to pen down as of yet. This presented an early precursor to a comfortable middle ground that will inform viewing habits and selection process.
Along came the DVD, and the first one we got was The Faculty, which is best not talked about any further than stating that horror is fairly accessible as a safe option for passive entertainment. It was when I came in contact with school peers culturally different than where I grew up that gangster films, particularly Scarface, kickstarted a film tradition and regular trips to the local DVD rental. The Godfather trilogy became a priority on my list. Despite lacking the world experience and english comprehension to grasp the cunning, twists and shifting balance of power in Coppola’s crime epics, there was no doubt of the absorbing visuals, staging and drama on display. There was a paradigm shift in realizing why drama and a more grounded reality were more legitimate candidates for awards and superlative praise, and hence an understanding of why the greatest films being unreliant on overt action and set pieces began to emerge. No room for Black and White cinema yet. And with that and Carlito’s Way I figured I had the Al Pacino Essentials covered.
Moments of Conception
But it was in Christian Bale’s harrowing transformation into a frail and guilt-ridden insomniac in a moody and dreamy puzzle of a movie where my ‘algorithm’ began to mature. Discovered during the dawn of my web-inspired curiosity and early deep dives into truer forms of cinema—which consisted of shuttling between IMDb and Amazon user reviews for the same title and using those as a primer for rudimentary watchlists—is when I truly began to take note of the impact of film criticism on informing taste. Opinions on such sites no longer register for me now with the deluge of garbage takes inundating the eyes along with advent of dedicated film sites elsewhere. But there was a time when serious reviews were given prominence without having to dig too deep or scroll that far down.
It was around that time, and through those aimless yet fruitful deep dives, that I began to seriously view cinema as more than an escapist diversion. I would bounce between user reviews and Wikipedia articles, and come across names of directors and films, committing their names to memory by association. Kubrick was the easiest one to pin down; he did The Shining, Stephen King’s Night Shift my first foray into fiction, and the posters of Eyes Wide Shut made the circle complete. The same for Tarantino; the Butch, Marcellus getting rounded up for an impromptu love session with The Gimp followed by trailers for Jackie Brown stuck in memory; how could an adult-oriented story appear among the blockbuster trailers intended for mass audiences still find and justify appeal? You have to understand that where I grew up, American and world cinema are Western pop culture artifacts that seldom cross over in whole and cannot be received passively in any significant portion. 80s Action movies seems to be the exception, but Stars Wars, Indiana Jones and Speilberg are not household names and it would take quite a bit of nerdhood and going out of one’s way to be in on culture. My mind would pick up on subtle cultural cues of films like Jackie Brown meriting a spot on that week’s top ten—whether that list is for the world, in the US or the UK (again, never here)—and the breadcrumbs soon led back to landmarks missed. My favorite egg hunt was Terrance Malick. His name first registered briefly then evaded my attempts at recollection. Was it the Syrian-American elusive, elegiac genius who made two films then waited twenty in between those and his third because of a few bad reviews? No, those were the wrong keywords to Google. It was ‘Assyrian,’ and outside of cinephile circles, you’d be hard pressed to knew he even existed until The Thin Red Line came along.
So what was it about this film that awakened my senses and set my compass needle spinning? Overall it is by no stretch a terrific nor flawless film but it opened my eyes more toward the path less trodden. The way its blue, gray and sepia palette permeated the screen on occasion, the uncanny shooting location (Barcelona doubling for an unnamed city), and the steadfast resolve of its central character to arrive at some truth, all worked to entice the viewer to seek similar answers and come along for the journey. If only in part. The curiosity is heightened not for any clever puzzle or well-crafted mystery but for its unusual milieu, intimate setting, and a vibe made claustrophobic to the mind by both features.
After breaking into Hollywood, after American Psycho, there was little logic for Bale, Leigh and Ironside to travel to Spain to shoot a film unless the entire thing was also considered as a preamble by its lead to land something next like the Batman reboot. Of course the budget always plays a role and the film was solid for delivering on the promise in its haunting illusions—whose cause is kept elusive despite asking the mental legwork of its audience. It is a study in paranoia, guilt and grief, all explored in different levels of detail but the clue-and-puzzle edifice is more a house of cards and, frankly, somewhat underwhelming. But as a mood piece—and those resonate for me as you shall discover in continuing to follow this blog, I hope!—it also points to a personal cinematic inclination of mine.
In my defense, I presume the evolution of most cinephiles can not truly begin in earnest until they turn their attention toward the behind-the-scenes realm. First they must resort to a more sophisticated, for lack of a better term, ‘algorithm’ for building watch-lists than referring to acting greats’ filmographies as a starting point. The moment they begin to follow directors’ oeuvres—Tarantino, Scorsese Kubrick are accessible and vanilla choices as favorites—is when their interest in cinema is confirmed. Graduating next to identifying cinematographers is when they will have arrived at true cinephilia, the zenith of their knowledge base and devotion finally achieved by discerning editors’ touch, the unsung heroes in the cinematic landscape. The moment they start to separate themselves from the casuals and pop culture rubes is when the focus shifts from what’s in front of the camera to what goes on behind it.