Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Curiosity and The Movies

             When I saw the premise for the Things I Learned From The Movies Blogathon, the one thing that crept into my mind was how my most memorable cinema going experiences occurred through curiosity, or finding the motivation to see something new. There were moments where I became more curious about film and thus me a bit less oblivious and more open to share my interests with other people. So here are three movie experiences that taught, or reminded me, to be more curious about film.

            As a kid, I never liked trying new things, which was awkward when my family moved to Munich, Germany in 2002.  During those four years, my two sisters were the cool drama kids, my parents were the happy PTA power couple, and I struggled.  I was anti-social and I never felt comfortable anywhere outside of playing video games at home. My mother, persistent on making me more social, sent me to the school’s film club; it was not baseball, but at least I would be sitting around other people.
            The clubroom was strange place that was both a video library and a lounge that looked like the common rooms in the Harry Potter series. The teacher was a proto-hipster lady who wore a dog collar but was also uncompromising about her methods. She started the meeting with a stern warning, “Do not expect to see anything new! This club is about celebrating classic cinema, so you if want to see Zoolander or Spiderman, you can get that shit in any rental store,” and that was that.
            After watching a documentary about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies—which I fail to remember the title of—she gave every kid a film to watch at home. Mine was Todd Browning’s Dracula.  I was genuinely exciting at first, this would be the first straightforward vampire film I would ever see, but it was rather disappointing. The story was dull, it looked stagey and most of the actors are either stiff or comically hammy. The one exception was the actor who played Dracula, Bela Lugosi, who caught my attention with his ghoulish and grand presence. Something about his charisma made me more curious about other vampire and horror stories. I started reading books like Salem’s Lot, Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, and eventually I was looking up horror movies online and started talking to other people about weird things I saw.
            When I returned to the club in the following week, the teacher asked us about the films we have watched. I confessed, “I thought Dracula was slow, but the villain was cool. I was wondering what other horror movies you had?” She lit up, “Well it is not a horror film, but let me show y’all something is just as thrilling!” She then turned on the projector and introduced us to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. At that point I was hooked.

Seven Samurai
            Anyone close to me knows that Seven Samurai is my favorite film of all-time but my introduction to the film is rather embarrassing. Around the time we were preparing to leave Munich for Seattle, I had become the worst kind of fourteen-year-old genre film snob. I thought nothing that was made outside of Hollywood would ever be worth my time. Then one day I was skimming through a book about cinematic storytelling in the library and on the action cinema chapter the only action film analyzed was Seven Samurai. I was completely mad. I thought, why would anyone analyze some obscure 50s samurai film when there were such great action films like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Armageddon? Teenage me was an idiot.
At that moment, I vowed to never watch the film. About 2 years and a weekend later, I was sitting home alone, surfing the channels and noticed that Seven Samurai was beginning to play on Turner Classic Movies. Realizing that forsaking a vow is less painful than doing homework, I decided to watch the film, and for those three and a half hours I was left in stunned silence.
            The film was a revelation. The story of a group of samurai protecting a village from bandits seems so quaint, like an early John Ford western, but the level of detail committed to the screen was intricate and extravagant to the point of profundity. The film transported me into feudal Japan, openly revealing every grimy, painful and human truths of what it meant survive during this period, which is often glossed over by the romantic mythmaking of the movies.  The village was not a set but a barely thriving ecosystem that faced the ravages of war. Every battle was a moment of barely controlled chaos, further emphasized by massive fires or torrential rains the turned the land into bloody mud. Even the titular samurai, while noble and heroic, were far more human than one might expect; they were a weary, pragmatic group who fought for sake of providing one final good deed before fading into obscurity.  Never had I seen a film made with this much passion.
            Seven Samurai is still a beautiful, gripping, and overwhelmingly passionate film that can still leave me in tears. To think that I once thought this movie would never be worth my time just makes it all the more hilarious. Nowadays, I watch it not just because it is amazing, but as a reminder that great cinema is not defined by language or place, and the only thing stopping me from seeing these sort of films was just myself.

            Daisies is a fabulous psychedelic Czech new wave film that I saw long ago for a class assignment. At the time, I was living in Pasadena, California with my parents, slowly figuring out the pre-requisites of going to college. I was taking a community college course on women in film and it was required to view a public screening of a film made by a female director. I noticed Daisies was playing at the LACMA, it looked fun and interesting, so I went and it has grown to become a favorite ever since. Like Hausu or The Rocky Horror Picture, Daisies is one of those films where the strangeness of it all overshadows its brilliance but is glorious nonetheless. However, what I remember most fondly about that screening was not the surreal comedy, or the bold imagery, but the awkwardness of watching the film with my parents.
            This happened out of necessity, I did not know where the LACMA was and they did not want to stay home all day; plus, on the website Daisies look more like a slapstick comedy than a transgressive art film. It seemed like a great idea for a family night out until the film started. The phallic symbolism was squirmy enough for them but once they started seeing floating heads, their bafflement was audible. Once the film ended, I slowly turned to my parent and after a moment of silence my Dad said, “Well that was weird” and we all laughed. We continued talked and laughed some more about all the weird moments on the way to the car. In the end they were glad to see it, they probably do not plan to see it again but they were glad nonetheless, and that made me happy.
            I love moments like this because they remind me of the joy of going past my comfort zone and sharing those experiences with others. By watching these old, obscure, and weird films and talking about them with family, friends, and bloggers, I found myself becoming more sociable whilst finding a better understanding of film. Even bad films can provide perspective or at least a funny memory to share with friends. However a more important lesson I learned was to trust people when they suggest something new. If my parents did not send me into that film club I might not have found my passion for film. As an aspiring critic, I hope to be that encouraging.

            This is a late post for the Things I Learned From The Movies Blogathon. Thankfully I did not choose punctuality as my topic. Anyway, check out Speakeasy, SilverScreenings or #LearnedFromMovies on Twitter for more introspective essays, stories, and lessons learned at the movies.


  1. I was also quite young when I first saw "Dracula", and I had the same reaction as you. I felt the film was awkward – but Bela Lugosi! He was incredible!

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful film experiences with us. It's incredible to think how one film can expand a person's horizons and – in some cases – change someone's life. I'm so glad you discovered classic Hollywood and international films.

    P.S. As for "Daisies", I've never seen it – never even heard of it – but I do have some Czech friends and I'll ask if they've seen it. Having read your thoughts, it will be interesting to hear what they say.

    1. Thanks, Glad to be a part of the Blogathon.
      BTW, if you're looking for a "Daisies" print, there are a couple versions of it online on Youtube and Vimeo, but I'm not sure if it is in Public Domain. However the film is also part of the a Criterion Eclipse box set called "Pearls of the Czech New Wave"

  2. Really fantastic post, my friend. I think you have to have been a genre snob of some sort to have that experience like you had with Seven Samurai but it's great when it happens.

    I vowed I would never play Kingdom Hearts since how could anything Disney be worth my time brooding in darkness and pain? Not my favorite game out there but it's up there (despite where that series went...).

    Anyway,it's an incredible thing when art can penetrate our defenses like that and make us realize our previously held fallacies so vividly. Thanks for sharing these stories.

  3. Totally agree about curiosity being such a key thing in movies (and life), like you, I love to see and learn something new and expand my brain. And film is such a "safe" way to experience things that we never could otherwise. Thanks for joining the blogathon!

    1. I'm glad I joined, next time I promise to manage my time better. :)