The movies became a big part of my life before I discovered books. I got home one evening in 1944 to learn a neighborhood search was frantically underway for my three year-old sister and six year-old self during our impromptu adventure to the matinee and the feature twice on no other authority than my own. Later, during the glorious frustration of puberty, when the chain of neighborhood theaters in Tampa dissolved, the one in Palma Ceia became an “art theatre,” much to my lascivious delight. Featuring ballet, opera, plays and foreign movies, it replaced the raucous anarchy of matinee serials, cartoon festivals, double feature westerns and Duncan yo-yo contests of my callow youth with new, quieter, more private considerations of the shadows in the cave. The well-muscled thighs of prima ballerinas and the unkempt hairy armpits of Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice introduced me to the adult world of Onan anon and eventually to a deeper appreciation of the visceral power of cinema to create reality beyond my puerile obsession with sex.
I don’t think I’ll ever become asexual but I did manage to engage in the entire portrayed reality without waiting for the good parts to suspend disbelief. I did eventually discover the power of books through Jack London and John Steinbeck and have come to hold some of them more valuable to my developing worldview than any of the movies in this list of my favorites so far.
My special appreciation for movies stems from my ability to cue up a tape or disc and share the experience with friends whose perceptions often cast a new light on and a novel depth to an already profound experience. The influence of the shared watching experience with dear friends has sometimes shown me another side to the truth of a movie so powerful it totally obviates my Pollyanna, hippy-dippy version. This, and the fact that the best movies are the successful, symbiotic creation of a collaboration of artists dedicated to a common vision make them a form of literature on level with the solitary creation of the printed word. Good movies are far scarcer than good books.
So saying, I give you a list of faves out of the two hundred some odd movies I have in boxes in the order they come to mind, some of the later ones came from an older, deeper part of who I have become, or always have been. I’m never quite sure about that.
Off the Map — First on the list because the latest discovered. Joan Allen becomes someone I would never have suspected was within her from her usually businesslike, suburban hausfrau roles. In a matching cast of characters who have discovered the reality that the best things in life are free if that’s where you concentrate your attention — then it’s not work. It’s a great example of living on the earth symbiotically way ahead of the necessary popular realization that it’s the only way to live to survive.
Barfly — This masterpiece leads an entire genre of cinematic portrayals of the camaraderie among the rejects and rejecters of society with whom I identify more than with the artificial dysfunction of civilization.
A few lines Between Henry (Mickey Roark) and Wanda (Faye Dunnaway) —
W: “I hate people. Don’t you hate people?”
H: “I don’t hate people, I just feel a lot better when they’re not around.”
•W: ”I don’t know if I can love you.”
H: “Don’t worry. No one has ever loved me before.”
•H: “You don’t believe that shit, do you?”
W: “Oh, yeah. The more you believe, the better your chances of being safe.”
Nell — Jodie Foster rocketed beyond merely competent acting in this brave role about the natural sanity of the uncivilized. In a two or three minute scene she squats to greet two little girls who in her memory become she and her long lost sister. Just thinking of the panorama of emotion that crosses her expressive face wells up the same depth of feeling I had when I first saw it.
Walkabout — My first experience of the work of Nicolas Roeg was about two white Australians abandoned as deep in the out back as a tank of gas would take their suicidal father’s Volkswagen after escaping his attempt to take them with him. About to perish, they are discovered by an aboriginal lad on his tribal walkabout, the equivalent of Native American’s vision quest. The incessant chatter of the seven year-old only serves to point up the silent beauty of the environment they cross contrasted with the noise of the civilization back to which he leads them while feeding them along the way with his proficient hunting skills and knowledge of nature. I am still puzzled by the ending where he is left hanging from a tree, in ceremonial paint and remaining feathers, a branch under each armpit. I’ve never been sure whether he died from the sorrow of returning them to the white world or was in a trance as part of his ritual departure dance, and I like the not knowing.
Big Chill — One of the few really popular movies on the list. Hands down the best soundtrack to capture the music five years either side of 1970, as several once liberal college friends gather several years later at the funeral of one of them after his suicide (Kevin Costner’s most dramatic role). Best dialogue: Sam Webber, TV star, (Tom Berenger) and Harold Cooper, host and owner of an expanding chain of shoe stores, (Kevin Kline)
S: “Did you ever think we’d make so much money?”
H: After a long, thoughtful pause, “Good thing it doesn’t matter anything to us.” Followed by another pregnant pause awash in the facetiousness of it all.
Best scene: JoBeth Williams’ Karen closes the downright maudlin funeral services with the deceased’s favorite song, Satisfaction. You know you can settle down for some fun with that beginning.
I attended just such a gathering of “alumni” at a 25 year wedding anniversary of a couple I knew from the Hole in the Wall and was helpless to prevent seeing it in exactly the same light with I, in the William Hurt role of Nick Carlton, being the only one still smoking pot and living with even fewer possessions, hob knobbed among hypocritical parents, chain store inheritors, retired bureaucrats, international lawyers and a Bush spin doctor with virtually nothing left in common with them but the booze.
Little Big Man — A quantum leap in my consideration of the extent of the U. S. government’s treachery, not advanced until I read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Jack Crabb’s (Dustin Hoffman) epic suffering at the hands of western ho, both as a white gunslinger, muleskinner and drunk and as an “injun,” adopted by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who greeted his every return with “My heart soars like an eagle.” It is one of the most beautiful gestures to be found in the movies, for me.
Dersu Uzala — An aging Goldi hunter befriends and guides a Russian army survey team in Eastern Siberia while teaching them simple essentials to living in the wild. Years later when his failing eyes keep him from being much help the leader of the expedition takes him home to civilization. Unable to tolerate civilization, Dersu persuades his friend to return him to face death in the wild rather than be killed in the city. Another significant gesture at the end of the movie became a ritual greeting between my friend John Christian and me whenever we cross paths: As Dersu gets almost out of earshot on his toddling way into the woods beside the railroad track, the friend calls out, “Dersu!”
He turns and hollers, “Kapitan!” and you can hear his chuckle for the first time since he left his wilderness.
Blade Runner — Dystopia Maximus, which alone would have allowed A Clockwork Orange to nose it out in the genre of sci-fi, but its very real depiction of the possibility of being a programmed tool so seamlessly implanted with human memories that one seems to be real, even to oneself, was so well done that even Matrix couldn’t match it.
13th Floor — While we are on the subject of self-as-unwitting-tool, another less well known, perfectly portrayed mystery in which a virtual reality research team designs a game wherein the player inhabits his avatar in a perfect reproduction of 1938 Los Angeles indistinguishable from reality only to discover that they too are avatars in a game inhabited by the godlike players.
The list is getting long so I’ll save the rest for a sequel. I would love to hear feedback on these exemplars of my cinematic tastes, they are easier to discuss than reality and just as worth it.