A new feature here at World Cinema Paradise, “Life-Changing Movies” pays tribute to those films, festivals, and other special screenings that changed the way we look at the movies. Check back here as our contributors write about their life-changing viewing experiences.
To begin with the obvious, inevitable, but wholly justified inaugural title.
Back in the summer of 1979, I was shipped off by my parents, needing a break from their troubled teenager, for the second time to a filmmaking seminar sponsored by the appropriately named DAFT: Detroit Area Film Teachers. Held at the exclusive, historic Cranbrook boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, teachers and students were provided all the necessary tools – camera, film, overnight processing, lighting equipment, etc. – to produce a short Super-8 film over the course of one week which would then be screened as part of a mini-festival on the final day.
The year before I had made a very modest Claymation short but somebody there, probably John Prusak, aware of my rapidly ballooning interest in movies of all kinds greeted me this year with an enormous gift: my own private Nirvana, a private classroom equipped with a Bell & Howell 16mm projector, screen, and in one corner of the room, something like 200 reels of film stacked in a pile in the corner rising five feet off the floor.
Instead of concentrating my energies on the challenge of writing, shooting, and editing a short film in just seven days, I spent all my mornings, afternoons, and nights plowing through those film cans, this effectively being the era just preceding the home video revolution. (Interestingly, however, the year before someone had gotten their hands on a VHS or three-quarter-inch copy of the still relatively new The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which we all watched one evening.)
I spent hours upon hours in that little classroom, seeing for the first time or rewatching such films as Duck Soup (1933), Lord of the Flies (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968), untold treasures from the National Film Board of Canada and short films distributed by the late, lamented distributor Pyramid Films.
And then one evening I came across a film I’d always heard, in my teenaged naiveté, was one of the very best of its kind: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). But by this time it was already one o’clock in the morning, far too late to watch the whole thing. But, I figured, I’ll watch the first reel, then pick up where I left off the following morning.
Needless to say that didn’t happen. I was transfixed from the opening scenes, of Charles Foster Kane (Welles) on his deathbed in the castle-like Xanadu, by the abrupt cut to a dizzying virtuosity of filmmaking as a fake newsreel summarized his fabled life, of the next abrupt cut to the newsreel company’s screening room, where reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is assigned to find meaning in Kane’s last words. With short breaks to change reels I finished watching this momentous triumph of movie-making around 3:30 am. And then proceeded to watch it a second time, then and there. And I watched it twice more before the week was over.
(Built in 1922 by the famed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook, cavernous and bereft of students due to the summer holiday, was especially at night an eerie place to stay, and in its own way quite reminiscent of Kane’s Xanadu.)
Alfred Hitckcock’s Vertigo (1958) last year famously bumped it from Sight & Sound’s 50-year-old poll of the Greatest Films of All-Time but, for my money, there’s still no movie finer than Citizen Kane. I won’t attempt to explain its greatness – people have been doing that for decades – but on a personal level it’s perhaps the most startlingly entertaining of Great Movies. It’s crammed to the gills with so much creativity and ingenuity that, even when one has seen it close to 50 times as I have, there are still always new things to discover. And it still dazzles. It’s as fresh in 2013 as it was 70-plus years ago.
Seeing it that first time was an overwhelming experience, one that demonstrated how far filmmaking conventions could be stretched and even shattered to good effect, and – an especially important lesson in this day and age – how it’s possible to infuse a film with a deeply personal, original vision yet also so involve the audience that they lose themselves completely in the picture they’re watching, and not consciously aware of all they are seeing.
I can’t say watching Citizen Kane that week had any positive impact at all on my own filmmaking ambitions, try as I might, but it reshaped forever the way I look at movies, and made me recognize the limitless possibilities of the medium.