It isn’t anything unique to say that I have always loved movies. Not counting the animated drive-in movies to which my parents took me that I could never pay attention to, the first movie I went to see was E.T. There aren’t too many better first movies than that. From then on I loved going to the movies, but my parents rarely took me. I had to watch what I could on television in the days before HBO, so everything was cut up, interrupted by commercials, and pan and scanned. But I still watched, especially on the weekends. Does anyone else remember the Family Film Festival on KTLA with Tom Hatten in the 1980s? Just about anyone who grew up in the L.A. area does. With his Popeye cartoons, big sketch pad, and fake film projector sitting at his side that he would switch on just before going to the movie, he introduced me to a slate of movies made years before I was born. This might explain my affinity for 1950s and 1960s comedies like Who’s Minding the Store?, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Truly awful movies that I can’t help but admit I love. I even remember recording a whole slew of movies (I think I was going through a disaster movie phase at the time) with our brand new VCR and faking illness so I could stay home from school and watch them all.
It wasn’t until the later 1980s – probably 1987 or so – that I discovered Siskel and Ebert. Their weekly show introduced me to the idea – quite foreign at the time – that movies could be more than entertainment. They taught me that movies, like books, are meant to be thought about, discussed, and debated, sometimes with a passion that hasn’t been matched by any pair of televised movie critics since. I watched them weekly, greedily gathering lists of movies that they told me were worth my time. Within a few years I no longer had to depend on my parents to go to the movies and I started going on my own seeing things I that my Dad would have never let into our house – like movies where people actually speak in complete sentences instead of shooting everyone around them.
I went through high school, college and eventually graduate school. I have read everything from Jane Austen to Plato, Dostoevsky to Hegel, Flaubert to Foucault, Arthur Schlesinger to John Maynard Keynes, Einstein to Pynchon, Gabriel García Márquez to Jean-Paul Sartre, Eco to Darwin, Henry James to Thomas Paine. I’ve studied The Federalist Papers and The Canterbury Tales and I’ve analyzed the poetry of T.S. Eliot and John Keats. I’m not showing off by listing all these books I’ve read; there is a point. Despite all of this reading, the writings that taught me to come into my own as a thinker were those of a movie critic. When I first discovered Pauline Kael sometime early in my college career her irreverence caught me off guard. She assailed movies that I had thought to be considered sacred. She was a revelation to me: no movie was safe, even classics like A Clockwork Orange and La Dolce Vita. And why should a movie be so revered that it is exempt from critique? After all, it is just a movie! She taught me to look past the hype and commonly held-to-be-true assumptions and to trust my own instincts and intellect when making judgments on movies (and books, music, politics, and just about anything else one would have to make a subjective decision about). Now I probably would have come to this intellectual independence at some point anyway. I don’t think I can credit Pauling Kael with turning me into a PhD candidate, but I can’t help but credit her with pointing me in the right direction.
Tom Hatten, Pauline Kael, Gene Siskel, and Roger Ebert kindled in me a love of movies beyond the simple act of viewing and it has not died over two decades later. For me movies are more than an empty two hours to pass the time (though they more often than not end up being empty). They have been a major connection to different people and places. They have been crucial in my own intellectual development and have strengthened bonds with people. Books often accomplish the same things, but movies have a power different from books. Whereas books are consumed alone and over a period of days, sometimes weeks depending on its length, movies are a shared experience over a limited amount of time. They are essentially visceral events made all the more pleasurable by going through it in the dark with complete strangers and when I get home I can pick up the phone and talk about it with someone half way around the world. I will always love books and I will always read, but movies connect me to the world with an immediacy that books just can’t match.