It was mid-June, 1993. The perfect warmth San Diego is famous for, mid to high 70s. Don’t ask about humidity. I didn’t know what that was until I moved to Massachusetts.
I was five years old and my life was dinosaurs. Dinosaurs should be a stage of development taught in psych classes. At some point children discover that before there were people, there were massive reptiles, and yes, they were as cool as you hope.
Dinosaurs were my life. I read every book about them in the library, each one with fewer pictures than the last. I collected any and all magazines I could find about paleontology. Dinosaurs had been my main thing for almost a year now. And here was a movie about them, directed by a guy my older sister Mercy assured me was the best and most famous guy who made movies. I didn’t know movies were made by people until this week. I couldn’t comprehend how one would make a movie, as one might make a dinosaur out of clay, or draw a dinosaur with crayons. But Mercy knew things, and I trusted her word: this guy named Steven Spielberg had made other movies I had seen. ET. Jaws. This was a good sign. Mercy also told me that someone named Meryl Streep was the best person at acting in movies. But she wasn’t in this one. I would have to care about Meryl Streep at a later date.
It was the perfect warm. Even in a life lived within constant perfect warmth, this was special. I got a good taste of it, because the line for tickets was all the way around the side of the movie theatre. Edwards Cinema. I wondered who Edward was. It was nice waiting in the sun. My grandmother held my hand tight. She had a vice grip. It was one of the reasons my mom was happy to let her take us places. We couldn’t get free and run loose if we were covered in popcorn grease.
The blast of air conditioning. It’s one of the joyful sudden changes in senses that movie theatres deliver. There are others to come. The overwhelming smell of popcorn. You just can’t get that with an air popper. The sudden darkness of the theatre, the bright orange lights on the floor. It’s a sci-fi experience, walking into a movie theatre at age 5. All this and you haven’t seen the movie yet.
Right. Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs. We see a glimpse of them at the beginning. Scary noises, glimpses of claws. A guy gets eaten. A good start. I didn’t know this was a scary movie, but I’m ready. I know which dinosaurs are carnivores, and so when they are on screen I know there might be something I need to cover my eyes for. Except… my dad’s not here. My Lila never tells me to cover my eyes. What if I just keep watching when it gets scary?
The music swells. That means something. I’ve never noticed that before. The characters, the paleontologist guy and the lady who studies ancient plants (I’ll have my uncle Johnny what that is, he tends to know these things) react to something we can’t see. The music swells and they react. A cold, isolated chill trickles down my spine and through my fingertips. The shot pulls back for the big reveal. Dinosaurs. As real as I’ve ever seen them.
It was March, 2002. I’m a homeschooled, 15 year old theatre kid. I don’t have many hobbies. Movies are starting to become one of them. I’ve started posting on this message board Mercy told me about. Nothing special about it, just a bunch of people who love movies and talk about them and have fun handicapping the Oscars and talking about that and well, I give it a go. TO my shock, they welcome me and my pitiful repertoire of movie knowledge. Lots of the other members are people about my age, eager to learn more about movies, eager to talk about them, wide-eyed at the vast number of movies that already exist, thrilled at the possibilities of falling in love with movies yet unseen.
That’s my problem, I guess. I haven’t really fallen in love with a movie yet.
Not since I was a kid. It almost seems unfair to bring nostalgic movies into the equation. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie that really bowled me over. One that took me to new places. One that seemed made just for me.
But I watch. I watch endlessly. I’m a homeschooled theatre kid and it’s summer time. No big shows on the slate for a while.
HBO, Starz, and TCM become by companions on my search. I turn them on and watch whatever there is that has just started. It’s not a great way to catch up, but it’s already been paid for, unlike movie rentals. On this afternoon I flip over to Starz and see that a film called Princess Mononoke is on. The title is striking. I turn over to it.
It’s animated. Looks like anime, to be more precise. But lusher and smoother than the handful of anime shows I was familiar with. I try to pick up on the plot. A young man riding some sort of deer is being pursued by warriors on horses. He fires an arrow and one of his pursuers’ heads pops clean off. Another is relieved of his arms. Well, this is charming. But interesting. I keep watching.
It turns out, this isn’t an altogether violent movie. It’s character driven. And what characters. San, a girl raised by wolves, dedicated to killing Eboshi, a ruler as ruthlessly pragmatic in pursuit of power as she is benevolent and loving to her people.
I am hooked. This is unlike anything I’ve seen before. This story doesn’t give me easy answers. A war breaks out, and I want neither side to win, because I like characters on both sides.
And my god, this film is just lovely. I have never been so bowled over by a film’s visual creativity before. A giant boar turns into a spirit that consists of writing, black worms. A benevolent forest god, who looks like a deer by day, turns into a towering sort of kindly kaiju at night, shimmering with starlight.
This is thrilling, courageous storytelling, I think. No easy answers. Flawed characters. The movie ends with everyone having been deeply affected by the conflicts. And the final shot is the film’s loveliest, silently conveying hope after and endless onslaught of conflict. The movie ends. I sit back in my chair, dumbfounded and in tears.
I’ve found it.
I think every movie lover reaches a point where they wonder if they can be surprised. Not if they can fall in love again with a movie. No, that will happen so long as people who love movies continue to make movies. But being surprised, walking out of a theatre with your expectations totally shattered? That’s a special kind of joy.
It’s late August, 2012. I’ve been seeing a lot of movies lately. Not much else to do. I’d gotten some bad news. My application for an academic internship has been denied. I’ll have to leave my university-owned apartment in February, not May. I thought I’d be doing work at a magazine or even a newspaper that Fall. Instead I’ll be working at the library. At least that application worked out.
The job meant I could see movies on the regular now. And that’s grand, because there’s a wonderful theatre that’s walking distance from my apartment. The Brattle is like an new friend you feel like you’ve known for a long time. It gets me. It’s small, intimate. Movie posters are plastered haphazardly everywhere. And their lineup delightfully eclectic. Classics. New classics. Tiny arthouse flicks. Movies they just seem to like. Citizen Kane might show one week, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the next. Tonight, it’s a movie I feel like I should have seen before: Mulholland Drive.
I know David Lynch’s work. It’s… odd. But he’s good. The Elephant Man is a favorite of mine, but it’s also one of his more conventional stories I guess. Whatever. Push that out of your mind, JM. Go into this fresh. I get my job-funded bucket of popcorn and root beer and settle into my favorite seat in the house (balcony, front and center).
The movie opens with a car crash, amnesia, and a creepy turn by Ann Miller. Ann Miller, who got her start at age 15 in You Can’t Take it With You. I wonder what stories she had to tell between that film and this one, 65 years apart.
A scene begins to unfold involving a hitman, whose hit goes wrong in every possible way. I know Lynch doesn’t care for conventional narrative, but I’ve never seen a movie jump around quite like this one. And by god, this scene is funny. I haven’t laughed like this in a theatre in a long time.
A scene begins to unfold involving two friends in a diner. Again, we haven’t seen them before. There’s something off about their dialogue. It’s stilted, kind of soapy. One of them men is describing a dream he had. A recurring nightmare. Slowly we begin to realize that the nightmare is on the verge on unfolding for real. The scene turns unrelentingly terrifying. The best sort of scary: where something cosmically indescribable is happening. I haven’t been this scared in a movie theatre in a long time.
A woman is on a stage, singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish. This is one of my favorite songs. It’s, on its own, a spectacular rendition of it. I actually want to cry. The two main characters of the film (played by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring) actually do begin to weep. There’s no particular reason for them to do so. But it makes sense. It makes sense the way dreams do when you’re having them. I have never seen a film capture that so perfectly before, not even a David Lynch film. The singer collapses on stage, is pulled off. Her voice continues to sing. It makes sense.
I walk out of the theatre, feeling like I’ve lost time. I realize that if someone asked me to describe this film to them, I would be hard pressed to do so. I don’t care. I feel a buzz in my step, and there’s a smile on my face as I walk back to my apartment in the dark.
Damn it feels good to fall in love.