Thursday, August 10, 2006

My Contribution to the "Signpost Films" Meme

From "girish" (via the 2blowhards):

There are movies we encounter at certain points in our appreciation for the medium that become, almost by accident, little breakthroughs in our viewing life. They may not be great masterpieces—though they well might—but the important thing is that we have the fortune of meeting up with them at just the right juncture in our development. I think of them as “signpost films”: they take a territory that was previously foggy or unmapped to us and they suddenly make us see and learn something revelatory about this art-form that we love. These encounters make us exclaim, “So, that’s what this movie’s doing!” And it’s a lesson we take with us, carry over and apply, to hundreds of other films we will see in the future.

So, here are mine.

While putting this together, I noticed something I hadn't know about myself before. My interests tend to center around an interesting narrative approach. Yeah, flashy filmic touches, great direction, great dialogue, etc. all mean something to me, but I guess I really get my yayas out when the film manages to have an interesting narrative.

Oh, and we start way early here, as you'll see.

Here ya go (in relative order of viewing):
(These first three I saw on television, btw.)

Winnie the Pooh - Though officially seen on TV as episodes, these original Disney Pooh stories were culled from a full-length movie, which is what you get now when you buy the DVD (and if you have kids you should). It was the first set of stories that introduced to me the concepts of emotional depth (there's one particularly moving section where Pooh and Christopher Robin discuss his going back to school, and what it means to each of them), longing, that it takes all types (see Rabbit and Piglet), and that there are very stupid people in the world (the bear of very little brain), but that doesn't mean they aren't wise at the same time.

Silent running - I was amazed at what movie magic can accomplish. The use of people whose legs have been amputated as the robots blew my little mind at the time. And, this was my first taste of an unhappy ending, which I hadn't expected.

Andromeda Strain - My introduction to bizarre narrative techniques where, for instance, we spend about 10 to 15 minutes of film time exploring how hard it is to totally decontaminate / de-germ the human body, and the people's reactions to the process. Also, the film is replete with long technical sections where we see how the disease kills monkeys, how the facility traps contagions, etc. The actual plot is pretty thin, but the scientific detective story is ace.

Lady and the Tramp - The movie where I realized that animation can go beyond fun and songs and be actually scary (when Lady is chased by wild dogs).

Star Wars - Spectacle. Breathless spectacle. I didn't know movies could be so huge. Or so downright fun. And it was the first film that portrayed what it must be like to actually flying around in a spaceship (sorry Mr. Kubrick). The spaceships just felt right, and you really got a feel for the scale, too.

Alien - Again narrative. The slow start where everyone wakes up out of hypersleep not knowing why they had really hooked me. Then we plot along with a very work-a-day feel to it, until...

Body Heat - This is one of the movies where it dawned on me how movies can work on/within a specific narrative genre. (Thus, successful genre narrative: erotica.) I'd seen sci-fi done a lot of interesting ways, but not erotica. I'd seen a bazillion "tit flicks" - as we called the drive-in fodder we saw at work (as drive-in staff) - where the cast were all supposed to be teenagers and every actress would get topless eventually. Yeah, nudity and simulated sex were fun to watch, but it was a very voyeuristic activity, and wasn't really a cinematic experience. Body Heat was the first time I saw how sex can be used as part of the narrative and not just for titillation. (I know M. Blowhard has no problem with "just for titillation," but for me, if that's all you want, just go straight to porno.) Sexy movies are the most difficult ones to get right, in my opinion.

Sophie's Choice - Proof to me that tragedy can be done right. (Successful genre narrative: tragedy.) Most tragedies, or just plain ole unhappy endings, always felt more contrived than happy endings, to me. To have an audience invest emotionally in a tragic story, the payoff has got to be cathartic, subtle, and not just a simple "that's life" letdown. Life has enough of those for us as it is, and to expect us to eschew something fun or entertaining for a bummer of a time, it's gotta have that indescribable component. Simply put, if you're gonna bum me out, do it well, don't cheat, and don't just toy with my emotions for the sake of doing so.

(Ok, this next one is out of order, I saw it around the time of Star Wars, but I wanted to establish the "successful genre narrative" thang before I brought it up.)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - In which I laugh my ass off, and discover that girls aren't typically Monty Python fans. (Successful genre narrative: extreme comedy.) I didn't realize comedies could go so far to tell you a joke. (I consider this the precursor to both Airplane! and Young Frankenstein in that regard.) When the animated angels put the trumpets to their butts during the fanfare, I literally fell out of my chair laughing, only to emerge to the glare of my (first) girlfriend's glare for having taken her to such trash.

Altered States - A narrative that takes sharp corners and doesn't necessarily explain what's going on, but if you pay attention, it's all there. And Robert Altman may have done it first, but this is where I first encountered realistic conversational rhythms, with people talking over each other.

John Carpenter's The Thing - This is the first horror movie that as an adult truly scared the shite out of me during my first viewing of the film. (Successful genre narrative: horror.) It's also a great exercise in Agatha Christie's "ten little indians" played out where the culprit could be literally hiding in plain sight, and it has a reasonable tragic ending - nearly a home run.

Hill Street Blues - Not a movie, but still an amazing leap forward in narrative technique and style. Even movies at the time hadn't achieved such a natural, realistic mesh of dialogue, circumstance, and the daily grind. Now it's common, but this is the first place I saw it.

Robocop - Holy ultraviolence, Batman! (Successful genre narrative: violent action/humor film (precursor to anything by Quentin Tarantino).) Yes, I'd seen The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde, but this was something else. It also has a lot of subversive parody, which is odd in this type of film. On a personal note, one of my phobias is memory loss (long story, that). So when the guy who becomes Robocop gets blown away, only to wake up as a science project (which we experience from his perspective), it gave me chills I cannot begin to explain.

Primer - Ratchets up the complexity of narrative that doesn't stop and explain everything, while at the same time showing how professional a movie can look and feel on a half-a-shoestring budget. This movie gives me hope for the future of American cinema.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Hinky narrative structure where you are operating on 3 to 4 levels of reality and timelines. (Successful genre narrative: non-linear narrative/timeline.) It's an amazing feat of storytelling that actually keeps your "where am I" references straight while zooming in and out of reality. It's also one of the most heartbreaking love stories I've ever seen.

Yes, there are no foreign films here. Unfortunately, since we are so close to the actual, visceral events of the story in the medium of flim - we witness it live - the distances created by a language barrier and different cultural touchstones, that disconnect has prevented any foreign film from being revelatory or a signpost for me - even though I've greatly enjoyed a few.

I almost put Blue Velvet on here, but - even though it affected me greatly when I saw it - I really just felt that the dude who'd made Eraser Head and The Elephant Man had simply managed to mesh those two sides of his storytelling personality into one cogent whole. Meaning, it wasn't so much a signpost movie for me, but it must have been for David Lynch for getting that mix just right.

Thanks for playing.

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