The Movie That Haunts You

Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli in “Il Conformista.”

ONE

The question seemed to come out of nowhere. We were sitting on the deck outside her home, overlooking Massachusetts’ North River on a cool, late spring morning. Two hawks competed for the treetops on the far shore.

“So, John, a lot of people remember the first movie they ever saw as a child. Do you recall the one that made you decide to become a film-maker, rather than a film-goer?” My interrogator was Mary Coogan, a Jungian therapist; questions like this seem to pop up easily for her. We’ve been friends for over 25 years, but this is the first time I’ve spent a lot of time with her. I’m here in Hanover, a South Shore town on the way down to Cape Cod. I’m a week away from shooting a film with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash co-directing; they’re still fresh from their Oscars for the screenplay of The Descendents. Mary’s husband is Michael “Moishe” Moyer, my longtime friend and gaffer—but ironically he’s not here; he’s in North Carolina on a Lasse Hallström film. I’m bunking at his house, a 200 year old white clapboard residence with a weathercock atop the widow’s walk barn. It was once the quarters of a shipyard that built and launched boats downriver to the open sea at Scuiate.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that question before, Mary.” I mean, I tell film students about how I saw the Bertolucci/Storaro/Scarfiotti film from 1970, The Conformist, in its first LA release, in Westwood.” I remember staying in the theater to watch it three times that day, joined for the 10pm screening by Jim Dickson, the commercials cinematographer I had been working with. Jim was responsible for my getting into the union as a camera assistant. Though I envisioned a career in film, I wasn’t yet certain I wanted to pursue a life in cinematography. The climb up to become a director of photography was long and hard, and remained under the whimsical control of old-line diehards who believed the kids should work only after the feeble and infirm had been hired.

Vittorio Storaro and Bernardo Bertolucci, during “The Conformist.”

I had begun seeing foreign films late in my high school years. I became deeply immersed in the then breaking European New Wave when I was on a junior year abroad study program in Vienna. It was in a tiny cinema on the Ringstrasse that I first saw The Third Man, a film already 15 years old, but still radiating an iconoclastic, claustrophobic style paralleling the Outsider sensibility of the New Wave. Orson Welles’ dapper villain, Harry Lime, was a precursor of French film anti-heroes like Belmondo, Delon, and Montand.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime.

TWO

Unlike many of the gritty French street films, The Conformist, made near the end of that same seminal period, exudes such largesse, such love of pure cinema—with opulent, visual indulgences that seem at times to burst beyond the confines of its own frame—that even today, it remains a veritable textbook of film style: for cinematography, editing, production design, acting, directing, and narrative complexity.

Clerici and the blind poet — “Conformista.”

Director Bertolucci may have pillaged every referent in the cinema canon as he and Storaro wove this chilling tale, not of an “Outsider,” but of a man brilliantly underplayed by Jean-Louis Trintignant, a wannabe “Insider,” who submits himself to the strictures of 30s fascist Italy by betraying his philosophic mentor.

A trailer for the film demonstrates the visual and time fluidity of the story. Few American films undertake such a mix of political history with cinematic art house tropes. It’s easy to understand why the film was so impactful in an ideologically divided America when it was released in 1970. For me, it represented a template of how to fuse socio-political belief with dramatic human characters, while bathing the whole in pure cinematic lather. A trailer that uses a mash-up music track, including a pop song, does not reflect the subtlety of Delerue’s original score, but still reveals the sophistication and degeneracy of its milieu. Unfortunately, the clip is squeezed into Academy format from its 1:85 original.

One of the most justifiably famous scenes is the Allegory of the Cave between Trintingnant’s Clerici and Enzo Tarascio’s Professor Quadri. Clerici has been sent to Paris to assassinate his former teacher. Quadri invites Clerici into his home office. Clerici uses its shafts of window light to recall Quadri’s lecture from Plato—a metaphor for fascist Italy and the “nowhere man,” embodied by his former student. The YouTube clip cuts off a bit before the end of the scene.

It was this scene more even than the sensuous dance hall sequence that was decisive for me. I had never seen “light” in a movie used to argue philosophy, to literally radiate ideas. It spurred me to consider anew the idea of movie light as a narrative and dramatic tool, not just an aesthetic device.

The Allegory of the Cave — “Conformista.”

For me, the penetrating light of signature film noir cinematographers like John Alton and Nick Musuraca assumed a new dimension: a tough existential punch beating against the frame. I decided that evening that, yes, I wanted to be a cinematographer. I have never looked back.

THREE

The Conformist is the film I most frequently reference for film students when I talk about the visceral as well as the aesthetic power of cinematography. But it is not the film that first awakened me to “cinema,” to the movies as something more than entertainment. That watershed had come a full decade before.

In my junior and senior high school years, I had been editor of the school newspaper. It was strictly an elective position but its obligations effectively ended whatever fantasies I may have had about a career as a pro basketball player. My father was a machinist in whose shop I worked summers. Large, loud, metal cutting machines fascinated me—but none as much as those behemoths using hot lead linotype to create the printer slugs that printed our school edition. Watching typewritten words transform into metal words and sentences in the ink stained printing room was a kind of alchemy.

Our faculty advisor was a young lay teacher (I went to Catholic high school) barely out of college. One Friday afternoon, after putting our upcoming edition to bed, he asked if I wanted to see a Swedish film the next afternoon. We had talked often about literature and poetry and he knew that my interest in the school newspaper suggested something deeper than that of just a school elective. I had confessed to him that I wanted to be a writer.

All I knew about foreign films, especially the few Swedish ones I had heard of, was that I might see an actress’ exposed breasts. I was plenty eager to go. On the drive to the theater, he told me about how to read subtitles, and that the film’s story of an old man, his dreams, and his recollections of his youth, was not going to be like the American ones I usually saw. “Time in these foreign movies is more fluid,” he said. I thought I knew what he meant because I had seen the Dali dream sequence in Spellbound, and had studied the flashback structure of Sunset Boulevard, where the narrator is a corpse floating face down in a silent era star’s swimming pool. But none of that was preparation for the harshly textured scene that slipped onscreen some minutes after the movie began.

Its four and a half minutes running time, without dialogue—just a series of surreal shots of this old man on a deserted street—was unlike anything I had ever seen in a movie house.

From the death dream “Wild Strawberries.”

From the death dream “Wild Strawberries.”

The legendary Swedish silent era director, Viktor Sjöström, acted the old man. But to me a silent movie was nothing more than comic cops and a tinkly piano.

Viktor Seastrom as Dr. Isak Borg.

The rest of the film was awash with the haunting, even nightmarish, residue of this scene. The following Monday, I went to the school library to find anything about Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries that I could—without success. Eventually, I found reviews in several magazines that helped me understand that there existed for a certain sophisticated adult, a whole different concept of what a movie can be. An enlightened nun who taught literature (and who eventually left her order and married) told me that the University of California Press published a scholarly magazine called Film Quarterly. Somehow, in that pre-Google world, I found Eugene Archer’s review of Wild Strawberries in the autumn 1959 issue. Its writing style was way over my head, but I understood there was a movie world out there that I had to know about.

Here’s an excerpt from that review:

“The essence of Proust’s image (the madeleines in Remembrance of Time Past), and Bergman’s, is the conception that an event assumes its meaning not from the action itself, but from the way it is regarded at different moments in time, and that life is composed of a series of such isolated events, given meaning by their temporal relationship to the memories of the man who experiences them.”

Whoa… That was pretty intense for a working class 17 year old. But what I did get from the review is that movies can deal with time flux in a way that literature can only hope to suggest. Film’s shot to shot fluidity can also create a simultaneous or even an imagined time—its reality allusive, conjectural, as Alain Resnais was soon to show. Before Wild Strawberries, the most challenging movie I saw that year was The Diary of Anne Frank.

I began to search out movie theaters in Hollywood and Beverly Hills that featured foreign films. The next year La Dolce Vita, Breathless and L’Avventura were all released. I was in college at Santa Clara University, then Loyola University, and was on a binge to see everything I could that had subtitles. It left in me a blank spot of many fine American films that was filled in only years later. Film Quarterly became my gospel; Pauline Kael’s KPFA radio reviews from Cal Berkeley, my weekly epistles. I read Cahiers du Cinema, though its arcane French well surpassed my rudimentary vocabulary. The next year I went to study in Vienna and discovered that “foreign films” as I knew them had broad-based audiences in Europe. I saw Antonioni’s L’Eclisse at a weekday matinee in downtown Innsbruck with an audience of pensioned widows of war veterans and a near idolatrous contingent of cineastes from the university.

FOUR

This is my story of two films that a decade apart informed my decision, nay, my passionate and unrepentant conviction that I must spend my life in film. Even allowing for the accidents and vicissitudes of how circumstances form us, most people in the arts whom I ask about what drew them into their chosen métier, have a riveting and very clear story to tell. Artist biographies are filled with telling anecdotes about that pivotal moment or event that sparked their decision to pursue a given path.

Whether your own career choice is in film, another art form, science or business, it would be great to hear your story. Just name a movie, a piece of music, a painting, and a book—or write a fuller comment. I know you’re out there. Tell your story. Post a comment.

Bergman and Seastrom.

6 Responses to “The Movie That Haunts You”

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  • My father was a career U.S. soldier, that’s how I found myself at age fifteen in 1962 in Italy. My dad was stationed in Verona at a NATO substation.
    We lived on the economy, in other words, among the Italians. Most of my friends were either musicians or artists. They would come over to my house to listen to my American 45′s. They loved rock and roll! Within six months I was pretty fluent in the language and the local dialect.
    My friends took me to the movies, De Sica, Fellini, Pasolini, Rosi, Bergman, Bertolucci, and Polanski to mention a few. Some of those first movies included Boccaccio 70, 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits,, Teorema, and Spirits of the Dead. Being an avid teenage photographer walking around Verona and Vicenza with my dad’s 35 Voitglander, names like Tonino delli Colli, Vittorio Storaro, and Giuseppe Rotunno became quite familiar and I always look to see who the DP was before I went to the cinema.
    I think all those movies made a vivid impression on me. I thought this was the way movies were supposed to be made, personal, thoughtful, intense with beautifully crafted images.
    Images that did haunt me for decades were from Fellini’s Satyricon and Toby Dammit (from Spirits of the Dead), and Pasolini’s Teorema.
    The little girl in brilliant white playing with a ball on a deserted road in the black of night, the close up of blood on the wire, and a spiritually psyched out house maid suspended in the air over the farmhouse. Images that infiltrated my dreams.

    My dad obtained a European Out which meant he was discharged in Italy so I stayed until 1975, The last two movies I saw were Amarcord and Sweet Movie. It wasn’t until I came back to the U.S. that I “learned” what an art house film was. Oh, there’s a special theater I need to go to? Finally, I thought that Network would win Best Picture that year with Paddy Chayefsky’s wonderful script. Oh, well.

  • Both my Father and Mother are teachers so i grow up in a environment of, The Bible; classical music(mostly Beethoven)and books mostly from the nineteen century(Poe and his followers; in Spanish Horacio Quiroja and Julio Cortazar and also a lot of Jules Verne and Enid Blayton) with Poe came of course a liking for the Universal movie monster legacy and a love of black and white photography (also my house tv set were a black and white beautiful little box)then “King Kong lives” at cinema and a few years latter “Batman” so Tim Burton became my introduction to the chromatic possibilities of film, (my other favorite movie of that period was “Schindler s list” i loved stories: started reading,Thomas Mann, and the great writers of the Boom, keep reading Verne, also Welles, and Cervantes, and also start to write, but somehow it didn’t seem right i couldn’t say what i wanted…then a night at the cinema and “The usual suspects” (haven’t seen that movie again don’t think it will hold that well in my appreciation) finally a way of telling a story more than with words and actions with mood and atmospheric manipulations; i thought that movie was great! old enough to start renting vhs movies and really excited (a friend told me i was frantic), but the movies weren’t that good so people told me to try to make better movies, so i left my mother ilussions of having a doctor in the family at the door of film school, there my true education begins, first : “Un chien andalou” then “2001″ after that “”The Seven seal” and more Bunuel, more Kubrick, more Bergman and then “Solaris” and silent film… i preferred black and white photography until “Days of heaven” now is equal love for the both…a especial mention would merit “Ordinary people” as a movie with very personal resonances…and “Tren de sombras” by Jose Luis Guerin as the movie that made me believe there were still life in cinema at the end of the twentieth century.

  • Dear John,

    This is such a wonderful piece of seeing cinema through your eyes, and indeed we all have those stirring moments of clarity where a life in film begins to take shape and deeply affects our being. You mentioned the vividness of Dali’s sequence in Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND and in much the same way our ability to recognize a path to creating cinema comes from a deep place filled with uncertain dreams. I’m really glad you asked people to tell their story because we don’t always take the needed time to reflect on how we got where we are and which direction we are going.

    The truth of the matter is beautifully put when you say, “film’s shot to shot fluidity can also create a simultaneous or even an imagined time …” because it gives us insight into the lives and voices that we would otherwise never know. Creating cinema can be akin to delving into our fears, desires and deeply held beliefs and then come out of it realizing we have miles to go before we sleep.

    Films gave me a chance at vicariously participating in the lives of others and the responsibility of engaging with the people, time and places carefully knitted through images and sound. Life could not just be consumed away but you had to think about it deeply and try to understand before rushing to judgement. It’s probably why I often try to remember Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s sonnet The World is Too Much with Us:

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

    It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

    Nature is an inexhaustible well for storytellers, whether they come in the form of filmmakers or any other, and our imagination is at the end limited through our experiences. I think Jean Renoir must have believed something similar to this because none of his films (from Boudu Saved from Drowning to Partie de campagne to The Grand Illusion and The River) feel as if they are repeated and they seem to draw heavily from the richness of ordinary lives actually lived instead of those casually imagined.

    I was born and grew up in Abu Dhabi at a time where there were no multiplexes, cable television and if you happened to live in the right neighborhood then a video store could be found within walking distance. The city did not have much appreciation for the art of cinema, or really any film culture at all. We certainly had nothing resembling a filmmaking community.

    To watch movies, I could go with my mother to the local Cultural Foundation (where I saw my first Satyajit Ray film), or my family watched a video cassette of Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 masterpiece The Circus over and over again, often during lunch. It never mattered what sort of mood my parents, brother or I were in before we sat down. The moment one of us pressed “play”, we forgot everything and became transfixed by Chaplin’s attempts to evade the police officer chasing him for stealing from the circus. The Circus speaks to anyone who – like my parents, immigrants from India – has ever felt like an outsider, or has felt sharp pangs of hunger but been unwilling to beg for food, or has done something for love regardless of the consequences.

    As I grew older, my interest in film never faded. For 11 years, I attended the American Community School, which had a large
    video collection imported directly from the US. It was reserved exclusively for teachers to use in classes, but I found a friend in
    Carolyn Hackworth, the school librarian, who let me use the viewing room during lunch breaks and after school to watch (plus
    rewind, rewatch, and freeze-frame) the best of American cinema: In The Heat of the Night, Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon, Rebel Without a Cause, The Red Badge of Courage, Taxi Driver.

    I realized that, since I wanted to live near my family, I would not be able to work in film for a living. A career in film history, preservation and archiving was equally out of the question: we had no film history to preserve or archive! So, when it was time for me to start university, I headed to the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma, to study environmental policy. I was, however, able to minor in film studies, and spent many hours at the historic Circle Cinema, Tulsa’s local art house theatre.

    It was there that I first saw a 35mm restored print of Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, which revealed the gritty real world of postwar Rome and the character of Giulietta Masina who could somehow waltz untouched through the horrors of her world by shielding herself with a comic persona. I was absolutely enveloped by Masina’s performance during the first screening and decided I needed to see the film more than once so I went back again a few more times to be completely enveloped each time by every aspect of this remarkable 1957 film. I had never seen a film that basically consisted of five interlocking vignettes and which brought about a spiritual sense to the whole predicament of Masina’s character of Cabiria who is seeking redemption, a woman who works as a sinner but seeks inner spirituality, who repeatedly becomes disillusioned but keeps finding the resources to believe in romantic love just the same. Fellini showed in Night of Cabiria that it was possible to create a sense of visual freedom through a character while still remaining attentive to the realities of a damaged world. In this restored version of the film they were able to put back a scene, an incident involving a good samaritan who distributes food and clothing to the homeless, that provides a framework to show people living in city caves and under bridges, but even more touching is a scene where Cabiria turns over the keys of her house to the large and desperately poor family that has purchased it. Every night that I close my eyes I can still see the crisp black and silver image, as photographed by Aldo Tonti, of Cabiria standing in the pouring rain under a tree along the Archeological Passage in Rome and hear Nino Rota’s melody into the night. Fellini showed it was possible to be remarkably poetic in making a film and that it could be built through a purity of music and images.

    I would go back to The Circle and scratch down notes on lighting, cutting and camera movement. I devoured film theory and spent hours thinking about why certain close-ups were imprinted in my memory and others weren’t. Even though I’d mostly given up on making movies, I was still fascinated with the techniques master filmmakers use to channel their outlooks on life into coherent cinematic narratives, which go on to prompt their audiences to probe, reflect on and develop their own beliefs.

    Then came the film that overwhelmed me with its headlong imagination and gave me courage to push myself towards writing and directing. It was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 Technicolor fantasy A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. I had never quite seen something so deliriously romantic, tinged with morbidity, mysticism, and humor. David Niven played the British fighter pilot who misses his appointment with death, falling in love with a Kim Hunter on his borrowed time. I realized this director Michael Powell had more and bigger ideas than any other director I was aware of till now: his use of color and bold graphic images is startling and most of all exhilarating, as is his willingness to explore subtle themes embedded in Pressburger’s screenplay, never sacrificing any of the creative excitement for the sake of an acceptable plot. Here was a film that for the first took the audacity to be both awesome and intimate in presenting a universe that never actually existed until this movie was made, and you’ll agree the vision is breathtaking in its originality. I had never imagined heaven’s underside and in one of the most spectacular shots ever put on celluloid we see vast holes in the sky with tiny people peering down over the edges. I have heard people say it is too abstract but all I know is that each time I view it the film remains emotionally specific and very affecting.

    Had it not been for cinema I would have most certainly pursued a life in religion, but fortunately these two films made clear to me that much like religion the cinema can hone our sense of what it means to be alive in the world.

    I am so glad you went back in time to revisit the pivotal moments in high school with Wild Strawberries, in Los Angeles with The Conformist and in Vienna with The Third Man. I can almost guarantee all of us who must spend our lives in film can remember the feeling of settling in the seats for the first time, then gradually getting enveloped in darkness where we can only see the other people from the light of the screen. Looking forward at the same story, we know that we are bound together with others even as we remain distant, lost in gazing deep inside ourselves.

  • Dear John,
    Apologies in advance for the long post, but this is quite a question. I had already been accepted to the pre-med program at Loyola Unversity New Orleans when I made that famous left turn. I wanted to be a surgeon, an orthopaedic surgeon, specializing in sports medicine, to be sure. However, by then I had already accumulated a short “body of work” in Super 8. My high school buddy, Frito, now Dr. Afredo Fernandez, MD, and I made a few elaborate Super 8 productions using his Beaulieu camera with a 12-120 Angenieux. For one shot we even rented a helicopter. Already influenced by Buñuel, our “Occurence In Ether” is certainly to be missed.

    As it happens, Frito went on to become a very well established surgeon and has even designed a few surgical instruments. I, on the other hand, came under the influence of the surge of great films of the early 70s: A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Cries and Whispers, The Last Picture Show, Deliverance, The French Connection, MASH, and of course Bananas and The Conformist, and became a different kind of surgeon, as my parents would eventually say.

    I couldn’t resist the pull. I believe it was watching A Clockwork Orange in my junior year of high school that lit the spark to actually consider this as a true career, though I never mentioned such a concept to my parents. Until then I hadn’t seen a film so out of the common mold. What was this thing? The use of music, costume, set design, even language blew me away. It raised the level of cinema from mere spectacle to art.

    Then I began to make the connection from the European films I had seen, The Seventh Seal, The Conformist, Jules and Jim, 400 Blows … to what Kubrick had done with the Burgess novel. I discovered the higher plane of filmmaking, and realised many others have discovered that higher plane before I had and were filling art house theaters and following these new artists making truly amazing films.

    It was a very exciting time for me. I had no idea what I was going to do. There was no coherent decision to be a director, cinematographer, or editor, but I knew I must go in this direction. After committing to this change of direction it took a few years until I was a student in London where I met British editor Frank Clarke. Mr. Clarke had edited films for MGM British Studios like Mogambo, Ivanhoe, and Antonioni’s Blow Up (uncredited, there is no editor credited on the film, and that’s another story), and here he was in an editing room with me showing me how to cut through the indulgent lingering shots and tell “a proper story” with images, and how the editor’s chair is “the best seat in the house”.

    Yours in cinema,
    Raul

  • For me it was Antonioni’s Blow Up 1966.
    Photography had been my childhood and teenage hobby but at the time I had never considered it a potential career. Having not taken my college studies seriously I lost my student deferment for the military draft and as a result I volunteered for service rather than wait to be drafted. After finishing basic training I was assigned to the photographic lab at the, now closed, Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Orange county about forty miles south of Los Angeles. I had only been there a couple of weeks when I was invited along by several fellow photographers to join them for a sightseeing trip to Los Angeles and to see Antonioni’s newest film. It was unlike anything I had seen before and opened my eyes to the possibility of actually pursuing a career as a photographer. Still photography was my primary interest but about a month after experiencing “Blow Up” I received orders to attend military film school to study motion picture photography, and discovered I preferred cinema as a career path. After a tour in Vietnam as a combat cameraman, I left the service and returned home to Dallas Texas where I started working in the local film business. Good luck was with me and while working in Dallas I had the opportunity to work as an assistant cameraman for several Los Angeles cinematographers such as Stan Lazan, Jules Brenner and Alfred Taylor ASC, who came to Dallas to shoot commercials. I consider these gentlemen among my early mentors, they were supportive of my goal of coming to Hollywood and very informative as to how I should approach it and what to expect.

  • dear john,
    We are living in a time when being overwhelmed by expressions is either short lived or not happening at all. May be that’s the order of the day but isn’t there a void…a missing something like feeling? Wanting to be silenced by the sheer expressive visuals or the great acts of film actors? Great cinemas , great moments telling tales or showing shades of tragedy , anguish or even dark thoughts…they seem great may be ’cause as an expression these evoke a sense of stability, a coiled feeling among us, the audiences. A faith on the medium…the great giver…it is a great feeling perhaps to wait in suspense for another story, another moment again from one more movie……just wait with belief that an event called cinema , larger than life yet so close to its variety has no end.

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