The Many Varied (and Useless) Paths to Self-Discovery Through Cinema
There were a couple of pieces last week [I wrote this last week and forgot to post it because I am just not very bright] about advice on how to help kids become cinephiles and, personally, I think they’re all wrong.
Sasha Stone’s piece on Awards Daily was the more interesting and comprehensive one to me because of it’s thoroughness (even though by the author’s admission it is incomplete). The other was this compilation piece on CriticWire (compiled by Matt Singer), where a the critics polled suggest films ranging from The 400 Blows, to The Battle of Algiers, to Black Orpheus, to Hoop Dreams and the teenage dream, Hannah and Her Sisters in their quest to grow a new cinephile from seedling.
But they both, I think, miss a vital point in the growing process: the two absolute keys, to my mind, to becoming a cinephile — or anything, really, especially at a young age — are personal discovery and perfect timing.
As you know, timing is everything.
Everyone past their teenage years surely remembers them vividly, either with longing or with something of a cringe, or with both. I can only speak directly for my own coming of age, but you couldn’t tell me anything when I was a teenager. I knew everything, and better than everyone, especially adults.
Of course I was a moron, and I knew nothing, but that’s besides the point.
The point is that you couldn’t have suggested me into growing into a cinephile. I would have become something else. On purpose, even if I hated it, just to spite you. Because teenagers are assholes. And they’re supposed to be. It’s about figuring yourself out, and that’s an incredibly daunting and ultimately selfish task that lasts well into your twenties, maybe later. It’s unavoidable though.
I became a cinephile because I found film organically, late at night — on cable, even though I grew up in the best moviegoing city in the world.
Along the way, there was Trainspotting, which I loved because adults hated it, and Pulp Fiction because it was the essence of cool in the 90s, and Akira, probably because of the explosions and nudity at that age, but later for its thought, allusions and stunning animation.
Bur really, the most important films for me in finding out there was something in the world like independent film were Clerks and Chasing Amy, which came on one back-to-back one night when I was seventeen and I sat in awe through both of them. These were films no one told me about (though I did remember Jay and Silent Bob from their MTV interstitials). Clerks was about hockey playing slackers. Hey, I was a hockey playing slacker. And Chasing Amy was about an impossible love. Hey, I was in love with a girl that was impossible to get.
I don’t say this as a suggestion though. Clerks and Chasing Amy just happened to be there as a gateway for me, like Slacker or Jaws worked for Kevin Smith himself, or whatever films were there for Richard Linklatter and Steven Spielberg before that.
Like training wheels and baby teeth, though, you outgrow your first indie movies, or at least their director, as you search harder and deeper to discover more films to devour. They’re not enough. You say, “what else is there?” And you look around and see there is a lot. Then maybe you hear someone you despise like mention the movie you like, so you go deeper, to search out directors that no one else could possibly have heard of. Old films, black and white, silent films. And then suddenly you discover that the rest of the world makes movies too, and even though you have to read them, they’re great.
But there is a such thing as the right movie at the right time in a person’s life too. A somewhat embarrassing admission is that I spent most of life hating 2001: A Space Odyssey because I thought it was disingenuous. It was a trip movie (it even says so on the poster), not a space movie. It’s cheating to make a movie you have to be blazed to get, I though. And every kid at school that I hated just loved 2001 and A Clockwork Orange to pieces. Of course I’ve come around on 2001 (not on Clockwork though), because I’m not a dumb teenager anymore. My body still revolts at appreciating things that people I don’t like love, but my brain overcomes the revolt and it’s not prohibitive anymore.
I just wasn’t ready for 2001 at 15, or 18, or 20. I was ready for it at 25. There are an awful lot of films like that.
It’s the organic nature — the trial and error, the pain of disliking a film you thought you’d like, and the elation at finally finding something new to love, or finding something to love in something you used to hate — that’s the real juice.
In this kind of thing though, a person will understandably scan their minds for suggestions and come up with a list of films they like. But that’s the thing is that it’s a list of films they like. The main question posed that started this thing off was how to hook a 14 year old black girl from Harlem on art house cinema. I really don’t think Antoine Doinel or a middle aged Woody Allen holding his ears because punk rock is making him deaf are going to cut it. Those films come later.
The truth is that there aren’t a lot of art house or indie films for black people to really deeply connect to, especially young black people. One of the best is Medicine for Melancholy, but I don’t know that you’d want to show that to a fourteen year old girl. It’s partly about that very problem though. Wyatt Cenac (who is tremendous in the film) screams out at one point, “everything about being indie is about not being black!” I might be paraphrasing that a little bit, I haven’t seen it in a while, but the point stands. This was one hell of a tough assignment given out by CriticWire.
Again, that wasn’t a suggestion. I honestly would have no idea what to suggest to a 14 year old black girl to get her onto art house. I don’t know that I’d know what to suggest to a 14 year old of any color or sex, actually. I wouldn’t even try. I don’t even really suggest movies to friends anymore, except very passively. Why, yes, I do remember that I’m a film critic. I just believe the best course of action is to leave people alone and let them find it themselves. Kids know how to use the internet better than most of us know how to use our brain, and I don’t know if you’ve seen it but people talk about film kind of a lot on the internet.
Still, it’s an incredibly common thing to do, and it’s something that bothers me to no end: suggesting a film you liked to someone because you love-love-love it without really taking them into consideration. How could someone not love something you love so much? But it’s almost always a guarantee for both parties to be let down. They won’t see what you see in it, or at least not as deeply (because you’ve probably seen it 20 times), and in turn you will hate them for not seeing what you love so much. Why give yourself another reason to hate teenagers?