First Stirrings

Working on a campus, I’m surrounded by folks in their late teens and early 20s, many of whom have that first-stirrings glint in their eye. Literature, music or film are starting to become an obsession—or have recently been acknowledged as full-blown manias, which rookie geeks wear like badges of pride. So they should. That sense of discovery blows minds, and that kind of expertise carves character. It’s not something to be mocked or dismissed but nurtured and respected. Thinking deeply about something—anything—teaches us to make connections between units and locate patterns, a skill that translates to other spheres in our lives: ethical, professional, creative, interpersonal. There’s also something to be said for archival knowledge, and the more archives walking among us, the better. A few of these novices are insufferable, competitive, insecure little fucks, but most are neutral reflections of my own progression from non-filmbuff to filmbuff. Many cinemaphiles cite a single film that forever changed their perspective on movies (what’s yours?); thinking back, I have a few films and a few people to thank for getting me here.

Sitting in my dorm room one night with a friend, around the age of 19, I turned on the television just as Mervin LeRoy’s 1932 classic, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, began to air. I don’t know if it was Paul Muni or the movie’s crisp black-and-white world, but something triggered that internal aesthetic explosion art-lovers muse about. The Rapture happened. Stylistic and generational differences between the art form before me and art forms of my own day no longer mattered. Love. Suddenly, I was insatiably Into Film. We had quest-off: from LeRoy on, I’ve been on a constant search for more movies, more directors, more styles and schools and movements, more nations, languages and ages. Talking film with other c’philes and padding my encyclopedia is only the half of it. Walter Pater was right about the value of aesthetic experience—it’s something I chase, something that makes me feel vital.

But I can’t give Chain Gang all the credit. I’d already been through two years of liberal arts college,* where Cinema was a subject I opted for twice. Mr. Van Der Vyver, who had an enormous Death in Venice poster in his office, taught us both times. The first class was an introductory course that used the Flashback text and screened the basics: The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, City Lights, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Rules of the Game and, yes, Death in Venice. When we started the second class, Van Der Vyver let us vote on two genres to study all term. We chose horror (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Whale’s Frankenstein, Browning’s Dracula and Freaks, Herzog’s Nosferatu) and satire (Network, Smile, Shampoo, The Life of Brian). Every one of these films planted a seed. 20 years on I still get the throes when I watch Herzog or Renoir at their best, and horror and satire continue to be beloved genres. To say Van Der Vyver didn’t have a lasting influence would be disingenuous.

He had help. My Greek language and literature teacher spun his own movie magic once a month in the cafeteria—Mr. Marquis had a thing for Fellini, screening and Satyricon to confused teenagers with glee. And previous to college, two high school teachers were prone to blindsiding us with heavy cinema. Mr. Renaud was a Franco-Italian whose apartment walls were lined with beta tapes. When French grammar bored him, he’d show us offbeat Euro film like Le bal and Kaos. He wanted us to love movies the way he loved movies, and that kind of affection is catching. And then there was Mrs. Charlebois, our stylish Media teacher, who got away with screening Olympia, Triumph of the Will, A Clockwork Orange, Un chien andalou and Pink Floyd The Wall to a roomful of 15-year-olds (O, 1980s Quebec school system, how I love you). The eyeball- and nipple-slicing got to tender teenaged me, but an understanding of the importance of envelop-pushing movies was forged. So as much as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang impressed me, I have to credit all the other films listed above, as well, and I owe a great deal to Mr. Renaud, Mrs. Charlebois, Mr. Marquis and Mr. Van Der Vyver, daring teachers who knew how to expose kids to film and cultivate un certain regard. — Ranylt Richildis

*In Quebec, high school stops at grade 11/age 16. The two years equivalent to grades 12 and 13 are spent at college, where students begin to specialize before going off to university at 19.

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3 thoughts on “First Stirrings

  1. Oh, I love this, RR. I love that “o my god there is such beauty here” feeling (also, the “how did I not realize this before?!” feeling). People often don’t understand my love for Requiem for a Dream, but it gives me that feeling. Right now, I feel content just thinking about feeling that feeling.

    Also, I can only imagine how this: “[…] screening 8½ and Satyricon to confused teenagers with glee.” would go over in the U.S. 39’s not too old to become a Canadian, right?

  2. Oh – I love this country too! I don’t have anything so meaningful in my history, but since age six (starting with E.T. sucker punching my tiny little Barbied-out soul) I have lived a million passionate lives through film. I was in a few, until I realized I wasn’t a good enough, committed enough actor. I must say I prefer being in the audience so much more. I even got to hang out with Henry Thomas later in life, and gad, was I ever embarrassing.

    Canadian schools were fabulous in the 80’s. Grade seven, tiny Catholic school, Jesus Christ Superstar. Yes!

  3. Great article. I love that it is just about film in general and not necessarily a specific movie.

    The first film that had an impact on me was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. I was sweep up by Morricone’s score and Sergi Leone opening titles when I was ten and I have been a Spaghetti Western fan even since.

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