Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Jumbled, Incoherent Ramblings on Why I am a Cinephile

Every good cinephile loves a tracking shot!

“There are times when I think I might as well throw in the towel myself as I wonder what in the hell is there left to write about. But then I remember how much I've learned about movies since I started blogging. Before starting up Cinema Styles I was the guy who had all the info on movies if you needed it. After blogging for a year or two I felt like a rank amateur, but an eager one ready and willing to learn more every day from my fellow cinephiles online.”

Greg from Cinema Styles (one of the best damn blogs in the whole damn blogosphere) wrote this recently on his blog. It was an open invitation for anyone who wanted to participate to write about why it’s important being a cinephile. While reading this I’ve realized that I have never really put a lot of myself on this blog, sure you can get a sense of who I am by the way I write and how I talk about movies, but I’ve never really given any biographical information as to why I watch movies. Sure I’m a film buff – sometimes bordering on outright snob – but there has to be something more to it than that…right? The jumbled, incoherent ramblings of my life as a cinephile begins after the jump...

Like Greg, ever since I was a kid I was thought of as the guy who knew too much about movies. I remember being in 5th grade and having a police officer visit the class, all I could ask him about was how realistic Lethal Weapon was. Then Die Hard. Then John Woo movies. And when I raised my hand again the classroom groaned, and the teacher told me no more movie questions for the officer.

I was obsessed with film as far back as I can remember. It was kind of a novelty thing at first, a niche I could get lost in and not participate in social doings (a was a big nerd) or a parlor trick (before I even knew what that hell those words meant) that I could use to impress people at family gatherings (as far back as I can remember the first question I always got at a family function was “what new movies have you seen?”) or later in my college years at parties. When I was in 6th grade I started putting together a collection of all of my movie stubs. I would tape them to my binder at school (as well as those little mini promotional posters found in Premiere and Entertainment Weekly) to show off how many movies I had seen (Oh boy these were good movies, too: Species, Sudden Death, Judge Dread, etc.). The types of movies you watch with your buddies in 5th or 6th grade aren’t going to set the world on fire, but I would spout off all kinds of statistics about the movies that would elicit “oohs” and “ahhs” from my peers.

I was never any good at sports. I tried when I was a kid to play baseball, and gave up before I had a chance to see if I was ever really good. This allowed me to spend afternoons after school doing other things besides practicing sports. I had a small group of likewise-nerdy friends who after a couple hours of basketball would saunter down to one of our houses and pop in a movie; usually these were bad comedies like The Naked Gun or action films like Lethal Weapon or anything with Arnie in it.
I had all kinds of film books around me, and as I got older and headed into 7th and 8th grade I began studying them. Roger Ebert was an author of a lot of those books, but mostly these books were reference guides, filled with all of the information about who made the movie, who starred in the movies, and whether or not it won any awards. I had almost every Academy Award winner for Best Picture memorized by the time I was in 7th grade: this was me honing my “craft”. I checked out the same books from the library and memorized the pictures in them. This was my introduction to Citizen Kane and film noir; Hammer horror films and George Romero (The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh was a book I always checked out for its ridiculously violent pictures of Romero’s ridiculously violent Dead movies); H.R. Giger’s brilliant Alien design (Giger's Alien) and the cinematography of John Alton (Painting With Light was another favorite of mine)…to put it simply: the making of movies (and the magic of it all) was crystallizing for me. It was my rite of passage. I went from someone who just loved movies, knew too much for someone their age, and memorized statistics about movies, to someone who was obsessed with all things film. I also, for the first time, realized that a whole other world of cinema existed.


The summer of my 8th grade year was a threshold crossing for me. I remember reading an interview with John Woo (one of my favorite directors at the time…you can imagine how awesome this pre-teen thought his films were) where he stated that the inspiration for his character Jeffery (Chow Yun-Fat) from The Killer was inspired by his favorite film Le Samourai by Jean Pierre-Melville. Naturally I wanted to see what my favorite director’s favorite movie was like so I tried tracking down a copy. No luck. Oddly enough in a small vacation town video store I found a copy of the film I had spent months trying to get my hands on. So I rented it, ran back to the vacation home and watched my first foreign film. I was struck by how boring it was, yet, I watched it all the way through. It wasn’t until then that I realized I had watched a pretty good movie. Action films don’t have to be all blood and guts and shootouts. You can actually have a movie be interesting by thinking about characters and subtext and nuances. It was a major epiphany for me, sure I liked movies that were abnormal for any pre-teen – I remember raving to my friends about Leaving Las Vegas, and I remember thinking that Oliver Stone’s JFK was one of the best movies I had ever seen; I was probably one of the few 12 year olds to actually be able to sit through all three Godfather films without squirming – but with Le Samourai, this was the moment that I attribute as the one singular instance where I can point to and say that’s where I became a cinephile.

After that the sky was the limit. My brother had this book of the 100 greatest films selected by all these random critics. I hadn’t heard of 90% of the films, but I started to become enamored with the pictures in the book, leading me to seek out these "odd" films from other countries. I started to wonder what it would be like to watch The Rules of the Game or The Apu Trilogy or Andrei Rublev or Wild Strawberries. So I headed back down to the library and instead of checking out books I started to look at all the videos they had. Every week I was bringing home stacks of movies from Fellini to Bergman to Altman; even some of the silent masters like Eisenstein and the great films from Chaplin and Keaton. I was hooked. Suddenly the still pictures from the countless film books I had studied were coming alive.

All through high school I was still known as the movie man. I was devouring film after film from the public library becoming well versed in Altman and Scorsese and Keaton and Chaplin and all of the other great American masters. I thought I was a big deal in high school because I watched foreign films, too. Sure a lot of that was immaturity, but there was something to it: while my friends were content thinking that The Matrix was the coolest movie ever, I found myself as an outsider, singing the praises of lesser lauded films (specificaly at that time Dark City). I would construct top 10 lists for fun and type up little mini reviews at home on the computer. I was a blogger of film before I even knew it. I emulated Ebert’s style the most because he was an idol to me. I remember one night in 1998 watching his show with Gene Siskel and jumping for joy when he named Dark City the best film of 1998. I was elated that such an esteemed film critic (especially one I idolized) thought so highly of a film I loved so much, it was almost as if I felt validated somehow: my taste in movies was legit because such an esteemed film critic was agreeing with a choice I made on my own silly top 10 list.

The beginnings of DVD also aided me in my quest to become a fuller, more enriched cinephile. This was a way for me to see, like with the interview I read with John Woo in 8th grade, some of my favorite directors talking about their influences. I started obsessing about Truffaut during this period because Glenn Kenny, critic for Premiere Magazine, mentioned how New Wave-esque Steven Soderbergh was. Well, I was obsessed with Soderbergh’s Out of Sight at the time, so that comment, coupled with the director’s commentary on the Out of Sight DVD, led me to watching all kinds of French New Wave films. I now understood that the freeze frames used in Out of Sight were not just cool stylistic tricks (which they were), but were indebted to a whole movement that I had yet to familiarize myself with (and am still familiarizing myself with).

As I’ve noted on the blog before my year at “film school” was 1999. This was the year where I really started becoming surer of how I would assay a film. I understood allusions and nuances, subtle nods to the great masters. When I watched The Talented Mr. Ripley I knew that I needed to talk about Hitchcock’s influence on the film. I understood the minimalist effects of the Dardenne's Rosetta. Needless to say I thought there was nothing else to learn about film. Sure there would be countless films I would uncover and the future was bright with so many brilliant filmmakers emerging in 1999, but I figured my style, the way I looked at film…I figured that would stay the same.

When I went to college I found like-minded film buffs. However, I still felt a bit marginalized in my tastes. I guess you can say those tastes leaned more towards the aesthete when compared to what my classmates were talking about Monday morning in class. And while they were going gaga over surface, dorm-room-staples like The Usual Suspects, Seven, Fight Club, and other films of that ilk, I was asking them to consider the brilliance of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers or Fellini’s 8 1/2, two films that “look cool” but also have a whole lot of substance to them.

It was about this time that I started getting tired of talking about film. A lot of that is personal stuff, I didn't like who I was when I talked about such opinionated things -- I was like most college age kids I guess: I aped whatever smarter people than I were saying about a certain issue without really thinking about why I felt that way. This led to a maturation that comes to all of us, I think, when we are in our later years in college. I started to love film again like I did when I was a kid, and (gasp) I started to form more articulate opinions about why I felt the way I did about specific films. When having a conversation with a professor I remember telling them with a straight face that I think Robocop is one of the most brilliant films ever made. This lead to a kind of apathy towards those who were trying to get me to see "the greatest movie ever" for that week. I can think specifically of films like Children of Men or any other type of film where the visuals distract the viewer from the fact that there's no story. I didn’t see what the big deal was with Children of Men, but my colleagues were calling it the greatest film they’d ever seen, and all I could think about was how sad that was and how they needed to see more movies. Sure that’s prickly of me, and a bit snarky, but it was true. I had been exposed to the great films of the world at a much younger age than most (I’m assuming) and the fact that I was now a cinephile as opposed to just a film buff was becoming clearer and clearer.


When I started this blog a year ago my plans were just to do it for selfish reasons: I wanted to do my silly little reviews and year-end lists again. However, it’s morphed into a community of people who come to talk about film; something I never imagined in my wildest of dreams. I also wanted to use it as excuse to start seeing movies again, to get excited about the next batch of movies to come out; the way I used to when I so proudly plastered my binder with those ticket stubs in 6th grade. After college (and at some points while I was in college) I railed against “arty” film as I was growing weary with the independent film movement and how all of the sycophants were just lapping up and applauding anything that had “indie” attached to it. This anti-intelligent film movement of mine made me loath world cinema, which was sad since it was the catalyst for me becoming a cinephile. For a good while the only foreign films I was watching were being made by the Dardenne brothers as I put my cinephilia on hiatus. But, as I mentioned earlier, it allowed me to see "normal" films (all relative terms I used to use when comparing 'films' with 'movies'...god what an asshole I was) with fresh eyes. I began to see films again through the lens of a genuine cinephile, not just somebody who is looking to impress others by name dropping.

Now with the blog I feel rejuvenated and the fact that there are actually people linking to me, reading my stuff, and being nice enough to comment on it blows me away. It’s been a crazy journey, and although I write on the blog with some knowledge about one subgenre that I find it hard to stop talking about (Italian Horror), I’m not as pissy or authoritative as I once was. I know there’s still so much more for me to learn. And boy do I ever learn. Starting this blog has been the best thing for me. It’s made me realize three important things: how limited my film knowledge is, was, and always will be; that you can’t take yourself too seriously; and how there are so many other cinephiles out there who know what they’re doing and do it way better than I could ever hope to…I’m just thrilled to count some of them as my readers. So thanks. Thanks for enlightening me, and enriching my life on a daily basis. I’m still learning about all kinds of movies. A good example of this is Melville’s classic Le Cercle Rouge, which I just saw for the first time last month, and what a treat that was; and even though I may have already heard of Melville and I eventually would have gotten to that film at some point in my life, there are still new filmmakers I’m hearing about thanks to the blogs. Apparently when I took my hiatus from world cinema (and please understand, I’m not saying that all great cinema comes from other countries, but it was that attitude that disillusioned me to foreign or ‘arty’ films) there was a great film entitled The Werckmeister Harmonies made by a filmmaker named Bela Tarr. Now, I would have never known this unless I had started this blog, started reading other peoples blogs, contributed to Counting Down the Zeroes hosted by Film for the Soul, and then found that many people on that blog consider it one of the best films of 2000. Ed Howard of Only the Cinema, Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark, and others have now told me to start watching Tarr’s films. It’s in the Netflix queue, and it wouldn’t be there had I not started this blog and rejuvenated my idled cinephilia.

Just like when I was growing up where each transitional phase of my life (Elementary, Middle, and High school) led me to a wider view of what cinema is. And this is why I watch movies. I watch movies to learn a little about life, myself, how to better understand people, and how to be elevated to a realm that is impossible without the use of heavy drugs. That’s how film makes me feel. It’s as if I am Guido in the opening of Fellini’s 8 ½ gliding over the city in the most beautiful of reveries…only to be pulled down by the end credits, where I have to wonder through the sticky floors of the theater and out to my car where I begin to construct my thoughts and think about how I want to articulate what I just saw…all for the blog.

The blog has, for what I originally intended for it to be, evolved into something I could never have dreamed of. As I’ve mentioned before I actually have people reading this, and that’s a weird feeling when you’re not someone who has aspirations of being a writer. I want to give specific thanks to the people who made the first year so easy (considering I did no promoting of my blog whatsoever, so these people found me, I don’t know how, but they did…so thanks for kick-starting this): Andrew from Gateway Cinephiles always commented early and often in my first year of doing this; Alexander Coleman from Coleman’s Corner in Cinema (who it appears is on sabbatical) for the always encouraging and profound comments; Ali Arikan from Cerebral Mastication, an infinitely better blog than I could ever hope to produce, Ali has been the effin’ man and more than accommodating when it comes to things like corresponding through email about the worthiness or quality of a certain neo-noir essay and for getting said essay linked by people on sites who do more traffic in a day than I do in a month; and last not but not least my brother Troy whose irreverent blog
Elusive as Robert Denby mirrors the exact type of humor he and I love to partake in...he helped me create the blog I have now, and like the good big brother he is, introduced me to Italian Horror. I also want to mention (again) Sam Juliano of Wonder’s in the Dark for being the nicest freaking blogger I’ve ever read. Seriously, there needs to be a LAMMY award for him just being the nicest guy.

There are countless other names and blogs I could list here that have all inspired me to write this and to think about my own personal (and definitely abridged) film history; however, I won’t bore you with a list of names, even though I wouldn’t find it the least bit boring. But what I can do is point you towards the side bar and the “what I read” section, there you will find the blogs that keep me writing, encourage me with positive comments and sometimes criticism, and who always supply works of brilliance that humble this most amateur of film writers. Also, you’ll notice a banner for The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club which I was honored to have been asked by Greg of Cinema Styles to participate by submitting a piece next May. There’s great discussion there and links to numerous sites that will make you a better filmgoer if you visit.

Jesus, this sounds like I’m never blogging again…if you’ve made it this far I thank you, and look forward to conversing with you all in the future about all things film. Onward and upward.


  1. I'm a sucker for essays on personal journies through film. Hung on every word. Nice job. Keep blogging!

  2. That was a great piece Kevin and I'm happy to have it connected to my loose, vague, no-real-rules, barely thought-out meme.

    Every time I read someone's piece on how they became a cinephile it's always amazing to me how similar all of our experiences are. And years later there are still so many movies to see that you'll never see them all so no matter how long you've been a cinephile you always feel like you're still learning.

  3. Jason:

    Thanks so very much for the kind words. I'm thrilled you stopped by to take a peek. And thanks for the encouraging words.

  4. Greg:

    I thank you for punching me in the arm and giving me something personal to write about. I need to implement more of that on the blog. Your meme was my favorite kind: personal and non-gimmicky. And yes, cinephiles will always be learning. Something I tell my students often is how I will fail as a teacher if I continue to stop learning. So hopefully they realize the importance of continuous questioning and academic inquiry.

    Thanks again for the kind words.

  5. What a wonderful, wonderful read--- far too many emotional truths and well-articulated sentiments for me to respond to here. As Jason said, I'm a sucker for people telling the story of their love for movies.

    Like Greg said, it's funny no matter how different those stories are (and I've read them all over the place), there is always a common tone amongst them: the overwhelming gratitude for finding something they love so much, the nostalgia for the films that awakened them to the wonders of cinema, and the acknowledgment that no matter how many films we've watched--- we're really just getting started.

    And I, too, am blown away by the fact that I have readers.

  6. Ryan:

    Thank you for the kind words and for stopping by. This loose meme by Greg has reaffirmed the necessity of blogs. In a somewhat small town (yeah, Salem is the capitol, but Portland is the real big city here in Oregon) you tend to feel in the minority about your cinephilia, so it's always great to know that fellow bloggers like yourself and everyone I link to on my blog come from similar experience.

    Thanks again for stopping by.

  7. Word Life - way to pay homage to your roots. I still remember those days of you repeatedly watching JFK and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (your mancrush on Costner continues to this day).

    You've always had an easy to read, yet still very literate style to your writings -- plus you are more than willing to throw in a little humor when necessary. It all makes for good reading and is probably why you've got so many readers.

    Oh, and if I'm the irreverent one, does that make me the "Jason" or the "Randy" of the two of us (to continue our lifelong goal of emulating the Sklars).

  8. Troy:

    Ah yes the good old days of me watching Robin Hood over and over...thanks Columbia House! And you would be the one on the left...I thinks that's Jason. Thanks for the compliments. I try to keep things fun and informative here without taking myself too seriously.

  9. What makes this piece so great is that it personalizes the blogging experience, and makes it much more than just making the rounds and adding to a colleague's comment total. It rightly acknowledges the vibrant film community that informed someone (like yourself) who is dedicated and appreciative. You make the entire time-consuming venture something that MATTERS. I was fascinated reading about your journey, how it started--yes reviews and lists were my own temptation to launch too--and how it developed into en enriching discourse with your most beloved hobby. Italian horror may have been the hook, but it's grown into something bigger, better and more all-inclusive.

    Thanks so very much for the flattering shout-outs (I am so appreciative for that) and thanks for being the exceedingly gracious on-line voice. I don't know you all that long, but I must say you are one class act. I have enjoyed every shared correspondance with you, and I'msure that will never change. Thank You.

  10. Sam:

    Thanks. I've said numerous times on this blog, and you've reiterated on your fine blog, great quality (not quantity) comments and encouragement are the best medicine for all of us cinephiles who blog for the love of it. You're one of the best one's out there. I count myself lucky that you make this blog one of your daily stops.

  11. Thanks very much for that Kevin--this is indeed a revered stop!

    Here's something that will surely make you smile from ear to ear:

    Notice you are mentioned prominently at the beginning of the second paragraph!

  12. Nice piece, Kevin. As so many have ably said, it is very interesting to read about others' love of a thing and how it started.

    Plus, I like your choice of images.

  13. Sam:

    I posted a quick note on your blog about the final tallying of the 60's best of list. How great that my favorite film sits atop the list. You're right, it did make me smile. And thanks for the shout-out in the essay.

  14. Rick:

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the images. Le Samourai is very personal to me so that was a natural choice, and Citizen Kane is...well it's Citizen Kane! That's like the Speak-n-Say for any cinephile.

  15. This a quite magical post. You capture the tenderness of nascent cinephila with a perceptive, confessional tone. A great read -- although it dredges up what are, for me, rather painful memories of maturing as a social inept, overweight, sesquipedalian film fan in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

    Interestingly, I don't think I had a similar experience where a single film converted me, although I had the benefit of a father who taught editing and cinema at a local community college, so I was exposed to foreign fare pretty early on (I think I was ten the first time I saw "Metropolis"). "Le Samourai" is a worthy film to be baptized by, however, and like you I discovered a lot of great movies by reading essays and following genre threads (I still do discover movies that way).

    Also interesting that no one has yet given the Criterion Collection a shout-out this meme (at least none of the entries I've read have). I remember trolling video stores while in Junior High just so I could pass my hands across their indelibly designed laserdisc covers. They had an aura of sophistication about them I yearned to be a part of. I discovered a lot of great films as a result of their art department, I'm a little embarrassed to admit...

  16. Jon:

    Thanks for the kind words. I too had a good experience with a father who loved movies, and who also wasn't afraid to show me movies that most parents would never think of having their 10 year old kids watch. That isn't to say he was irresponsible, just realistic in the sense that he knew a "bad" movie content wise wasn't going to corrupt me forever.

    I am envious that you thought of the Criterion thing. You're right, I didn't even think of talking about it even though, like you, I often bought up tons of Criterion discs based on the cover art. Perhaps had I written a longer, more comprehensive, piece I would have remembered something about Criterion. I should have mentioned it though seeing how my copies of Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled are the rare first print Criterion editions.

    I used to just buy whatever they put out knowing that it was going to be, for better or worse, a memorable film experience. Well, except for when they released a version of Armageddon...

    You're so right about the "aura of sophistication" that a lot of the times I flaunted their prominence on my DVD shelf so everyone good see how eclectic and global my tastes were, haha. Those fancy Criterion covers are still something that sucks me in; luckily I can't really afford the discs anymore, so I don't drop 40 bucks on some random disc because of the cover art, but thanks to Netflix I can still see all of the fine films they release.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such a wonderful comment.

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