By Christian Chensvold
This week in June of 1988, I graduated from Santa Rosa High School, and the following morning set off on my first solo road trip bound for the netherworld of Los Angeles. I was gone for five days and remember only two things.
I spent the first day in Santa Barbara, and decided to save money by sleeping on the beach. The sand tortured my back, while sand fleas tortured the rest of me, and the sound of the waves nearly drove me insane. I finally gave up at 4am, and there, on a dark and desolate Highway 101, I remember looking up at the stars shining over the sea and feeling some eerie sense of destiny, as if I were on a hero’s journey to discover some important piece in the puzzle of my life. Looking back all these years later, it’s clear what I discovered on my trip, because it’s the only other thing I remember.
I found a movie.
Wandering around Hollywood two days later, I found a one-screen movie theater showing Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns, which is set in the Paris art world of the 1920s. It’s a quirky gem with a fantastic cast—it’s also a favorite of more than one person affiliated with this newspaper—and I came out of the theater with the movie poster, the vinyl album and a heady high on movie magic. Already suspecting that my soul belonged to the past, The Moderns gave a 1.21-gigawatt bolt to my inner time machine, and I’ve watched it numerous times ever since, always finding something fresh in it, especially in the wake of growing maturity and the slings and arrows of life’s twists and turns.
The past few years have been euphemistically referred to as “challenging times,” and I’ve tried to share my own coping strategies with cover stories in this paper on escapism and using the teachings of ancient wisdom to create your own reality. And here I am with another, arguing the case for cutting the cord on your streaming services and building your own Library of Alexandria of your top-100 films of all time, and just watching those.
Think about it: could you really name more than a hundred movies that have made a lasting imprint on your soul, that have made you the person you are today, that have been so many foundation stones in the castle of the imagination that you’ve been slowly building over the course of your life? Browsing ourselves into exhaustion in a chaotic netherworld of infinite possibilities suggests a paucity of self-awareness, as if we really don’t really know ourselves at all.
One hundred movies seems like enough great stories for one lifetime.
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They say you never get over your first love, and upon close inspection I’d venture that most of the films I watch again and again are from one of the three early stages of life. To childhood belong things like The Sound of Music and the Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies, while to adolescence belong the Back to the Future series and Romancing the Stone. Then, beginning with The Moderns, to young adulthood belongs the realm of world-building, of classic and foreign films and historic escapism, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence right at the top. So either I simply like revisiting old favorites, or movies from the past 25 years just aren’t as good as they used to be. If it’s the latter, why torture ourselves with perpetual disappointment?
Science has shed light on the matter with the Baskin-Robbins theory of happiness, which goes like this. If you stop someone on a hot summer’s day and offer them some ice cream, they invariably reply, “I’d love some ice cream!” They make their choice from the three you offer—vanilla, chocolate and strawberry—and slide into a cheerful mood that might last all day. But give people 31 flavors to choose from, and it turns out they aren’t all that happy with the ice cream they serendipitously stumbled upon. That’s because a specific part of the brain gets activated: the place associated with the emotional response known as regret. Choosing the wrong ice cream—or movie to watch—descends to the mind’s realm of roads not taken, haunted by the refrain, “If only…..”
Before realizing what I was doing, I began by eliminating streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. I began to notice that when faced with endless choices all lined up for me, I invariably clicked on something that looked like it might be interesting, watched it for 15 minutes, and then tried something else, leaving my recently-viewed list with five times as many abandoned films than ones that I actually finished, let alone enjoyed. Then there was the home-page interface itself, which I grew to regard as a kind of casino designed by the devil. I began opting for two well chosen DVDs per week in an effort to make movie-watching special again. But things really took a turn when I bought a $5 VHS player at the thrift store, and loaded up on 25 cent videotapes.
According to our esteemed editor and filmmaker Daedalus Howell, video comes at your eyes in a series of waves. This probably explains why the old tapes seemed more engrossing than contemporary Blu-ray flicks shot digitally, without even being output on film, let alone transferred from film to video. These misty videotapes seemed to unfold more like dreams, just as classic storytelling from Old Hollywood is shot and edited in a way that feels like turning pages in a picture book, with your imagination as co-author of what you’re experiencing. Research has shown that modern fast-cut, shaky-camera filmmaking bypasses the imaginative part of the brain while stimulating the visual cortex, the part used for something like watching a dazzling but meaningless fireworks display. If all the entertainment one consumes is made this way, then you’re quite literally making yourself stupider by dulling the most important faculty you have.
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If you can still get pleasure—in fact, increasing pleasure—from watching certain films over and over again, what does that tell us about human nature, and why we put up with so much self-enforced mediocrity? And not only in the stories we watch—the ancients had myths revealing timeless truths, we have “entertainment” that makes a profit—but in our lives themselves. I feel like asking my late grandma why she saved the good tableware for special occasions, instead of eating off her finest finery every day? Good God, grandma, carpe diem. What if you were hit by a bus tomorrow, awoke at the pearly gates hoping for entry, and Saint Peter’s first question is: “You based your life on things you knew were second-rate, and you expect to get into heaven?”
Halfway through writing this little meditation, I purchased a copy of The Moderns, and I look forward to putting it on the shelf along with the 99 other films comprising the story of one man’s life at the cinema and what he learned about himself. I think the next one will be Visconti’s 1963 epic, The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster as an Italian prince watching the world transform around him, yet unable to change his spots.