Any cineaste worth his salty popcorn knows the legend of the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 short Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat, one of the first films ever screened. (Back in 1895, they preferred titles to tell it like it is — no fancy-pants The Upside Of Anger or Broken Flowers.) The Parisian audience settled into their seats awaiting a charming new form of entertainment and, as said train arrived at the aforementioned station, they collectively jumped up and bolted out of the theater for fear of being run over.
Now that’s effective filmmaking.
Cut to a century and change later. You won’t see today’s media-savvy audiences running scared from what’s projected up on that screen (unless they greenlight Catwoman 2). Nor will they line up for too-straightforward titles like A Game From Your Childhood That Has Nothing To Do With Aliens Is Now A Movie With Aliens or Bourne Is Off Doing Amazing Stuff Elsewhere, But Here’s This Other Guy.
Oh how I hate to sound jaded — but the studios just make it too damn easy. Despite the flurry of aesthetic bells and whistles meant to distract us from the actual content of their movies, there’s no escaping the sad fact that we’ve seen it all before. After all, wasn’t the late Tony Scott’s 2010 action flick Unstoppable just an amped-up remake of that 1895 classic? The sense of spectacle that caused moviegoers to panic over a century ago is long gone, try as they might to replicate it. What with 3D, digital projection, and the ever-more-ear-shattering surround sound, nowadays you’re more likely to hear about an audience that actually did get hit by a train — because they thought it was just a movie.Point being, it takes a lot to impress the been-there/done-that consumer in 2012, and even more to impress me — for, as someone who aims to make a living writing movies (and writing about movies), I’ve had an awful lot of face time with Hollywood product. Now I’m just another cine-cynic, cloaking himself in sarcasm to better affront the industry’s typically uninspired status quo. The internet handily allows small-time bloggers like me to ridicule the bigwigs shrouded in anonymity — we’re a lot like the anti-establishment antiheroes that populate comic book movies like The Dark Knight or V For Vendetta or The Watchmen, fighting for truth, justice, and whatnot in a corrupt corporate world. And though we like to see ourselves as lone rangers out to right Tinseltown’s wrongs, we’re really just victims of pop culture overexposure like everyone else, cracking wise to avoid cracking up.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, though. Underneath our sardonic armor, there’s a secret identity — a little boy or girl who, like those panicked Parisians oh so long ago, was once genuinely thrilled by movie magic. Because there was a time for even the most seasoned cinephile when it was all new. Genuine suspense over whether or not a meet-cute necessitated a fade out on a kiss. Real surprise that a trusted mentor could turn out to be the villain of the piece. And, yes, the sudden urge to bolt from the theater. Over the years movies have inspired me, angered me, comforted me, and perplexed me…
But before all that, they scared the shit out of me.My first theatrical moviegoing experience was a re-release of Bambi. While my sister squirmed the next seat over, my eyes were glued to the screen. Cute animals! Catchy songs! On the biggest TV ever! (The sugar rush wasn’t bad either.) It was a good time. Then came that oh no they didn’t! moment every child contends with — a cinematic rite of passage as cruel as the Santa Claus ruse. You know it — that heart-wrenching scene in which Mommy Deerest is gunned down by the big bad hunter. Pretty gutsy, for a kiddie cartoon.
One minute, there you are, sitting in a seat that’s way too big for you, snacking on some Jujubees. There’s music, there’s frolicking, everything’s peachy. And then? Bang. Even at the tender age of four, I had to respect the awesome power of the movie gods, immersing us in a delightfully perfect world and then snatching it back so ruthlessly. Disney giveth and Disney taketh away. What better life lesson on mortality could a child possibly receive?From then on, I surmised not even the cuddliest of characters was guaranteed a safe passage until credits rolled. I grew intensely suspect of those volatile pictures of motion, big screen and small. Michael Jackson’s horrific “Thriller” video gave me weeks of nightmares… I begged my dad to take me home during the ominous opening scene of Tim Burton’s Batman… my parents literally held me down and pried my eyes open to get me to watch Spielberg’s E.T. on VHS because that little alien puppet gave me the frickin’ creeps. No, I was not a brave youth. But in each case, my enthrallment overpowered my deep-rooted terror. (Well, except with “Thriller.” That still freaks me out.) I kept watching.
Then, in June 1993, the tables turned and I was never the same. My parents deemed Jurassic Park “too scary” — unaware that denying a prepubescent male the chance to see a T-Rex on the big screen was tantamount to withholding food and shelter. Now I was begging to be terrified at the movies… to no avail. Indefatigable, I bought the action figures and reenacted every gory scene from Michael Crichton’s book, in anticipation of the glorious day when I’d be deemed man enough to step through those big wooden doors into Jurassic Park. (Yes, I had a replica of the doors.) But I feared it would never come.When school started in September and I still had no frame of reference for the oft-quoted “Hold onto your butts!”, I might as well have shown up for fifth grade in leisure suit. I was a social pariah. (And it has ruined me to this day.) Becoming best friends with the boy who “spoke raptor,” and would only squawk at me as he stalked around the playground during recess, didn’t make me any cooler. (Hard to believe, right?) It was to be a short-lived bromance.
Finally, that fall, my parents relented — nearly four whole months after the film’s release. After bracing for graphic depictions of velociraptors ripping out intestines, I was surprised to discover the film wasn’t nearly as violent as my imagination (and Crichton’s book) had had me believe. It wasn’t terrifying at all — it was awesome.
In later years, after conquering true thrillers like The Shining and The Exorcist, I got my kicks from more taboo fare. My grandest act of teenage hell-raising was sneaking into the Oscar-nominated Shakespeare In Love at age sixteen. (Yeah, I was a rebel.) On my seventeenth birthday, when at last I obtained equal standing with parents and guardians in the pitiless eyes of the MPAA, I went straight for the earliest showing of American Beauty to observe my emancipation. Pity me if you will — these were the greatest thrills of my formative years. Is it any wonder I ended up in film school?
Like Bruce Wayne, Charles Foster Kane, and Sigmund Freud before me, I faced my childhood demons — the ones that go bump in the night in Dolby Surround — and made them part of my identity. Filmmaking is a rough business — in fact, it scares the shit out of me — and that’s why I’ve never been able turn away.
In the spirit of Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat, someday I’d like to thrill people so much they run screaming from the theaters. (Or at least sit all the way through the end credits.) ‘Til then, I hide safely behind my cynic’s cape and cowl with all the other jaded journalists out there, an arsenal of irony and razor-sharp wit at my side (they don’t call me dangerous for nothin’). From the shadows, I mock to make the world safe for quality and good taste once more. Or if nothing else, to leave them wondering…
“Who was that sarcastic film student, anyway?”