Signpost Films: A Personal History
There are movies we encounter at certain points in our appreciation for the medium that become, almost by accident, little breakthroughs in our viewing life. They may not be great masterpieces—though they well might—but the important thing is that we have the fortune of meeting up with them at just the right juncture in our development. I think of them as “signpost films”: they take a territory that was previously foggy or unmapped to us and they suddenly make us see and learn something revelatory about this art-form that we love. These encounters make us exclaim, “So, that’s what this movie’s doing!” And it’s a lesson we take with us, carry over and apply, to hundreds of other films we will see in the future.
Before I ask you for yours, here are a few of my personal “signpost films,” ordered by viewing chronology:
Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) taught me that Bollywood cinema was equally composed of strong (1) verbal and (2) visual components. The verbal strengths were easy for me to see as a pre-teen—for months afterward, no day at the playground would pass without a torrent of mock-theatrical references to Amjad Khan’s aperçus. Years later, I would realize the film’s visual debt to westerns, particularly Leone via Kurosawa via Ford.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Red Circle (1970) was the first foreign-language film I saw as a kid. After the wonderful verbal and musical garrulity of several hundred Bollywood movies, I hardly need explain why this movie came as a shock. By taking away all but the most essential and laconic dialogue, the movie made me lean into it and watch it intently. Ironically, despite the visual innovation of all those Bollywood movies, it took me this (relatively) silent film to see that movies could be a visual medium. And at thirteen, my two strong and silent male adult role models became Amitabh Bachhan and Alain Delon!
Sorry, but this next one is not a movie at all but a book. When I was in chemical engineering school, on a typical evening, instead of studying for my thermodynamics or fluid mechanics test, I’d be holed up in a library carrel poring over James Monaco’s The New Wave (1976). By the time I graduated, I practically knew it by heart, but here’s the weird thing—I hadn’t seen a single New Wave film! (Indian import restrictions, long story.) I had built up this elaborate fantasy of the nouvelle vague which I was finally able to test only when I moved to the States. A few things I was drawn to before I saw any New Wave movies: (1) Its serious—not merely fannish—love of Hollywood cinema, and (2) Its reveling in intertextuality, which seemed like a way of extending its uncontainable love of art beyond the borders of simply a single work/film, bursting the borders of that work, through allusion. Also, to me, it was very similar to the way pianist Horace Silver or tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon quoted, embellished, and reconfigured well-known melodies from the jazz repertoire in their solos. It indicated both a playfulness and an omnivorous uncontainability of love for all melodies, not just the melody of the song they happened to be playing at the moment.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Daughter Of The Nile (1987), my introduction to his work. It taught me: (1) To notice ellipses, which are important because they can be used to (2) disengage cause from effect. After having spent much of my life watching mainstream movies, with their thick and inexorable cause-and-effect progressions and their unshakable belief in psychological realism, these lessons were revelations. I also admired the way Hou ennobled a “humble” genre (the teen movie), set long temps morts sequences at a burger joint (!), and didn’t take cheap shots at youth culture, fashion and music, the way so many high-modernist directors lazily do. I think of Daughter Of The Nile as among the most humanistic teen movies ever made.
Because movies mostly record actual people and actual places, we are led to believe that what we are seeing on the screen is something that actually happened to the characters in the story. Unless, of course, we are clearly cued by the movie that we are watching a “dream” (e.g. the soft-focus dissolves and hokey music from old films that would signal our proceeding into a dream-world). Within a narrative, it makes us feel comfortable to know where we are (reality? dream?). The amazing thing about Claire Denis’ films is that she films her actors and their faces and bodies with extraordinary vividness of attention—thus heightening the sense of reality—and then undermines that reality with scenes that are (possibly) subjective cinema, without cueing us. The great scene with Vincent Gallo and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi eyeballing each other to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” in Nenette Et Boni had me wondering—is this reality or is it a sort of fantasy? Denis Lavant’s dance-floor scene in Beau Travail was clear to me—this scene was subjective cinema, for sure. The next step was to create an entire film—not just one scene—that was made up of an indeterminate blend of objective and subjective cinema. Which is what I believe she did with L’Intrus.
Now, your turn: some of your own “signpost films” that hit you at the right time and changed the way you think about movies? I’d love to know.
You could say that Brian De Palma’s films have little affinity with the world of nature, but there’s an utterly remarkable moment in Blow Out (1981) that would disprove you. In the opening minutes of the film, Travolta is collecting sounds in a park at night—he’s the sound effects man on a horror cheapie called Co-Ed Frenzy—and his directional mic roves about the park, picking up lovers (Girl: “Who is that guy—some kind of Peeping Tom or something?”), a frog, and then an owl. A couple of seconds later, a car comes crashing over the bridge and dives into the creek, but the owl is on to it in advance (can you see the alertness in its eye, above?), anticipating the event before Travolta has a clue it’s going to happen.
Also, this image with its sharp contrast—Travolta in the deep background, a small splotch on a dark shroud of negative space, the owl fully occupying its territory in the image foreground—communicates two paradoxical things: (1) It unites Travolta and the owl in space and time within the image, and (2) It separates them in space and time because (a) there are several hundred yards of distance between them, not entirely apparent in the image, and (b) the prescience of the owl means that it becomes aware of the accident ahead of time, before Travolta does. Come to think of it, De Palma's use of split screens in his films is often a sort of hybrid of (1) and (2) above: actions united in time (occurring concurrently), but riven in space (different camera position and angle).
[Thanks, Zach and Eric, for getting the De Palma ball rolling.]
Postscript: I linked to this in the tail-end of the comments thread to my previous post, but Zach has a fascinating entry on what moves us to write about some films more than others. I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts.