Posted by Susan Doll on February 20, 2012
The Film That Changed My Life by Robert Elder features interviews with 30 directors about the one film that inspired, influenced, or touched their personal lives or careers. While the title evokes a rapturous experience in which the filmmaker suddenly realizes his calling after viewing a magical movie, the book works better as a window into the participants’ own films. Chicago’s Music Box Theater has programmed a series of screenings based on the book in which participants are invited to a Q&A with Elder to discuss their perspective after the film.
The series was launched last summer by the infamous John Waters, who had selected The Wizard of Oz (1939) for the book based on one line in the original script: “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” Waters claims that he repeats the line each night before he goes to sleep, “like a prayer.” The second event in the series was a screening of The Godfather (1972), which had been selected by Kimberly Peirce, who draws parallels in her interview between that modern-day classic and her film Boys Don’t Cry (1999).
Yesterday, I attended the third event, a screening of Harlan County U.S.A (1970), which had been selected by documentary filmmaker Steve James of Chicago’s own Kartemquin Films. If James’s name sounds familiar, it is likely due to his critically acclaimed documentary, The Interrupters (2011), which aired on PBS last week. The Interrupters has probably made more news because it did not get nominated for an Academy Award than if it had, and it marks the second time James has been snubbed by the Academy. (The first was for Hoop Dreams (1994), one of that decade’s most acclaimed and popular docs, which the Academy did not nominate due to some bizarre ruling or technicality that only they understood.)
Before attending Harlan County U.S.A., I took some time to check out The Film That Changed My Life. Most of the directors interviewed are seasoned independent filmmakers, such as Peirce, Kevin Smith, Neil LaBute, Richard Linklater, and Richard Kelly; a few are Hollywood directors, including Pete Docter, John Woo, and Chris Miller; some are indie directors whose names I did not recognize, like Michael Polish and Jay Duplass. Scattered here and there are interviews with such veteran directors as Peter Bogdanovich, John Landis, Henry Jaglom, Arthur Hiller, and George Romero. Notably absent are major directors currently working steadily in the commercial industry—Scorsese, Ridley and Tony Scott, Kathryn Bigelow, Alexander Payne, Zack Snyder, Gore Verbinski, etc., though I suspect that was the very reason why they did not participate. Nonetheless, it cast the directors that were included as outside the mainstream of today’s filmmaking in a way that was likely not intended.
However, that’s a minor quibble; it’s the choices the directors made and their rationales for selecting them that are most compelling—not who participated in the book and who didn’t. The oldest interviewee was Arthur Hiller, a journeyman director who was responsible for Love Story (1970), the film that everyone loved to hate during the 1970s. But, he also directed a couple of forgotten treasures such as Silver Streak (1976), the film that made Richard Pryor a movie star, and The Out-of-Towners (1970), starring Jack Lemmon in one of his best roles. Hiller’s filmography is peppered with examples of this type of commercial Hollywood comedy fueled by star turns, so I was surprised that the film that changed his life was the neorealist classic Rome, Open City (1944). It appealed to him because in his early career, Hiller had been in public affairs broadcasting, which focused on real-life social issue topics. Pressed to make a connection to his own work, Hiller noted that he always tried to create main characters that were grounded in reality, because of the full, “real” characters of Open City. After reading that, I thought about The Out-of Towners, a comedy about a couple from Ohio who travel to New York City only to be vexed at every turn by the brutalities of life in the big city. The ability to relate to the central characters as plausibly depicted people is crucial to sympathizing with them and one of the main virtues cited by viewers who mention the film in web forums.
One of my favorite interviews was with Peter Bogdanovich, who selected Citizen Kane (1941). Bogdanovich and Orson Welles had been close friends as well as mentor and student, so the choice is not a surprise. Because I teach film studies, I have seen Kane over 100 times, and while there are detractors who don’t believe it deserves its reputation as the best American film ever made, no one can convince me that it doesn’t. Occasionally, I see something in the film that I did not notice before, and, like true works of art, it resonates differently with me as I age. This is because it includes universal themes and ideas that become more relevant with age and life experience. I wish Bogdanovich had been a little more specific about the film’s revolutionary form, but he does make some great points about the impact of Citizen Kane on film as an art form, the power of Welles’s performance, and the advantages of using the Mercury Theater ensemble in the cast. He also explained why Welles was such a fan of John Ford—a director who might seem to be the opposite of Welles. It’s because Ford’s films reflect a sense of elegy, a lamentation for people, places, ideas, or eras that are lost. As Bogdanovich points out, Citizen Kane is also about loss—Kane’s personal loss and America’s loss. He also confirms that Citizen Kane is far less about William Randolph Hearst than most writers and critics claim, citing Colonel Robert McCormick (owner of the Chicago Tribune) as a more likely model for the character of Charles Foster Kane than Hearst.
Several directors selected nonclassic films as influential, which makes for compelling choices for different reasons. Edgar Wright, director of the beloved zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004), cited John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) as his inspiration. The choice makes absolute sense given its effective combination of horror and comedy and the visceral quality of the makeup—much like Shaun of the Dead.
In a few instances, young directors selected a film by one of the older directors in the book, subtly suggesting the importance of keeping classic films alive for young viewers and underscoring the creative power of popular film to influence and inspire. Pete Docter, a scriptwriter for Pixar, selected Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973) because of the unlikely friendships and relationships among the characters, which has become a hallmark of Docter’s own storylines. Wright talked about the influence of John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London on his films, while Landis singled out The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) as a revelation for him because of its imaginative special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Kevin Smith adopted the extremely loose structure of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991) as the primary influence for his own episodic style, while Linklater selected Raging Bull (1980) because of the way it depicted the simmering rage of a psychologically dark character.
Leafing through The Film That Changed My Life put me in the perfect frame of mind to attend a screening and discussion of Harlan County U.S.A. with Elder and James. In this Oscar-winning documentary, director Barbara Kopple chronicles a grueling coal strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, from 1973 to 1975. Miners from the Eastover Mine, which was owned by Duke Power, had voted to unionize and adopt the national union contract in lieu of the one offered by Eastover. When the company rejected the bid to unionize, the miners struck. The documentary not only covers the strike from the inside but also includes national events related to the strike, such as famous mining disasters, the murder of union leader Jock Yablonski by UMWA head Tony Boyle, who was connected to organized crime, and the election of Arnold Miller to replace Boyle. Harlan County was the first film directed by Kopple, who had worked for acclaimed cinema verite filmmakers the Maysles Brothers (Gimme Shelter; Grey Gardens). Kopple employs verite’s much heralded “fly-on-the-wall” techniques, including shooting events as they unfold in unobtrusive long takes. But, the Maysles were strict in adhering to verite techniques to help them achieve a relative degree of objectivity toward their subjects. Kopple, on the other hand, is clearly on the side of the striking miners, and she freely violates some of the verite “rules” for shooting.
After the film, Steve James talked about his admiration of the film. Most influential was the way that the New York-based Kopple embedded herself in the tiny Kentucky community of Brookside for over two years, gaining intimate access to the strikers, their wives, and their extended families. They opened their homes to her and her small crew. That level of access was essential to gaining the trust of the people involved and to getting the story from the inside; it affords a personalized view of the subject that places the viewer in the middle of the action. This is clearly a tactic that James himself has adopted as evidenced in Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. It’s a level of devotion to the film and the subject that comes with a tremendous commitment of time and money. But the reward is an understanding of the subject from an inside perspective that other styles of documentary are incapable of capturing, especially news-style docs.
James mentioned that Kopple was only in her mid-20s when she shot the film, and he admired her “balls” in pursuing the story. He described a scene in which she is confronted by a company gun thug, who is actually a local man with a reputation as an illegal strikebreaker. He asks for her press credentials, which she doesn’t have because she isn’t part of the organized media, and she coolly claims they are in her car. Then, she proceeds to interview him. He answers a few questions and then pushes for her press card. She counters by asking for his identification. He smiles as he notes that he must have forgotten it, and she replies that she has forgotten her credentials. He is charmed because she did not back down, and she later obtains close access to him, even though she is clearly on the side of the strikers. I was more impressed when she put herself in the middle of the action during an early morning raid on the picketers by thugs working for the company. A young goon races out of the darkness and body slams Kopple, who is shooting with the camera. Both are knocked to the ground for a few seconds, and then she gets up and moves toward the action. She is breathing hard but she did not break the shot.
James’s final comment regarding the film was about the strikers and their understanding of the politics of work. The people of Brookside during the 1970s were blue-collar, working-class folk who lacked sophistication and education, but they were highly politicized by their circumstances and their pro-union perspective. The women of the community, even grandmothers in their 70s and 80s, actively supported the miners and were important participants in picketing and other strike events. James doubted that many of today’s work force—now dubbed the 99%—are as savvy about class prejudices and the politics of the work force.
While I like Elder’s book and the Music Box series based on it, I am leery of the idea that a single film can be such an epiphany that the career of a filmmaker will turn on it. However, Elder apparently revels in epiphanies, defining moments, and singular revelations as evidenced by his other book, Last Words of the Executed. Elder, who was born in 1976, notes the film that changed his life was Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs from 1992, so perhaps it’s a young person’s game. I tried to get in the spirit of the book by coming up with the one film that influenced me to write about cinema, but the truth is too many films have inspired me at different times for different reasons. However, I would love to hear from anyone who can come up with a single film that made such a deep-seated impression that it changed the course of your life.
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