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August 09, 2006

3 Signpost Movies

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards--

Girish's list of "signpost films" -- films that have been moviewatching turning-points for him -- got me wondering about my own. I chewed on the question for a while and came up with three:

  • "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" -- sold me on movies as a great art and entertainment medium. Prior to seeing "McCabe," I was curious about movies but as yet unconvinced. Afterwards, I was one hungry moviebuff.

  • "Claire's Knee" -- sold me on the foreign-film thing. Prior to seeing "Claire's Knee," I'd found foreign films disappointing. I think I was looking for them to be like American films, only better. Watching "Claire's Knee," I woke up to the fact that, no, they aren't the same only better, they're different. Okay, so I was a very dumb kid ...

  • "Being John Malkovich" -- made me realize that I'd lost the pulse of new movies. Prior to seeing "John Malkovich," I was still keeping up with new movies, if at increasing personal cost. Watching the film, I realized that -- if this was what bright people thought was a cool and smart film -- the time had come for me to get off the bus.

The winner for "signpost film" originality is Andy Horbal, who lists three surprising but plausible non-films. Alton Brown: auteur! Fun to see that Girish is every bit the Altman and De Palma nut I am. I wrote about "Femme Fatale" here.

What have been some of your own signpost films?



posted by Michael at August 9, 2006


George Pal's War of the World. I saw it as a child. It gave me that thrill of vast events, immense forces in play, mysterious powers, alien menaces that you can only get from science fiction when it is done well. I can recall to this day much of teh voice over by Cedric Hardwicke, often text taken verbatim from the H.G. Wells novel -- "our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own ... they regarded our earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us" "...the people of India fleeing toward the imagined safety of the Himalayas ... it was the rout of humanity." The characters were all very solidly done, in broad, firm brushstrokes. The manliness of the characters, facing annihilation by aliens, who do not dissolve into whimpering. The men were all World War II veterans, after all. After a nuclear bomb is detonated on the Martian machines, and to the horror of the observers, they emerge from the smoke unscathed, the general in command, his face coated with dust, turns to the scientist and says, "you scientists have got to come up with something we can use to beat these things." Humanity was going to die fighting, using its intelligence. A noble depiction. Gene Barry was very good as the scientist, a man of rationality, confronted by a world dissolving into irrationality and anarchy. You could feel civilization itself crumbling into sand as Los Angeles is abandoned. The movie had many fine touches, and was told with efficiency and clarity and directness of the old pre-TV era, book-based style. And at the center of it all, the insectile alien fearsomeness of the hovering Martian war machines. I remember repeatedly getting chills as I watched this movie. This was the first movie I ever saw that opened up to me the magic that movies can create. One sometimes sees this film dismissed as kitsch. No way. The War of the Worlds was the "first kiss" for me, and nothing else comes close.

There are no other two two make a set of three. There are several movies that have had an impact at one time or another: The Life and Death of Col. Blimp, Casablanca, The Cranes are Flying, The Wild Bunch, The Battle of Algiers, The Red Shoes, The Vikings, That Hamilton Woman, Black Hawk Down, Star Wars, The Bridges at Toko Ri, Pork Chop Hill, Goodfellas, Jaws, Blue Velvet, Henry V.

But nothing as profound as seeing War of the Worlds for the first time.

Posted by: Lexington Green on August 9, 2006 4:45 PM

So you didn't like Being John Malkovich? What didn't you like about it? And what did you think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? I ask these questions as the two movies affected me deeply. I realize I am smack in the middle of Charlie Kaufman's demographic and am wondering if his work is very much "of its time," in the sense that it will not age well, and that I will look back and realize how gullible I am. I don't know.

My benchmark movies:

Raiders of the Lost Ark - so transparent in its love of movies. Of course, I wasn't thinking such "deep" thoughts in 1982. I was a kid and was completely swept up in its excitement.

Blue Velvet - in '86 when it came out, I was 18 and had never seen anything like it. It pretty much blew my mind and opened the door for me to a whole other world of movies.

8 1/2 - I am gay for this movie. I freakin' love every frame. Saw if for the first time right after I saw Blue Velvet. Opened the door to foreign flicks for me.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 9, 2006 5:34 PM

Wow - The Vikings. The 1958 Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis "Mightiest of Men, Mightiest of Spectacles" Vikings? God, I hadn't thought of that one in years. As kids we used to jump on rocks in the creek and pretend we were Vikings walking on the oars.

And if that didn't brand me for the bumpkin/hayseed I am, perhaps this will -- I pick these as signposts:
1. The Birds - Being manipulated by NO music had a profound effect on my response to all subsequent movie music.
2. (Tie) In the Heat of the Night
The Story of Adele H. - These were the first movies that got me snagged on performances. Poitier's anger, Isabelle Adjani's everything - I saw them over and over, to get every word, every gesture.
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Simply for the wonder. As a kid, the original "The Time Machine" came close, but this beats it.

Posted by: Flutist on August 9, 2006 6:02 PM

I had the same reaction to "Being John Malkovich" that you had, Michael. What a one-joke movie.

Most of the signpost movies for me have been moral in some way. The first that REALLY hit me hard was the WWII movie about the man who had lost his hands. I can't remember the name of it, but it was incredibly powerful.

Then there was "The Red Shoes" which was then at the limits of what I could understand in terms of movie making. I didn't understand how Moira Shearer was turning in a flower or a cloud in the middle of dancing and I couldn't understand that some of the opera music was in the character's minds. In other words, I didn't understand metaphor yet.

"The River" -- the Renoir one -- absolutely caught me up. It might have been the first "cultural relativity" movie I ever saw.

"The Captain from Castile" struck me dumb when the bad guys tried to make Tyrone Power talk by killing his family one-by-one and he couldn't either talk or stop them. When they got to the little sister my age, I was terrified. The night I was in a motel in GF (1988?) waiting to take my National Teaching Test exam early in the morning, this movie came on TV and I could not keep from watching it. (I passed anyway.)

Most recently, "The Fast Runner," an Inuit legend with an all Inuit cast and crew really knocked me out. My most recent adventure in another culture, I guess.

I do remember "The War of the Worlds" vividly, but I'd already read the story and knew the plot. "The Cranes Are Flying" and that whole set of the turn-of-the-Fifties movies ("Wild Strawberries," "Black Orpheus") have been watersheds.

"The Vikings" is a funny movie to stand out, Lexington, but it did for me, too. I just watched "Black Hawk Down" twice in a row and also "Jarhead," trying to come to some point of view. Both powerful, but not enough.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 9, 2006 6:39 PM

Mary - the movie you're thinking of might be "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946?) with Harold Russell (who'd lost both hands in an accident) playing the part of the WWII vet.

Posted by: Flutist on August 9, 2006 7:09 PM

Well, my love of movies goes so far back it is hard to pick out a single movie that inspired it. But a number of movies helped me get past my adolescent fascination with bravura, tour de force type movie making (of the type that someone who grew up on Spielberg and old Errol Flynn movies would naturally appreciate), and into the slower paced, more exploratory, perhaps more adult "art movies". Prominent among them would be Satyajit Ray's great Apu trilogy, an emotionally devastating and uplifting set of movies that completely rewrote how I thought about pace and time in movies. I remember thinking...this is so sloooow, this is so sloooow, and all of a sudden I was just in tears, deeply moved.

Another great experience was long ago at Cannes, on the red carpet (OK, just kidding)...I happened to be there at 23 and was able to get a ticket to a totally random Japanese movie, I can't even remember the title now. It wasn't a great movie exactly, but it was so direct and honest a depiction of life in a foreign culture that I found it really fascinating, a real travel experience. Ever since then I've sought out film festivals and tried to pick up a ticket for a random movie from a country that I am interested in but don't know much about. I've had some hits, some misses, but overall some fascinating experiences.

Posted by: MQ on August 9, 2006 8:32 PM

Michael ~ That's a killer post on "Femme Fatale."

"[De Palma toys] with obsessions: film history, sex, geometry, locations, points of view, perception, ways of organizing and understanding space and dynamics, ways of seeing."

So true...

Posted by: girish on August 9, 2006 9:03 PM

Ah c'mon, no one's going to mention the porno movie from their dad's collection they discovered when they were 13 and had their eyes opened to more than what was visible in Playboy? Tell me that wasn't a signpost, guys! I remember mine: _Inferno_ with Teri Weigel.

More seriously, Taxi Driver, the original "angry white male" movie, without all the contemporary bullshit about how the guy must be a bible-thumping, ultra-conservative redneck. First time I saw a nutball portrayed as a potential hero -- gave me real hope!

I'll second Raiders, and maybe Temple of Doom too. Really encouraged my innate sense of curiosity and thrill to explore new domains.

And on that note: The Goonies. I was born in 1980, and I don't think it has the same appeal to anyone born before 1970-75, but could be wrong.

I guess I didn't have many signpost events after I was 15, or else they would've been more artsy. Actually, I remember being fascinated by the visual style of Caligari when I rented it in 9th grade, but I don't think its effect lasted up to today.

Posted by: Agnostic on August 9, 2006 9:08 PM

The Vikings was shown frequently on Channel 56 in Boston when I was a kid. It was a great favorite of mine. I recently showed it to my kids on DVD. It was better than I remembered it, in some ways, but it of course lacked the impact that it had on me as a child. Ragnar's death in the wolf pit is must-see viewing if you want to understand the war on terror. There are people in the world who do NOT live for the chance for a nice sofa, a bowl of popcorn and something titillating on the tube. They live for the chance to die, sword in hand, killing and dying for their cause. A pity, but that is the world we live in. To quote another, very different film that several people mentioned: "Why do there have to be people like Frank?" The answer is "original sin" -- or "human nature" -- but the further answer is: And there will always, always be people like Frank. And civilization is only possible by means of a constant struggle against them.

Posted by: Lexington Green on August 9, 2006 10:59 PM

Flutist, I just looked on and you're quite right. I couldn't get past "The Days of our Lives," the soap title. I was 7 in 1946 and very concerned about the war, as was everyone. But little kids have such a desire to help grownups when they hurt and to make the world right again. I dreamt the man's hooks crashing through the window over and over.

This was one of the first movies to be frank about the cost of the war and I think it hit everyone hard, kids or not.

"Blue Velvet" made me giggle cynically all the way through. If that isn't a twisted version of the real Missoula, I'll -- I don't know what! A kid's idea of a white picket fence town with rot and corruption just over there by the railroad or something. And I'm NOT going to see that movie again to see if I've got it right. But I won't tease people who find it meaningful. One person's joke is another person's deep truth.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 10, 2006 1:03 AM

Not to horn in on your choice Michael but "Claire's Knee" is something of a signpost film for me although it isn't very high on my list of favorite foreign or even French films. Still to this day the palpable atmosphere of the film stays with me. On a cold and rainy midwinter night this is a great film to put on the DVD player as you will be instantly transformed to a relaxed and laid back summer vacation by Lake Geneva.

There are a few other films that were signposts as well - "The Awful Truth" introduced me to the joys of screwball comedy, "Rio Bravo" introduced me to the joys of Howard Hawks and "Citizen Kane", which I saw at a very young age (11 or 12) and disabused me of the thought that a film being called great by critics meant it had to be boring.

Posted by: grandcosmo on August 10, 2006 2:56 AM

2001: A Space Odyssey.

When I was 11 years old and already loved watching any sf film or TV show, even the stupid ones like Irwin Allen's.

After seeing 2001 I got the soundtrack and Arthur C. Clarke's novel and then anything by Clarke, then became immersed in reading sf.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 10, 2006 5:16 AM

Two themes seem to be emerging. First, films seen in childhood have a major impact on many people. Second, the impact a film, and its ability to "stick" with a person, has is not necessarily correlated with its artistic merit, as that is generally understood.

Posted by: Lexington Green on August 10, 2006 9:18 AM

Mary, no offense taken on the Blue Velvet thing. In fact, I saw it a few years ago and it doens't hold up well. However, it made quite an impression on my 18 year old suburban brain when I first saw it. That's the thing with this type of list. The lasting quality of the movie doesn't really matter, it's the impact it had on you when and the changes to habits or thinking as a result.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 10, 2006 9:42 AM

What do blowhard readers think of bollywood? I love it! reminds me golden age hollywood. Anyone seen: Parineeta or Swades?

Posted by: a reader on August 10, 2006 9:50 AM

I am trying to think of the first porn film I ever saw. I honestly can't remember, although I vividly remember one or two racy things I saw on cable tv very early on. I later saw Radley Metzger's classy stuff (Misty Beethoven, etc) and Rinse Dream's Cafe Flesh. Both influenced me greatly.

My picks tend to go for the "High Art" things that just shattered what I knew before.

Bergman's Persona, Decalogue, Before Sunrise, Ran and (don't laugh) The Blues Brothers. For some reason, that movie caught me at the right time and place.

Fun fact about Albania: the Belushi brothers are the most famous Albanian celebrities (if you discount Mother Teresa). When i was a peace corps volunteer in Albania, the Blues brothers was rerun on tv a hundred times. Young albanians had memorized most of the lines of the movie in English!

Also, a gem that just swept me away: Hal Hartley's Surviving Desire.

I have lots of sentimental memories about Top Hat. I showed it to my college students in Ukraine in a small town amidst the snow. They loved the film.

but obviously, I (like everyone here) could list a few hundred others.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on August 10, 2006 1:08 PM

Hmmm...great question.

Adam's Rib. I was home sick from elementary school and just started watching this on tv. It was the first Katharine Hepburn movie I ever saw, and I subsequently became a huge fan of hers. It also lead me to love films fueled by excellent dialogue.

Prospero's Books. I loved Greenaway's use of multiple visual layers; it felt like film doing what it's really capable of.

Aguirre, Wrath of God. That opening sequence descending through the clouds on the mountain is one of my favorite movie images ever.

And finally, I would be remiss if I did not also include Star Wars (the 1st one before those lame series-gutting prequels) and Raiders of the Lost Ark. They both wowed me as a kid.

Posted by: claire on August 10, 2006 2:48 PM

1. "The Sound of Music." I was 5 when it came out, loved Julie Andrews, and watched it and watched it and watched it...

2. "The Way We Were". First movie I ever remember really anticipating the release of, and when I first plugged into Robert Redford and as a certified hunk.

3. A whole gaggle of Martin Scorsese, which made me think he was/is a genius: "Taxi Driver", "Goodfellas", "The Age of Innocence."

4."Broadcast News". Boy, that movie just totally captures the late eighties time and place.

5. "My Best Friend's Wedding". There's something very different and fresh about that. I've never been able to put my finger on it, but that movie simply would not have been released in the seventies or eighties.

Posted by: annette on August 10, 2006 3:44 PM

I made a post out of mine. It's here if you're interested:

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 10, 2006 6:06 PM

So, Patriarch, how did you like "Mulholland Drive?"
I bought it at the same time as "Laurel Canyon." Hard to find two more different takes on the Hollywood context.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 10, 2006 7:54 PM

I liked Mulholland Drive, but I liked Laurel Canyon more, and not just becasue Kate Beckinsale is impossibly gorgeous. Frances McDormand is fantastic. Also, that backyard is perfect. But yeah, Lynch is really good at digging around the subconscious. He's quite influential that way, a precursor to movies like Eternal Sunshine, etc. David Foster Wallace wrote a fantastic piece on Lynch a while back.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 11, 2006 9:48 AM

To me, the greatest "signpost" movies post WWII were The Night of the Living Dead, Blue Velvet, and Magnolia. Each pushed Hollywood down on her long back, climbed on top, eclipsing the palm trees outside the bedroom's sliding glass doors, and fucked her a different way. I'd also give high marks to Six Feet Under and The Sopranos. TV (HBO) is now better than movies. Maybe that's part of the trend towards us living inside, not venturing out into the sun.

Posted by: Ralph Robert Moore on August 11, 2006 7:08 PM

Agree totally about Six Feet Under and The Sopranos. Their best episodes are the most inventive and astute filmed entertainment of the past 10 years.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 11, 2006 8:04 PM

i like night of the iguana, just an interesting flick

Posted by: gavin on August 12, 2006 9:46 PM

I'm chipping in beause my list is so different. Of course I'm 68.

La Strada
Jules and Jim
Atlantic City
The Dead
Body Heat
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
American Graffiti
Star Wars

Posted by: Robert Hume on August 13, 2006 8:53 PM

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