An Ode to Movies

What’s a Jew to do in December when Hanukkah was, like, so November?

Everybody knows the Jews created the cinema to give their people a home during the Christmas month more widely known as December. (In my own cosmological version of the Universe, the Jews were a little nebulous puff of stardust that popped amidst all that big banging out and said, Let’s film this sh*t.)

This totally works for me, as I’m Jewish and movies are my favorite thing. In truth, there’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting silently for approximately 90-120 minutes and being transported to another world. There’s a subtext to be inferred here: Jonathan, you like movies because you get to escape your life for approximately 90-120 minutes. But, dear reader (Hi, Mom!), I promise I’m not indulging in film as a symptom of depression. I don’t like movies because they distract me from real life. I like them because they illuminate the emotions of real life, particularly the really hard and complex and messy ones.

That Time Someone Sneezed and Workers Left a Factory

Though my aforementioned creation story is unlikely, I think it’s worth mentioning the real history of movies. We’ve come a long way since the carnival novelty that peep-show parlors offered in the late 1800s. From spectacles of the past to full-blown stories of the present day, we’ve changed. A lot.

The history of film in one paragraph. (With videos!) Let’s do this:

The world in the 1890s was full of new things: cities, steam engines, hot air balloons! Motion pictures became a way to capture and record this rapid change. Thomas Edison was one of the first dudes to realize that these moving pictures could attract a paying audience—in April of 1894, Record of a Sneeze premiered in New York.

The Lumiere Brothers then improved upon Edison and showed that logical, organized, minimalist events could reveal a story (e.g., Workers Leaving the Factory)

Editing soon learned the power of a cut (e.g., The Gay Shoe Clerk, Edwin S. Porter, 1903)…

…and then Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, sound, movie studios, Hollywood, the Great Depression, Casablanca, film noir, TV, and Alfred Hitchcock happened. My film history class only covered origins through 1960, so we have to stop at Hitchcock because I don’t know what happened after that.

Kidding.

Meryl Streep and Beyoncé, the two finest actresses of recent decades, happened.

Sitting Is Boring?

My excitement always peaks when I hear one of my creative heroes talk about the allure of movies. Andrew Stanton, a fellow Pixarian, says movies are at their best when they infuse wonder. Martin Scorsese, who I’ve had the privilege of hearing speak a few times in New York, has a more technical answer:

 Light is at the beginning of cinema, of course. It’s fundamental—because cinema is created with light, and it’s still best seen projected in dark rooms, where it’s the only source of light. But light is also at the beginning of everything. Most creation myths start with darkness, and then the real beginning comes with light—which means the creation of forms. Which leads to distinguishing one thing from another, and ourselves from the rest of the world. Recognizing patterns, similarities, differences, naming things—interpreting the world. Metaphors—seeing one thing “in light of” something else. Becoming “enlightened.”

Charlie Kaufman says we like them because our brains are wired to turn emotional states into movies. And me (I have an IMDb page, just like my hero Charlie does!)…I think my attraction to movies is constantly evolving. As of late, I view movies as a mirror to the cycle of life. We’re born a blank slate, ready for experience to color us in. Similarly, when those lights in the theater go down, I take a deep breath, clear my mind, and mentally ready myself to be thrust into another realm—to learn a new world, really. Where are we? What’s the time period? Who are the characters? What are the rules of this world?

More important, there’s a deep and profound satisfaction for me in the knowledge that an ending is going to come—to know that I’m going to get a full story, realized from some subjective beginning to some kind of subjective ending. In that way, movies often take away the anxiety of real life in which the future is unknown and scary. Movies, for me, are sometimes more digestible than real life. I feel this way about all of fiction, really—movies, books, theater. They’re like snippets of life, safe and contained within the confines of the screen or page and stage on which they exist. And, for that, I love them all dearly.

A Year of Movies

In January 2013, I started keeping the ticket to every movie I see in theaters. Though I lost a few of them, my envelope is currently filled with 40 tickets. You know how I feel about recommendations, so I offer the following list as just that—a list of what I’ve seen recently and the impressions these films left upon me, starting with two older films that I just got around to seeing this year:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2009 (dir. David Yates)

I haven’t seen this one since it was released in 2009. If you’ve watched all the preceding movies, you may be able to notice something that happens with the actors in this installment: they got good. They’ve all settled into their roles (thank Moses Emma Watson stopped delivering every line with her dramatic huffing and puffing), and it’s really, really pleasant to watch. Plus, the sexual tension makes me giggle.

Stories We Tell, 2012 (dir. Sarah Polley)

Sarah Polley’s documentary is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen. It transcends its genre as it addresses, in short, the philosophy of truth. The subject is Diane, Polley’s late mother. She’s shown in old home movies; yet, as the story unfolds, the footage becomes questionable and you may just start to wonder what’s real and what isn’t.

Frozen, 2013 (dirs. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee)

“Let It Go.” It’s magic. And totally a LGBT anthem. Just download it on iTunes immediately, okay?

Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013 (dirs. Ethan and Joel Coen)

The latest from the Coen Brothers finds us in the winter of 1961 in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. To watch this movie is to essentially watch Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling musician, as he tries to find a couch to sleep on over the course of one week. The tragedy is that he’s a good musician, but not a great one. What makes me happy: Carey Mulligan (who never smiles), the cat that deserves an Oscar nod for his/her performance, and a young Bob Dylan cameo.

American Hustle, 2013 (dir. David O. Russell)

This one is a story based on the Abscam affair, the criminal investigation of the 1970s in which the F.B.I. called on a swindler named Mel Weinberg to help ensnare public officials. The cast is full of strangers: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence (!!!), Jeremy Renner, and Robert DeNiro. It’s really a work of art. What makes me happy: every scene featuring an F.B.I. supervisor played by Louis C.K.

Nebraska, 2013 (dir. Alexander Payne) 

Payne (Sideways, The Descendents) likes his journey stories. His latest, shot in wide-screen black-and-white, follows old man Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son, David (Will Forte), from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. What makes me happy: the scene in which the men lounge around and watch football. It just feels so damn real.

Blue is the Warmest Color, 2013 (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

The NC-17 Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Festival. A 179-minute exploration of Adèle, a high school student learning what it means to love and to be loved. She dates guys until she meets Emma, a girl with blue hair who changes her life forever. What makes me happy: Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma) who act with their faces instead of their words, resulting in two of the most mesmerizing onscreen performances I’ve seen this year.

12 Years a Slave, 2013 (dir. Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) is easily one of my favorite directors. His latest is said to be the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery. There’s a scene I’ll never forget in which Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn African-American kidnapped into slavery, hangs from a tree with a noose around his neck, supported by only one foot as it barely touches the muddy ground. Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsey in a performance I can’t describe with words. This movie didn’t make me happy, but it did leave me thinking about the thousands who never knew freedom.

Other 2013 notables: Blue Jasmine (for Cate Blanchett), Cutie and the Boxer, Spring Breakers (for James Franco), Don Jon (for Julianne Moore), Fruitvale Station, The Great Gatsby, About Time (for the lovely message about what it means to be a father and a son), The Way, Way Back, and Monsters University (for the DVD bonus features that I got to be in with my Pixar buddies!).

My first Hollywood movie premiere.

My first Hollywood movie premiere.

The End

So why tell stories? 12 Years a Slave offers an answer: because we can. The above films are film at its best. When I left the theater after watching each of these, the world seemed just a little bit heavier. In a good way.

Life for me, as it seems, has really become a series of moments that exist between whatever movies I happen to be seeing that week, month, or year. Movies have changed my life, and I hope that never changes.

I found this picture in a photo album at home in Maryland. The caption read, "Which way to Hollywood?"

I found this picture in a photo album at home in Maryland. The caption extending from the top of my white hoodie read, “Which way to Hollywood?”

2 responses to “An Ode to Movies

  1. Dear Jonathan You just blow me away. How did I get so lucky to have such a brilliant grandson ,with so much depth and alacrity with the written language. You amaze me! Your biggest fan–Grandma

  2. Dear Grandma–I get it from you!

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