The Movie That Haunts You

Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli in “Il Conformista.”

ONE

The question seemed to come out of nowhere. We were sitting on the deck outside her home, overlooking Massachusetts’ North River on a cool, late spring morning. Two hawks competed for the treetops on the far shore.

“So, John, a lot of people remember the first movie they ever saw as a child. Do you recall the one that made you decide to become a film-maker, rather than a film-goer?” My interrogator was Mary Coogan, a Jungian therapist; questions like this seem to pop up easily for her. We’ve been friends for over 25 years, but this is the first time I’ve spent a lot of time with her. I’m here in Hanover, a South Shore town on the way down to Cape Cod. I’m a week away from shooting a film with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash co-directing; they’re still fresh from their Oscars for the screenplay of The Descendents. Mary’s husband is Michael “Moishe” Moyer, my longtime friend and gaffer—but ironically he’s not here; he’s in North Carolina on a Lasse Hallström film. I’m bunking at his house, a 200 year old white clapboard residence with a weathercock atop the widow’s walk barn. It was once the quarters of a shipyard that built and launched boats downriver to the open sea at Scuiate.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that question before, Mary.” I mean, I tell film students about how I saw the Bertolucci/Storaro/Scarfiotti film from 1970, The Conformist, in its first LA release, in Westwood.” I remember staying in the theater to watch it three times that day, joined for the 10pm screening by Jim Dickson, the commercials cinematographer I had been working with. Jim was responsible for my getting into the union as a camera assistant. Though I envisioned a career in film, I wasn’t yet certain I wanted to pursue a life in cinematography. The climb up to become a director of photography was long and hard, and remained under the whimsical control of old-line diehards who believed the kids should work only after the feeble and infirm had been hired.

Vittorio Storaro and Bernardo Bertolucci, during “The Conformist.”

I had begun seeing foreign films late in my high school years. I became deeply immersed in the then breaking European New Wave when I was on a junior year abroad study program in Vienna. It was in a tiny cinema on the Ringstrasse that I first saw The Third Man, a film already 15 years old, but still radiating an iconoclastic, claustrophobic style paralleling the Outsider sensibility of the New Wave. Orson Welles’ dapper villain, Harry Lime, was a precursor of French film anti-heroes like Belmondo, Delon, and Montand.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime.

TWO

Unlike many of the gritty French street films, The Conformist, made near the end of that same seminal period, exudes such largesse, such love of pure cinema—with opulent, visual indulgences that seem at times to burst beyond the confines of its own frame—that even today, it remains a veritable textbook of film style: for cinematography, editing, production design, acting, directing, and narrative complexity.

Clerici and the blind poet — “Conformista.”

Director Bertolucci may have pillaged every referent in the cinema canon as he and Storaro wove this chilling tale, not of an “Outsider,” but of a man brilliantly underplayed by Jean-Louis Trintignant, a wannabe “Insider,” who submits himself to the strictures of 30s fascist Italy by betraying his philosophic mentor.

A trailer for the film demonstrates the visual and time fluidity of the story. Few American films undertake such a mix of political history with cinematic art house tropes. It’s easy to understand why the film was so impactful in an ideologically divided America when it was released in 1970. For me, it represented a template of how to fuse socio-political belief with dramatic human characters, while bathing the whole in pure cinematic lather. A trailer that uses a mash-up music track, including a pop song, does not reflect the subtlety of Delerue’s original score, but still reveals the sophistication and degeneracy of its milieu. Unfortunately, the clip is squeezed into Academy format from its 1:85 original.

One of the most justifiably famous scenes is the Allegory of the Cave between Trintingnant’s Clerici and Enzo Tarascio’s Professor Quadri. Clerici has been sent to Paris to assassinate his former teacher. Quadri invites Clerici into his home office. Clerici uses its shafts of window light to recall Quadri’s lecture from Plato—a metaphor for fascist Italy and the “nowhere man,” embodied by his former student. The YouTube clip cuts off a bit before the end of the scene.

It was this scene more even than the sensuous dance hall sequence that was decisive for me. I had never seen “light” in a movie used to argue philosophy, to literally radiate ideas. It spurred me to consider anew the idea of movie light as a narrative and dramatic tool, not just an aesthetic device.

The Allegory of the Cave — “Conformista.”

For me, the penetrating light of signature film noir cinematographers like John Alton and Nick Musuraca assumed a new dimension: a tough existential punch beating against the frame. I decided that evening that, yes, I wanted to be a cinematographer. I have never looked back.

THREE

The Conformist is the film I most frequently reference for film students when I talk about the visceral as well as the aesthetic power of cinematography. But it is not the film that first awakened me to “cinema,” to the movies as something more than entertainment. That watershed had come a full decade before.

In my junior and senior high school years, I had been editor of the school newspaper. It was strictly an elective position but its obligations effectively ended whatever fantasies I may have had about a career as a pro basketball player. My father was a machinist in whose shop I worked summers. Large, loud, metal cutting machines fascinated me—but none as much as those behemoths using hot lead linotype to create the printer slugs that printed our school edition. Watching typewritten words transform into metal words and sentences in the ink stained printing room was a kind of alchemy.

Our faculty advisor was a young lay teacher (I went to Catholic high school) barely out of college. One Friday afternoon, after putting our upcoming edition to bed, he asked if I wanted to see a Swedish film the next afternoon. We had talked often about literature and poetry and he knew that my interest in the school newspaper suggested something deeper than that of just a school elective. I had confessed to him that I wanted to be a writer.

All I knew about foreign films, especially the few Swedish ones I had heard of, was that I might see an actress’ exposed breasts. I was plenty eager to go. On the drive to the theater, he told me about how to read subtitles, and that the film’s story of an old man, his dreams, and his recollections of his youth, was not going to be like the American ones I usually saw. “Time in these foreign movies is more fluid,” he said. I thought I knew what he meant because I had seen the Dali dream sequence in Spellbound, and had studied the flashback structure of Sunset Boulevard, where the narrator is a corpse floating face down in a silent era star’s swimming pool. But none of that was preparation for the harshly textured scene that slipped onscreen some minutes after the movie began.

Its four and a half minutes running time, without dialogue—just a series of surreal shots of this old man on a deserted street—was unlike anything I had ever seen in a movie house.

From the death dream “Wild Strawberries.”
From the death dream “Wild Strawberries.”

The legendary Swedish silent era director, Viktor Sjöström, acted the old man. But to me a silent movie was nothing more than comic cops and a tinkly piano.

Viktor Seastrom as Dr. Isak Borg.

The rest of the film was awash with the haunting, even nightmarish, residue of this scene. The following Monday, I went to the school library to find anything about Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries that I could—without success. Eventually, I found reviews in several magazines that helped me understand that there existed for a certain sophisticated adult, a whole different concept of what a movie can be. An enlightened nun who taught literature (and who eventually left her order and married) told me that the University of California Press published a scholarly magazine called Film Quarterly. Somehow, in that pre-Google world, I found Eugene Archer’s review of Wild Strawberries in the autumn 1959 issue. Its writing style was way over my head, but I understood there was a movie world out there that I had to know about.

Here’s an excerpt from that review:

“The essence of Proust's image (the madeleines in Remembrance of Time Past), and Bergman's, is the conception that an event assumes its meaning not from the action itself, but from the way it is regarded at different moments in time, and that life is composed of a series of such isolated events, given meaning by their temporal relationship to the memories of the man who experiences them.”

Whoa… That was pretty intense for a working class 17 year old. But what I did get from the review is that movies can deal with time flux in a way that literature can only hope to suggest. Film’s shot to shot fluidity can also create a simultaneous or even an imagined time—its reality allusive, conjectural, as Alain Resnais was soon to show. Before Wild Strawberries, the most challenging movie I saw that year was The Diary of Anne Frank.

I began to search out movie theaters in Hollywood and Beverly Hills that featured foreign films. The next year La Dolce Vita, Breathless and L’Avventura were all released. I was in college at Santa Clara University, then Loyola University, and was on a binge to see everything I could that had subtitles. It left in me a blank spot of many fine American films that was filled in only years later. Film Quarterly became my gospel; Pauline Kael’s KPFA radio reviews from Cal Berkeley, my weekly epistles. I read Cahiers du Cinema, though its arcane French well surpassed my rudimentary vocabulary. The next year I went to study in Vienna and discovered that “foreign films” as I knew them had broad-based audiences in Europe. I saw Antonioni’s L’Eclisse at a weekday matinee in downtown Innsbruck with an audience of pensioned widows of war veterans and a near idolatrous contingent of cineastes from the university.

FOUR

This is my story of two films that a decade apart informed my decision, nay, my passionate and unrepentant conviction that I must spend my life in film. Even allowing for the accidents and vicissitudes of how circumstances form us, most people in the arts whom I ask about what drew them into their chosen métier, have a riveting and very clear story to tell. Artist biographies are filled with telling anecdotes about that pivotal moment or event that sparked their decision to pursue a given path.

Whether your own career choice is in film, another art form, science or business, it would be great to hear your story. Just name a movie, a piece of music, a painting, and a book—or write a fuller comment. I know you’re out there. Tell your story. Post a comment.

Bergman and Seastrom.
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