“My brain’s on fire”: Movies that moved me

This is an audience participation post, it just takes a few paragraphs to get there.

A few nights ago, I was watching one of the old film channels on cable, the ones that I find myself watching more and more, which I take as a sign of my impending decrepitude. It was dangerously close to my shutdown time, but I started in with 8 1/2 anyway, intending to watch Marcello Mastroianni channeling Fellini for a few scenes and then up to bed. But I kept saying one more scene one more scene, even as I hovered inches above unconsciousness, and then something marvelous would happen and I’d bolt awake, before settling back. It’s not Fellini’s dreamiest film, but I was close enough to the dreamstate myself to think about it in those terms.

I was in no condition to do anything analytical with the movie, which is just as well. Start fretting over the logic or the meaning or who that character represents in Fellini’s life (Mastroianni’s mistress in the movie is the spitting image of Fellini’s mistress, for example, according to Tullio Kezich’s biography of Fellini) and maybe its pure visual poetry starts to leak out.
But as the closing credits filled the screen, I started thinking about how much I liked 8 1/2. And I thought of three categories:
1. The movies that I thought were simply the best movie I’ve ever seen, for one reason or another.
2. The movies I considered my favorite movies.
3. The movies that have created the most positive havoc in my life.

Obviously, there’s some overlap, but my unofficial rankings are almost never the same over the three categories for any one movie. The exception would be 400 Blows, which is happily playing this week at the Clinton St. Theater. It would figure in the top three in all three categories as of this evening. (I am notoriously fickle and forgetful, which I would take as a sign of my impending decrepitude, except that I’ve always been that way.)

The third category — the movies that had created the most positive havoc in my life — is the hardest to crack. 8 1/2 has come too late into my consciousness, maybe, to crack the top 3 in that category. Fellini isn’t a bolt from the blue to me, which he might have been at one time, but wasn’t; he’s more a confirmation of thoughts, an extension of lines of thought, a softly sublime puzzlement. The third category is all about bolts from the blue or red eyes in the darkness or something.

So why is 400 Blows high on that list for me? I was 17 and visiting Williams College with a friend who desperately wanted to go there (I already knew I was headed somewhere else, but went with him so I could miss a stultifying day or two of high school). One night during the visit we went to a film class, and the professor screened the movie for his students — I remember lots of turtleneck sweaters. So, I was away from home, in a strange and charged environment, watching my first subtitled movie, and it just happened to be this intensely real family drama about a “normal” kid and his “normal” family, and it all started spinning out of control for the kid, headed toward some conclusion that I feared more with every minute. I didn’t know you were allowed to make a movie like this. I was furious that no one had ever shown it to me before (the same feeling I had later when I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God). I couldn’t keep my mouth shut when the discussion period started, and even though it was January and freezing in Williamstown, Mass., my brain was on fire when I left. I wanted to know how to talk about things like this (I still do!).

And that’s how you get on that list. So what would be my top 3 movies in this category?

1. 400 Blows
2. From Russia with Love: Right on the edge of puberty, I got a blast of adult sexuality combined with some spectacular violence (for those days), a few bad puns, a fight to the death (or “to the pain”) between two gypsy women and some Cold War politics all rolled into one. My circuits overloaded big-time.
3. Blade Runner: Welcome to my brainpan Philip K. Dick, just in the nick of time to save me from death by lack of imagination.

That third slot is the one that changes with the tides of memory the most. Sometimes, I think that Blade Runner is just one of my favorites, not really a “havoc” movie. Then I’m tempted to toss Dr. Zhivago in there, because, well, Julie Christie and the sweep of it all and the music (and again I was at an impressionable age). Or maybe Raise the Red Lantern. Or possibly She’s Gotta Have It. I could go on…

… but I won’t because that’s not the point! The point is, I want to know YOUR “top three movies that have created the most positive havoc in my life.” Want to play?