Lost in Celluloid: One Critic’s Brief Cinematic Odyssey

When I was eight, my parents took me to a film in the Catskills on the behest of my cousins from New York. We were all together for a camping trip, and my cousin, Big Tony, at the time the chief of police of the Bronx, really wanted to see this particular movie. Naturally, it turned out to be wildly inappropriate for a child of my age. There were shootings, menacing doings around shipyards at night, harsh language, and one scene that put me over the edge involving our hero, bound to a chair, and an evil woman injecting him with drugs. I stuck it out (even then, a film critic’s instinct to stay to the bitter conclusion of a screening), but was miserable and freaked-out and went to bed that night crying and deeply unsettled.

For years, I tried to solve the mystery of just what that film had been. I only distinctly remembered two elements: Some scene involving a shipyard and our hero skulking out of the bay of a massive boat under construction, and the aforementioned evil drug-injecting woman. I scanned IMDB for years trying to hone down the date and film genre (1976? Thriller? Noir?) to no avail.

Film has always been like that for me. A good film — I mean, a really good, transcendent film — absolutely overwhelms me, but (as an adult, at least) in the best possible way. The first time I saw Requiem for a Dream, or Bicycle Thieves, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or M, I was completely under their thrall, utterly transported. Ever since the Kinetoscope gave people the opportunity to view the very first filmic loops, people have used movies to hang their worries on a coat hook and get lost in other peoples’ stories.

The great beauty of cinema is its spread; it can feed almost anyone’s specific needs for escapism. Does the sight of gore and extreme violence bring you to a higher state of consciousness? See a Sam Peckinpah film. Do you love nothing more than two beautifully doltish Hollywood actors falling in love in extraordinarily predictable ways? Perhaps you should consider the film oeuvre of Freddie Prinze Jr. Do you want to be reminded yet again about the ruthlessness of humanity’s dark and pitted soul? Then you’ll want to consult the dour philosophies of Lars von Trier or Catherine Breillat. In film, we can all find those elements that allow us transport and succor, a means of clocking out of our own lives for a time and getting lost in others.

In my lifetime, I’ve probably seen close to 2,500 films, but that’s a pittance. I’ve barely begun to explore the vastness of the world’s cinematic possibilities. Even now, after being a professional critic for nearly a decade, I have embarrassing blind spots — I’m ashamed to admit I still have never seen all of 8 1/2 or Late Spring — and inexplicable omissions (Being John Malkovich, Gone With the Wind), but the fates willing, I still should have a few good years left to get caught up. Over the years I’ve read many other critics talking about this very issue, and the truth is we all have our blank spots. To some degree, we probably do it on purpose — I have dozens of films on disc sitting on my shelf unopened that I’m dying to see, specifically waiting for the proverbial rainy day — but to the degree that we don’t, there’s a lot of movies out there, friendo, and life ends up taking huge chunks of your day.

Understandably, the first question you get when people find out you’re a film critic is some variation of “what is your favorite film?” As a result, I have a standard stock answer (Alien, if you care to know), but the truth is, my favorite film is an ever-shifting proposition, depending on mood, time of day, season, and maybe the specific events of my life. Whatever fate has in store for us, there is likely a film that eloquently will speak to your concern. We have made so many brilliant films over such an extended period of time that we now have a collective database of dream fulfillment with which to consult. Nothing makes me happier than the idea there are still so many amazing, life-altering films out there — or yet to be made — that I will have the privilege of being able to witness before I’m gone.

As for the mystery film from my tortured childhood, after years and years of searching, I suddenly recalled a film that had exactly those two elements I remembered, and it was first released in the proper timeframe. Weirdly, it was a movie I had already seen as an adult, but because my perception of it was so wildly different, I somehow hadn’t automatically made the connection. That film was The French Connection II, which is very good, but if you have kids, I humbly suggest you wait until they’re at least 12 before you let them watch it.

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