Girish Shambu writes in Days and Nights of a Cinephile…
There are movies we encounter at certain points in our appreciation for the medium that become, almost by accident, little breakthroughs in our viewing life. They may not be great masterpieces—though they well might—but the important thing is that we have the fortune of meeting up with them at just the right juncture in our development. I think of them as ‘signpost films’: they take a patch of aesthetic territory that was previously foggy or unmapped to us and they suddenly open it up, making us see and learn something revelatory about this art-form that we love. Each ‘signpost film’ offers us some sort of lesson or fundamental insight about cinema that we then proceed to carry with us and apply to hundreds of films we encounter in the future.
What are your signposts?
I’ve but a simple mind, so I’ll chart some of mine linearly in terms of when I encountered them.
Back to the Future (1985)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
As a son of the 80’s, it would be pretentious and patently false to deny that the Lucas/Spielberg junta that took American movies (and audiences and pop-culture and ethos and…) hostage are to credit for captivating my imagination and sparking my life-long cinematic love affair. As a wee lad, there was something about the ‘To Be Continued…’ that roared on-screen at the end of Back to the Future that made my mind reel. “Wait. What? There’s more? Woooow.” I knew then that no matter what else was going on in the world, I wanted to remain in the company of Marty McFly and Doc Brown. Apparently, Zemeckis’ time travel trilogy was not the first to serialize stories, nor were motion pictures the first medium to do so. But with that ellipses, I was forever beholden to the movies.
See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)/Ghostbusters (1984)/Back to the Future Part II (1989)
The Graduate (1967)
Directed by Mike Nichols
One word, just one word, may not have been all it took to redirect Benjamin Braddock on his career path. But one film was all it took to guide me towards a deeper understanding of how movies work. When I encountered The Graduate as a teenager, it flipped a switch on in my head that showed me that movies could do more than just entertain. There is a lot more than meets the eye to moviemaking, and Mrs. Robinson pulled back the curtain so that I could pay attention to it.
Stranger than Paradise (1984)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Jarmusch got down to the bare essentials with this early work. It’s actually quite a straightforward narrative told in clearly delineated three acts. It’s that he told it without any superfluous bells and whistles that makes it an eloquent rejoinder to the Lucas/Spielberg call for bombast. In the same decade that Reagen was reworking the national landscape, Stranger than Paradise showed the world a quieter, more Beckettian America. I was too young to be aware of it at the time, but through the magic of movies I was able to experience it as though I were.
See also: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)/Paris, Texas (1984)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa got my attention with clanking samurai swords and creepy, eyebrowless mediums channelling dubious reports from the grave (Rashomon). But it was his unsentimental tale of a bureaucrat with stomach cancer given mere months to live that floored me. The first half of the film is spent with the protagonist in the moments after he is made aware of his fate. He processes the information, ambles through an aimless night then decides to use his position as a paper-pushing drone to build a children’s playground. The second half is spent at his wake, with those that thought they knew him flashing-back and dissecting his existence. It literally did not occur to me until the writing of this post that the bifurcated structure of this narrative has been echoed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-soo, both of whom favor splitting their films into two over a three act structure.
See also: The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)/Syndromes and a Century (2006)
The Heiress (1949)
Directed by William Wyler
I was raised on the classics, from Capra to Hitchcock, by my parents, themselves no strangers to good cinema. But it was not until I was reacquainted with old Hollywood by Wyler’s adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square that I comprehended the breadth of the studio system. It may have been a flawed factory – genre films only, outsiders need not apply, distribution controlled by censoring gatekeepers – but I’ll be damned if some amazing work wasn’t produced by it. Exhibit A: the depth of the cruelty of Ralph Richardson as an emotionally abusive father. Exhibit B: the evolution of Olivia de Havilland from pitiable naïf to intractable woman-of-the-house. If one need see any more proof of the superiority of the studio system over today’s studio films, place the well-pedigreed but by-the-numbers Washington Square (1997) next to The Heiress. See for yourself. (Didn’t mean to make that comparison come off as a taste-test ad. Oh well.)
See also: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)/Notorious (1946)/Winchester ’73 (1950)
What Time is it There? (2001)
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
It’s no secret that I’m an unapologetic fan of deliberately paced contemporary Asian cinema. Tsai Ming-liang once said that the world moves at such a fast clip, so he makes movies that take their time to breathe. What Time is it There? is as solid an expression of that M.O. as any. It articulates itself with hardly any exposition. I found the care with which each shot, each gesture was composed ceaselessly captivating. Numerous other films of his, of Hou’s, of Yang’s, of others follow suit, some predate it, but this was the one that I encountered first. So it gets the credit.
There are countless other films which I could cite as signpost films for me – Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1985), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant (2002), Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds (1955), David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952), Edward Yang’s A Brighter, Summer Day (1991), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964). Thankfully, the list goes on.