On the Couch: Examining a cinephile

CouchIn an attempt to discover where and when I was first overtaken by that most all-encompassing and endlessly satisfying of disorders, cinephilia, I’ve recently been reflecting on my early years. I can only apologise in advance for this incredibly narcissistic post, which might well prove more interesting for me as therapy than it will for you as the reader.

I know it was already there in a juvenile form during my teen years. I still vividly remember defending The Thin Red Line and 2001: A Space Odyssey on separate occasions in the school yard. I remember being accused of pretending to like them because I was “trying to sound smart” – an accusation that was only half true. I wasn’t pretending to like them, but like any teenage boy attempting to define himself by his newly discovered passions, I was definitely trying to sound smart. The truth was that I couldn’t have articulated what made these films interesting to me at the time, it was more their implicit strength, dignity and mystery that I understood than any kind of textual meaning.

I know it was already there in my primary school years. In fact, I remember that this was when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. My father told me to watch it, and by the end I was totally lost in its graceful calm, ghostlike machinery and transcendent imagery. What was it about, exactly? My father told me that nobody really knew. I found this answer totally unsatisfying and attempting to answer it was probably my first introduction to truly engaging with the form.

Aside from this one particular expedition into the unknown, my younger years were primarily about a total obsession with Stallone, Norris, Van Damme, Robocop, and most importantly, Schwarzenegger. The first time that my parents placed their hands over my eyes as Uncle Arnie (a handle applied by my father that led me to believe Arnie and I were related) came across the skinned corpses in Predator, I knew that the moving image would provide me with an endless window into an array of visual stimulations – both fantastic and horrifying – that I would be unlikely to find anywhere else. It seems my parent’s lacklustre attempts at censorship had a counterproductive effect, because up until my early twenties I had something of an obsession with morbidly ensuring that I had seen everything which pushed the furthest boundaries of decency, or perhaps indecency (90% of which seemed to come from Italy – it was Rogero Deodata’s Cannibal Holocaust that horrified me enough that I would abandon this particular channel of filmic interest for all time). This is not an uncommon trait amongst younger cinephiles.

My conviction that such mature material was superior (well, I thought it was mature at the time), led me to the pretentious belief that cartoons and kid’s books were for the inferior child. This quickly resulted in constant trips to the video store to borrow piles of horror and action films that I should not have seen, as well as in my reading the entire collection of Stephen King books that my parents had amassed over the years. Soon enough, I found myself becoming a schoolyard expert on all things grotesque and inappropriate. I was that odd boy who drew pictures of monsters being eviscerated while the others drew flowers. I was the boy whose short stories always involved traps, explosions, and inevitably the deaths of all the main characters. I was, in fact, the boy you didn’t want your boy to play with.

But it goes back earlier than that, I think. As a younger child, I was rarely able to sleep peacefully through the night. I had a fear of the dark, most especially in the later hours of the night when I could hear that my parents were asleep and that I was essentially alone in the universe. As a result, I would often be kept up by horrible images I’d seen on television, and occasionally they would result in rather vivid nightmares. Here, I’ll attempt to catalogue a handful of the moments that left an indelible scar on my childhood:

Untitled film

There was a film I saw glimpses of as a child, peeping around the corner as my parents watched it on television (I suspect it was Japanese). A woman is having the image of a spider tattooed on her arm – involuntarily, I believe. The tattoo begins to crawl up her shoulder then neck. In my memories, the bite that occurs moments later results in some Exorcist style projectile vomiting – but this may be an addition I have made to my memory over time. Whatever this film was, it haunted me for years to come. If you know, please tell me.

Twin Peaks

I had a regular nightmare that started occurring after seeing something bizarre on television as a child – a man appearing from behind a curtain with clearly malign intent. It was not until I was in my twenties that I discovered that this was a scene (not a particularly scary one) from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, involving the character of Leo.

Weird Al Yankovic – I’m Fat

If you can believe it, I once had a horrifying nightmare as a young child that involved the gang from Weird Al Yankovic’s I’m Fat kidnapping me as I walked down a main street in Melbourne, Australia (Chapel Street, for those in the know). My mother kept walking, apparently unable to hear my screams for help. How embarrassing.

Blue Velvet

It might seem unlikely that a filmmaker whose work appears to take place in a kind of surreal dream space would happen to have infected my own thoughts as a child on two occasions, but it is true. Like Twin Peaks, it was only years later when I was going through the obligatory David Lynch phase that I discovered the “Love Letter” scene in Blue Velvet was one that I happened to see as a child. It didn’t result in any nightmares that I can recall, but it did prevent me from getting to sleep at night for a long time.

The Wizard of Oz

This one is probably fairly standard but it definitely messed me up as a child. The film would roll along so well and I’d be having fun, but every time the witch would show up my heart rate would go through the roof. Definitely kept me up on multiple occasions.

Very little has been accomplished here beyond me discovering that this piece of writing is significantly more morbid than I intended it to be when I began. I suppose the conclusion I would have to come to is that my passion for cinema began with a strange curiosity about the things that most terrified me as a child, and a desire to conquer those things by not turning away. Or maybe not…

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

55 thoughts on “On the Couch: Examining a cinephile

  1. The winged monkeys in the Wizard of Oz still creep me out. The way they bob slightly as they rest on the windowsill while being given their orders — ooh!

    While I love the films of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, I remember as a small child not wanting to watch other musicals because one day I was watching the actor Van Johnson in some lighthearted scene and suddenly was frightened. I suddenly felt that his smile – you know how they almost always smile constantly while dancing – wasn’t real, and behind it was something horrible and ugly. I was very frightened as a child by this. The fear has faded considerably, but I still am aware of it. For some reason, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and a couple of others are exempt from this fear.

  2. Oh My God! You are like my soul brother!!
    Thanks for liking my post by the way; it led me to this post and I really enjoyed it. I am so glad to have stumbled here. I totally get that wizard of Oz part. It sure did mess me up. But I have not yet seen a witch that scary yet (peerless).
    I shall keep a close eye on you sir.

    Thanks again for the like. 🙂

  3. Good post. I’ve been wanting to comment and let you know how much I enjoy your site. I’ve been making a conscious effort the past few years to become a more discerning, analytical consumer of cinema. My neighborhood is lucky to have a great bricks-and-mortar independent video store that’s staffed by very smart and enthusiastic cinephiles- I’m always amazed when they share their opinions and insight for something I’m returning, talk about having the light shed for you…… I’m very slowly building up a (basic) framework and vocabulary for understanding and talking intelligently about what I’ve watched.

    Thanks for sharing the Twin Peaks intro. I live about 40 minutes from the outdoor scenes shot for it. I was in high school when the series aired and frankly, not very with it, so I’m looking forward to watching the series “fresh” for the first time, pretty soon.

    • Much appreciated, Jason. It’s always awesome to hear somebody is actually reading 🙂

      It’s definitely good to be surrounded by people who can offer those insights – breaks down those intellectual walls we all have!!

      And awesome on the Twin Peaks front – I’ll have to make the pilgrimage there at some point!

  4. I didn’t know that u did reviews too!
    I have finished just doing my lollipop chainsaw review check it out if u want
    I wish I had lots of replies like that 🙁

  5. Ah, I remember watching TWIN PEAKS at Cornerhouse. Loved the TV series, and even have the CD on the ipod. Love the haunting LAURA’S THEME. This was all of course, pre-twomumsy, I had a life, a career, taste, direction all before kids, once,

  6. Pingback: The Cinephile | Curnblog

  7. You would make a very good movie critic. I have a strange connection with Weird Al (He was a client of our when I worked for an alarm company. ) Check out his Twitter page … it is a bit bizarre. Twin Peaks had me fascinated, because all the episodes were like dream sequences. I never knew what was real. David Lynch is a master of the surreal.

  8. “I suppose the conclusion I would have to come to is that my passion for cinema began with a strange curiosity about the things that most terrified me as a child, and a desire to conquer those things by not turning away. Or maybe not…”

    Your conclusion echoes a great text by Boileau- Narcejac, masters of crime novels, on the paradoxical relationship between fear and literature (can apply to cinema. this writer duo wrote for the cinema, for Hitchcock as well):” Contrary [to literature],,even when expressed,fear shall always keep some traces of its primary nature, as obscure and savage as instinct. [Fear] resists the word, for, if the word is the right one, it restores the fright it sought to assuage. [… about happy endings] That is why, no doubt, fear could never give birth to a well-defined literary genre; in literature, one will have to go to the end of love, or pity, or pride, or of hate. But one cannot go through with fear.”
    Have you already thought of writing for cinema, (if you don’t already do so)? Did you read the article Vertigo of Time (Australian), For the Love of Fear,http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/6/time/?

    Thanks, for following me on my blog..

    Happy heuristics

    • Hi!

      A great quote and some excellent points. The human relationship with fear is an incredibly complex one – the very idea that we should be attracted to art that induces these negative emotions is testament enough to this.

      I had not read the Senses of Cinema piece, but I have now. Thanks for shooting it through 🙂

      And I have not attempted to write for cinema for quite a few years, but it’s certainly something I’ve been thinking of recently – thanks for the encouragement 🙂

  9. Nice post and not indulgent as so many of us have similar experiences. Although my love of film started with the rather more innocuous black and whites they used to run on the BBC; the Charlie Chan movies, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy.

  10. Really enjoyed this post, and I can totally relate! Makes me want to go back and rewatch things I haven’t seen since I was a child, especially the ones that disturbed me to see if they are anything like I remember them. One particular scene was in a movie I don’t remember; some fugitive was injured and hiding a field, where a young girl from a nearby house was taking care of him and bringing him food. At one point he asks her to kiss him and she does, but I remember being really disturbed as up to that point I’d only ever seen ‘adults’ kiss – and in this she was probably about 16. Strange memory tricks! 🙂

    • Thanks!!

      Haha – maybe. Although there is a gentleness to his work that suggests he was never in search of severe imagery so much as the warm and ironic joy of Vincent Price-esque fun.

  11. For me, the movie that gave me a lot of recurrent nightmares as a child was Raiders of the Lost Arc. I stayed away from soooo many movies that I was worried would give me more nightmares after that one!

  12. I was nearly 40 when I saw Twin Peaks, and always found the dancing dwarf and curtain man scary. I am still going through my David Lynch phase, as I never grew out of it. I swim against the tide of opinion, and consider Blue Velvet, and Dune to both be terrific films, along with most of his other work. As I previously wrote in my own post, 2001 has stayed with me my entire life, and I have also constantly praised The Thin Red Line. My own film memories go much further back, and are predominantly in black and white. I think the spider tattoo film you seek is Irezumi, a Japanese film from 1966, IMDB link follows. This is a guess though! Great post as always James, regards to you as ever, Pete. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0200740/

    • Hi Pete,

      Thanks for the headsup on Irezumi, will check it out!

      Definitely didn’t mean to suggest that I’m not a Lynch fan, just that it seems common for buffs to go through an obsessive Lynch phase. And yes, Blue Velvet is definitely a masterpiece.

      I have a soft spot for Dune as well, even if it is a bit of a lumbering beast.

  13. I actually have been thinking about my love of movies and the way it has evolved over the years. Thankfully I never lost my love of horror, science-fiction, and fantasy but have just added new genres over the years. I tracked down the movie I have the earliest memories of seeing a few months ago and I am planning on writing about it.

  14. Great Blog. I too remember that state of being that 2001 induced in me when I first saw it. I tried to introduce my family to the movie and will never forget their total lack of excitement!

  15. Once again, a totally fascinating read. You’ve inspired me to write a post along these lines, because, well, I’m narcissistic like that…I hope you’ll check it out once it’s written. But back to your’s…you are an excellent writer and while I have ZERO desire to subject myself to most of the films you’ve seen, I really enjoy what you have to say about the influence they have had on you and over people in general. I look forward to your next post.

  16. I have been endeavoring to do the same, tracking back to when the fascination first took hold (high school, probably. I don’t think that just loving The Lion King really counts). Some friends have told me that it’s getting “worse” now though, so I’m really interested in discovering how far I’ll be able to take it. Do you think you’ve got higher peaks to reach when it comes to that?

  17. For some strange reason, I really liked Twin Peaks. It was just so weird on a different level. You really took a stroll down cinephile lane. I remember my first movie. It was Dracula with Frank Langella and Kate Nelligan. I remember feeling so bad for Dracula at the end. This is when my love of horror movies began. I too read a lot of Stephen King novels. My first was Pet Semetary. That book scared the crap out of me. I would sit at night with the light on reading until the wee hours. I would get so scared by a scene that I would quickly close the book and then open it again. King has a way of getting to you. Great blog!!!

  18. The Space Odyssey books, UFOs, Star Trek, Stephen King novels all lead me to see them at the cinema. Well written drama like Sophie’s Choice has kept me seeking more. You piece is a smart bloggers prequel.

  19. It’s funny to look back on those teen moments of cinematic realization – mine was To Live and Die in L.A. Having only ever seen typical happy ending movies, it was a revelation to realize that a movie might kill off the main character half way through.

  20. David Lynch is definitely disturbing, in unexpected ways. (I’ll never outgrow !) I have to look away sometimes. Couldn’t get to sleep after seeing Blue Velvet, first time. But I love his stuff. Wicked witch: seared into consciousness every single year. (But the flying monkees were even scarier. ) I don’t watch scary stuff if I can help it !

    • Absolutely – I think my affection for Lynch’s work has been ironically fortified by the horrible effect it had on me as a child.

      I usually had to go to bed before the monkeys showed up!

  21. Yeah, that wicked witch has messed with millions of impressionable young’ns over the years. Me included! Blue Velvet? Never watched it. Glad I never did! ECH! 🙂

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