In 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:
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.
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.
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…