Life in the Movies

My mother claims that the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s The Jungle Book, and that might very well be true. The old VHS tape is still in her cabinet, and there are even pictures of my father and me playing out a certain Jungle Book-inspired dance stashed somewhere in the attic. But I really cannot stand The Jungle Book, and the idea of that particular film having sparked my romance with the movies is distressing. And so I will say that the first movie I ever remember watching is The Wizard of Oz, because what could be a more fitting initiation into the glorious world of motion pictures than MGM starlet Judy Garland’s star-making turn?

They say that we cannot remember events from such an early age, yet images from Oz always bob to the surface of my thoughts. When Dorothy opens her front door, we are transported to a world painted in the most vivid, brilliant Technicolor, and it was a cathartic moment of overwhelming magic and mystery. It is one of my earliest memories, and one of my most cherished. Perhaps these are simply elaborate fantasies, as I seem to have added my own colors and moods. (Toto plays a much bigger part, for instance, because at that age I could think of no greater companion.) But what is an objective memory, anyway? We are all partial beings that build meaning out of bits and pieces because we are unable to process wholes—writer Salman Rushdie (who once stated that watching Oz as a child in India made a writer out of him) wrote in Midnight’s Children that “perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.” My memories may be false but they are ultimately truer than truth; vibrant, like the skin of an indigo snake.

No one had time to listen to Dorothy. How deeply that resonated with me—watching adults who clearly loved her shooing her aside for more important things. Oz was Dorothy’s story, but for the most part she is passive: the forces around her provide most of the narrative’s push. It was childhood in a nutshell.

And the movie would have been nothing without Judy Garland, who, in addition to being a luminous Snow White beauty, put casual meaning into every gesture and expression: lovely and completely unaware of it; I watched her crooning “Over the Rainbow” and got distracted by the simple pleasure of looking at her. Even back then I felt that there was no doubt that the movie would have tanked if a lesser performer had been cast in the leading role. Someone like Shirley Temple, for example, would have been fatal, because she was so conscious of her own cutesiness — when she giggled, it was with full knowledge of the oohing and ahhing that would result. Garland had a gravitas and vulnerability that was unique. Even at her happiest, she had a certain wistfulness about her, an uncertainty, like someone who is afraid to let the world in but can’t help but reach out to it. Garland had a voice like the clink of Waterford crystal, but it was tinged with such poignancy.

Years passed, and I would rewatch Oz to the point where my sitters would not even bother to remove the cassette from the video player. It was not until much later, however, that I would be able to relish the spectacle of watching a movie on the big screen. My aunt would be the one to introduce this other world to me; she was a college student then, studying English literature at NYU, and more of a mother than my own mother ever had time to be. She’d rush home after class, fix me crackers with peanut butter, and then we’d be off, rushing down forgotten side streets, sidestepping gum wrappers and bloated plastic ghosts, stopping occasionally to say hello to an old lady who would always be sitting on the same park bench in the same tattered parka.

We would take the subway to the closest theater, which was on the outskirts of the city, and I remember being fascinated with that specific means of transportation. I think that I, in my own ten-year old way, saw riding the subway as a parallel to the immersive experience of going to the movies. It was not that clear cut, of course, and stating outright those images that once hovered in the mind’s half-known shadows seems somewhat vulgar, but there can be clearer way to put it: I was ten and mildly claustrophobic, my breathing would go shallow as the train entered the tunnel, and it was such an intimate moment, where I felt a strange sort of love swell up within me for the stranger to my right. The movie theater itself was a looming figure in my childhood; I suppose in retrospect it was a rather small, grimy place, adorned by torn up seats and obscenities scribbled across the hand rests, but at the time it was a sanctuary like no other. I, in all my foolish naïveté, saw the theater as a place so full of wild love that the cruel and the cynical had no right to enter. My aunt and I watched countless movies here, and not just children’s fables or fairy tales, but stories of passion and intrigue—she made me close my eyes during certain scenes, but even if I didn’t understand what was going on, I was suddenly, acutely aware of the vastness of the world and the thrilling possibilities offered to grown-ups. Once or twice I looked over at her, and her face had the openness of a wound: I was perplexed then, not realizing that what I saw was human emotion at its most raw and beautiful.

I would be lying if I said that I remembered every movie we watched. In all honesty, I can only remember a handful. But if asked what has resonated most deeply, I would reply, without hesitation, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It was a rainy Saturday, and my aunt had snuck me out in the morning, telling my mother that she was taking me to the doctor. An hour later I was in my familiar seat, watching Miyazaki’s wonderland unfold before me like an exquisite painted tapestry. The animation was soft, the way rocks would be if there were wind enough, and for many years I couldn’t understand why Chihiro would want to leave this vibrant, breathless world for the world of the living.

When Chihiro’s father told her: “Don’t worry, you’ve got Daddy here. He’s got credit cards and cash,” I thought immediately back to those frustrating interactions between Dorothy and the family farm hands. It was such a telling statement, this brazen assertion, and one that encapsulated so much of the wonder and perplexity with which I viewed adults and their mysterious world. The theme park was completely abandoned; clearly there would be no one to accept payment for the food. Chihiro, following her own good instincts, refused to eat, and was saved from being turned into swine—she was the one that saved the day, not the other way around. In Spirited Away, childhood was marked by purity and driven by instincts that Miyazaki suggests are inherent in all people—we just happen to lose them as we grow older.

Then there was the scene in which Chihiro boards a train, one that literally cuts across a sky-blue ocean. Watching it today, I am still stunned by its beauty—the scene is pure visual poetry. There are so many ways to interpret this scene: perhaps because it represents the loss of part of Chihiro’s childhood, or symbolizes the journey into adulthood, as she takes responsibility for the first time, undertaking a journey into the unknown to protect someone she loves. It is the antithesis of home, this lonely vastness, and for children like Chihiro, home is the center of the world. Perhaps it also serves a visual treatise on the nature of travel in the modern world: how it is now a means to an end, the way that the faceless, nameless people I saw in the subway would all studiously avoid each others’ eyes. For me the sequence conjures allusions to Charon, with the water being the junction between the world of the living and the dead. There is one shot of a faceless shadow girl, solitary and unmoving, followed by a small house on an island, and it is such a sad sequence: souls who have played and lost, all of them drifting endlessly.

Spirited Away was one of the last movies I ever saw with my aunt, before she moved back to Korea. I do not wish to recount that day; I will simply say that even today the sound of a step like hers brings me to the door. But a few weeks after she left my mother handed me a package in the mail: a little box wrapped hastily in Christmas paper, and I ached, so distinctly her was the presentation. I opened it after my mother had left the room; it was a copy of Billy Elliot. I smiled.

This went on for several years, and it was in this way that I found myself watching Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso back to back. This particular package came with a little note: that I had to watch both films at night, and that I would write her after I had finished them. I was intrigued.

The plot of Lost in Translation was deceptively simple. Movie star Bob Harris and neglected newlywed Charlotte meet up as strangers in Tokyo and form an unlikely bond. But I had never before watched a movie that was so intimate, holding emotion the way like salt holds the sea.

Charlotte wasn’t cold; like Chihiro, she was watchful but curious—cautiously expressive. Both were drawn to people who harbored sadnesses wider than their own. She was a character who spoke in whispers and shrugs, someone who knew that people did not understand silence. Maybe once she filled her silence with words, but now she is tired, choosing instead to stare out the window into the Tokyo streets, listening to self-help tapes in secret to stay aligned with her heart, only to realize that it just brings her closer to the inevitability of herself. It was funny, how much the back-and-forth between Charlotte and her husband reminded me of my own parents, even though they were decades apart in age. I wondered if they, too, had little in common apart from a child and the years of their lives. I felt, deeply, the protracted silences.

When Charlotte first runs into Bob inside a crowded elevator, she flashes him a perfunctory smile. Later, Bob recounts that first meeting. “Did I scowl at you?” Charlotte asks, as if she can’t believe that she would open herself up so easily, and even after the two share late-night karaoke and take out dinners in front of the TV, Charlotte still indulges in her smile only occasionally. She is a girl in her early twenties who has already fallen out of love with life, or rather, finally realized that the world is populated by people running a race toward nothing, and that is why it gets to you, the cautious curve of her smile, like a glimmer of sunshine tentatively peeking behind a cloud.

Charlotte also showed me that it was alright to be gentle and contemplative, that there was a quiet winter beauty in it. I told this to my aunt over the phone and I could hear the smile in her voice. These characters prove what we’d all like to believe when we’re in high school: that the ones who get overlooked are the ones who have the most to say.

Cinema Paradiso also revolved around the bond between two people, although Tornatore’s film was far more cinematic and shamelessly sentimental than Coppola’s quiet prayer. It tells the story of a filmmaker, Toto, as he recalls his childhood, one in which he fell in love with the movies at his village’s theater and formed a deep friendship with the theater’s projectionist, Alfredo.

Toto and Alfredo lived unconventional lives that they seemed to improvise day by day, and it was such a romantic concept, the idea of cranking film in this little room, looking out into the theater and knowing that those moving people on the screen were apparitions only they could conjure. I marveled at the ambition of the man who sought to capture the world in rolls of film and yellowing posters and sleep within the knowledge like a snail. I wondered how he could bear it.

Alfredo was a large, genial man who, despite his gruffness, seemed to have such enormous capacity for devotion. His shoulders were always in a perpetual slouch, as if bearing the weight of some secret knowledge, and here was the idea of what a father could be; what my father could have been like—the father who was gone before I could rouse myself, before my mother might steady a dirty wheel in her hand. It seemed so fitting that he was the gatekeeper of the little cinema, a building huddled in the freezing dusk, its windows and doors thrown open to give, streaming its heat to the night.

I did not like certain things about Toto at first. He was far too impetuous and spirited for my taste, dancing around Alfredo like some sort of mischievous elf. But there was also something about his romanticism and shameless sentimentality that I found myself reaching out for, with instinctive recognition. There is one scene in particular where Toto is lying on the dock until his eyes are filled with starlight, wondering why life can’t be like the movies. Then, suddenly, there is a crack of lightening and the sky lies broken before him. It begins to rain, with Mario Camerini’s Ulysses playing in the background, and his true love Elena is there on top of him, breathless, and the two kiss. It was so deliriously cinematic: it gave me hope that perhaps, my life could open up on itself, that I, too, could live a life like the ones in the movies.

The ending, which I shall not ruin, is the most gloriously romantic scene in the history of the movies. I had never cried at a movie before, at least not in the way I did then, the tears coming from somewhere deep and true.

Cinema was a place where humans were both too large and too small. They were destroyed by self-induced maladies; they were saved by each other. The movies were a collection of stories concerning human wants, human fears and unfettered human love and more than anything, I saw movies like Lost in Translation and Cinema Paradiso as love songs every bit as romantic and true as those of Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. I wrote my aunt afterwards as promised, detailing everything and nothing, and as I wrote I felt the room fill with moments and years; a single sentence conjured up a memory as pale and slippery as a naked egg and, realizing that movies composed a new sort of cartography, one that did not obey human-made lines, I wrote faster.