The Hundred-Film Fall

The Hundred-Film Fall


I left high school one of the finest armchair philosophers in town. Off to college scampered young Mikey Wolfson, ready to take on life’s great questions. And in a small freshman dorm cell in which he’d FaceTime friends who’d joke about parole and dropped soap, he’d answer none.

The Blue Mountain State dream of raging house parties and formative bonds and non-memories proved a farce. I’d uncover no great truths, and I’d have nothing but emo poetry and draining existential questions to take home for Thanksgiving. Well, that and a Twitter full of zingers like “the king of the joke life” amidst other complaints of life’s futility.

With three whole hours of classes on four whole days a week, I had a lot of time on my hands. Lots of time spent thinking in circles and feeling unproductive. I can’t point to a particular person or moment, but in my historical revisiting I recall hanging around a bunch of people who knew a lot about movies and thinking, Wow, being conversant about movies is pretty cool. So 273 movies later in my college career (I know this because on some fateful November 2013 day, I started a list), I hope I’m more conversant than I was as a double-earringed freshman. Though I do still lack in credibility, having never seen a single Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Godfather, among other series staples, I’ve found myself an unexpected prospect for a career in film due largely to the freshman fall blues.

For the rest of the semester, I watched a movie every single day, sometimes two, sometimes three. I came in hot, watching Requiem for Dream, Into the Wild, and Donnie Darko as my first three. Having heard the names of all of these films before, in watching them, I felt myself entering a universe from which I’d always felt excluded. An awkward half-smile always on my face during movie discussions, and always a weak, “Hah, no I haven’t seen it. I’ve been meaning to check it out” upon feeling eyes meet my face. Well, now was my time to make truth of one of my most habitual lies (right up there with “I’ll be there in five minutes” and “We should catch up sometime”).

Much like sushi, which I’d written off as repugnant sea trash—also until freshman year—I’d written off movies (except those featuring Seth Rogen) as 120-minute wastes of energy to be forgotten shortly after. And sure, when Paper Towns appears in front of me on an airplane screen, I can slip back into this mindset. But so many of the 273 movies I’ve since watched have gone on to influence the way I live my life. Starting with the second film I watched during that dreary November, Into the Wild.

Now I know, everybody who’s watched the movie or learned of Chris McCandless has at least for a moment wanted to be him. But at this particular moment in my life, feeling tired and insignificant, this movie spoke to me in ways that the kind words of friends simply could not. Watching McCandless (Emile Hirsch) flip off society and kayak down the Colorado River, I was equally as inspired to get outside as I was to act on my philosophies. I took the philosophy part elsewhere (which I’ll discuss later), but goddamn—this movie took me outside.

Shortly after watching, I called my dad to discuss us taking a trip over the summer. And that summer, I stood atop Mount Rainer smiling my fucking face off with my dad and brother, neither of whom had a clue that we were there because of Into the Wild. And shortly after watching, I started looking seriously into study abroad. And the next spring, while on a twenty-six-kilometer hike through rural Australia, I learned to pitch a tent and use a water purifier, smiling my fucking face off all the while.

It was in Australia where I revisited this movie, watching with friends who’d also clearly been inspired by it, perhaps launched to Sydney by it too. Watching Into the Wild then, at my happiest point, much due to its inspiration, was a completely chilling experience as I thought back to where I’d been for my last viewing. While I’d not (spoiler) ended up dead in a school bus in Alaska, I’d ended up rebelling (against limitations I’d set for myself) and travelling across the world to embrace the outdoors and what the world had to offer outside of a dirty freshman dorm room. The air atop Tasmanian mountaintops tasted far sweeter than stale dining hall cookies, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my free time had ever entailed before movies. Okay, yeah, occasionally the cookies were decent, and sometimes the movies were underwhelming, but this was an exercise in raising my life’s ceilings, and at this particular juncture I’d climbed four thousand jolly feet high.

Oh, and I’ve had plenty of great conversations about Into the Wild over the last two years. And let me tell you, being able to partake in conversations about movies was gratifying. As a lifelong lover of back-burning punk and alternative music, my network for discussing media has always been limited. So with winter break coming up, I proceeded to watch The Breakfast Club and Pulp Fiction, knowing full well these would be topics ripe for discussion with my friends and parents alike. And as I proceeded to watch movies solely because I figured other people had, I also had the time to watch movies solely because I figured other people hadn’t. With this blend (which encompassed . . . all movies?) I was able to discover several films that have influenced my life, differently than Into the Wild, but with similar impact on my actions and attitudes.

The first film in this category is undoubtedly Being John Malkovich. This movie was pivotal in helping me swim through an ocean of solipsistic thoughts and feelings. First with its content, which addressed solipsism and desire head-on, and later, with how this content was received. The entire premise is that a downtrodden guy finds a portal into actor John Malkovich’s brain, and he and his wife, among others, abuse this in all sorts of ways. Malkovich, on the receiving end of many peoples’ experiments and fantasies, is rightfully both disturbed and irate.

Solipsism is defined as the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. And never had I seen this perspective palpably refuted until I watched Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) project his own consciousness into John Malkovich’s smooth, helpless head. Through Malkovich’s eyes, the world was entirely different. He knew and saw different people, places, and things than did his mental intruders. But as the movie goes on and Craig begins to stay in Malkovich’s mind for a prolonged period of time, the two consciences begin to merge. Disturbing as this all may sound, I found it to be incredibly comforting and wise beyond its absurdity. Albeit not the film’s main message (debatable what is), I understood this surreal relationship as proof that life through another’s eyes can feel familiar. In itself dismissing the idea of solipsism, and perhaps even advocating for it, at least against its oft-yearned opposite, omniscience. It was a peculiar takeaway from an even more peculiar movie, but it worked for me, and that’s before even considering the film’s reception.

This reception, of course, was total acclaim. After watching the movie I was unclear on how the average viewer might feel about it, and then Rotten Tomatoes and Roger Ebert both told me that they loved it (at rates of 93/100 and 4/4, to quantify their respective loves). For all that the movie had to say about the mental space we occupy, these ratings spoke the loudest. To learn that real, nonfictional human beings had also found this movie to be not only a worthwhile watch but an outstanding one—well, deep into my  ‘unique, deep, sad college freshman’ phase, this felt particularly good. Ebert described it as “a movie that creates a new world for us and uses it to produce wonderful things.” And in hearing this opinion from a man whose opinions people actually cared enough to read, I felt validated. Shallow? Probably. Good enough for me? Absolutely.

I read up to see that the movie had been nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, and rethought things a bit. Maybe movie-watchers were stranger (at least when anonymously rating movies online) than I’d thought, and not everybody’s favorite movie was a Star Wars or a Batman. Maybe this movie was reviewed favorably and nominated for awards not despite its absurdity but because of it. All of these thoughts entered my head and have long remained, but my most enduring takeaway was seeing a “93% Certified Fresh” next to a poster of a hundred Malkovich heads, and smirking at that image for an hour.

Luckily for me, the freshman fall blues turned to an enjoyable freshman spring, and interestingly I found myself watching movies at less than a fraction of my previous rate. I was busy and not particularly miserable, so again I saw no use for movies, an instrument I’d used to keep myself busy and not particularly miserable. This persisted for a while, actually, which in nature is mostly good. Good in the sense that I was content and avoiding a tool I’d considered a form of therapy. However, less-than-good in that I deprived myself of something I’d grown to love for fear of associating it with a darker headspace.

My movie abstinence continued for some time, especially since my adventures in Australia kept me plenty busy and unmiserable. By the time I came home for the summer, it’d been over a year since I’d watched more than one or two movies in a week. I one day found myself bored enough to reopen the ol’ Netflix account, and in the last year, I’ve hardly closed it. So yes, I got back into movies at a bit of a dull period. But right at the start of this period it was a strange New Zealand movie called Eagle vs. Shark that made me realize I should be more than a (non) fair-weather film fan.

Now an earring-less, well-traveled, upstanding nineteen-year-old gentleman, I viewed my computer screen through revitalized eyes. I’d randomly selected the movie knowing nothing about it except that its ninety-minute runtime fit perfectly with my sleep plans. Within a minute, I was back in a mall in Auckland where I’d been months earlier, and I heard clumsy Kiwi accents that I’d dearly missed. Despite this nostalgic leap, I hardly even enjoyed Eagle vs. Shark. It was an odd, kind of slow movie about a dimwitted quasi-couple. But after those ninety minutes, I fell right asleep as planned, and woke up pleased that I’d spent my night listening to those glorious New Zealand accents. Plot-wise I now remember only the movie’s main points, but I do wholly recall the genuine vibe of the film’s setting and actors, and how this launched me two hundred movies into the future.

Nostalgia was just one reason to watch movies again, and from there I watched to learn (Imitation Game), to pick up on references I’d been missing out on (The Matrix), and sometimes to bum myself out a bit when things were going too well, you know, to remind me of my roots (thanks for that, Boy in the Striped Pyjamas). Sure, all of these things are sorts of therapy, whether they remedy longings for past eras or satiate eccentric thirsts. But it’s not like I’d ever stopped listening to music just because I was happy. I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, and that’s a love that’s known no barriers. I’ve grown to realize that there’s no reason for film to be any different.

In a few years, I’ll make a whole lot of fun of who I am right now. That’s fine; it’s just another part of this ongoing aging thing we do (and also part of being a caustic asshole). While I do look back on my freshman self through half a lens of “Dude, what the hell were you doing,” I’m reminded by certain films and memories of how I once felt, and in truth I’m proud to have these takeaways to coincide with my (perceived) growth. People watch films for plenty of different reasons, and I’m no different, but everybody starts somewhere, and albeit a part of my life I’d not like to relive it’s one I can embrace. No matter where I end up or who I turn out to be, I know I’ll have film as something I can turn to for all sorts of counsel in times both good and bad, and for that I’ll always thank the freshman fall blues.

Works Cited

“Being John Malkovich (1999) Awards.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.

“Being John Malkovich.”  (1999). Rotten Tomatoes, 20 Nov. 2005. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.

Ebert, Roger. “Being John Malkovich Movie Review (1999) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.

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