Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies

Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies

by Phillip Lopate


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Phillip Lopate has been obsessed with movies from the start. As an undergraduate at Columbia, he organized the school's first film society. Later, he even tried his own hand at filmmaking. But it was not until his ascent as a major essayist that Lopate found his truest and most lasting contribution to the medium. And, over the past twenty-five years, tackling subjects ranging from Visconti to Jerry Lewis, from the first New York Film Festival to the thirty-second, Phillip Lopate has made film his most cherished subject. Here, in one place, are the very best of these essays, a joy for anyone who loves movies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385492508
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/20/1998
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,161,530
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Phillip Lopate is the author of the essay collections Against Joie de VivreBachelorhood, and Portrait of My Body. He has also written the novels The Rug Merchant and Confessions of a Summer. Lopate is the editor of The Art of the Personal Essay and the Library of America's Writing New York, as well as the series editor of The Art of the Essay. His film criticism appears regularly in The New York Times and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The "Heroic" Age of Moviegoing

One has to guard against the tendency to think of one's youth as a time when the conversations were brighter, the friends truer and the movies better. I am quite willing to let go of the first two, but it does seem to have been my luck to have come of age during a period of phenomenal cinematic creativity. I like to think of the early sixties as the "heroic" age of moviegoing, if one can call heroic an activity that consists of sitting on one's bum and letting one's thoughts be guided by a parade of cinematic sensations.

    It was in 1959, while a junior in high school, that my craving for celluloid and my avocation as a film buff began. Certainly I had always liked going to movies; my parents had sent us off, when we were children, to the neighborhood double feature every Saturday morning. But the notion of motion pictures as an art form only struck me when I was about fifteen. I bought Arthur Knight's survey, The Liveliest Art, and went about in my thorough, solemn way trying to see every movie listed in the index. One thing that attracted me to film history was that it was relatively short, conquerable, compared to other artistic fields. The Thalia theater's repertory schedule became my summer school catalogue that year, and I checked off nearly everything as a must-see, still happily unable to distinguish beforehand between the worth of an M and a Captain from Koepenick.

    I went so far as to subscribe to a series of Russian silent films at the Kaufman-92nd Street Y, defiantly attending Earth the night before an important exam. But Dovzhenko's poetic style put me to sleep; even now I have only to picture waving wheat and apple-cheeked, laughing peasants for my eyes to start to close.

    In my last two years of high school I was restless and used film showings as a pretext to get out of Brooklyn, away from my family, and explore the city. The 92nd Street Y, the Sutton, and the Beekman introduced me to the posh East Side; the Art and the 8th Street Theater were my ports of entry to Greenwich Village; I learned the Upper West Side from the Thalia and the New Yorker. It was a Flaherty revival at Columbia University that first gave me the idea, walking through the campus afterward, to apply there for admission.

    Sometimes a film club ad would lead me to some church basement in Chelsea, to watch an old Murnau or Preston Sturges, projected by a noisy Bell & Howell set up on a chair in the back of a rec room. Often I was the youngest member of that film addict crowd, whose collective appearance made me wonder what I was getting myself into. They were predominately male, lower middle class, with the burdened look of having come straight from work with their rolled-up New York Posts and ink-stained trousers; they had indoor faces with pendulous eye bags, sharp noses ready to sniff out the shoddy, and physiques that seemed at once undernourished in some parts and plump in others, the result of hasty delicatessen meals snatched before screenings. They looked like widowers or young men who had never known love — this was the fraternity I was about to join. Some seemed abnormally shy; they would arrive a few minutes early and sit as far away from everyone else as they could; at "The End" they would leave without a word. Occasionally, one of the old, bald-headed veterans would engage me gregariously in spasmodic conversation — an exchange of film titles, punctuated with superlatives, snorts, complaints about the projection or the sight lines — and I would come away touched by his kindness for having talked to an ignorant kid like me, and perhaps for this reason would feel sorry for him.

    Whether the film had been glorious or dull barely mattered, so long as I could cross it off my list. The development of a taste of any sort requires plodding through the overrated as well as uncovering the sublime. If the movie had been genuinely great, I would leave the screening place inspired and pleasantly conscious of my isolation, and wander the streets for a while before taking the subway home. I came to love the way the gray city streets looked after a movie, the cinematic blush they seemed to wear. When the film had been a disappointment — well then, all the more was it a joy to get back the true world, with its variety and uncanny compositions.

    At Columbia, I discovered the general appetite for films was much higher than it had been at my high school; even the average student was willing to experiment with difficult fare. I remember going down to the Village one Friday night with a bunch of other dateless freshmen to see Kurosawa's Ikiru, part of a memorable season of Japanese premieres. Before the movie, just to get in the mood, we ate cross-legged on the floor at a Japanese restaurant. I adored Ikiru, with its perversely slow framing scene of the wake and its heart-wrenching flashbacks; but it also meant a lot to be sitting before it in a row of studious boys who I hoped would remain moviegoing friends. My own gang, as in I Vitelloni — except it didn't happen with this bunch. It took a while before I found my real film companions.

    From time to time, film criticism would appear in the Columbia Daily Spectator by an upperclassman, James Stoller. His articles were so stylistically mature and so informed that they seemed to me to be written by a professional quarterly critic rather than a college student. I developed an intellectual crush on this Stoller: if his opinion differed from mine, I would secretly revise my own. I had been, for example, avoiding Satyajit Ray's films because their packaging suggested what Andrew Sarris called "dull UNESCO cinema." But Stoller wrote that the Apu trilogy was great, so I went, and he was right.

    Finally I decided I had to meet James Stoller. Palms sweating, I summoned the courage to call his room from the phone downstairs in his dormitory. I explained that I was a fellow film lover. Could I stop by sometime and talk with him? Sure, come on up, he said.

    It shocked me to see the great critic living in so tiny and shabby a room: a double-decker bed; a narrow desk, which he shared with his roommate; a single chair; and books. We had no place to sit but the lower bunk bed. It always surprised me — having come from a ghetto — that parts of Columbia should look so seedy and run-down. I suppose I was expecting the Ivy League to be a step upward.

    Stoller himself gave an impression of fastidious hesitation and social awkwardness. I had come prepared to play the role of the freshman ignoramus and so was puzzled when he reacted incredulously to my praise of his articles, retreating into a modest shrug. When I asked if he had been yet to Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, the cause celebre that had just opened and which I was dying to see, he said he had, and fell silent. "Well, what did you think of it?" I prodded, expecting him to erupt with the equivalent of one of his articles. "It's — terrific, I guess, I'm not sure, I need to watch it a few more times. ... Go see for yourself." He was uncomfortable being put on the spot.

    I rushed to see L'Avventura. It was the movie I had been preparing for, and it came at the right time in my development. As a child, I had wanted only action movies. Dialogues and story setups bored me; I waited for that moment when the knife was hurled through the air. My awakening in adolescence to the art of film consisted precisely in overcoming this impatience. Overcompensating, perhaps; I now loved a cinema that dawdled, that lingered. Antonioni had a way of following characters with a pan shot, letting them exit and keeping the camera on the depopulated landscape. With his detachment from the human drama and his tactful spying on objects and backgrounds, he forced me to disengage as well, and to concentrate on the purity of his technique. Of course the story held me, too, with its bitter, world-weary, disillusioned tone. The adolescent wants to touch bottom, to know the worst. His soul craves sardonic disenchantment.

    I rushed back to Stoller, now ready to discuss the film. He listened patiently and with quiet amusement to my enthusiasm. Indeed, this turned out to be our pattern: I, more ignorant but more voluble, would babble on, while he would offer an occasional objection or refinement. It was only by offering up chatter that I could get him to correct my misconceptions and to educate me cinematically.

    This was not yet the era of film appreciation courses. Nor would we have dreamed of taking any offered; it was a point of pride to gather on our own the knowledge of our beloved, semiunderground subject, like the teenage garage-band aficionados of today.

    Stoller introduced me to his friend Nicholas Zill, a film-obsessed sophomore, and we soon became a trio. Zill was a mischievous, intelligent boy of Russian Orthodox background who was given to sudden animated inspirations. The three of us took long walks together in the Columbia neighborhood, leapfrogging in our conversation from one film to another. Once, coming to a dead stop on the sidewalk, Zill asked me in horror, "You mean you haven't seen Diary of a Country Priest?" At such moments I felt like the baby of the group.

    Zill and I both shared a zest for the grotesque, or what has been somewhat ponderously called "convulsive cinema," "the cinema of cruelty." I must say, these predilections were kept to the level of aesthetic appreciation; in our daily lives we were squeamishly decent, even if Zill, a psychology major, seemed to like cutting up rats. Nothing pleased us more than to talk about the beggars' orgy in Viridiana, or the maiming finale in Freaks, or choice bits in Psycho. We would go on in this perverse vein until Stoller was forced to remonstrate (which was probably why we did it). Stoller always championed the humane, the tender, the generous, and domestically observant moviemakers: Renoir, Ophuls, Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, Cukor, Borzage. It was typical for a powerless student like me to be drawn to Bunuelian fantasies of surrealist immorality and Raskolnikovian license. Much rarer was it to find balanced humanity in a nineteen-year-old, like Stoller. If I have come around over the years to his point of view, at the time I was looking for antisocial shivers, sliced eyeballs.

    Nick Zill wanted to make movies — as I suppose we all did — but he went further in imagining bizarre film scenarios. He had already shot a film in high school, I remember it only as a disorganized romp of him chasing pretty girls, or was it pretty girls chasing him? In any case, he had registered an organization called Filmmakers of Columbia with the Campus Activities Office, so as to be able to borrow equipment and accept university funds should one of his projects ever get going. Filmmakers of Columbia existed only on paper; there were no meetings, even the title was pure wish fulfillment. As it happened, there were a number of "isolated" Columbia filmmakers (i.e., not in our circle) around, the most notable being young Brian De Palma. We did not know whether to consider De Palma's hammy experimental shorts like Wotan's Wake intentional or unintentional jokes, but we agreed that he had no future as a film director and that he was not a seriously knowledgeable, rigorous cineaste like ourselves.

* * *

Sometimes I would go over to my friends' rooms and pass the time looking through their film magazine collections. Stills on glossy periodical stock particularly fascinated me. To stare at a shot from Gilda, say, with Rita Hayworth in her sheath dress before a palm-treed nightclub stand, was to enter a fantasy as satisfyingly complete, in its own way, as having seen the movie. A single frame, snatched from twenty-three others per second, is not intended to possess the self-complete wholeness of an art photograph, but for that very reason it evokes more the dream of continuing motion. Stills from the silent era, with their gestural intensity and powder-white ingenues' faces; soft-lit glamour shots from the thirties; the harsh key lighting and seamy locales of the forties — all were infinitely suggestive of the way the reigning fashions, film stock, decor, directorial style, and technology blended to produce a characteristic period image.

    The desultory quality of these browsing sessions showed we were perhaps not so far removed from that age when we'd collected comic books and baseball cards. The point was not to read the articles straight through (one could always go back for that), but to be splashed by a sea of information: film festival roundups, news of film productions, historical rediscoveries. By leafing through these magazines together we shared a mood of sweet latency, imagining the films we had in store, like provincials dreaming of life in the capital. Cinema was a wave originating elsewhere, which we waited to break over us. This waiting had something to do with the nature of adolescence itself; it also reflected the resurgence of European films at the time.

    To be young and in love with films in the early 1960s was to participate in what felt like an international youth movement. We in New York were following and, in a sense, mimicking the cafe arguments in Paris, London and Rome, where the cinema had moved, for a brief historical movement, to the center of intellectual discourse, in the twilight of existentialism and before the onslaught of structuralism.

    In retrospect, I may have undervalued the American studio films of the early sixties. At the time, having just lived through the Eisenhower fifties, I was impatient with what seemed to me the bland industrial style of most Hollywood movies (then symbolized by the much-maligned Doris Day); I could spot Art much more easily in foreign films, with their stylized codes of realism (sex, boredom, class conflict, unhappy endings) and their arty disjunctive texture. It took a certain sophistication, which I did not yet have, to appreciate the ironies behind the smooth-crafted surfaces of the best Hollywood genre movies. Our heroes in the French New Wave explicitly credited Hollywood films with the inspiration for their own personal styles, of course, but I accepted this taste partly as a whimsical paradox on their part without really sharing it, except in the case of rebels like Samuel Fuller or Frank Tashlin, whose shock tactics made them "almost" European.

    Sometimes, instead of studying, I would end up in the film section of the college library poring over books on movies by writers like Bela Balasz, Raymond Spottiswoode, Siegfried Kracauer, Hortense Powdermaker — even their names were irresistible. Or I would struggle through the latest Cahiers du Cinema in the periodicals section. As if my French were not imperfect enough, the Cahiers critics confounded me further with their profundity-mongering style, rarely passing a simple judgment without at the same time alluding to Hegel. I was never sure that I fully understood anything in Cahiers, except for the interviews with salty old Hollywood directors, and the rating system, with stars like a Michelin guide: ** a voir, *** a voir absolument, and a black dot * for abominable.

    Sight and Sound was a breeze in comparison, although I was ashamed to admit to my friends how much I got from the English journal. It was considered stodgy and rearguard, perhaps because it was the official organ of the British Film Institute, but probably more because it took issue with Cahiers du Cinema's auteur line — and we were deeply devoted auteurists. (I am using this term as shorthand for a critical approach recognizing the director as the main artist of a film, and looking at the body of a director's work for stylistic consistencies.)

    I hesitate to raise a last-ditch defense of the auteur theory, so tattered has its flag become in recent years. Suffice to say that I remain loyal to the ideals of my youth. Say what you may against the auteur theory, it was good for adolescents: it gave us a system, and — more important — it gave us marching directions; it encouraged hero worship; it argued for the triumphant signature of selfhood in the face of conformist threats; it made dear distinctions between good and bad; and it blew the raspberry at pious sentiment.

    Andrew Sarris's auteurist breakdown of American directors, which first appeared as a special issue of Film Culture, spring 1963, influenced us deeply partly because of its ruthlessly hierarchical ranking system: Pantheon Directors, Second Line, Likable But Elusive, Esoterica, Less Than Meets the Eye, and that most sinisterly fascinating of categories, Fallen Idols. It was here we learned to curl our lips at respected names like Fred Zinnemann, David Lean and Stanley Kramer — liberal directors whose hearts and themes may have been in the right place but whose earnestly conventional handling of mise en scene seemed unforgivable.

    Ah, mise en scene! That camera style that favored flowing tracking shots and pans, wide angles and continuous takes; that followed characters up staircases and from room to room, capturing with rich detail their surroundings: the unfolding-scroll aesthetic of Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Murnau, Dreyer, Welles, Renoir and Rossellini. Not only did this style seem deeper and more beautiful because it allowed more of a spiritual, contemplative feeling to accumulate than the rapid montage style, it was, if you bought all the arguments (and I did), more ethical. Why? Because it was less "manipulative." It offered the viewer the "freedom" to choose what to pay attention to in a long shot, like a theater spectator, rather than forcing the point with a close-up detail. The deep-focus style could also be seen as sympathetic to a progressive, left-wing political view, because it linked the characters inextricably to their social contexts. In retrospect, some of these claims seem contradictory, a result, perhaps, of the admirable critic Andre Bazin's need to reconcile his own Catholicism and Marxism and film tastes, however farfetched the synthesis. There also seems something curiously puritanical about the austere aesthetic of refraining from making cuts — something finally self-defeating, as well, since movies will always be assembled from pieces of spliced film.

    Nevertheless, I was so impressed by the style of slow cutting that each time a shot, having started to build up a pleasurable suspense in me, was broken by what seemed to me a "premature" cut to change the angle, I would wince, as if personally nicked. Watching television at home with my parents, during a filmed series like Maverick, I would call out the cuts, just to prove my thesis that the editing followed a predictable metronomic pattern of one shot every four seconds or so. Threatened with bodily harm if I kept up this obnoxious routine, I maintained the practice silently in my head.

    It would infuriate me when the Times's critic, Bosley Crowther (our favorite arch-Philistine), based his argument solely on content without saying a word about a film's visual style. How could he reject a film because he found the characters unsympathetic, or because of its "controversial" treatment of violence, organized religion, sexuality? Clearly, the real ethical questions were things like: Why did the director cheat with so many reaction shots? Why that gloopy slowmotion sequence?

    For a certain kind of youth, the accumulation of taste becomes the crucible of self, the battleground on which character is formed. I must mention how much we hated Ingmar Bergman. Although his films had done more than anyone else's to build an audience for art films, his own popularity condemned him in our eyes: he was the darling of the suburbs and the solemn bourgeoisie who ate up the academic symbolism of Wild Strawberries. I once debated a fellow student for six hours because he called The Seventh Seal a great movie. Now I have come to love certain Bergman films (especially the early ones, like Monika and Illicit Interlude), but then, no, impossible. It was precisely because Bergman was so much an auteur, but not "our kind," that he posed such a threat. Like political radicals who reserve their greatest passion for denouncing liberals, we had to differentiate ourselves from the Bergmanites.

    Our man was Godard. His disruptive jump cuts and anarcho-classical sensibility spoke directly to our impatient youth. Belmondo in Breathless was our heroic mouthpiece, whether talking to the camera or lying on the pavement: underneath that fierce hoodlum's exterior we recognized a precocious, wounded film addict. With their cinematic self-referentiality, Godard's films showed me my brothers, those equally unhappy captives of shadows. I confess I also found solace in Godard's portraits of women as either fickle betrayers or masochistic victims, which dovetailed nicely with my own adolescent fears of the opposite sex.

    Even when Godard seemed momentarily to flirt with the Right, this didn't bother me. At the time I was fairly apolitical: one should not confuse the early sixties with the late. By 1968, the students at Columbia would have more important things to argue about than the merits of Gerd Oswald's Screaming Mimi. But in 1960-64, our politics were the politique des auteurs. We looked for our morality in form: "The angles are the director's thoughts; the lighting is his philosophy" (Douglas Sirk).

    It may seem arrogant to identify more with the directorial/camera viewpoint than with the protagonists', but that was precisely what the auteur theory encouraged us to do. Besides, if I could take the position of "I am a camera," this identification had less to do with superiority and more with fear and shyness, that shyness which in adolescence cooks up to pure alienation. If I went to a party, I would pretend to be filming it because I was too timid to approach the girls I liked. In classrooms where the professor droned on, I would escape by thinking, "Where would I place the camera if I were making a documentary of this?" Always my camera would start well back from the action, not only because of a preference for the long-shot aesthetic, but also because I felt so far apart from the vital center of life. Around this time I even had a dream in which I was directing a movie sequence inside a greenhouse: I was sitting behind the camera on a mechanical dolly, and I kept calling for the camera to be pulled farther and farther back, against the technicians' murmured warnings, until finally I crashed through the glass. Had I been perceptive, the dream might have warned me that I was on the edge of losing control; instead, I accepted it as a satisfying omen that I was going to become a film director.

    It is a truism that moviegoing can become a substitute for living. Not that I regret one hour spent watching movies, then or now, since the habit persists to this day, but I would not argue either if someone wanted to maintain that chronic moviegoing often promotes a passivity before life, a detached tendency to aestheticize reality, and, I suppose, a narcissistic absorption that makes it harder to contact others. "Only connect," people were fond of quoting Forster at the time. For me, "connect" meant synchronizing my watch with the film schedules around town.

    Often I would cut classes to catch an afternoon matinee at one of the little art houses in the Carnegie Hall area. Putting my feet up in the half-empty theater during intermission, I would listen in on the conversation of the blue-haired matinee dowagers: "I couldn't make head or tails of that movie the other day!. ... I'm glad you said that. And they don't need to show such explicit stuff onscreen." Many an afternoon I shared with those old ladies, wondering what they were making of the capricious, Hitchcockian 360-degree tracking shots in, say, Chabrol's Leda. Or I would roam around Times Square, up and down 42nd Street (then a mecca of cinema gold, both foreign and domestic), enjoying the reverse chic of seeing a sacred Melville, Franju, Walsh, Losey or Preminger film in such sordid surroundings.

    In retrospect, the mystery to me is, how did I pay for all those movies? Even taking into consideration student discounts, early-bird specials and the fact that movies were so much cheaper then, I must have spent a good part of my food money on tickets. But at least I could keep up with Stoller and Zill.

    Nick Zill had been living in a railroad fiat on West 106th Street, along with three other roommates. Since one of Nick's roommates worked in an art film distribution company, he was able to bring sixteen-millimeter prints home to screen. The first time Nick invited me over for a screening in their living room, I stumbled over bodies and wine bottles to find a space on the floor. The idea of being part of a small, "invited" group watching a bona fide rare movie, Renoir's La Marseillaise, was heaven. I had been infected early on by the mystique of the lost, the rare, the archival film; one had only to advertise a movie as "forgotten" and I could barely stay away. Like an epicure dreaming of delicacies he has never tasted, I would fantasize being elected President just so I could order a screening in the White House den of Visconti's Ossessione (then tied up in litigation) or Eisenstein's Bezhin Meadow, or all of Louise Brooks's films, or that Holy Grail of cineastes, the eight-hour Greed. And here I was, ensconced in a similar lucky place, the very hardness of Nick's wooden floor a mark of privilege. Most of the West 106th Street audience had a less reverential attitude, drawn simply by the lure of a free movie.

    When Nick told me he was moving, and that I could take over his room if I wanted, I jumped at the chance to become a resident member of the West 106th Street film club. Perhaps I should have thought twice about it. In this dilapidated tenement building, which the city has since torn down, the rooms were so dark and closetlike that Zill once used one for a sensory deprivation experiment, locking his younger brother in and covering the windows. My own room looked out on a brick wall, and its only light source was a naked bulb that hung from the ceiling like a noose.

    I mention the squalor of our living conditions because it seems somehow connected to the movie hunger. Not only did the silver screen offer a glamorous escape, it sometimes did just the opposite, held up a black-and-white mirror to our grainy, bleakly uncolorful lives. One found romantic confirmation in the impoverished locations of Italian neorealist and French New Wave pictures. If the hero in Diary of a Country Priest (which I had since seen) could die in a humble room like mine, the shadows forming a cross on the cracked walls above his pallet, then my own barren walls were somehow blessed, poeticized.

    Do what I might, however, I was unable to find more than a few moments a week of daily life charged with that poetic transcendence I had come to expect from the movies. I wanted life to have the economy and double meaning of art. But more often I simply felt torn by a harsh, banal pain that had no cinematic equivalent. As the unhappiness increased, I began, almost in mechanical response, to think of killing myself.

    If I reflect back to what brought on this crisis, I have to admit that it all feels very remote by now; I am no longer the teenager I once was; every cell in my body has since changed, biologically if not cognitively. Still, I can try to piece together the reasons. Some of my pain, I suspect, came from the fact that I had been a "star" in high school, while my first year at Columbia, surrounded by other high school stars, plunged me into such anonymity as to make me misplace all sense of self-worth. Too, I was living on my own for the first time. Though I had run away from home, I think I felt "abandoned" by the ease with which my parents had let me go. They were too financially strapped to help me, and I was wearing myself out at odd jobs while studying full time. In the process I managed to lose forty pounds: a six-footer, I had gone from 165 pounds to a gaunt 125, as though trying to prove, against my own assertions of independence, that I was unable to take care of myself properly. Malnutrition may have affected my mental outlook more than I realized; in any event, I began to feel utterly hopeless and tired with life. I saw patterns of despair everywhere: in the street, in the sky. The arguing and drug taking of my roommates filled me with distress, contempt and self-contempt for failing to forgive them. The urge to destroy myself took on an autonomous momentum and ironclad logic of its own. In retrospect, I was suffering from a kind of disease of logic, predicated on an overestimation of my reasoning powers; another way of putting it is that I was living entirely in my head.

    Some of my unhappiness had to do with virginity. I was unable to break through to women — not only sexually but on all levels — to ask them for the least human companionship. Going to Columbia (an all-male school at the time), and immersed in this milieu of latent homosexuality, which was threatening my identity in its own way, I was frightened of women yet filled with yearning for them. It pained me even to see lovers taking liberties on the screen. Movies, saturated with the sensual, mocked me by their constant reminder that I was only a spectator.

    At the same time, movies helped push me deeper into a monastic avoidance of the body. In the cinematic postulant, there is an ascetic element that exists, paradoxically, side by side with the worship of beauty: a tendency to equate the act of watching a film with praying. One day I was at my job at the library, cataloguing book slips, when, light-headed with overwork and lack of sleep, I heard someone address me from behind. 'Are you a Benedictine?" I turned around and no one was there. It seemed I had had an auditory hallucination, but even if I had merely overheard a scrap of conversation, I was spooked by the sense that someone was mocking me, unmasking my shameful monkish nature.

    In Godard's Masculin-Feminin there is a scene with the hero, Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud), sitting in a movie theater watching a Swedish film. On the sound track are his thoughts: "This wasn't the film we'd dreamed of. This wasn't the total film that each of us carried within himself ... the film that we wanted to make or, more secretly, no doubt, that we wanted to live." Paul's confusion between movies and reality, his yearning for an alternate existence, his absorption of all the social distress and pain around him and his inability to connect with women, driving his chic girlfriend away with his gloomy overseriousness, add up to the fate of many Godard heroes: suicide. Unless I am mistaken, suicide was in the air, in the cinematic culture of the early sixties; perhaps it was no more than a facile narrative solution for movies made by young men who were fond of indulging their existential self-pity. In any event, I fell right in with the mood.

    Between screenings of Vigo's L'Atalante and Zero de Conduite at West 106th Street, I told my older brother that I was thinking of killing myself. Distressed, he counseled patience, but it was too late to listen. Vigo's dream of a man and a woman drifting down the Seine in a houseboat, touching each other, seemed insultingly unreachable.

    A few nights later I swallowed twenty sleeping pills with the aid of a quart of Tropicana orange juice. I had already written a suicide note with quotes from Paul Goodman and Freud — I can laugh at it now — and I lay down to die in my sleep. But stomach pains kept me awake: the beef stew I had eaten earlier at Columbia's dining hall (it is that wretched institutional food I have to thank for being alive today) and the acidic orange juice refused to digest. After an hour's uncomfortable attempt to ignore the stomach and think easeful, morbid thoughts, I leaned over the side of my bed and vomited — whole chunks of beef stew and carrots in a pool of orange juice. Then I called out to my roommates and told them what I had done. They rushed me to St. Luke's Hospital, where my stomach was pumped — so unpleasant but revivifying an experience that when the resident asked me in the middle of it why I had tried to do myself in, I was unable to think of a single reply. I stayed in the hospital's psychiatric ward for two weeks.

    The afternoon I was released, my brother met me at the hospital and we went straight downtown to see a double bill at the Bleecker Street Cinema: Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory. Still movie-hungry after a two-week drought — or else piggishly overindulgent, like a tonsillitis patient demanding all the ice cream he can eat — I insisted we race uptown to see Zazie dans le Metro, the Malle film that Stoller had praised in a recent review. What an orgy! I had gotten suicide out of my system, but not cinema.

    I must backtrack a little. Before the suicide attempt, at the beginning of my sophomore year, Stoller, Zill and I had agreed that Filmmakers of Columbia should run its own film series at the college, both to show movies we wanted to see and to raise money for future productions. Zill had surprised me by proposing that I be made president of the organization. Granted, his fear of being held fiscally responsible for our new venture may have had something to do with offering me this honor, but I accepted it with pride.

    We began sending away for film rental catalogues and, when they arrived, poring over them like kids let loose in a candy store. We were free to order any movie we wanted to see, provided it was available in sixteen millimeter — and provided we occasionally considered commercial factors. It might be interesting, for instance, to rent all of the Brandon catalogue's Eastern European arcana, but if nobody came to Ghetto Terezin or Border Street, we would still have to shell out the seventy-five dollars' rental. The decision was made to balance our schedule with obscurities like Griffith's Abraham Lincoln and Border Street on the one hand, and moneymakers like Hitchcock's Notorious and Rock Around the Clock on the other. We booked the films, wrote the blurbs, ground out a flyer and held our breaths.

    Nick called me at the hospital, unable to believe, among other things, that I had attempted suicide two weeks before the opening of our Filmmakers of Columbia series. Shouldn't that have been enough to live for? No, I insisted stubbornly. Nevertheless, I got swept up immediately and fortunately into the venture, making business phone calls from the psychiatric ward while Zill and Stoller ran around town distributing flyers.

    The first night of the film series drew a sellout crowd for Kurosawa's Drunken Angel and Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (a homoerotic short that had not been seen in New York for many years). I was so excited counting the money we made that I couldn't watch the movies. The next day, the dean called me into his office and told me he had heard about Fireworks, and to "keep it clean from now on."

    A happier period began for me. Stoller introduced me to a woman named Abby, and we started going out together. Though the affair lasted only three months, it served its purpose. I also began writing film reviews for the Columbia Daily Spectator and stories for Columbia Review, the literary magazine, and no longer felt so neglected on campus. Moreover, the film series was a big hit, and was to continue successfully for years — helping to put me through college, in fact. Susan Sontag, who was then a religion professor at Columbia and already a force in the New York cultural life — especially to us cineastes — gave her blessing to the series by periodically attending. Stoller and Zill gradually withdrew from the activity, although they continued to offer programming suggestions. And Jim Stoller provided one of our most memorable evenings by agreeing, after lengthy persuasion, to play piano behind Pabst's The Love of Jeanne Ney; it was a treat to see him overcome his compulsive modesty and perform in public.

    We were all waiting impatiently for the sequel to L'Avventura. La Notte was said to feature a dream cast of Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti. Meanwhile, the art theaters kept our excitement at a boil by showing some of Antonioni's early films, like Il Grido and Le Amiche, which only deepened our admiration for our own "Michelangelo."

    By the time the first ads appeared announcing the premiere of La Notte, I had worked myself into such a fit of anticipation that my unconscious mind jumped the gun: I began dreaming, for several nights in a row, preview versions of La Notte. When I finally saw it, the film became a normal extension of my dream life. Several of us went on opening night, waiting in line for an hour for tickets. I was with Carol Bergman, a Barnard girl whom I'd fallen in love with (and would marry a year later), and I held her throughout the film, perhaps undercutting the full impact of Antonioni's despondent message. It was great to see an Antonioni movie through the comfortable bifocals of being in love; when one is happy, one can look at both comedy and tragedy with equanimity.

    Primed to adore La Notte, I did. Especially the ending, with the camera pulling away from Moreau and Mastroianni groping each other desperately in the lush grass at dawn. We left the theater quoting the Master's latest koan: "Sometimes beauty can lead to despair."

    It was Jim Stoller, as usual, who saw problems with Antonioni's new direction before the rest of us did. After voicing objections, in his La Notte review, about the "sloppily paced" party sequence, the "leaden and insistent" symbolism, and the academic "discontinuous editing" in the walk sequence which was "used to develop a series of explicit, one-to-one meanings as in Eisenstein," Stoller went on to raise a more telling objection. Antonioni, he felt, had stacked the cards by denying any reference to a worthy model of behavior, any "point worth aspiring to," if only in the past, and any real engagement between the characters.

    Of course I disagreed at the time, finding Stoller's demand sentimental. More to the point, this was disloyalty! I tried to argue him out of his position. But the words "card stacking" continued to roll uneasily around my brain.

    My own disappointment with Antonioni came later with Blow-Up, though that derived partly from a misunderstanding, having wrongly elevated him to the level of philosopher in the first place. I had followed the lead of the press, which trumpeted his every quote as a weighty pronouncement: "Eroticism the Disease of the Age: Antonioni." Even his interview silences were reported as evidence of deep thought. It was partly the burden placed on Antonioni to be the oracle of modernity that forced him into ever more schematic conceptions. When his subsequent films exhibited signs of trendy jet-setting, hippie naivete, and sheer woolly-headedness — even if the visuals remained stunning — I, like many of his fans, felt betrayed. It took me years to figure out that most film directors are not systematic thinkers but artistic opportunists. Maybe thanks to Coppola, Cimino & Company, we have reached a more realistic expectation of directors today; we are more used to the combination of great visual style with intellectual incoherence. But at the time we looked to filmmakers to be our novelists, our sages.

    Film enjoyed as never before (or since) the prestige of high culture. English professors with whom I had difficulty making office appointments would stumble across my legs in Cinema 16 showings; they would interrupt themselves in class to gush about a movie; they would publish essays comparing Resnais's ordering of time to Proust's.

    The euphoria and prestige that surrounded films in the early sixties seem, in retrospect, deserved. The French New Wave — Godard, Truffaut, Varda, Chabrol, Rivette, Resnais, Malle, Rohmer — had all burst on the American scene at once; Antonioni, Visconti, Rossellini, Fellini, Bunuel, Bergman, Welles, Minnelli, Satyajit Ray, Wajda, Losey, Torte Nilsson and the Brazilian Cine Novo group were already operating in high gear; the New American Underground of Brakhage, Mekas, Warhol, Anger etc. was in its heroic phase; and the lingering activity of such old masters as Renoir, Dreyer, Ford, Hawks, Lang, Hitchcock and Ozu provided a sort of benign historical link to the golden age of silent cinema. A whole apparatus had sprung up to support this moviemaking renaissance; the art-house circuit, new movie journals, museum and university studies, and, like a final official seal of legitimacy, the establishment of the New York Film Festival.

    I covered that first New York Film Festival in 1963 for the Columbia Daily Spectator. The air at Lincoln Center on opening night was alive with high hopes, with the conviction that we were entering a fat time for movies. Everyone, from dignitary to hungry film buff, seemed grateful to the ones who had given us a film festival; New York City was finally linked with Europe.

    It was a banner year. The festival premieres included Bunuel's Exterminating Angel; Olmi's The Fiances; Polanski's Knife in the Water; Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon; Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc; Resnais's Muriel; Losey's The Servant; Rocha's Barravento; Mekas's Hallelujah the Hills; Marker's Le Joli Mai; Kobayashi's Harakiri; ROGOPAG by Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and Gregoretti; Blue's The Olive Trees of Justice; De Antonio's Point of Order; and Melville's Magnet of Doom. There were also first-shown retrospectives of the uncut Ophuls's Lola Montes, Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, Kurosawa's I Live in Fear. At the time, I did not appreciate what an unusually fortunate confluence of circumstances was reigning in the cinematic heavens; I thought it would go on forever with the same incandescence.

    At college, I was still struggling with the question of whether to become a writer or a filmmaker. While writing came easily to me, I felt I had to try to make my own movie. I could not remain always a sponge for others' celluloid visions. So I adapted one of my short stories to a screenplay, took the profits from the film series, and gathered volunteer actors and technicians.

    Orson Welles once said that Citizen Kane succeeded because he didn't know what could or couldn't be done in motion pictures. I wish to report that my movie didn't work for the same reason. I chose an impossibly complicated scheme: three unreliable narrators in the space of a twenty-minute film. Completed in my senior year, 1964, Saint at the Crossroads was "over two years in the making": in addition to the usual problems with a tiny budget and a volunteer crew — camera leaks, personality clashes, absenteeism, inappropriate weather — the fancy synch-sound equipment we had rented for the dialogue scenes failed to synchronize. Sound was our undoing; in the end we had to rent a dubbing studio. The visuals, however, were very pretty, largely due to my cameraman, Mark Weiss, who alone on the set knew what he was doing. There was an obligatory Antonioniesque sequence in Riverside Park where boy and girl, walking together, grow farther apart with each shot. They reach the pier where an elaborate tracking shot surrounds them as they kiss, then shows each looking away moodily at the water. ...

    I stayed up all night with the sound man to do a final mix, rushing to complete the film for its scheduled premiere. We finally got the mix done at eight o'clock Saturday morning — just in time for me to grab a taxi to my job as a weekend guard at the Metropolitan Museum. As the cab approached the museum, I looked out, blinking my eyes in the morning light, and saw Susan Sontag and three men in tuxedos, laughing with champagne glasses in their hands as they tripped around the fountain. Right out of Last Year at Marienbad.

    Saint at the Crossroads premiered at Columbia, paired with Fellini's Il Bidone. Many of the exiting spectators were heard to remark "The sound was a problem," then lower their voices as they saw the filmmaker standing by. Once more Stoller came to the rescue, salving the pain with a positive review of Saint at the Crossroads in the Spectator. Admitting there were some "technical infelicities and rather disorienting violations of film grammar," he went on with a friend's partisan eye to discover "some very considerable achievements. If Lopate continues making films — as he should — he will soon, or next, give us something of surprising originality and power." No thanks: I had had my fun; I would become a writer. It was easier and cheaper to control pens and paper than actors. Besides, I could not stand the prospect of again disappointing so many volunteers because of my inexperience. Making that one twenty-minute film had taught me the enormous difference between having an aesthetic understanding of film and being confronted with the demands of transferring three dimensions into two on an actual set.

    Gershom Scholem once characterized youth movements by their chatter, as distinguished from true language: "Youth has no language. That is the reason for its uncertainty and unhappiness. It has no language, which is to say its life is imaginary and its knowledge without substance. Its existence is dissolved past all recognition into a complex flatness." I am not sure I agree, even looking back with memory's foreshortened lens, that this period of my youth was complexly flat; it seems in some ways to have been unusually rich. But certainly we had no real perspective, which is why we called on movies to be our language and our knowledge, our hope, our romance, our cause, our imagination and our life.

Table of Contents



Anticipation of La Notte: The “Heroic” Age of Moviegoing
The First New York Film Festival—1963
Three on a Couch: Jerry Lewis Adjusts
Contempt: The Story of a Marriage
Antonioni’s Cronaca
Diary of a Country Priest
: Films as Spiritual Life
Fassbinder’s Despair


The Operatic Realism of Luchino Visconti
The World According to Makavejev
Fourteen Koans by a Levite on Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ
Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door
David Lynch’s Wild at Heart
Kenji Mizoguchi
The Legacy of John Cassavetes
A Taste for Naruse
Sidney Lumet, or The Necessity for Compromise
The Experimental Films of Warren Sonbert
Three Ozu Films from the Fifties


The Passion of Pauline Kael
The Gallant Andrew Sarris
The Last Taboo: The Dumbing Down of American Movies
In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film
When Writers Direct
The Images of Children in Film
The 32nd New York Film Festival
Interview with Abbas Kiarostami
Was It a Montage for You, Too, My Dear?


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