Movies and Life

A good friend once asked me rhetorically whether there was anything in my life that I had not learned from the movies. He didn’t mean it to encompass literally everything of course. I took it rather to refer to the question of individual behavior, comportment, attitude, manners, habits—in a word, style. Not in the sense of fashion, but rather all that sets one person apart from another and the way those differences are manifest, from yes, the clothes we wear, to dealing with misfortune, to every detail in between.

My friend’s question has stuck with me, not just because it forced me to recognize a fairly fundamental aspect of my life, but because it was something so obvious that other people picked up on it. (Recently, someone I don’t even know all that well made much the same observation.)

In some ways, there is nothing remarkable about admitting that the movies have influenced a choice of sunglasses, or our selection in a restaurant. Cigarette smoking is just the most flagrant example of questionable behavior induced by the romance of the movies. It goes further for me, however, as I have to admit that I do my best to live my life as if it were a work of art. (Nietzsche, anyone?) Not obsessively, but regularly enough to recognize the behavior as, shall we say, unusual? Of course, it’s impossible, as Cary Grant once remarked that even Cary Grant was not Cary Grant. Still, it’s understandable.

Several unrelated but relevant occurrences motivated this entry. The image above is a production still from my film Thank You, Max (1986). The one below is a picture (since deleted) that I uploaded to Facebook to use as a cover photo. When I first uploaded it, Nick D’Arienzo, the star of Max, commented on the “exquisite mise-en-scène,” of the photo, a phrase similar to a reaction from a third party to the film. I wrote back that all we needed was a talking computer—his antagonist in Max.

There you have a neat example of what I’m getting at: the movies give me a sense of how the world should look and behave. Those ideas shape my films which then provide the experience to structure my life. Even my academic career to a large extent resulted from what I call the “production design impulse,” in which the world gets treated as one big set to be designed, dressed, occupied and dramatized, before moving on to something else. This is not interior design or decoration in the strict sense because it is structured not by utility or display, but by an integration of both into a way of life, or better, a way of living, just as the production design of a film is subordinated to the demands of a particular script, centered on the tastes and habits of the characters.

Good, bad or merely idiosyncratic, I only know it works for me. Meanwhile, I have created a video series at YouTube dedicated to this topic.