Something happens to us when we try to come to terms with formative experience. Some of us can articulate what constitutes the turning point in our lives. Some slip into reverie. Some are forced to acknowledge that there’s nothing more ineffable than the things that set fire to our imagination. Can something that blows your mind be analyzed? Does the fact that it blows your mind not preclude the inability to do just that? These questions haunt The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark (Chicago Review Press, $18.95). They give you some idea of what works and what doesn’t in this book of transcribed interviews conducted and edited by Robert K. Elder.
Some of the selections in The Film That Changed My Life are genuinely surprising, such as Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce on The Godfather, or, most interestingly, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney on Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Gibney tells a nice story about his brief correspondence with Buñuel, and goes some distance toward explaining how he was influenced by Buñuel’s cryptic surrealist techniques while commenting on the intermediary walking scenes in Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: “It’s like finding some random shot as a documentarian, and throwing it in there because it has some kind of power you can’t quite identify.” Elsewhere, The Last Seduction director John Dahl recalls seeing A Clockwork Orange at a drive-in in Billings, Montana. “It was the first time I paid attention to the sets,” he says, which probably tells us something about the cinema of Stanley Kubrick.
Many choices however, especially those from directors with a large and familiar body of work, are more predictable—and why wouldn’t they be? And who can blame Peter Bogdanovich if he doesn’t have anything especially fresh to say about Citizen Kane? 8 1/2 changed Henry Jaglom’s vocation from actor to director. Richard Kelly believes that “We get closer to Brazil with each passing week.” Danny Boyle declares Apocalypse Now “a celebration of the destruction as well as a condemnation of its subject matter.” Boyle laments the loss of the sort of quixotic ambitions that could drive a film during Francis Ford Coppola’s salad days. He also claims cinema is fundamentally a medium designed for young men, which I probably tells us something about the cinema of Danny Boyle.
I wondered soemtimes if The Film That Changed My Life mightn’t have been better as a series of magazine pieces. Some of Elder’s choices of interviewees might have seemed less puzzling in that context. (Bill Condon? Brian Hertzlinger?) It also might have forced him to be a more judicious editor. There are numerous repetitions that sound fine in conversation but in print read as mere redundancy. There’s also a lack of spontaneity in some pieces that I can only assume arises from Elder’s insistence on using same questions every time out, whether or not they go anywhere. The best interviews in here are the ones that seem to indulge tangents—that’s when Elder’s subjects, as well as Elder himself, really engage and come to life.
I’m happy to report that two of the very best interviews are with Canadians, and I take comfort in knowing that both directors in question discovered the movie that changed their life while channel-surfing late at night for glimpses of accidentally uncensored nudity (something I myself have experienced—is this a Canadian thing?). Had he never seen L’âge d’or, Guy Maddin, a man not adverse to hyperbole, claims that he would have never picked up a camera. “It’s just a love story,” Maddin says, “every bit as surreal as a love story deserves to be.” Atom Egoyan meanwhile is extremely sharp about Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, describing its sculptural qualities, how it emphasized the friction in language and the role of the listener. He also says one thing in particular that nearly sums up the entire book: “We are never more alive, I think, as when we are trying to ascertain our relationship to something which is completely mysterious to us.”