Savoring the “Cinematical” Cord

“The Tree of Life” (Malick, 2011) and its lyrical musings on birth, life, and death.

The womb is the womb. Acceptance and recognition. This is the place which birthed us X or Y years ago.

A cave is the womb. The stone temples of ancient Egypt. Sifting and snaking through columns and crevices, recreating the physical mystique of this primordial pouch.

Things to represent it, things reproduced in its likeness. You must accept that this is where life begins.

It’s funny, then, that over the course of my academic career I would spent countless hours studying cinema. Why? It’s inevitable that at some point during a stuffy film lecture from a “seasoned” (or garnished and overcooked, dry crusts and all?) professor, you’ll hear them boldly equate some element of the medium to sex. What follows is usually the class’ collective “inner vomit,” filling the room with a pungent awkwardness and bitter aftertaste boasting hints of multiple “I just thought of Dr. Anderson’s wrinkly balls.”

But as awful as imagining unsexy people’s sexy exploits always will be, one of the most beautiful things I harvested from the impossibly pretentious film studies crop is the ability to recognize the almighty power of the symbol. From the basis of “Introduction to Film” all the way to “Advanced Film Seminar,” the filmgoer’s experience is constantly likened to that of a fetus’ engagement with the outside world from the womb.

One of the most beautiful comparisons came in the Spring of 2012. Marcia Landy, an accomplished academic and author in the film studies community, helmed the capstone course of the University of Pittsburgh’s film program from the head of a long wooden table, uncomfortably shoved into a tiny nook of a classroom on the Cathedral of Learning’s fourth floor. The room was about forty feet long and fifteen feet wide. Pipes and other structural framework poked out from every crack and corner on the ceiling, the windows blacked out with thick matted paper. This was a room where light was unwelcomed; a submarine quarter with a crew of fifteen students huddled around the table, our captain sitting focused and rigid at the head of the table. She was a small woman with a delicate frame. Her style and stature begged us to make jokes about Edith Head cheating death as she sat before us. Her eyes danced around to each of us as we performed standard introductions, a gaze which burned her genuine interest (albeit blank expression) into our skulls. We finished. Her eyes shifted around the room, making sure we knew she was going to connect her carefully-chosen words with our solitary surroundings.

“Welcome to the womb. Birthing ideas, that’s what we’re here for.”

As ridiculous as the comparison sounds, you can’t help but appreciate cinema’s likeness to the flux and flow of life. Its key defining moments throughout history have only, for lack of better words, birthed new schools of thought, consumption, and pure indulgence. Méliès and Godard, postmodern flair and avant garde innovation, Wilder and Hawks, Tarantino and Herzog…minds and movements spring forth from an ooze, a fetal framework set in motion so many years before. The medium as a whole is a child itself, growing, evolving, expanding beyond its humble beginnings as a cheap, disposable art which critics looked upon as a mere passing fad.

A fad which grew because we chose to expand it. Unlike a child, it is not inherently programmed to blossom on its own. It can’t develop its mind, it can’t write a poem, a song, or fall in love for the first time; it is dependent on our experiences and what we choose to do with them to make its transition from childhood to adolescence. The beauty is that it will never grow old. Will never die, will never leave its loved ones with a void they will try to fill for the rest of their lives.

I didn’t know it then, but when I was fresh from the womb myself (maybe a year or two old?), a void was filled to the brim. I was petrified. Fear, the governing emotion of the day, took hold of my hand and thrust it into my grandmother’s as she coaxed me into the theater. It was a re-release of “Snow White,” playing mid-afternoon at a theater that’s no longer there. She towered over me, protective, watchful, holding me close as we moved closer to the bright lights at the end of this mysterious tunnel I’d only “seen” once prior in a hospital room. I didn’t want to. I really didn’t want to. But she made it OK.

Another inch, both of us still standing in the middle of the aisle.

I welcomed comfort as I felt her hands on mine, her encouraging whispers filled my ears with loving disregard for the other sets in the room that were trying to hear the film, not her.

Another inch.

Was it the darkness? The bright light from the screen? The uncertainty of what lies within either one?  The inexperience of having to think of these things as a child with an undeveloped sense of the world?

Another inch. A few more this time.

Forty-five minutes later, half the movie over, and my grandmother’s patience not a hair thinner than it was upon entry, we sat down. And from that moment, I fell in love. A love was consummated, giving life to a passion that exists to this day.

I thank my grandmother for giving me that. If it weren’t for her (or my dad, mother, and pretty much everyone else in my family) forcing me into things as a child, I don’t think I’d have such intense passions for anything I’m, well, passionate about. It was a birth in itself, pushing and inching which gave way to a new entity that still grows and evolves with me as I grew. Went to school. Graduated college.

There were periods when the passion became routine. During the later parts of my furthered education, film became a chore. A weekly paper. A monthly exam. But I guess every child goes through the difficult stages. I was eating up thousands of my parent’s dollars as this was going on. Munched away at savings like film snacked on my sanity.

But alas, social maturity in college affords us other exploits. And, hand in hand, I learned that films are like one night stands; the bad ones forgotten, the good ones savored, the great ones growing into relationships spanning eternity. As sex is a natural part of the human evolutionary process, a passion is a similar byproduct of yourself, a child that never leaves your side (but also doesn’t bitch about wanting a pair of ‘cool kid’ jeans).

As I position myself as a college graduate, these sorts of experiences are all I have to go forward. I see the other students clamoring into their dorms, nervous about whom their professors will be. Whether they’ll like their roommate. If they’ll still talk to their best friend from high school three years from now. Leaving the “little kid” inside them at home, where they’ll revisit here and there. A new life, a rebirth.

For though I am childless, I wield my passions like a tiara-clad toddler dancing around onstage in that hooker outfit from “Pretty Woman.” I am scared now, approaching my new life as a “real” person. The previous 22 years (I tell everyone I’m 19 at parties) mean well, bidding my childhood goodbye and pushing me out into the cold hands of Dr. Life.

Inching closer to the light, holding my grandmother’s hand.

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