My mom spent a night with Nicolas then-Coppola a decade before I was born. Yet that historical, immortalised, hidden moment seemed to frame my life – for better or for worse. It’s inevitable growing up in California to have some brush with celebrity, but my mother’s story of living out the club scene from Valley Girl with its main star made me obsessed with the men who make movies.
I don’t remember how old I was when I saw my first film. They were always there in my life, with weekly Wednesday Blockbuster visits for a handful of DVDs and oversized pastel-coloured gumballs, two at a time. From Bowfinger to Jaws (a film that single-handedly prompted my shift from baths to showers at age six for fear of a shark suddenly materialising in the tub), I was taught by my father what classics were. We communicated through film – any argument was resolved by watching something, a place where we could silently sit and reflect, or use the characters as surrogates for our own resolutions. My dad taught me that the point of movies to see yourself in them; my mom taught me the best parts of life come from being as close to the big screen as possible.
But for me, early on, the purpose of movies was to see what I was missing, and that at the time was someone other than my parents to love.
Like most, I discovered my first crush through film. I played my mom’s Grease vinyl constantly to the point of memorisation after witnessing John Travolta’s feminine beauty and glistening blue eyes that stared right into my seven year-old heart. I was confused why Sandy had to become like him, but also relieved when Danny Zuko finally took off that hideous letterman jacket. I used to kiss the record cover and block off Olivia Newton-John’s seemingly much older face. She was nice, but Danny was mine.
I moved further into the 80s with John Hughes, longing for my own turn at being in high school. My mom used to half-joke that she named my brother and me after Sixteen Candles, and I thought my high school years would be like some version of Pretty in Pink if I shopped at the right vintage stores. Once in upper school and realising how nothing really changed, I used to journal with such conviction: “there is no such thing as a John Hughes high school” as though I had proven the Bible to be inaccurate.
I learned how people interact through film, studying the fashion, movements, slight facial contours of the actors. I believed movies to be historical sociological artefacts, a time capsule of how things once were while still capturing the immortal essence of what life truly is. I used to tell people when I was little that I wanted to be a movie director and act in my own movies. Why? “So then I could tell the actor ‘no, kiss me THIS way’ and then show them how.” That little tidbit always got laughs with my parents’ friends, much like the career aspiration itself. Yet when people would ask what adjectives best described me, I’d reference TV characters – Hannah, Gretchen, Veronica, Joan. But even then I couldn’t limit myself to solely female characters; it was Don whom I empathised with the most.
To me, inevitable adulthood was dependent on becoming a larger-than-life character, a movie-level role. I too thought television was a stepping stone to the big screen. Someday I would be worthy. Even still it’s hard for me to see myself as a full-fledged film heroine, mainly because my earliest exposure to femininity was in grand sweeping older movies – Sabrina, All About Eve – paired with modern cryptic takes, like Before Sunrise or Mean Girls (what? I saw it at a formative age). The nightly comforting consumption of Friends and Sex and the City reruns became my main influences for how women were supposed to act. TV was more relatable and easier to emulate. I couldn’t help but wonder, why did teenage girls have to remain caricatures or on the fringe in film?
There was always a distant catch-up game to female film characters. It was the next step, a foreign being to morph into later. Movies became a guidebook for the next step in my life, even for possible professions. I’m not ashamed to admit that Jenna Rinks’ high-powered flashy job as a magazine editor prompted my own Marie Claire-like fantasies. My eventual work ethic was also crafted by film to an extent; I found very little wrong with Miranda Priestly’s treatment of Andy. She was her personal assistant after all.
Yet I was most curious about the emotive sexuality of film. At age seven, I didn’t realise that was the term when I yearned to find a greaser of my own. I did know a few years later that Ryan Gosling’s quivering eyes held a deeper level of tormented sadness, prompting a maternal urge to comfort and possess. I did not objectify Gosling as I had Danny Zuko. Instead, I wanted to take care of him while he took care of me. The Notebook was the first movie I ever cried at. I saw it on an airplane, before the miniature screens were taken away for the sake of profit margins. I was seated next to my mom and we held hands when he took the elderly Allie’s.
Blue Valentine seemed to be the epilogue for the rash Noah, and the sentimental sadness of Dean elevated the depressed romance into an honest struggle. But to me that was romance– no great love story lacked pain. I later found a Gosling of my own with those same furrowed eyes, an elusive drummer in a punk band who hung out at the local cafe, writing short stories with a pen weighted down by large gold vintage skull rings. He took me away as soon as I saw him; I had discovered my own celebrity. He was the embodiment of all I sought, an escape from the constricting small California town, forever sunny, that I grew up in. He brought the darkness that I needed.
The first time we were intimate was after screening After Hours. I wasn’t a fan of the movie, mainly because of how distracted I was, and after we abandoned the film a third of the way through, I felt for a long time that I shouldn’t revisit it for fear of tainting the memory. As we retreated to my room, he directed me in the scene where I seemed to watch myself as I learned, tilting my head to capture a new angle or detail of each movement. The point was to please the director, and I liked that.
He would make lists of movies for me to see, “homework” he teased, loving our age difference: Anti-Christ, Gomorrah, The Three Colours Trilogy. I had never heard of any of them but watched, took notes, and returned to debate. At the time, a high schooler dating a college student was the kind of scandal both of us feared and relied on; that excitement was the extra layer that thrusted us into the perfection forbidden for reality, reserved only to remain confined to the silver screen.
We would mostly speak of movies or writing, and later sneak away for midnight screenings of whatever was in theatres, from Baumbach to Luhrmann, on weeknights in his white Volvo. The last date we had to see Vertigo at the vintage theatre downtown culminated in our own spiralling downfall. Even after reconciling, it wasn’t the same storyline. It had been tainted.
My affair with Scorsese inevitably lasted longer than my relationship with the drummer. I moved through each of his films, interviews, books. I couldn’t decide which movie of his was my favourite, but he felt like family to me, with De Niro’s performances mirroring my grandfather’s old school mannerisms. When my grandpa died, I, alone in a distant Southern state, stole a bottle of Smirnoff from the frat party I was at, and immediately watched Goodfellas on a random futon, locking a stranger’s dorm room door. I did a shot every time “wise guys” was said; after the first six, I stopped and just cried, staring at de Niro’s pinky ring, hearing that voice, and knowing this was how I could say goodbye.
That same freshman year, I took a “Porn as Film” class, in part to report back to the distant drummer. My professor, a gay man who had ties to the industry, taught that the truest work can only be born from real encounters. Through traditionally ‘low’ film, I learned the blocking of bodies, the implication of camera placement, and how – at least according to my professor – there is always a power dynamic in every scene. He claimed the course was really about psychoanalysis, using 70s and 80s “classic” genre films to demonstrate in the most carnal way the true intention of human relations. I was obsessed with that reading; it seemed the most alive.
The following week after my grandfather died, out of boredom and familial drama fatigue, I “went all the way” with a boy I had met only once prior. It was mid-afternoon and I was invited over to watch Four Rooms which I genuinely hated, so when he suggested we turn it off I accepted. At that point I knew what was going to happen. I only began to feel comfortable after seeing the Pulp Fiction poster hanging above his dorm room bed. Tarantino’s better film and bloodied banter would look after me. Turns out in a more literal way than expected: I got a bloody nose mid-way through the encounter, á la Lady Bird although years prior to its Academy nod. When later watching Saoirse Ronan’s turn as a frustrated teen, I didn’t understand why the film was so well-received; it was just like normal life for me. There wasn’t anything marvellous in that.
I never talked to that guy again. Movies told me I should feel ashamed for having a one-night stand for my big life event, but to me, the experience was devoid of emotion anyway.
It wasn’t until watching Booksmart in May 2019 that I felt transported back to the era of entangled romance where I took films literally. Looking back, as I play those moments to the movie soundtrack I’ve curated, I know that’s the real love story– between friends, between my own past and future. The boys were just the background, all part of the same storyline, a rotation of influences and faces. Now a staggering two years and one pandemic later, this spring feels lighter, more romantic still. It took a female director to show that to me, to remind me of a youth that only women really know – an era where dancing with a rising actor feels just as alive as walking down the halls of a high school.
Between those decades ebbing with uncertainty, I grew up on movies and eventually grew into them, finding my own cinematic beauty of myself. As Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever dives into the pool in the climactic scene, looking up and seeing herself in the reflection, director Olivia Wilde captures what we’re all hoping to swim back to: the moment before it’s gone. It’s nice to find it again.
by Samantha Bergeson
Sam can’t stop thinking (and talking and writing and ranting…) about her personal experiences with film. She’s just as comfortable watching a Razzie-nominated movie as an Oscar winner, and can debate the merits of both Clueless and Casino any day. Find Sam live-tweeting about reality TV and her obsession with dogs on Twitter at @sbergrig.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, Films
I loved your essay. It is truly comforting to this cinephile. You are indeed lucky to have grown up with parents such as yours, who moulded your love for the medium like no other.
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