Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Highways, Deja Vu, and Randomness

Late last year, I was driving through Indianapolis. I just happened to be driving in a part of town I hadn't been to in a decade or so. In fact, I wasn't even yet sure if I had seen this particular part of town before, but it was a major stretch (Michigan Ave.), through an area (NW Indy) that I had known pretty well, so I assumed I had.

There was a weird moment of deja vu as I approached the intersection of Michigan and 71st. Suddenly, I realized I had been here before. Something told me there was a Taco Bell coming up on the left--and sure enough, there it was.

Why does this matter?

In the spring of 1997, I was driving back to the west side, where I lived and worked, from the Castleton Arts Theatre (now demolished). I had just seen a double-feature of Kissed and Hard Eight.

I had gone to see Kissed. But once it was over, I didn't feel like driving back home yet, and so I decided to catch another movie (this wasn't uncommon, as I saw a lot of movies at the Castleton Arts Theatre back then--in retrospect, it was where my more traditional brand of cinephilia first developed).

All I knew of Hard Eight was that Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel Jackson were in it. That seemed good enough for me. I did not think of it as PT Anderson's first film. I didn't even know who PT Anderson was--approximately seven months later, with the release of Boogie Nights (1997), everyone would know who he was.

I was blown away by Hard Eight. But I took special joy in the idea that I had "discovered" it by accident. And that I had "discovered" PT Anderson long before Boogie Nights and Magnolia would later make him famous.

I loved the taut neo-noir-ishness of the story. And I was captivated largely by Phillip Baker Hall's face. It seemed like someone had found the older William Holden again.

Secretly, I loved Hard Eight more than Boogie Nights or Magnolia. I appreciated the minimalism of it more than the artistic and melodramatic excesses of the latter two. It was only with Punch-Drunk Love that I found a PT Anderson film I loved more.

I think its because Punch Drunk Love managed to balance what I loved the most about PT's entire body of work--the narrative and character-driven minimalism of Hard Eight with the non-sensical and creative excess of Boogie Nights and Magnolia (a confession--as much as I love PT overall, I always find myself fighting a begrudging, even reluctant, admiration, and ultimately even ambivalent feelings towards Magnolia).

But I think I also held Hard Eight in higher regard for years afterwards because I held on so long to that memory of stumbling upon it--not just with no clue of who PT was, but with no clue about any aspect of the film. It looked like a crime film and featured Jackson--(post-Pulp Fiction) that was good enough for me.

So on my way home, I decided to finally visit with my friend, whom I worked with at the UA Eagle Highlands multiplex on the West Side. He suggested that if I was passing through I should stop by and see him at work.

He worked a second job at Taco Bell. Somehow I followed his directions and managed to end up there.

I still clearly remember that night, sitting in the fast food joint. He took his break and we sat in a booth, and I told him about this movie that I had just seen. I tried to describe to him why I liked it so much. I don't remember what I said, but I know I said it with great passion. "You have to see this movie." I still remember him pulling out a piece of scrap paper from his wallet and anxiously scribbling down the title:

"Hard Eight."

Its a memory that has particular power for me now because it was a moment that feels like what cinephilia is supposed to be, or what its supposed to feel like. Two young cinephiles talking passionately about a film without being able to find the words to describe it--and sharing information about a film that so few had seen or even heard of.

Those moments now seem few and far between since I committed myself to academia. The old joke between Scott and I when we started at Oklahoma State was that we used to watch so many more movies before we became "film scholars."

Now, I have to take the day off, consciously tell myself I am not going to work, and then drive an hour out of my way to go see something major like There Will Be Blood, which I had been anticipating for a long time, at the new Arts multiplex in the upscale Keystone Mall. The new theatre, by the way, is also the theatre that drove the Castleton Arts Theatre out of business (actually, the former bought the latter, and then closed it)

Then again, the trip did give me a chance to go back, and take a picture of the insection of Michigan and 71st.




dave_mcavoy said...

So what did you think of There Will Be Blood? Future blog post?

I thought it was amazing, although I don't think I've internalized it all yet.

jason sperb said...

Yeah, I had meant to write something (possibly even earlier today, but passed).

I will eventually, but part of the problem is that I'm very late to the game, and I know a lot of other bloggers (Ted, Zach, etc.) have already blogged about it, and so I feel an obligation to "research" all of that before proceeding at this point.

Just a few thoughts on the film at this point would feel a little disingenous--so I am taking my time and hope to do a good job with it (without it turning into a research essay, either, of course).