Category Archives: Essay

Reflecting on “La grande bellezza”

“To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.”  Céline, Journey to the End of the Night

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When I wrote about this film for my Favorite Fifteen Films of 2013 post, I was brief and said the film could only be a film. This is part of why I loved it. The visuals, the sumptuousness, the pure cinema of it all.

But, really, the main reason I loved this film was how much I related to the main character Jep. Now, as many of you who follow me know, I’m quite often bored by woe-is-me stories of men. I am an advocate for women’s voices and feel they are underrepresented, misunderstood and often forgotten. So, I can see how saying I related to a story about a 65-year-old man’s existential life crisis could seem bizarre.

But I think some themes are so universal, or maybe so personal, they exist beyond gender specificity.  That’s the case with Jep’s story, at least for me.

In the film, Jep wrote one powerful novel in his late-20s and then gave up on literary glory, settling for a cushy job writing cultural columns and hosting lavish parties. Jep is a bit of a hedonist, but at his core, he’s a man who values sensual experiences, be they visual, aural, literary, edible, sexual, etc – the beauty of living, if you will.

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What the viewer discovers as the film – and Jep – unfolds himself, is that Jep is not suffering because he can’t find that mysterious great beauty (that’s love, folks) – but that he found it when he was young, lost it and has yet to come to terms with his inability to feel anything as deeply again.

I’ve talked briefly about myself on this site since its inception in 2009, which was a year of great changes for me. In the (nearly) five years since, I’ve gone through a lot of other changes – schooling, location, job, etc. But, like Jep, as hard as I try, there’s a moment in my life from 2008 that changed everything about me. A feeling once felt, but (so far) never again. Will I cling to it for another forty years like Jep? I don’t know. Will I ever let go of it for good? Probably not.

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Joie du cinema

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I love movies. I always have. I saw my first film in theaters in 1988 (maybe early 1989). It was Willow. I loved it. I grew up in a small town in the most northern part of California you can go before you hit Oregon. It has one movie theater. The Niles. I went to practically every show as long as I can remember. I saw everything. My dad would rent movies from the various rental stores (at one point there were three!) on the weekends and we’d watch all kinds of things. I will never forget the time we marathoned all of the Critters films. Scarred for life? Maybe. When I was old enough I would rent movies with my allowance from the one (the other two closed) movie rental store: Top Hat! Several summers were spent renting five old releases (VHS!) for $5 that I could keep for five days, followed by two new releases (still VHS!) for $3 each that I got to keep for two days! I might have been their best customer before I was old enough to drive.

I come from a long line of cinema fanatics (tee-hee). My grandmother would ride the street car from Boyle Heights (this is East L.A.) to Broadway in the 20s and early-30s (this was before Hollywood Blvd. had a lot of theaters). When my mother was born, my grandmother on special occasions – especially on my mother’s birthday – would get dressed up and they would drive in from Lancaster to go see a first run movie at the Egyptian and on normal days they would cram into their car (with homemade popcorn!) and go see double features at the drive-in.

My father has seen every movie ever made. Okay, maybe not quite, but a lot. He would watch them on channel 9 as a little kid growing up in the Valley. I can’t tell you how many movies he saw “for a nickel a day!” at lunch when he was in grade school.

My parents went on their first real date to see Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.

Growing up, we would watch countless movies on television. I remember doing laundry and watching Gone With The Wind on TNT (this was before TCM existed, plus we didn’t get that channel even after it did) and how we could do like five or six loads before the movie ended. We watched TBS’s Movies For Guys Who Like Movies all the time. I can’t even count home many times I saw TRON on Encore (back when I thought it was an 80s movie channel).

Our local theater got movies really late. I mean, months late. So if we realllly wanted to see a movie, we would drive 100 miles to Klamath Falls, Or. Sometimes we did this just to see a movie, other times we would go for an orthodontist appointment and just catch a movie for the hell of it. We would see as many movies as we could cram in when we went to visit my Grampa on holidays in Redding.

So when I moved to Berkeley to go to college I was in heaven. So many movie theaters. So little time. And so little cash. I finally had all the movies at my fingers tips and I had to be super choosy about what I saw. Out went a lot of the blockbusters. Out went seeing things like Dodgeball (which came out the summer before college and I saw in theaters three times because a show at the Niles cost $3!) and in went seeing “prestige” pictures because I’d never had access to those kind of films on the big screen before without that 100 mile drive.

This was when I first was able to see allllll the nominated films for the Oscars (sometimes before they were even nominated!) and how great it felt to be in the know.

Cut to a few set backs post-college and me moving back in to the back of my parents’ house unsure what to do with my life. Enter TCM and that year I watched 617 new-to-me films, followed by a year where I watched 1117 new-to-films. This blog came out of that fever.

I’d always followed the Academy Awards. I remember watching the year Beauty and the Beast was up against Silence of the Lambs and I asked my mom if it had a chance and she just looked at me with all the kindness in the world and said, “No, honey, no.” That was tough and I followed the Academy race with fervor ever since.

Once I had internet access in middle school, I printed out every single nominated film for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress and tried to rent as many of them as Top Hat had (it was not a lot). I got sidetracked from the quest until I was back in my parents’ house and realized I only had a few Best Pictures left to watch. (Now I’ve only got 58 nominated films left to see).

But the more I followed the race closely, the more disenfranchised I got with it all. The more films I saw the more I realized how pointless Awards season is. That’s not to say I don’t respect the history of the Oscars, or the honor of winning one is — I will never forget seeing Robert Osborne ask Peter O’Toole if he’d like to win one for real (not counting his honorary one) and the gleam in his eye when he said, “Yes, and I ain’t dead yet!”

With the advent of the internet, we’re been granted so much access to so much information and so much discourse and are able to talk to so many people and discuss films in a way that has never really been possible before.

But some how I feel like I’m burning out on all this discourse.

When I was eight years old and I saw Little Women in theaters and fell so in love with Gabriel Byrne and wanted to be Winona Ryder, I didn’t feel like I needed to share those feelings with anyone. I was just happy to feel them.

I felt joy in a theater recently. True cinematic joy. It was while watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I marveled and one scene made me cry because of its scope and the song that underscored it. And I didn’t feel like I needed to share it with anyone. I just wanted to revel in the joy.

I think that’s why I haven’t been writing as often as I used to about the movies I watch. I don’t want to have to explain why I like something and don’t want to have to convince someone to see something. I’m honored that people care about my opinions. That’s an amazing feeling and I’m grateful.

But mostly, I just want to revel in the joy.