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How to Mentor an Aspiring Cinephile?

Indiewire’s Criticwire addressed today this question from a reader:

“I mentor a 14-year-old from Harlem and nothing would make me happier then to have her enjoy ‘art house’ movies.  She goes to Hollywood movies in chain theaters, and doesn’t particularly like what she sees.  Of course, the fact that she’s African-American makes it even harder for me to find movies that I think would speak to her. She is sophisticated and would probably not mind some subtitles and nontraditional narratives. Help!”

Various critics rang in with some really great suggestions.   The truth is, I don’t know how you grow a cinephile. Attempting to influence anyone’s tastes or beliefs can be an exercise in futility, but if a curious teenager is open to exploration we can help by pointing in the right direction. As a parent, you can try.  My daughter knows the lines from a few films I’ve shown her, like A Fish Called Wanda, Burn After Reading, The Social Network, No Country for Old Men.  Does this mean she’s learned to love a better class of movies? I don’t know.  She has her own interests and passions that have to do with how she was raised, the world she grew up in and what exactly she’s trying to escape from.  Many movies, you see, are designed for escape, and the system makes movies one of the easiest escapes to access when we’re young. They were for me.

As an upcoming cinephile who’s African-American, finding great films and film directors who map your own experience can be especially hard.  So the inclination would be to look for those filmmakers who reflect the culture.   The most important African-American film director, to my mind, is Spike Lee who carved out a new narrative for what kinds of stories were being told.  But he never played the Hollywood game right and before long, Lee was mostly written off.  Still, he inspired many directors — and continues to do so.  Other black filmmakers of note — Robert Townsend, Lee Daniels, and Denzel Washington.  It’s harder to navigate in those currents so maybe it’s easier just to talk about movies.

My own passion for movies started at a very young age.  My mother had four kids before she was 24 and raised us mostly on her own. Those were rough times, but there was one reliable escape for me. Some from my generation turned to drugs, sex and fun to escape; I turned to the movies.  Our little black-and-white TV played soap operas, cartoons and old movies.  My sister and I spent many hours laying down in front of it, eating bowls of cereal and cutting our teeth on Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Cagney, Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers… we didn’t see our own life reflected in those movies.  We saw a dramatic structure where things worked out, or else they didn’t.  Everything about that world appealed to us though, at the time, we didn’t realize why.

Later, when we hit our early teens, there was the multiplex, where my mom would drop us off to let Hollywood babysit us and we’d watch either the same movie over and over again (we saw Jaws 14 times in the theater) or we’d theater-hop and watch a bunch of movies. We’d stay there all day watching movies.  Did we know the difference between “good” and “bad” movies? Oh, probably not. We fell in love with the medium — the escape — the beauty — the mystery — the drama — the conflict/resolution.  We were lucky; movies were a lot better then. Or at least there seemed to be less junk.

It was commonplace to stand outside ticket booths for a couple of hours, waiting in long lines that stretched around the corner to see a new movie, the latest blockbuster (hence, the term itself).  But that stopped once there were enough theaters to meet demand.  Demand rose and fell and eventually single-screen theaters began closing. As they vanished, the environment for endangered art-house fare shrank.  Now it’s all about spectacle, 3-D and IMAX, with limited venues for the art house/film festival crowd.   Things have changed in that there isn’t just the one movie now.  There are many movies crowding in theaters at any given time and every weekend in summer is dominated by one. Wait a minute and another one comes along. When I was a kid it seems there was just the one movie towering above the rest.  The movie everyone saw it and talked about it.

I came of age in movie theaters.  A boy passed a box of Milk Duds to my sister and me once.  And the things I’ve done in movie theaters since then?  I never started saying I wanted to BE a cinephile.  I just loved movies.  Eventually that love would lead me to find people who also loved movies and many of them had much better taste than I did. I remember being 19 and having my boyfriend take to me to see a Jim Jarmusch movie. He was ten years older than I was and introduced me to, among many things, coffee the way French people drink it.  I had no clue what was going on in that movie, but I recognized it as something I’d never seen before and I let my mind, like my legs, ever so slightly open.

Film and filmmakers were from that point on a mystery.  The next movie I saw that changed the way I thought about film was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.  Again, another boyfriend took me to see it.  What did I know except that it disturbed me in a significant way. More than that, though, I saw color like I’d never seen color before; I saw a filmmaker who was toying with my own personal knowledge of what an “Ingrid Bergman movie” was.  And my mind ever so slightly opened again.

Pretty soon I could hold my own in conversations about film with the kind of people who smoked brown cigarettes and wore berets.  I knew who Cocteau was, and had seen Last Year at Marienbad.  But I still wasn’t a cinephile.

Eventually I fumbled my way through to college where I studied film from a professor who seemed to know everything there ever was to know about movies.  And my mind, not my legs, ever so slightly opened.  Hearing film taught by a professor who has no interest in how much money that movie made or what the critics, particularly, thought of it.  His interest was in how a director creates a thumbprint, or a lasting legacy — what themes he or she decides to obsess on, what kinds of images mattered, how to spot symbolism and metaphor.  I learned the language of film from that professor at UCLA and then by reading articles and reviews by writers who knew their stuff.  You aren’t necessarily going to become a cinephile by reading online chatter about movies.  It can help you make up your mind about how you spend your money but you aren’t going to feel that impulse to dig much more deeply because most people don’t choose to dig that deeply at all.

The truth is no one can make you a cinephile.  No one can put you in front of any film and make you fall in love with movies.  But if you are already in love with them you can find those films that help your mind ever so slightly open.  The more you drink in, the more uncomfortable you make yourself, the closer you will get to being a cinephile.

I can’t make a great list the way so many others could — but I bet some of the readers on this site could.  I can give you my list of essential movies — films I know my daughter will watch one day because, to me, they are the most important films I personally have seen.  The lists made by better and more knowledgeable writers will take you to the next level. I am still not a cinephile but I love movies.  If you see these movies and these movies only I can guarantee you that you will come out the other end loving movies more.  So here are the ones I recommend — and believe me, this only scratches the surface.

The Essential Spike Lee
She’s Gotta Have It
Malcolm X
Do the Right Thing

The Essential Orson Welles
Citizen Kane
Touch of Evil

The Essential Alfred Hitchcock
Strangers on a Train
Psycho
Rear Window
North by Northwest
Rope
I Confess
Vertigo
The Birds

The Essential Coen Brothers
Blood Simple
Raising Arizona
Fargo
No Country for Old Men
Burn After Reading
A Serious Man

The Essential Woody Allen
Annie Hall
Manhattan
Stardust Memories
Sleeper

The Essential Mike Nichols
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Carnal Knowledge
The Graduate
Silkwood
Heartburn
Working Girl
Postcards from the Edge
Wit

The Essential Sam Peckinpah
The Wild Bunch
Straw Dogs
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
The Essential David Lynch

Blue Velvet
The Straight Story
Lost Highway
Mulholland Drive
Inland Empire

The Essential Stanley Kubrick
Dr. Strangelove
Lolita
The Shining
Paths of Glory

The Essential Steven Spielberg
Jaws
E.T.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Schindler’s List
The Color Purple

The Essential Martin Scorsese
Taxi Driver
Raging Bull
The King of Comedy
Goodfellas
Hugo

The Essential David Fincher
The Social Network
The Game
S3ven
Fight Club
Panic Room
Alien 3
Zodiac
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Essential Jim Cameron
Terminator, Terminator 2
Aliens
Titanic
Avatar

The Essential Steven Soderbergh
Sex, Lies and Videotape
Traffic
Erin Brockovich

The Essential Jane Campion
Sweetie
An Angel at my Table
The Piano

The Essential Kathryn Bigelow
Near Dark
The Hurt Locker

The Essential Sidney Lumet
12 Angry Men
Dog Day Afternoon
Network

The Essential Clint Eastwood
Bird
Unforgiven
Mystic River
Flags of Our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima

The Essential Roman Polanski
Knife in the Water
Repulsion
Rosemary’s Baby
Chinatown
Frantic
The Pianist
The Ghost Writer

The Essential Frank Capra
It’s a Wonderful Life
Meet John Doe
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
It Happened One Night

The Essential George Cukor
Holiday
The Philadelphia Story
Gaslight
Adam’s Rib
Born Yesterday
My Fair Lady

The Essential John Huston
The Maltese Falcon
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Asphalt Jungle
The African Queen
Beat the Devil
The Misfits

The Essential Billy Wilder
Double Indemnity
The Lost Weekend
Sunset Boulevard
The Seven Year Itch
Some Like it Hot
The Apartment
The Front Page

The Essential Elia Kazan
Gentleman’s Agreement
A Streetcar Named Desire
On the Waterfront
East of Eden
Baby Doll
Splendor in the Grass

The Essential Quentin Tarantino
Reservoir Dogs
Pulp Fiction
Jackie Brown
Inglourious Basterds

The Essential Paul Thomas Anderson
Boogie Nights
Magnolia
Punch-Drunk Love
There Will Be Blood

The Essential Robert Altman
M*A*S*H
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The Long Goodbye
The Player
Gosford Park

The Essential Jim Brooks
Terms of Endearment
Broadcast News
As Good as it Gets

There are so many more films I’ve not even begun to touch upon.  Foreign film directors, specifically, have been ignored here.  But you have to start somewhere.  Might as well start in the mainstream.