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Movies of the mind: When I used films to travel through time

The relationship between movies and memories can be powerful. A recent viewing of a classic film led me to contemplate what experiences I associate with particular titles. Are they pleasant or grim, innocuous or profound?

The 400 Blows

I was recently watching François Truffaut’s revered 1959 film The 400 Blows, a heavy-hearted character study of a 12-year-old Parisian boy who skips school, mixes with the wrong crowd and gets in trouble with the fuzz as his relationship with his parents slowly splinters. Celebrated for a unforgettable final shot in which the boy runs towards the ocean then turns and gazes directly at the camera, as if reaching out to the viewer in some undefinable gesture for help, the film assisted in defining the archetypal narrative for ‘wrong side of the tracks’ drama.

Before arriving at this moment Trauffaut presents several beautifully framed sequences that shift his vérité bread-and-butter style direction into dream-like territory. In one of them the kid, protagonist Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is locked in a divvy van and being taken to a rehabilitation centre for juvenile delinquents. As it glides through Paris at night, the streets illuminated by incandescent signs of shops and theatres and the glow of headlights, Antoine stares indecipherably at the road behind him, a tear rolling down his cheek as he clutches the bars of the back window, as if attempting to hold on to the past.

It didn’t hit me the first time I watched this film, back in my university years, but it sure hit me the second. Not a realisation of what the scene was about or what it stood for but a meaning outside it, in my own past. A memory. And with that, into the hot tub time machine we go…

My family had several pets over the years I grew up but Butch, our Jack Russell, was different. He was a great pal. I adored him. When friends and family came over we often showed them a trick where one of us would throw a tennis ball over the agapanthus in the backyard and Butch would leap after it, his arse flicking up ridiculously towards the sky. It never failed to amuse.

My father worked full-time in a workshop at the back of our garden. Customers had to walk through the yard and down a slim cement path, past a ratty trampoline and a low-hanging basketball ring (too many trampoline-assisted slam dunks) to get there. And of course, past Butch. One day he decided — who knows what that silly pooch’s reasons were — to take a bite out of a customer’s leg. Dad was very apologetic and the nibbled bleeding woman took it no further. But the damage had been done and Butch, it was quickly declared, unbeknownst to me, had to go.

The last time I saw my dog plays in the memory not like Truffaut — more like an over-egged moment from a cheesy drama, a sort of sex-less Mills and Boon meets Lassie. The kind of icky emotional goo I wouldn’t hesitate to lampoon if I saw it in a movie. But…

CUT TO

EXT. SUBURBAN STREET – MORNING

Running. Crying. I learnt that my dad has put Butch into the back of the family Toyota to take him to a new home and I hadn’t been given the chance to say goodbye. Butch has his two paws up on the back seat and is staring longingly out the back window at me. He doesn’t look away. I keep running. The car speeds off into the distance.

Cue violin music.

Roll credits.

I’m not, of course, implying that Butch necessarily understood the gravity of this moment or that the protagonist in The 400 Blows is anything like a meddlesome bum-flipping dog. My mind simply linked the two scenes and it’s interesting to contemplate cinema’s capacity to do that: to prompt us to revisit narratives already written in our real lives. This got me thinking about other films I associate with particular memories, and whether all of them were as sucky as the one with a cute dog and me bawling my eyes out.

CUT TO

INT. LOUNGE ROOM – NIGHT

Primary school years. I’m with a small group at a birthday sleep-over party. The adults have gone to sleep and we’ve smuggled in a contraband copy of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). In goes the video and we crowd around a small TV screen in sleeping bags, delighting in scaring ourselves stupid. But things take a turn for the worse when Freddy tortures a kid with super-sensitive hearing by scraping those unmistakable blade-like fingers against a magical chalkboard until, as these things tend to go, the kid’s head expands and explodes. One of our friends, who was raised in a strictly conservative Christian family with little exposure to any TV programs or movies — let alone violent ones — breaks down. Starts crying uncontrollably. Shaking and sobbing. Calling for his mum. We turn the movie off and eventually calm him down. When I re-watch The Final Nightmare many years later I realise we were too young to appreciate the shamelessly bad-but-kind-of-good one-liner from Freddy that completes the scene: “nice hearing from you.”

CUT TO

INT. CINEMA AUDITORIUM – EVENING

High school years. Me and a handful of friends are sitting at the back of a packed-out cinema watching Independence Day (1996). The crowd is so enthusiastic, enjoying Roland Emmerich’s laser-beam-the-White-House-to-smithereens epic so much huge rounds of whooping and cheering and applause are roaring through the room like fire from a gatling gun. When Will Smith says he’s “gonna whoop ET’s arse”, we clap. When Bill Pullman blabbers about living on and not going quietly into the night and the camera cuts to an over-enthusiastic extra who salutes like his hand is on fire, we clap. When Randy Quaid puts down his whiskey to fly a small plane into the mother alien ship in a selfless display of heroic kamikaze — yeah, we clap. It’s a terrific night and we have big dumb Hollywood movies to thank.

CUT TO

INT. NATALIE’S HOUSE — AFTERNOON

Mid 20s. I’m raising my voice. She’s raising hers. I’m arguing with an ex-girlfriend and the brouhaha seems to have erupted out of nothing. We’d just watched about the first half of Superbad (2007), an ironically titled film about a small crew of awkward teens trying desperately to be cool (one famously known as ‘McLovin’, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse). I love its free-flowing soiled stream of dialogue, the characters and the uncompromising way director Greg Mottola hones in on a bunch of trash-talking teens bending over backwards to score booze, impress chicks and do things many of us men can remember at least attempting as teenagers. But she loathed the dialogue and was deeply insulted by the way they spoke — bitch this, pussy that, dick this – and the scene in which Jonah Hill dances up close with a girl at a party and the girl leaks blood onto his leg tipped her over the line. She saw it as an insult to women, was angry with how vehemently I defended it.  This is the way immature yoof spoke, I said. Characterisation, not misogyny. Needless to say I slept alone that night.

CUT TO

INT. UNIVERSITY CLASSOOM — MORNING

Early university years. In screenwriting class, we’re watching Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicylcle Thief (1948). I’m blowed away by the ending, the final devastating reveal where we learn who the actual thief is and the real significance of the title. It blows, to quote Carter, my fragile little mind and I wonder: what other brain-melting tricks do old European films have in their bags? Where can I find them?

CUT TO

INT. LOUNGE ROOM, BUCKMASTER HOUSE — EVENING

I’m 11 or 12. Mum and dad are watching Psycho (1960). I’m not allowed in the room. Mum, always liberal with what she allowed me to watch, says it’s too scary.

CUT TO

INT. CINEMA THEATRETTE — MORNING

I’m at a media screening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). The publicists must have over-booked the room or too many people attended unannounced, because me and Lloyd are sitting on the floor. Vodka and gin took a bow the night before and we almost didn’t make it. There was no time to shower and his hair stinks, smells a bit like vomit. I’m ashamed to be sitting next to him but grateful of the fiction/reality crossover: that we’re watching a three-month-bender-and-trash-your-hotel-while-on-every-drug-known-to-man movie.

CUT TO

INT. FOOD COURT — AFTERNOON

February ’96. People are ordering food, carrying trays and trying to control their children. I’m eating lemon chicken and beef and black bean with Rob. We walk into a scabby run-down cinema to see Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! It has crazy looking aliens, Tom Jones singing and amusing lines Jack Nicholson recites with smug grins and craned eyebrows (“can’t we all just get along?”). But this screening is memorable not because of the film but because I decided to write a review of it. It was first of many.

CUT TO

INT. CINEMA AUDITORUM — NIGHT

It’s the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival and I’m watching an avant-garde American indie called Jess + Moss, which largely consists of a young boy and girl exploring derelict storm-ravaged farmland on the outskirts of Murray, Kentucky. It’s my 29th film in the cinema in seven days and my head feels a little muddled; constant movies and a paltry amount of sleep can do that to you. My mind wanders and I arrive at a weird epiphany: the film doesn’t exist as a playground for its own thoughts and meanings but as a playground for mine, a context with which to frame my own memories. Suddenly (as I wrote in August 2011) I was whisked away.

CUT TO

INT. HOSPITAL ROOM — AFTERNOON

Year 2000. Nanna Elliott, 93, is pale and frail but quietly breathing. Myself and four close relatives form a half circle around her hospital bed. She’s had a stroke. It caused half of her body to sag towards the floor while the other half remained the same; looking at her was a little like looking at the Batman villain Two Face. I’d lived with that tough warm-hearted Aussie battler for the last decade but her time was nearly up. A strange occurrence sends the room into shell-shocked silence: Nanna Elliott, for so long listless and horizontal, raises herself upwards and her light blue eyes shoot wildly ahead. But then she flops back on the bed. Mum says “we love you” over and over. My uncle says “I think she’s gone.”

CUT TO

INT. LUKE’S STUDY — NIGHT

Present day. I’m almost finished writing a story about films and memories, inspired by Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. I look back on my blog post about Nanna Elliott I published more than a year ago. The photograph in the post depicts Nanna sitting on a white garden seat in our old backyard, holding a red rose and smiling on a bright sunny day. But her shadow isn’t the only one reflected onto the grass below. In front of her feet, sitting obediently, is a small dog. His name is Butch.

Cue violin music.

Roll credits.

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