As many of you may know, I have just returned from a month-long trip to Boston to do research for my dissertation project, Ten Years of Winter. If you read my Twitter you know just how happy I am to be home at last. Starting (very leisurely) the process of unpacking, one of the first things I came across in my luggage was my trusty black nylon CD wallet, which I packed in the last few minutes before I left the house, a month ago, with DVDs from my personal collection. As a “coming home” post I thought I’d do a blog about it, because this little nylon pouch probably saved my life and my sanity while I was on this very long, extended trip.
Admittedly, packing a couple of favorite movies for a month-long trip has the quality of those parlor game questions that go, “If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only bring…” My DVD wallet, which has only 12 spaces, was given to me as a gift many years ago back in the era when people were just putting CD players into their cars, so portable CD carriers were very popular. (Remember, about 1998, when everybody had CD sleeves that fit on the sun visors of their cars?) Although I still have a big CD collection, most of it has been reduced to MP3s in this era, so there was no limit on the music I could take with me. I have not, however, reduced my movie collection to digital files (yet). Thus I had to pick a couple of movies that I would watch, most likely on my laptop in my small rented rooms and hotel rooms, and would last me a month. I am one of those strange people that can watch the same movie over and over again in quick succession and not get tired of it. Here is what I picked, and why.
1. The Haunting (1963). Watched once.
Robert Wise’s wonderfully evocative, spooky ghost story, based on the cult Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, is one of my all-time favorite scary movies. Though black and white, and very dated in its early 60s sensibilities (the main character, played by Julie Harris, wears a tweed suit and looks like a secretary for a Fortune 500 company, even at night), the film is so perfectly done, well-shot, well-edited and understated in its writing that it still scares the hell out of me every time. This film and the novel it’s based on is one of the inspirations for my upcoming novel Doppelgänger. I do not even acknowledge that the crappy 1999 remake even exists; the very idea is an abomination.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Watched twice.
My entry into the world of Wes Anderson was with this delightful film, which again has understatement as one of its strengths. The plot concerns the long decline of the once-brilliant Tenenbaum family, who live in a storybook-like facsimile of New York City; Royal (Gene Hackman), the patriarch, is faking a terminal illness to try to reconnect with his estranged wife (played by Angelica Huston) and his children (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow). The opening scene, beautifully narrated by Alec Baldwin, is one of the great narrative triumphs in modern cinema. I only wish I could write a novel with the same sad but profound and whimsical quality as The Royal Tenenbaums. I never get tired of this film.
3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Watched once.
This swashbuckling Napoleonic-era nautical adventure has everything you’d expect from this genre: booming cannons, thrilling naval battles, agonizing command decisions, people swinging on ropes onto other ships, etc. I picked this film, based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian, because some of my research this past month involved logs from ships of the same era, and I love to see history visualized accurately. It’s a great story, and one of Russell Crowe’s great performances as Jack Aubrey, though his odd-couple chemistry with Paul Bettany is at least as important. They just don’t make adventure movies like this much anymore.
4. Apollo 13 (1995). Watched twice.
Ron Howard’s colorful history of the doomed Apollo 13 mission, which barely got back safely after an accident in space in 1970, is the ultimate feel-good movie. Everything clicks: the casting choices of Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as the astronauts, the portrayal of the tireless ground crew, the mounting tension, and the emotional anguish of an astronaut’s wife (Kathleen Quinlan) wondering if her husband will get back alive. I’ve seen this film dozens of times but the final scene always makes me cry. Like Braveheart used to, but Apollo 13, released the same year, has stood the test of time.
5. Remains of the Day (1993). Watched once.
This is my all-time favorite movie. Literally, my all-time favorite. Here’s why. I could not leave on a month-long trip without my favorite movie. Little more needs to be said.
6. Quiz Show (1994). Watched once.
Though not historically accurate–and controversially so–Robert Redford’s take on the quiz show scandals of the 1950s is a highly underrated period piece, which captures perfectly the public love affair with television at that time. The characters, principally Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), Herb Stemple (John Turturro), Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) and Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), are absolute perfect foils for one another, and the attractive and mesmerizing Mira Sorvino doesn’t hurt. Here’s another one I never get tired of, and I’m not sure why I love it so much.
7. The Freshman (1990). Watched once.
If you love The Godfather, and who doesn’t, The Freshman is the perfect follow-up; think of Godfather as the main course and The Freshman as a light, fluffy desert. A comedy, featuring Matthew Broderick as a college student unwittingly roped into an endangered species racket run by a mobster played by Marlon Brando, this Andrew Bergman-directed film hits all the right notes. It includes Brando’s masterful Vito Corleone send-up, Broderick’s best performance in years, a giant lizard, Frank Whaley with a pompadour, glittering Ken Adam sets, and Maximilian Schell and B.D. Wong as gay lovers. Who wouldn’t love this movie? Absolute perfection.
8. Deathtrap (1982). Watched three times.
Oddly the winner of the most-watched disc on my trip, most people have forgotten this charming early-80s thriller-comedy, directed by Sidney Lumet, based on Ira Levin’s hit play (Levin wrote Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives). Michael Caine is a playwright who’s hit a slump, and he hatches an idea to murder a younger writer, played beautifully by Christopher Reeve, and pass off his new play “Deathtrap” as his own. Caine’s wife, played by Dyan Cannon in her shrillest role, is along for the ride. But of course the tables get turned, and how! This wonderful film keeps you guessing until the last second, and the performances by the principal cast are priceless. This is very hard to find on DVD, but I’ve got a copy.
9. Almost Famous (2000). Watched twice.
Cameron Crowe’s tale of a young writer (Patrick Fugit) coming-of-age in the rock world in the early 1970s–and writing a cover article for Rolling Stone magazine at the age of 15, which Crowe did in real life–is one of the great road movies of all time, and also a fantastic trip back to the era of classic rock. Though the band Fugit tours with in the film, “Stillwater” (fronted by Billy Crudup and Jason Lee) is fictional, the soundtrack is loaded with The Who, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and that final-credits number by The Beach Boys. Here too the performances make the show; Fugit and his sidekick and would-be love, played by Kate Hudson, are wonderful. Hudson, the daughter of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, scored an Academy Award nomination for the role. She deserved it.
10. Armageddon Over Wacken (2003). Watched once.
When I get wistful about my life–as I often did on this long trip–I often turn to Wacken. I reviewed this fantastic film, which remains the best heavy metal performance video I’ve ever seen, last year. Wacken Open Air was very different in 2003 than it is today, but some part of me will always live on that field in northern Germany, and I often like to visit it–if only on video.
You may notice I said my pouch had 12 slots, and this is only 10. The two movies I packed but did not watch were Diamonds Are Forever (1971)–not the best, but my favorite Bond film–and The Departed (2006), which I picked because of its depiction of Boston. Oh, well. Time to watch those at home.
At any rate, it’s good to be back. The DVDs will go back on the shelf, but these “comfort movies” will never stop being a part of my life.