A movie rental and a pepperoni and mushroom pizza. That’s how I spent my Friday nights as a kid. My parents and I would lounge around the living room watching whatever movie we could find in the video store. This was 1990s Japan. There was no Rotten Tomatoes to help us navigate the cinema landscape. Movie reviews in English, too, were hard to come by before the internet. Rather than rely on critics, we judged movies by the sleeves wrapping the VHS tapes. Harrison Ford and Jodie Foster were seals of quality. Steven Spielberg movies were a must. Sometimes the movies were gems. Sometimes they were garbage. Occasionally they were in a language we couldn’t understand. They were always a treat.
A love for movies is in my DNA. My parents watch them by the cartload. It’s from them that I learned the joys of taking in a matinee and luxuriating in a screening room reserved just for you. My Japanese grandfather, ever the technology enthusiast, used to come home with boxes full of Laser Discs. I still marvel at his collection. Did he love Apocalypse Now as much as I do? How about Ikiru? When I think about my love of movies, it takes me back to a constellation of memories of a cozy childhood cocooned by a family that shared in its love through the medium of film. Writing about film is another matter. I can trace all my critical thought about film back to a single movie: Adaptation.
I walked into my first viewing of Adaptation. a couple of minutes late, partway through the formation of life on earth. My friends and I scooted into that tiny theater at the multiplex reserved for arthouse releases. At the time, we were high school seniors, still discovering who we were. Somewhere in Adaptation.’s 114-minute runtime, I found a hint of the self that I would become. I can’t claim to have understood the film on my first viewing. I enjoyed Nicholas Cage’s dual performance as Charlie and Donald Kaufman [for anyone who thinks that Nicholas Cage is a hack, I present Adaptation. as evidence to the contrary]. Even though I knew little of existential struggle, I felt a kindred spirit in Charlie Kaufman and his incessant internal monologue. I loved the way that the movie folded in on itself even though I couldn’t discern the shape of the whole thing. Most importantly, though, I walked out of that movie feeling like I had caught a fleeting glimpse of the inside of a movie. I felt like someone had pulled my brain out of my skull and shook it around, jumbling up everything I thought I knew about movies. I wanted to see more.
Up until Adaptation. I had always thought of films as pieces of entertainment rather than pieces of art. What mattered about a film was how it made me feel in the moment. Did I laugh? Did I cry [no I never did back then]? Did I avert my gaze? Did I look at my watch? Did it make me want to scream ‘hell yeah’? Of course, these considerations are still important to me today. What Adaption. revealed to me, though, was that there was an entirely different way of looking at film. Beneath the surface, there was a team of smart people using a combination of art and technique to bring their ideas and dreams and nightmares into the real world. Through movies, these people are letting me see and feel and understand worlds that I’ll never experience. It’s a magic trick that simulates the impossible: being someone else. That someone else might be a character in the film, or it may be a director or a cinematographer or a screenwriter, but for the runtime of a successful film, I’m not myself. How do filmmakers accomplish this magic? When are they successful? When do they fail? And most importantly, what do I learn about myself and about humanity when I undergo this temporary transformation?
It’s not surprising that Adaptation. was the film that pushed me to ask these questions. It’s a layer cake that mixes fiction and reality along with artist and art. It intertwines human stories with a commentary on the structure and purpose of film itself. More importantly, though, it took these elements, stuck me inside them, mixed me all around, and spat me out the other side. It took the strange mind of Charlie Kaufman and company and made them real. My seventeen-year-old self couldn’t get enough. Why had Charlie Kaufman written in a twin? Why does the film start with the beginning of time? Why does it turn from a Woody Allenesque comedy about a neurotic creative type to a bizarro Michael Bay movie mid-way through? I wasn’t equipped to fully understand, but I had to know what it meant and how it all fit together. The film engendered the peculiar feeling that I’ve fostered to this day: a desire to understand and explain film.
This feeling didn’t immediately manifest itself in writing about film, but that was its most logical conclusion. After all, what better way is there to make thoughts concrete than to preserve them in writing? What better way is there to organize thoughts than to pin them down in a sentence? Today, writing about film is an integral part of my existence. Through writing, I make sense of films. Through films, I make sense of the world around me. And I owe it all to Adaptation. which took a young man’s supple mind and shook it and shook it until a bunch of words fell out of it and changed it forever.