To celebrate The Cinessential’s 1-year anniversary, in lieu of our usual coverage of one particular film, some of our writers are going to share their stories on the films that have inspired us to write about cinema.
I went to my big liberal arts state school with the intention of being an actor. While I was a well-rounded student in high school [valedictorian, in fact, though it is a little strange to brag about that nearly 15 years after-the-fact] and I probably could have studied just about anything and excelled, my fondest memories were on stage. It was a small school [I graduated with about 120] which gave me pretty good opportunity to perform in lead roles—by pure coincidence, most of the program’s male actors were seniors my freshman year, basically leaving me as the star in my second year. I wasn’t a natural romantic lead, but my grasp of comedy and pure energy on stage overcame most of that and turned me to memorable villains and unorthodox roles like Willy Wonka in my senior year’s finale. Most of all, though, I enjoyed the rush and the camaraderie and everything else that comes with live performance. I didn’t drink or do drugs as other high school kids might, but I didn’t need to, however cliche that may be it was true.
Anyway, as I entered the University of Illinois, I declared as a broadcast journalism major. Why? Mostly, I thought it would be a waste of time to be an acting major, though the school’s program was good [Ang Lee and Stephen Tobolowsky are both grads]. This was incredible hubris, I know. Also, I realized there was plenty of opportunity to perform in plays or do comedy or whatever around campus, which ended up being true and a great experience for me. I was also a little worried about not getting as well-rounded a liberal arts experience if I was too focused on theater. And, hey, I really liked the idea of broadcast journalism, something that I had a small touch of experience with in high school as an anchor and reporter for our bi-weekly television program. I once flew in a 4-seat plane piloted by a classmate over a local corn maze for a story. I think I interviewed myself using super duper advanced editing techniques for some reason, too [my memory of quality might not be totally accurate].
My journalism curriculum officially started in my sophomore year and I really liked my first few classes. But I was becoming wary if it was the right path for a few reasons. Primarily, because I knew I didn’t really have the passion to make journalism my career, it just seemed like too much damn work—it would have turned into a difficult major and would have likely sucked up a lot of my time out of the classroom while working on story assignments. And as a “back up” profession, broadcast journalism is an insane choice, a total grind with incredibly low paying entry level jobs.
Luckily, the same semester I began my first broadcast journalism class [the second semester of my sophomore year, after I had completed the journalism intro classes, which were for both print and broadcast students] I had enrolled in a class on war films. My experience with movies previously was mostly watching weird and terrible horror films with friends on the weekends as well as the occasional summer blockbuster at the local and newly built 8-screen theater in town. Having a father who wasn’t specifically into war films, I wasn’t specifically invested in war films [I imagine this is the only way to be introduced to war films at an early age]. I honestly don’t know how many war films I had seen before this class. For some reason I remember seeing Behind Enemy Lines in the theater. I can also shamefully admit that when my high school world studies class presented Dr. Strangelove, I paid basically no attention figuring it was a boring old black-and-white film. I have no idea why I enrolled in this war film class. OK, probably thought it would be fun and easy.
Shortly after the first screening of the class I found myself in my academic advisor’s office to change my major.
That film which has shaped my life so incredibly was King Vidor’s The Big Parade. Released in 1925, it is a WWI-set melodrama starring John Gilbert as a young American who fights in France only to face bigger horrors upon returning home. It was the first silent film I had ever seen and I was surprised by how captivated and moved I was by its storytelling. It was probably the first time where something as simple as a shot actually seemed to matter—in a way, it was the first time I saw a film as actual art and not just dumb entertainment.
Today, I wouldn’t consider The Big Parade to be one of my favorite films or even one of the best films ever made, but it will always hold a place as one of the most important films to my personal interest. It immediately became a gateway film for some of the all-time greats—over the next year as an official film student I would discover classics like Citizen Kane, North by Northwest, Seven Samurai, All Quiet on the Western Front, Singin' in the Rain, The Phantom of the Opera, and many others. I probably would have seen all of these films sooner or later, but The Big Parade directly led me to them.
Creating The Cinessential was a way to get back to watching and talking about classic films, to return to my days as a film student when it was cool to watch the old stuff. Instead of bogging down on what new releases are good or bad, looking again to how films connect to social, artistic, historical, and all other contexts was a mission I wanted to return to. Every time I watch something for this site I try to see it with the same eyes opened by The Big Parade and I can only hope others do the same.
Oh, and BTW, if you want to watch The Big Parade, it coincidentally airs on TCM tonight. Maybe we’ll cover it some time.