I fully admit to having trouble with nostalgia – in life, but especially on film. So searing is the “real” version, I find, it has to be at least partially repressed. Nostalgia’s screen portrayal, meanwhile, nearly always strikes me as an area of relative failure when it comes to what the cinema can effectively “do”. Whether via the easily understood flashback-driven mechanics of a conventional Hollywood production (clumsily or expertly handled) or, more appositely, the non-linear formal complexities of a modernist art movie, I find attempts to render nostalgia on screen – especially when the movie seeks some wide social resonance – almost always fall into cliché and what feels like intrusive, often cynical manipulation of a viewer’s presumed emotional Achilles’ heel. Even much canonical, very fine art cinema’s properly specific, complex and very much troubled, non-rose-coloured portrayals of individual human pasts on screen as delivered via a challenging film language that insists on the epistemologically violent, almost debilitating palimpsestic nature of such history’s co-presence with contemporary experience (for example the story told by the female protagonist in Alain Resnais’ famous Hiroshima, mon amour [1959]), somehow usually rub me up the wrong way.

In light of this habitual aversion to on-screen nostalgia, rather than concentrate on such a theme or “feeling” as presented in particular films, the focus of what follows will be this viewer’s own nostalgic connection for early moments from the first half of a life that remain especially memorable for being key “portals” exponentially enabling peak filmic experience and deepening cinephelia in the form of a custom cinema history. I do not evoke nostalgia to refer to some elegiac yearning for an “essential” or “real” incarnation of cinema, typically understood as celluloid and big screen exhibition and the secularised cathedral of a large darkened room. Like many, I have spent far more time watching films via various home-viewing formats. Nevertheless, following some small-screen pre-history, the below will highlight seminal audiovisual experiences I have had in large-screen spaces that are usually, though not necessarily, designated “cinemas”. That such memorable film events in the formative years of what became a slow burn love of cinema were thanks to large-screen projection is likely not coincidental, and perhaps not just for aesthetic reasons. Despite its apparent spectatorial disadvantages, home viewing was always, and continues to be, in many ways my most “real” film life, and certainly the most intimately personal – too much, perhaps, to write about.

Ahead, nostalgia is treated as the cherished memories of a quietly mourned young adulthood that have proved distinct and long lasting as marking formative experiences: especially intense encounters with films at particular times and in specific places, alone or with others (be it a family member, partner, friends, or hundreds of strangers). These experiences – I realised immediately, or sometimes afterwards – became typically unpredicted portals, points of entry forged through the act of spectatorship that enabled for the constant development and custom updating of a properly virtual world. This history and evolving relationship requires regular fresh iterations in order to live, and naturally many such portals – spanning a much more diverse array of films, styles, directors and countries of origin – would be added if I extended the discussion to the present day. As Woody Allen says in Annie Hall (1977): “A relationship is like a shark: it moves forward or dies.”

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

A much broader sense of world cinema and even selective Hollywood eras and auteurs would later become much more important to me. But addressing the focus of this Senses of Cinema dossier, I have limited the discussion to “the early years” with the understanding that one’s biases and initial spark ultimately lead to a more diverse cinematic world and that the early stages of such deepening love are both especially palpable and important to acknowledge and celebrate for their properly generative value. More precisely, I seek to chart my particular palimpsestic nostalgia and desire, properly scrambling past and present, for cinema at its most seemingly alive in the form of unique, intensely affective experiential encounters from the least sophisticated but perhaps most revealing phase of a slow burn love.

Pre-History, Cross-Media Pleasures

My first indelible memory of going to the movies was when a young aunt took my brother Al and I – likely aged 7 and 8 respectively – to a double bill comprising Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and the animated feature version of Charlotte’s Web (Charles A. Nichols & Iwao Takamoto, 1973) in Melbourne during a long summer holiday. After tears during the first film, the sheer audiovisual grandeur of the following big-screen space opera, seemingly from both the future and the deep past, was astonishing. The story seemed exciting enough, but what stuck with me was a sheer rush of sound and vision, and the overall “epic” sense. I would remain an “everyday”, casual movie-goer for many more years to come. But even having no special ongoing interest in the Star Wars franchise, I can’t deny genuine nostalgia for that first inkling of spectacular cinematic life. This seminal experience and memory of a thoroughly “normal” kid also prompts me to reflect on an idea that deepened over the years. The taste for particular audiovisual experience and the way a film’s formal and aesthetic tapestry can generate thematic suggestion and overall excitement beyond issues of narrative logic, value, or presence is rather more universal than often assumed. Re-tell the story of Star Wars, or perhaps any big-budget Hollywood production, and you realise that it’s not the heart of the matter…

During my first nearly two decades, going to the movies or watching films on television remained a fun pastime, but my main obsession was listening to and playing music. Only in my early-mid 20s would a long-lingering potential cinephelia finally explode. When it arrived, the rush was intense and rapid. Thinking back, though, my story really begins with Dr Who (1963-1989, 2005-present). Like so many Australian kids growing up in the 1970s and early ‘80s, I was especially enamoured of the show’s 1975-81 era featuring Tom Baker in the lead role.1 Beyond this overall fondness, opening the first portal leading to custom cinephilia were the things I was especially drawn to on this long-running British TV institution.

Dr Who (1963-1989, 2005-present)

For me, Dr Who at its peak – in a story such as “The Pyramids of Mars” (1975) – was like low-budget opera, where the plot was ridiculous and ultimately unimportant, riddled with meaningless invented jargon and arbitrary events, even nonsensical. Utilising the deep well of talent available at the BBC at that time, however, each scene was expertly – and often very theatrically – staged, featuring prominent, memorable (sometimes also hilarious) costumes and a striking positioning of bodies in the frame: either spare or cluttered but always somehow excessive and even frequently rather reflexive. I loved the combination – involving awkward leaps from video to 16mm film stock – of studio and location work, the latter usually “futuristic” looking nuclear facilities or ubiquitous dusty quarries. (“We were always mucking about in quarries”, Baker would wistfully comment decades later.) With classical music-loving parents and as a young musician myself (piano, soon drums), I was impressed by the sparse, often eerie chamber music scores written and conducted by Australian expat Dudley Simpson.

This love of Who motivated my first memory of exercising a kind of connoisseurship. As the first three Baker series started to be endlessly repeated through the years, I realised this 1974-77 period was very much of a piece, marked by a “dark” tonality extensively touching on gothic horror themes and moods (these three years are now often seen as the programme’s “gothic” era) and the possession and disruption of identity as a regular thematic recurrence. I soon noted that these series were overseen by the same producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, and often featured scripts by Robert Holmes. What drew me in the most was the overall aesthetics of the show and resulting generation of mood, but also the way a presentation of theme – no matter how murky or mumbo jumbo-laden the plotting, dialogue, and use of symbols could be – was also indelible. This interest in how ideas can be generated through audiovisual suggestion and staging beyond questions of narrative movement (many scenes from Baker-era Who are narratively unnecessary) would emerge as central to my later taste in films and scholarly focus, hence its importance as the “first portal”.

With music as primary passion, it’s not too surprising that my earliest nostalgia for a meaningful cinema experience in my early teens occurred at a 24-hour festival of music films held at the Electric Shadows cinema in Canberra, where I grew up. The film that stood out the most naturally featured my then-favourite band (already declared “dinosaurs” due to the surviving members being over 30), Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (Peter Clifton & Joe Massot, 1976). The experience of seeing this rather notorious “concert-fantasy” film with school friends and two hundred other rowdy teenagers late at night at huge volume was something I’ll never forget. More than Dr Who, now I could forget about narrative all together and concentrate on sheer audiovisual power. The “interior” fantasy scenes, I even realised at the time, were supremely silly but I loved the editing of these elaborately-filmed sequences with the scintillating Madison Square Garden footage of the band at the peak of its pomp. Like a kind of originary big-screen discovery moment (or some would say, especially those who loathe 1970s rock, “original sin”), the sheer intensity of that experience would never quite be equalled.

Pink Floyd: The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982)

Pink Floyd: The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982)

The other significant music-film experience of my early teen years was rather more properly “filmic”: Pink Floyd: The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982). Featuring music by my other favourite “dinosaur rock” band, and written by one of its members, it was with great anticipation that my first girlfriend (and now oldest pal) Ingrid and I sat down in a nearly empty Woden Plaza cinema for a daytime screening. The first shot seemingly taken from beneath a vacuum cleaner, with no Floyd music to be heard for what seemed like long minutes, caused us to worry we were at the wrong session. But when those first mournful quiet notes closely followed by the explosive main guitar riff of “In the Flesh?” began, we looked at each other with huge smiles. Relieved to be at the right film, these two young teens were also euphoric with the then-unusual pleasure of music they loved being blasted at high volume from giant cinema speakers, combined with truly evocative visuals (and no concert footage to speak of). I became aware later how critically unloved this film is, but for me it remains a vital link in the chain, confirming how efficacious – or even existent – narrative movement and logic are in fact inessential for an intense (and for me successful) film experience. Carefully crafted images, edited together in suggestive but also mysterious ways, combined with powerful, emotive, carefully orchestrated music was all I needed for a rush that was primarily aesthetic but also intimately communicative and, at times, thematically resonant.2

My early attraction to music on film would be short lived. While music, along with Dr Who, was a vital prompter to pay more attention to this audiovisual art business, representing early – modest, yet highly important – portals into a “pre-history” of my own sutured cinema story, I would soon decide that while I may potentially have two loves, music and cinema were best left to their own devices. The combination, I felt (and often still do), generally cheapens or lessens each artform’s potential for true affective power, mystery, and ambiguity.

Gateway Attractions

Three “real” films stand out for me as gateway experiences in my very gradual journey towards cinephilia. One night around 1986 when our parents were out, my brother and I watched Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), no doubt due to Gilliam’s Monty Python connection. The presentation was almost definitely pan-and-scan, yet neither of us – aged around 15 and 16 – noticed or cared, and we could not believe what we saw. Here was a film that was loosely science fiction (a passion of Al’s in particular), thereby connecting to our love for Dr Who and other media, but it seemed far odder and more mysterious than anything we’d seen. I can’t recall if I had already read George Orwell’s 1984 (on which the film is loosely based) at school. Irrespective, the story was quite confusing when it came to determining what “really” happens and whether this was the future, past, or some jumbled dystopic hybrid. All this was key to our fascination. But so too was the strange visual spectacle of it all – Gilliam’s exciting yet confronting vision of life in a polluted, police-state world featuring novel anachronistic sets combining futuristic and mid-20th century design. Once again, reality/fantasy questions, and narrative causality seemed rather down the list of priorities for this viewer. Here was a film that – now sans the crutch of ubiquitous rock music – showed how bold image-sound combinations and imaginative design work could be so fascinating and thematically pregnant.

The precursor to Brazil was certainly seeing Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), thanks to another aunt taking Al and I, aged around 10 and 11, to see this rated-M Monty Python film without our parents’ permission. The key moment for me was seeing the very brief alien spaceship sequence midway through the film and thinking out loud: “You can do that?!” Such a seemingly illicit experience was truly incredible, a tradition I followed up in my mid-teens when, along with other tall-for-our-age friends, I snuck into the R-rated Betty Blue (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986), initiating the viewer into a whole other level of what cinema could be and do (and opening up never-resolved cans of worms re: the role of sex on screen and the politics of the gaze)!

Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

More than any other film, Brazil first showed me in a concentrated way that what I would later be taught to call mise en scène was at the beating heart of cinematic pleasure. Another ten years on, I took my then-new girlfriend and now partner, Liz, to see the film for the first time on a big screen at the rather dingy Third Eye Cinema (now deceased) in central Sydney, which ran art-house films at night thanks to the daytime commerce of porn movies.3 Now at university and possessing more worldly cinema knowledge, Gilliam’s film didn’t live up to my hype for either of us. But its importance for me remains, thanks to that first magical VHS viewing, and my mid-’90s sceptical/elitist undergraduate mind at the Third Eye (one that knew and admired Brazil’s influences much more than Gilliam, notably Federico Fellini) couldn’t entirely suppress the film’s pleasure on the big screen.

I can actually remember the exact moment I thought this cinema affair could one day equal or rival music. Having moved to Sydney to pursue a career in music with my band in early 1989 (aged 18), upon visiting my parents in Canberra a year or so later I returned with Dad to Electric Shadows – the scene of all my best Canberra movie memories and an enormously important place for a slowly percolating film love.4 The film we chose was Crimes and Misdemeanours (Woody Allen, 1989). Afterwards, Dad and I had a drink and discussed what we’d seen. Explaining why he found Woody intensely annoying as a screen presence, Dad prompted me to realise and articulate how interesting and appealing I actually found this unique writer-director-actor figure who totally undermined male screen heroism yet was somehow in his way intensely charismatic and appealing (to both genders), and even attractive. We were both equally struck by the sophisticated presentation of the film’s serious themes and how successfully it combined humour and gravity, encouraging us to see moral complexity across the story’s dual strands encapsulating the banal and the tragic.

What struck me so much at the time about Woody’s film was how brazenly it appeared to engage with and even reluctantly embrace a kind of nihilistic philosophy. The guy who orders a murder and another guy who manipulates reality and other people as a TV documentary producer are equally capable of sleeping very well at night. The final scene where Woody’s character learns this awful, everyday yet vertiginous truth flawed me for its apparent rightness. As with Gilliam, upon my full immersion in European cinema – especially Ingmar Bergman and Fellini – I would for some time later distance myself from Woody, but that screening of Crimes and Misdemeanours offered perhaps the most vital, generative portal of all.

Crimes and Misdemeanours (Woody Allen, 1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanours (Woody Allen, 1989)

It is perhaps odd that the above turning point was an experience shared with my father, Gavin. My mother, Gail, was always the passionate film lover in our family. She told me: “Woody’s stuff is alright, but nothing compared to The Seventh Seal, October, and above all, Citizen Kane.” Mum was a high-school geography teacher (and later Russophile, leading 20 trips to the USSR/Russia, and writing a book about it) whose autodidact love of film and passion for politics prompted her to move into the then-new area of media studies in the early 1980s. I would soon come to agree that the above films and their directors – Bergman, Sergei Eisenstein and Orson Welles – were more important in the grand story of cinema per se – but not in my own journey towards it. I have naturally seen many more films with Mum than Dad through the years, and a sort of “confirmation” memory I have for the importance of cinema in my life is going with Mum to see Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colours: Red, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994) upon its release at the Academy Twin cinema in Paddington, Sydney, aged 24. I had been rather lukewarm about Three Colours: Blue, the first in Kieslowski’s trilogy (and missed the intervening White), but this new film blew us both away.

The sheer artistry in the framing of each image from Red, the apparent gravity of the story and overall thematic suggestion or “mist” of this film were expansively unpacked during the Thai dinner Mum and I shared afterwards. I was by this stage mid-way through my undergraduate degree, specialising as much as possible in film studies but, happily, not quite able or inclined to contextualise and critically evaluate what I was seeing on this occasion. I would later develop an aversion to Kieslowski’s late style, but the impact of Three Colours: Red and resulting discussion was like the follow-up to Crimes and Misdemeanours a few years earlier, an experience now appropriately shared with my more committed film-lover parent. Never having watched it since, I fear I would not like Red nearly as much now, thereby destroying the vibrant, virtual version of the film in my mind and the sheer nostalgia for that screening and evening of intense parental bonding over art.

Focus and Commitment

My period as an undergraduate student coincided with the period during which I fully “committed” to cinema, although I always remained highly autodidactic – as is entirely normal for a flowering obsession. But this was also in part a response to the fact that my university film education coincided with peak postmodernist, poststructuralist, and postcolonial academic enthusiasms, and via young lecturers at a newly accredited university, I experienced at full force the great reaction against cinema’s previous “canon” – including the post-war modernist European filmmakers I now loved. Concurrently developing an obsession with Bergman, Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni in particular, then many other directors of the same period, it seemed like only Jean-Luc Godard and to some degree Resnais remained relevant or “acceptable” in my lecturers’ mid-‘90s eyes and minds.

Though frustrating at the time, I naturally soon realised that in addition to my own pursuit of such passions outside the classroom, I was also receiving a quality (if often slightly piecemeal) education across the fields of genre, gender, feminist, and postcolonial studies, and political cinema, alongside a decent grounding in key theory. The apparent excising by my undergraduate lecturers, and certainly the contemporary film studies literature we were given to read, of the kind of cinema I loved amounted to a censoring of film history, I became convinced, or at least an overreaction against a previous generation’s focus thereon, leaving a hole where the centre of film studies audiovisual texts once stood (as some present-day scholarship has recently explored). But it played a not inconsiderable part in my attraction to modernist art movies. The lure of the formerly prominent, and now suppressed!

The vagaries, fashions, and polemics of film and humanities scholarship aside, the international business of film festivals, retrospectives, and restorations of long-celebrated auteurs’ work forever, happily, rolls on. So, during the first half of my degree, a new portal opened up thanks to the travelling Fellini retrospective at the commercial (long gone) Greater Union Pitt street cinema in the middle of Sydney’s CBD. By far the most important film I saw there, and the most astonishing big-screen aesthetic experience of my life to that time, was the director’s Otto e mezzo (8 ½, 1963), with a couple of new uni friends. Following Crimes, then, Red, this was the culmination of a kind of slow, “personal initiation” art cinema trilogy, each film or portal exponentially more substantial. How extraordinary the delicate dance of meaning and ambiguity when the viewer is faced with the astonishingly layered audiovisual generativity offered by Fellini in collaboration with magician-like cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo (my vote for the greatest of all monochrome lens-men). A new clarity now emerged in my developing taste. Barely having to follow a narrative this time, all the better to fully surrender to the notion that the realms of reality, dream, fantasy, past, present, and future, are inextricably bound – as perhaps in life – I realised that the kind of cinema I really loved did offer a loose story, but a fairly simple one that required little of the viewer’s mental powers to follow, so that most of (in this case) his attention could luxuriate in pure sound-vision combinations and their potential but never settled, always shifting thematic allusions.

8 ½ (Federico Fellini)

8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

While I continued to cement my love of formerly canonical European cinema outside university courses, I certainly discovered many new pleasures inside my classes. Peter McGregor, an avowed “anarcho-syndicalist” lecturer (who set Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life as our primary media studies text, while, in film studies subjects, he offered solid grounding in classic film criticism and theory), introduced me to political-era Godard via Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard/Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972), plus now-obscure titles such as Themroc (Claude Faraldo, 1973). To Canadian-Australian Hart Cohen I owe thanks for initiating me into the realms of postcolonial and transnational film studies and theory, via films such as Les Maîtres fous (Jean Rouch, 1955), and, especially important, the work of Raúl Ruiz with Het dak van de Walvis (On Top of the Whale, 1982). Screened on faded 16mm prints specially transported from the Australian National Archive in Canberra, all these films were well-worn (especially the more popular titles), with often unreadable subtitles, the colour titles being mainly pink. But by far the single most powerful experience and portal that opened up for me at university took place in a film melodrama course run by Anne Rutherford: Zangiku monogatari (Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939).

Like many young males, I was initially nonplussed by the notion of melodrama, but upon seeing Mizoguchi’s film (and many others in the course by figures such as Guru Dutt, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and of course Douglas Sirk) any gender and class prejudice melted away. But more than Chrysanthemum’s exquisite and truly devastating melodrama, Mizoguchi’s celebrated framing – about which I had not yet read – utterly floored me. Along with Antonioni, who I had also recently embraced, this film enabled me to declare: It’s all in the frame! The use of various domestic and other forms of architecture, vertical formations such as lamp-posts and trees (often, I discovered, artificially placed by the director), and precise orchestration of bodies therein and in relation to the camera, resulted in a cinema that for me makes this filmmaker perhaps the greatest ever, and certainly the supreme master of what I continue to feel is film art’s beating heart: mise en scène and framing. (Or what David Bordwell in his 2005 book Figures Traced in Light calls “staging”, another very apposite word for Mizoguchi’s work.) While seeing 8 ½ spurred me more immediately into confirming my love of European cinema, Chrysanthemum has ultimately had the more long-lasting and ultimately substantive impact. Both discoveries were pivotal.

Becoming ever more obsessed to seek out the cinema I loved also prompted me to look for reading that addressed it (which, like the films, had no presence in my university courses). Such dedicated books, it may surprise some readers to know, were not especially abundant in the mid ‘90s (certainly compared to the 1970s and today). Around this time when visiting Mum, I looked for a tome held together with pluming tape I vaguely remembered from years earlier, Louis Giannetti’s Understanding Movies (the 3rd edition, from 1982, as I later realised upon recognising the cover). Now I read Giannetti more extensively, soon marvelling at stills from L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), and desperately wanting to see the film after reading the author’s account. I had seen Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1969), both of which I considered okay but time-locked and a little boring.5 But Giannetti had me intrigued.

L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

Having formed a university film society, I programmed L’avventura, which no one in attendance had seen before. Seeing this film was in many ways the most significant portal of all, both personally and professionally. (No filmmaker has occupied more of my focus as a published film scholar than Antonioni in the intervening years). I had read of the uproar greeting the film at its Cannes debut before Roberto Rossellini and others forced a second screening (after which it was awarded a special prize for “seeking to invent a new cinematic language”). Its power to divide audiences, I was astonished and excited to find, seemed undimmed three and a half decades later (and more recently still, I have noted). The 20-odd students and lone staff member present at the film society screening were bitterly divided, with myself, another student, and the media production teacher convinced we had seen a seminal film in our own lives as well as “official” cinema history – one that seemed to make all others appear aesthetically lazy and merely functional, especially in their approach to framing and overall composition. The remaining majority of the audience declared the movie one of the most boring they had ever endured. I rushed out and bought the only then-recent (and still best) English-language book on the director, Antonioni by Sam Rohdie.6

One of my first peer-reviewed scholarly articles was devoted to L’avventura (published by Senses of Cinema in 2003),7 which sought to address the dual nature of its radically enlarged rendering of space and time at the expense of narrative or protagonistic energy and movement. While, like most devotees of the director, I came to see Antonioni’s subsequent L’eclisse (1962) as even better, the memory of that 16mm film society screening of L’avventura remains indelible: my most vital first encounter with what is now broadly understood as a crucial, enormously influential film enabling the escalation of post-war modernist cinema. The intricate focus on precise, beautiful yet also unusual sound-image combinations (including those trademark shots of protagonists turning away from the camera, the viewer left looking at rather abstract backs of heads) – the much-admired composition of individual shots, but also (much less discussed) the equally masterful, perceptually disorienting editing – plus the film’s palpable yet always rather elusive thematic address, always operating in uneasy partnership with the director’s central interest in the inherent ambiguity of the sound-image and reality itself, means that I can watch L’avventura and other peak Antonioni any number of times.

Here, I soon realised, is the kind of cinema I loved most, one that downplays narrative movement and thematic suggestion – importantly, without entirely disappearing either – in favour of a prominent focus on audiovisual style and ambiguity, yet ever-pregnant with potential meaning due to the film being set within recognisably real environments and socio-political contexts. Like great music (here lies the real connection), such cinema remains ever-green, coming alive and changing subtly with each viewing.

Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

Another seminal experience that further cemented my particular love for the first half-decade of the 1960s occurred upon watching L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961) on a big screen, with Liz. I had already watched and admired the film on VHS, but now (again the Third Eye was our venue) it was a revelation – genuinely mysterious, fecund, and always elusive. Seeing these exquisite 2.35:1 images blown up, Marienbad was truly science fiction-like, and – as with the central man and woman in the film – we couldn’t agree on what, when, or where, the truth lay. This film, in particular, soon became for me a kind of line-in-the-sand. Even some Resnais fans and scholars wishing to “rescue” this era of modernist art cinema balk at the film, seek to make excuses for it, or overlay and ascribe thematic preoccupations borne of our own era. Even at the time, and through the years, the film divided people (I recall Mum saying, “You don’t like that damned Last Year at Marienbad, do you?”), despite its doing very well at the box office as a “pretentious scandal”. The lengthy tracking shots combined with unparallelled non-linear editing and grand, abstract, confronting-yet-playful dispositif as experienced on a big screen has, to my mind, never been bettered – by Resnais or anyone.

Aware of my tendency to Eurocentric taste, and seeming to enjoy what many people deemed “slow” cinema (little did they know how slow world cinema could be!), I soon headed east for what would become the final portal I address: Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979), at the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney with friends. I am fairly sure I’d already seen the film on video, but – as with Antonioni and Resnais – here was a true advertisement for the benefits of big-screen experience. Despite being slightly put off by the lingering didacticism of Stalker/Tarkovsky in the film, and sensing a loose mysticism that I parted company with, the sheer event, spectacle and unique “embodied” experience generated by encountering this (as with the above titles) influential but never equalled film in optimal conditions for the first time was unique and unforgettable. I had never before so intensely and confrontingly felt the sheer affective material-yet-virtual power of cinema, with my body (including mind) becoming utterly incorporated, feeling soggy, cold, and increasingly desperate throughout the film’s lengthy middle sequence, and utterly exhausted by the end, all the while ravished by genuinely sublime images. I had never seen such sparse-yet-fertile mise en scène as this, so alive it was like watching – and uncomfortably merging with – an alien organism. Whether the viewer initially “enjoys” an experience like this was, I now realised, quite beside the point.

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

My response to L’avventura, Marienbad, and Stalker in particular, but a great many other films also encountered during the full on rush of what had been a formerly gradual affair, and subsequently – such as John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970), an important slightly later portal – demonstrated a point I try and drill into undergraduate students: Don’t put undue pressure on yourself, or a film, to “like” it immediately.8 Just be open to the experience. Encounters with most cinema I have become an advocate for nearly always put the question of immediately liking a film out of frame. Rather, the initial sensation is one of sheer intensity. In the case of films I come to really love, after initial viewing I don’t typically know if I like them (possibly even after a second screening), because, I came to conclude, to like something right away means it likely resembles the already familiar, and may well fade from memory because requiring no active work and growth. But with time, an experience we don’t know what to make of can prompt a new cell, or cluster, to germinate in the mind/heart thanks to that strange, initially alien (or alienating) encounter, enabling a new portal to pleasures as yet unknown.


  1. Learning that the first Baker series, one of seven, is finally due for remastered box set release at the time of writing, my childhood nostalgia is instantly activated!
  2. Despite attending a progressive school – so not relating too much to Roger Waters’ angst-ridden denunciations of formal education’s conservative ideological power – what young teenager circa 1983 didn’t enjoy some cathartic wailing against parental authority?
  3. So its manager told me, although she never answered my half-joking query: “I hope you get good cleaners in around 6, then”.
  4. Electric Shadows included both the cinema and an excellent book store, which doubled as a unique video rental outlet offering copious UK imports of seminal European and Japanese films on VHS a great many of which I would borrow and dub on Mum’s twin VCR when visiting.
  5. This response was no doubt largely impacted by only having watched pan-and-scan VHS versions. Of all wide-screen filmmakers, is anyone’s work more destroyed, made literally pointless, by deleting chunks of the image than Antonioni’s?
  6. Sam Rohdie, Antonioni (London: BFI Publishing, 1990).
  7. http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/l_avventura_deleuze/
  8. Applying this criteria when meeting people, how many interesting potential friends would we miss out on because they initially rubbed us up the wrong way?

About The Author

Hamish Ford is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle, and a regular contributor to Senses of Cinema.

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