Vague Visages Writers’ Room: Formative Films

In the Vague Visages Writers’ Room on Slack, freelancers were asked to comment about films that influenced their formative years.

Tom Williams (@tomwilliams__), Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

I watched a lot of similarly-casted bro comedies in my formative years, but perhaps the most frequently revisited was Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Starring the quintessentially noughties faces of Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor — not to mention an iconic cameo from Jason Bateman — Dodgeball is as much about dodging balls as it is about excelling in the face of adversity. Sure, the characters are pretty standard for the era — the fat geek, the skinny geek, the normal one, the pirate? But, as funny as they are to a young teen, they are all packed with heart and each have a worthy smattering of a story separate to the main narrative. Is there anything more heart-breaking than watching Steve the Pirate being mocked on the streets, or Gordon being mocked by his mail-order wife? Take away the insurmountable number of quotes my brothers and I still regurgitate from this movie, there is an honest tale about the importance of being yourself. And is there any better message than that for an insecure teenage boy?

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25), Chinatown (1974)

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”

In response to J. J. Gittes in Chinatown, Noah Cross says “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future. Now, where’s the girl? I want the only daughter I’ve got left. As you found out, Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago.”

The future. I still remember the first time I heard Cross speak about the future, revealing how man — at his most primal — is capable of ANYTHING. It sent a chill down my spine, and it still does. Eight years ago, I knew nothing about the movie Chinatown, with the exception of recognizing Jack Nicholson. When the credits in gold flashed the names John Huston, Roman Polanski, Faye Dunaway and Robert Evans, I was just twiddling my thumbs, waiting for what I thought was a typical 1940s crime caper to begin. By the end of my viewing, I had been treated to a much richer experience — one that would forever shape my passion for cinema and my understanding of the human condition. What first struck me were the gorgeous visuals and crisp film editing. Polanski used these throughout the film as his primary story telling tools, rather than the long winded exposition to which I had become accustomed to in my viewings of Humphrey Bogart movies. This type of filmmaking immediately attracted my attention and inspired my interest in visual storytelling. The big takeaway for me, however, was the bleakness of the film’s ending. It is unsettling that the villain Cross does not receive the swift justice he deserves. This is what makes Chinatown essential viewing. Gittes’ character arc doesn’t attain resolution. Instead, screenwriter Robert Townes forces viewers to contemplate the themes of the movie on their own. This ensures a need for a repeat viewing. It also instills the harsh reality that life is not always fair.

Walter Neto (@wfcneto), Closer (2004)

I was 16 when I saw Mike Nichols’s Closer. Today, I still remember how it was advertised as another romcom starring Julia Roberts. I must confess I was one of those people who saw it exactly because Roberts was cast, and I also remember how people were pissed off after my theatrical screening. I don’t know why, but I remember feeling sick after the film — something was bothering me. And even though I was supposed to meet some friends later that day, I went straight back home. I needed to be alone. I think about this day a lot. I was only 16 and hadn’t experienced a long-term relationship, so why did this kind of film hit me so close to home? I couldn’t stop thinking about that opening shot with Natalie Portman walking through the streets of London and then getting hit by a car. Everything happened too fast. The four main characters meet, they fall for each other, they cheat on each other — and it all happens with the fastest and sharpest dialogue I had ever heard. These characters — played wonderfully by Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen — were so entangled with each other that you couldn’t tell them apart by the end of the film. I remember talking with a teacher about Closer. She gave me her copy of a book about cinema — it was a sort of dictionary with the names of angles, movements and other things. Not long after, I knew that I was going to shoot a film, write a screenplay or write about the films I had seen. Since that day when I watched Closer, cinema gained a whole different meaning and place in my life. So, thank you, Mike Nichols — wherever you are — and thank you, Jackeline, my literature teacher. I hope you end up reading some of the things I’ve written about.

Kimberly Pierce (@kpierce624), The Rocketeer (1991)

Everyone has some movie they look back on with the rose-colored tint of nostalgia. It doesn’t matter how much time passes, or how good the movie is in actuality. It will always holds a special place in our hearts. For me, The Rocketeer holds this rarified spot. The 1991 Disney film ticks all my boxes: period piece, a depiction of classic Hollywood, delightful art deco pulpy visuals and, finally, Jennifer Connelly. While I was only five years old when the movie first hit theaters, the fact that the adorable action film was one of my favorites seems oddly prescient. The visual and narrative styles, the cultural examination and even the costume design all proved to be so formative for me that I still see them influencing my tastes, my work and even my fashion as a 32-year-old writer.

Max Covill (@mhcovill), Tokyo Story (1953)

When the prompt for this week’s group post was announced, a few films came to mind instantly. The film that stood out the most was Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Outside of being a devastating film about neglect and changing times, Tokyo Story influenced me as a filmmaker. When I was working on a short film of my own, I was looking for ideas of how I could make my short more intimate. In this film, Ozu employed a style where he would put the camera low, known as a Tatami Shot, with the camera positioned at waist height. This is to accommodate sitting on a tatami mat and giving viewers the same focal point as if they were eating with the characters. Ozu was also a master of minimalism. He accomplished so much in his films with the simple positioning of his camera, and Tokyo Story is no different. This is a deeply personal film that is still as vital today as it was in 1953. Family is universal and Tokyo Story touches everyone who watches it. As a young man who was trying to put together a short film, I could not have found a better example of craft and style than this heart-wrenching drama. There is a reason why it is consistently named among the best films ever made.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer), Roadkill (1989)

A film which had a profound effect on me as an early adolescent was Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill (1989). As its trailer declares: “it’s Canadian, it’s independent, it’s low budget.” I saw Roadkill on late-night TV — this was a time when one could stumble upon something offbeat in the small hours — and it served as a useful primer for seeing Eraserhead (1977) a few weeks later. I remember very little about the film, but its woozy monochrome ambiance — coupled perhaps with my sleep-deprived state — left a powerful impression. One sequence is imprinted on my memory: a performer called Nash the Slash, his face wrapped in bandages like the Invisible Man, sings to a harsh industrial backing while hacking at a violin.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), La Bamba (1987)

In 1987, I was seven years old and coming to grips with my parents’ divorce. Back then, movies represented an escape, though I didn’t realize it at the time. In addition, I don’t recall that any of my friends had divorced parents. So, while many kids were geeking out over comic books and movies like Star Wars, I drifted towards films that in some way reflected my own experiences. I distinctly remember being terrified and inspired after watching La Bamba. And then I learned that not only was Ritchie Valens a real person, but that he died en route to Fargo-Moorhead, just 20 miles away from my hometown of Barnesville, Minnesota. Then I learned that my aunt attended the concert that was supposed to feature Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. Soon thereafter, I began taking guitar lessons (from the son-in-law of that same aunt), this coming after my parents bought me an acoustic for my birthday.

So, my creative impulses can be directly tied to La Bamba. In 1987, I wrote my first short story, “Charlie the Robot,” and read it to my first grade class. I thought less about my parents’ divorce and more about history books — maybe I realized that life could be worse. The plane crash in La Bamba scared me, along with the characters’ reactions, but I hadn’t experienced anything like THAT. And so I kept watching more movies and connected with friends through sports. “La Bamba” became a favorite karaoke song when I got older, and I overcame my fear of airplanes. Today, I’m still learning to fly.