What I learned from five old movies
7 min read

What I learned from five old movies

Some lessons learned from some classics.
What I learned from five old movies

I love favorites lists. I love reading them, I love hearing others’ favorite films, TV shows, books, albums, bands. Whatever it is, I'm keen to hear it. It provides a much more nuanced and intriguing slice of intel about another person than the usual 'So, where are you from?' questions.

I have one problem however: I'm terrible at putting my own lists together.

I panic, I start seeing 300 options which I can't possibly fit into only five slots. And whatever I say today may well greatly differ tomorrow.

But, a deep effort has been made, and below are five films I've selected from the depths of my brain that make me feel a great spark light-up inside a teenage Simon's mind.

You know what I mean: the moment you watch or you read something that sets something alight inside of you, a warm glow that lasts in you forever. Something you can return to throughout your life and be transported right back to a younger, or former, self.

So, here is my list, and a little ramble as to why they mean something to me. They are all films they put me on a path to learning the fundamentals.


Apocalypse Now

It's just perfection. The distorted helicopter sounds begin before you even see the trees. Then napalm smoke rises, the yellow off-set beautifully against the green of the trees.

We sit in the darkness, silently waiting. And then 'The Doors' begins to play. If ever a guitar chord found its home in an image, it's this.

An entire minute passes. Imagine sitting in the cinema in the 70s with no idea of what is to come. Listening to 'The Doors' play and for one full minute - an eternity in 'cinema time' - just watching trees across the screen.

Then you hear Jim Morrison tell you “This is the end”, and all hell breaks loose.

The forest burns and we see Captain Willard laying there. The images overlay each other, and you instantly see the chaos of the Viet Nam war and its impact on the human soul.

From the jungle, to the bedroom, a bottle of whisky and a gun by the pillow.

Still gives me goosebumps.

This scene like much of the film made you feel you were in living inside a real, chaotic world, demanding your full attention. Just thinking about it now I remember how eye-opening that moment was for me.

Goodfellas

Goodfellas was my introduction to the masterful directing of Martin Scorsese. Just writing that made me feel the 'wow' moment again.

To me, he's the ultimate director: able to marry character, narrative, cinematography, music, and just about everything together with perfection. A real master.

After I saw this with a friend, who was already a Scorsese aficionado, I began devouring everything he made.

One single shot in particular has remained with me all these years. I remember watching it over and over, thrilled by imaging the experience of putting such a piece of theatre together.

As an aside, I also loved the homage to Goodfellas in Doug Liman’s Swingers.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Each frame of this movie could be framed and hung on a wall. But what made it most powerful for me was opening my eyes to magic realism in film. Characters could float! Need I say more?!

Even the fight scenes were beautiful – something I hadn’t seen before.

This kind of reality was a long way from what I was used to. If people could fly, they were superheroes. Otherwise, they walked. But after watching this I remember thinking: ‘But why not?’

This was the magic of storytelling: when it's your story, people are capable of doing anything imaginable.

I saw this in the cinema and quickly bought the DVD as soon as it was released. I was lucky that my stepdad had just purchased a fancy widescreen TV with surround sound.

Sitting in the middle of my living room (and I made sure I got the spot directly in the middle) and hearing the trees sway and watching the brilliant greens on screen was a moment I’ll never forget.

I probably watched it 20 times in the space of a few months, just letting the beauty of it play out in front of me over and over and over, relishing that I could replay a little piece of cinema back at home.

Something else caught my attention: the deliberate moments of silence. The instances of air, of space, of peace.

When it comes to communication, most people are scared of silence. If there is an enduring pause, people tend to want to fill it.

Director Ang Lee took away the distraction of sound, aside from a breeze, and added space for the audience to observe the masterful cinematography, exemplified in the moments with the trees or the movements of people.

I was also learning the electric guitar at that time. I had a guitar magazine and distinctly remember one story about Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, explaining his ability to use space and silence between notes to make something 'more'. That made a big impression on me.

I discovered that ‘nothing’ is something, and can bring something to art.

Trainspotting

I was too young to see this movie in the cinema on release, but that didn't stop me being a fan of it before I even saw it.

Once in a while art taps into cultural moments and actually helps fuel it, and Trainspotting did just that - so much so I had this poster on my bedroom wall.

I was 13 at the time at it was the height of 'Cool Britannia' in the UK - a period where Oasis, Blur and, ahem, the Spice Girls stormed onto the scene, a time when London felt like a creative and dynamic city rather than just a really expensive place, and a time where people generally felt quite positive after the depressing 80s.

Trainspotting was the like the cool, risky sibling of that era. The movie was a huge hit and the trailer and posters were everywhere.

I loved the poster and, much to the disappointment of my mother, quickly bought one to hang over my bed.

The bright orange/white contrast with the black and white photos, the aggressive posses looking at me directly in the eyes, the (to me at least) unusual but instantly memorable names or Sick Boy, Spud and Renton. And, that little number 18 next to the title, meaning you had to be 18 to see it, was even a statement for a 13 year old like me.

Needless to say I found ways to see it sooner once it was released on VHS (yes, VHS!). But that almost didn't matter, I already loved it. The poster stayed with me for many years.

Dr Strangelove

World-class acting, comedy, surrealism, political messaging, chiaroscuro, and Kubrick at the helm. There's a lot going on.

I can't say on first viewing I entirely got it. When I started getting serious about movie watching I began, as most do, by searching for, and watching, the classics list.

I watched Citizen Kane, apparently the ‘best film ever’, but at the age of 16 I just felt bored. As a budding film enthusiast, I felt guilty and stupid for not agreeing with the critics. But it was a powerful lesson in how personal film-watching truly is, and how everyone’s experience is unique.

Dr. Strangelove stuck with me, but it also confused me.

It felt so different, so odd. But I kept watching it again, and again, and each time I watched I felt like I would unlock a new meaning or understanding of a scene. It was thrilling to slowly discover the film over time, and to this day it still is.

Take this scene for example. How on earth would someone think of that? Communists stealing your essence?! It was like a bolt of genius.

Some things just stick in your mind like a little splinter that can't quite be reached until it's ready.

This film was that for me: my brain saw some genius, but young Simon wasn't entirely ready yet, so it hung around in my subconscious and the splinter revealed itself when it was good and ready.


Each of these movies are so different in their own ways, yet still found a way to connect with a young kid in England. I was and am not certainly not unique - that's how it is for everyone, as long as they have the chance to explore what's out there.

The key message here is how our interests and passions are non-linear. What grabs our attentions from one day to the next can appear very different: it can be Trainspotting one day and Crouching Tiger the next. And why not?

I think it's important to keep this in mind when creating anything. These movies appear different but tap into very human wants and narratives.

Importantly, they're also risky. Each director had a vision and took a risk, pushing boundaries in pursuit of the vision they had in their heads, and founds ways to make that vision connect with millions of people. Still a lot of lessons for me to learn, that's for sure...

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more