Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

It’s been said by people much smarter (and more knowledgeable) than I am (like Roger Ebert and Francois Truffaut) that the experience of watching a film is one that can be not just entertaining but deeply profound, truly cathartic, and singularly moving. Of course, it helps with me that I’ve been practically obsessed with cinema for 15-20 years or so, and I frequently watch at least 100 (sometimes 150) new movies each calender year. And that’s not even including older films (seen for the first time or the dozenth time) I watch. Yes, I think obsessed is a pretty good word for it. But you would be as well if you’ve had as many experiences (in as many venues) that I’ve had of a film just digging itself deep into your soul (and subconscious) in a way you never really expected. This is a list of some such experiences.

Over the years I’ve done a few lists of some of my favorite moviegoing experiences of all-time, but those were all limited to theatrical screenings. Here, I’ll be looking back at the moviewatching experiences (regardless of venue) that have had the strongest lasting impression on me. I hope you enjoy!

1) “Keeping the Faith” in Ohio. (June 2000)- My entire experience in Ohio during the summer of 2000 has been discussed often, and may very well be written about again. For now, though, I’m going to focus on one particular day. It was the day I was originally to fly back down to Georgia after three weeks of visiting my grandfather and other relatives. My grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer back in March, and it was particularly difficult for me considering how close we’d become over the years. It was harder still to see him this way. Well, on this particular day he was to get news back from the doctor about a recent CT Scan he’d had. Well, by the time I’d come to visit him that day after getting the mail, he’d heard the news that his cancer had been terminal, and he was on the phone with my aunt Nancy for advice as to how to tell me. Regardless of how he had tried to soften the blow, however, it still stung, and I was in tears as I went home to spread the news and try to deal with it on my own. Later that day I went to go visit my aunt and my cousin Chad in the evening, but in the meantime I needed to get away. So I went to see Edward Norton’s “Keeping the Faith” for my sixth and final time during my three weeks up there. It didn’t make the pain go away, but it did help me cope by making me think about the friends and family I had around me for support. It still resonates with a healing truth and light this day.

2) A Priceless Discount: Watching “The Crow.” (July 1994)- I’d heard much about “The Crow” over the months since it had been released, from friends and the press that made me all the more curious to see it. But time was short, and my movie habit was in its infancy. My earlier purchase of the hit song soundtrack only made me more curious to see what all the fuss was about. Finally, on what would be its final day at the 6-plex discount theatre out at Town Center, I made a trip to go see it before band practice. I have never forgotten that experience. The movie left an indelible impression that would only grow as I waited impatiently for the film to come out on video so I could watch it again. And again. And again. From that point until a few years ago (say around 2007), the late Brandon Lee’s finest starring vehicle would rate as my favorite film of all-time. It’s no longer #1 at the moment, but it still holds #2 by a wide margain. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

3) A Birthday Double-Feature at the Fox. (August 2006)- For much of 2006, my anxieties and worries held a stranglehold on my ability to be happy and to just enjoy the company of good friends. On my 29th birthday, those anxieties were out of my mind for much of the day and certainly in the evening, when a dozen of my closest friends at the time and I journeyed down to the Fabulous Fox Theatre for a fortuitous birthday treat- a double feature of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart classics “The Maltese Falcon” and “Key Largo.” Most of the people there hadn’t seen either of them; I hadn’t seen “Key Largo,” although really, several of us were having a hard time staying awake for that one. Hey, it was 10pm by the time that one got started, ok? But as much fun as the screenings were, before and after them was better; whether it was Ron & I driving down and back with Megan and Caitlin or if it was a bunch of us hanging out and gabbing at Steak & Shake for a late dinner, it was a birthday to remember for all the right reasons.

4) Taking a “Chance” in ‘Bama With Amber Benson. (September 2002)- By 2002 my list of celebrity crushes reached novalistic proportions. From the early blushing at Gwyneth Paltrow and Claire Danes to the almost accidental discovery of Sarah Michelle Gellar courtesy of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” there were few actresses I hadn’t had eyes for over the years. Then in 2000 along comes Amber Benson as lesbian wicca Tara on “Buffy” and well, she’s pretty much had my heart ever since. But it wasn’t just her beauty that sold me on her-Benson’s talent in front of (and behind) the camera has also been a contributing factor. So when I caught word that her writing/directing/starring debut “Chance” (which she made on weekends during her stint on “Buffy”) was going to have its debut at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in her hometown of Birmingham in September 2002, well, I did everything I could to make it, including collecting as much change and small bills as I could to not only get me gas for the trip but also a ticket. And even though I still arrived earlier than I’d hoped (due to my forgetting about the time change) it was still packed with other “Amberholics” who had come from near and far to watch her labor of love. And did I mention she was going to be there with some of the other cast and crew to answer questions after the screening? It was my first film festival experience, and it was one I’ll never forget.

5) A Birthday in Nilbog With Bützer. (October 2006)- There’s something to be said about the home viewing experience. When friends and loved ones get together to share a cinematic experience together. I’ve made many great ones over the years, but never one like I did when I went to my friend Jeffrey’s house for his birthday one year. The numbers alone made it a great social event, but it wasn’t until Jeffrey pulled out his DVD of the infamously-bad “Troll 2” to show off one particularly hideous moment of writing and performance that the party became legendary. You see, after taking us through that moment he started us back at the beginning, and what followed was a howlingly-funny “shot-by-shot” commentary that cannot be discussed in any rationale manner. It’s one of those things where you just had to be there, and damn am I glad I was.

6) A Boy, His Mother and a Hit Man Walk Into a Theatre… (December 1994)- Would you believe that it took me two MONTHS to finally watch Quentin Tarantino’s game-changer, “Pulp Fiction?” It’s the truth. Admittedly, I wasn’t sold on the film when I saw the trailers, and even though friends of mine spoke highly about the film, and I even borrowed the soundtrack from one of them, I didn’t come around until the Christmas break of ’94. My mother HAD wanted to see it, and shortly after December 25, she finally got me to see it. I haven’t been the same since. It’s not just that Tarantino ranks among my favorite filmmakers, but the film deepened my entire appreciation for the art form. I began watching more daring, adventurous films, and independent films became a regular part of my moviewatching diet. I can’t say I’m surprised: like many moviegoers, I didn’t see this film coming.

7) “Star Wars” on the big screen…finally. (January 1997)- Okay, now before you fanboys rail on at me and say, “But…but, that was the Special Edition. Really?”, let me just say that yes, I’m aware I’m putting the beginning of the end for many fans on my list of greatest moviewatching experiences. However, some context. Like many people in my generation, I grew up weaned on “Star Wars.” It was one of the great touchstones of my cinematic life. I watched the movies countless times on VHS; I played with the toys; and I remember my first time watching “Return of the Jedi” on the big-screen, although that was as much for the projection problems as anything. So with such vivid memories surrounding George Lucas’s saga, WHY did I decide to include one of the most frustrating moments in the franchise’s life? Because I hadn’t been born yet when the original “Star Wars” was out in theatres, and during the first rereleases, I wasn’t old enough to really remember watching it, so the ’97 Special Edition re-release was my first, real opportunity to see it on the big screen, and for this lifelong “Star Wars” fan, it was a real eye-opener, even if the changes Lucas made continue to irk me to this day.

8) “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Fox. (June 2002)- I’ve had many a great experiences watching movies at Atlanta’s own Fabulous Fox Theatre, including the one discussed @ #3. My first one was watching “Twister” at the Fox for it’s Atlanta premiere, but without a question, my favorite is watching Stanley Kubrick’s milestone of science-fiction in glorious 70mm. It was the first time I have seen the film outside of my house or college dorm room (and, I believe, the first time I had seen it in widescreen), and as with “Star Wars” in ’97, it was quite an experience, seeing details I had never really seen before. And the sonic experience of Kubrick’s bold soundtrack, with its emphasis on mood and ambiance over ear-shattering loudness, still rates as one of the most pleasurable aural experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theatre. If you ever get the chance to see “2001” this way, don’t turn it down.

9) “Schindler’s List’s” first television broadcast. (February 1997)- By the time Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama made it’s controversial, relatively-unedited debut on network television, I had seen it once in theatres, and a couple of times on home video. Up until that time, I admired the film on an artistic level, and no doubt, the story moved me as many do. However, it wasn’t until watching the movie on NBC during college, in my dorm room, until the profound emotional impact of Spielberg’s Oscar-winning hit me for the first time. As a moviewatcher, I finally began maturing, starting to think actively about what movies were saying, and how they were saying it. Of course, I still found enjoyment in mindless movies such as “Con Air,” “The Big Hit,” and “Murder at 1600,” but I was beginning to look for more out of my movies than just two hours away from real-life. I was looking for something that made me think about life in a deeper way.

10) “Fantasia/2000” on IMAX. (March 2000)- Admittedly, this doesn’t have the personal, emotional impact of any of the experiences above it on this list, or even of some below it. But my first time traveling out to the Regal Mall of Georgia in Buford, Ga. to experience “Fantasia/2000,” Disney’s 60-years-after follow-up to the early studio classic, was one I will never forget. By this time, I had learned that my grandfather had cancer, and he was having a rough time of life. It wasn’t long before my mom would go up to Ohio to help him out with…life. I had gotten into a pretty regular routine, and even though my school workload was beyond stressful by this point, I still found time to go to the movies. This particular trip, I went way North of Atlanta to spend 74 minutes in the relatively-new theatre, the first in Atlanta with an IMAX not devoted to nature documentaries, and was swept away by the musical and visual sensations Roy Disney and conductor James Levine brought to remarkable, unforgettable life in this master opus. Mall of Georgia’s IMAX has provided many other wonderful movie experiences over the years (including “The Dark Knight,” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” “Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith,” “Avatar,” and “Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol”), but none have topped that first one for me.

There are a lot of other experiences I could point to that were just about as meaningful. Watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” on VHS after finishing up finals in 1997– my first experience with the Russian filmmaker, and definitely not my last. My mother and I going to an advanced screening of “Braveheart” at the Tara Cinema in Buckhead– even that night, I knew I had seen an eventual Oscar winner. There’s also the first time I watched Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”– it was an advanced screening with my mom, and three of my dearest friends, and from the second it ended, I knew it was going to be an important film for me in my life. One of my first-ever chances to watch a movie long before it was ready for the public came with my mother, some friends, and myself went to see Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” at a special “work print” screening; the movie was even better by the time it was released in September, three months later. Watching “Jurassic Park” on opening day, and the shock that came when a fellow moviegoer brushed up against the back of my mother’s head during the kitchen/velociraptor scene. Watching “Saving Private Ryan” with my parents, and my grandfather (who fought in the Battle of the Bulge), in August of 1998; it was the last time my father ever went to a movie, and it was certainly a great one for him to go out on. My grandfather has also given me some great experiences as well, and watching the 1998 comedy “Waking Ned Devine” with him, my mother, and my mother’s cousin when he was in assisted living shortly before he passed away in 2000 was a profoundly moving “good bye” for one of our favorite pastimes together.

Of course, those are stories for another time. I hope you enjoyed!

Thanks for listening,

Brian Skutle

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