Youth and the Beast

Should young people feel conflicted about extended bouts of moviegoing? It’s hard to shake the fear that we’re cutting ourselves off from the world, or missing out on more quintessentially youthful experiences—and equally hard to give up the impulse, even the need, that keeps drawing us back, week after week, to small, dark rooms full of people many decades our senior. It helps to have a circle of fellow addicts: you feel better seizing on a single film, awaiting it as if holding out for divine revelation, if you have company along the way.

For my circle, that film was Holy Motors. A few good friends, with whom I run an undergrad film journal up at Columbia, saw it a week or two before me and came back beaming, raving, dropping veiled and cryptic hints. The end result was that, by the time my screening rolled around, I knew pretty much exactly what I was going to see. The ever-elastic Denis Lavant would play just short of a dozen roles as part of a series of "appointments" organized by his loyal chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob, of Eyes Without a Face fame). We’d see Lavant taking off and re-applying makeup for each role; nothing would be hidden, or rationalized. There would be sing-alongs, lullabies and talking cars.

As it turns out, Holy Motors is about what the movies can show—performance, parenthood, adolescent insecurity, love requited and otherwise, domestic bliss, murder, retribution, death, familial affection, and lust in all its many forms. But it is also about what the movies can do and, by extension, what they can’t. Lavant’s Mr. Oscar may dabble in a different sliver of human experience with each appointment, but he’s denied the right to invest in any single one. He’s a tourist in life: carefree, self-serving, craving exhilaration.

And that, the cinema is all too happy to provide. There are moments in Holy Motors that ruffle the senses in ways we’ve never thought to expect, both in the movies and in life, and that remind us just how good cinema is at making us jump, tremble, quake, yelp, and feel. I got what I was expecting: motion-capture-suited bodies contorting around one another, gasping ecstatically, a decrepit leprechaun-man munching on flowers torn from the sides of graves, and one scene involving more than a few accordions that, if there’s any justice, will make it into "Intro to Film" textbooks before the decade’s done. When Holy Motors gets high, it soars.

But if Carax understands the thrill of addiction, it’s as only an addict can, and he’s not above implicating us in his destructive habit. Holy Motors strings itself, and us, along from peak to peak and, as the stretches between peaks start to widen, exhaustion takes hold. Mr. Oscar moves from scene to scene with leaden, grim-faced determination; never has so zany a film felt so weighed down by its own need to carry on the ruse. A tearful deathbed goodbye is cut short when the deceased gets up for his next assignment, but not before turning around and looking at his "niece" (herself on her way to another gig) with something close to longing—longing for a sort of connection that’s permanent, or even simply real.

Is this the fate of those who devote their lives to the movies? To dip in and out of life at will, invest oneself in one world for a few hours, only to trade it in for another? A friend offered the following summary of Holy Motors: "everything’s a movie, and that’s ok." I’m not so sure. Everything’s certainly a movie, but there’s a good chance that that’s not "ok" at all. It’s a strange feeling for a young film nut—seeing a grizzled veteran confess the toll your beloved medium is liable to take on you, as it already has on him.

At this point I’m feeling not only guilty for staying on for a second film, heedless of all Carax’s warnings about excess moviegoing, but also terribly insecure about my film habit in general. Do I really want to devote my life to a medium whose thrills are so ephemeral, one in which emotional investment is somehow optional, or at best low-stakes? At this point, three good friends show up, all of them loyal film-journal partners in crime. We find our seats for the next film, Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air. A Columbia film professor turns out to be sitting right in front of us. She turns around, recognizes the eager young cinephiles behind her, and smiles. "The gang’s all here!" she says. The lights dim.

How often do you get to say that you saw a film, not just at the right period in your life, or even the right year, but the right day and time, in just the right circumstances? An embarrassingly earnest cinephile doing his first-ever film festival coverage, surrounded by people who share his passion, but wary still about how that very passion might inhibit him from making the most of youth, sitting down to watch a film about an embarrassingly earnest young man who… well, you get the picture. Here the obsession isn’t movies but politics—we follow a handful of high-school friends in post-May '68 Paris through a few years of rebellion, zeal, disillusionment, separation, reconnection, and, finally, weary recollection.

What Phillip Lopate said of his college-age moviegoing clan applies for the most part to my own: that "our politics were [in my case are] the politique des auteurs." When you’re young enough and devoted enough, cinephilia can be its own sort of revolution, with its own claim at obeying some exalted higher calling. It’s hard not to smile watching a handful of desperately sincere radicals conspire as if plotting to rebuild the whole of western civilization, when you’ve just spent the previous night in a three-hour staff meeting for a film journal very few people actually read. The difference, of course, is that political zeal lends itself more readily to the sort of restless momentum associated with youth: there’s something seemingly more lively about firebombing a building and sprinting to safety than watching others do the same, no matter how much conviction you pour into the act.

All of which makes it easy, as a young cinephile, to idealize the lives of these kid revolutionaries—for the ardor of their feeling, but also the intensity of their experience—and even to wonder if one’s own life doesn’t suffer in comparison. Something in the Air could be a highlight reel of youth, with its passionate, doomed love affairs, its moments of ecstasy and of self-doubt, its alternating stretches of artistic awakening and frustration, its earnest, often misplaced convictions. I feel like shaking Assayas’ hero when he moans about letting his youth slip by—Assayas, it seems, even gets the feeling of being so caught up in the rush of youth that you don’t have the time, or the perspective, to appreciate it. I think the fact that I wanted to yell, "no, I’m the one letting my youth slip by" proves his point.

Of course, the fact remains that my particular act of youthful devotion revolves around watching others grow up. Something in the Air would be a very different film if its hero had been a movie-hound from the start; as it stands, he comes to cinema as a way not of living youth but re-living it. That it’s by way of the movies that he, and Assayas (is it right, at this point, to distinguish between the two?), learn to cherish their youth after the fact is, for a young and insecure film fanatic, both comforting and a little terrifying. 

It’s one of the special virtues of the movies that they’re capable of making the past feel present, without depriving it of the rosy glow lent it by memory. Something in the Air gives us the chance to inhabit a present pre-drenched in nostalgia, and if there’s one difference between the teen revolutionaries on-screen and this teen cinephile in the crowd, it’s that I always live that way—as if I’m looking back, through the thick haze of memory, on the 19-year-old who just saw Something in the Air for the first time.

Have I, and my fellow young moviegoers, skipped ahead? Have we made into our objects of youthful devotion a medium intended for looking back on youth, and is this why some of us might go through our young adulthood as if we’re already breathing the air of memory? And if so, if everything really is already a movie… is that ok?

Holy Motors has its sole NYFF screening on October 11 at 6:00pm. Something in the Air screens for the final time on October 12 at 6:30pm.

Max Nelson is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy program. You can follow his film journal Double Exposure on Twitter at @2xposure.

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