By André Aciman
A Writer’s Retreat
The Criterion Collection
A dedicated movie buff from my teenage years onward, and an assiduous if not pedantic completist forever seeking out obscure backlist items by favorite auteurs, such as that rare screening of George Cukor’s The Model and the Marriage Broker (Thelma Ritter gives a great performance), I was perfectly willing to go on such hunts by myself, knowing they might strike others as geeky. Did I really need to subject another to uncovering intermittent personal touches in Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot? Still, as a bachelor on the loose, wanting to impress women I was dating while closing a cinephile gap, what better way to win someone over than by treating her to a filmic masterwork? It turned out movie dates proved a problematic seduction tool: cinematic and carnal ravishment sometimes were at cross-purposes.
It started out in high school, when I took Maureen, a lovely senior and in fact the runner-up that year for Miss Venus, to Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc at MoMA. By the time Falconetti had perished in flames, my own hopes for a romantic conclusion to the evening had barbecued. She was not in the mood to snuggle.
But it was another experience years later that crystallized in my mind the quandaries of the movie date. I was going out for the first time with a tall, attractive blonde named Susan who was engaged in numerous antiwar causes. I would be taking her to see Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Story from Chikamatsu (also known as The Crucified Lovers). This 1954 film had never been shown before in New York; it was being screened in a new print at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Theater, and I could not be more eager, because Mizoguchi was perhaps my favorite filmmaker. As it unfolded on-screen, I was in heaven: the picture’s perfectly composed black-and-white images were every bit as magnificent as I had hoped. The tragic tale of a romance between a scroll-maker’s wife and his apprentice, and their doomed attempt to escape punishment and death, had that rich sense of inevitability that I so prized in Mizoguchi: his pacing and ability to keep opening up spaces like a Japanese scroll even as he was closing down narrative possibilities for a happy ending had me in thrall. It was possible for me to absorb the film simultaneously on both dramatic and formal levels: to be pulled into the story of the lovers at the same time as registering every deft shift in camera position, apt lighting choice, judicious cut. When the lights went on, I was almost in tears. Susan seemed thoughtful: over dinner, she said the film was all right, a little dated, perhaps, and wondered why I’d been so moved. I couldn’t explain it to her, nor did I wish to relinquish my high, even if it doomed me to feel isolated.
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