Being somewhat of a cinephile, people expect a certain type of response from me to the question of: what movie(s) changed your life? I know I’m supposed to answer something like Citizen Kane or a French New Wave title, but the films that have a profound effect on your life are not necessarily the ones that might be considered the great works of cinema. In fact, the movies that may mean most to you personally may be those that some might consider, well…to be bad. But that’s the way it should be. Movies are about an emotional response and we all respond differently. Besides, I personally prefer the Orson Welles of Touch of Evil over Citizen Kane and I don’t think Godard’s made a good film since Contempt. So there!
So with that in mind, today I’d like to discuss three films that changed my life; each in a different way. But they all have a couple of things in common: they all came out in the 1980s when I was at exactly the right impressionable age to be effected by them and they’re largely forgotten today (these were all critical and/or box office failures when they were first released). But they provided me with important lessons that still resonate with me to this day.
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)
Directed by the John Carpenter (Halloween), this blend of comedy and martial arts was a box-office bomb when it was first released and received mixed reviews as well as criticism from some in the Asian American community for its “stereotyping.” I think the audiences and the movie’s critics missed the mark—Big Trouble In Little China is a smart film that was ahead of its time, which is why it only became a cult classic years later.
The plot is simple: good guy Kurt Russell and his trusty Chinese American sidekick Dennis Dun must battle an evil Chinese sorcerer played by James Hong in the mysterious underworld of Chinatown. The description does make it sound like it could be your typical “chinky” Hollywood travesty and I think some in the community only saw what was on the surface.
But what Carpenter and company actually do is viciously spoof the stereotypes usually found in this sort of picture. Russell’s white hero may think he’s all that, but he’s barely competent, and it is Dun’s sidekick that ends up performing the real heroics. The film turns these sorts of conventions and stereotypes on their head and pokes fun at Hollywood’s long history of “white man saves the day” flicks. The mix of martial arts and comedy was also ahead of its time and I think 1980s moviegoers just didn’t know what to make of it. For a contemporary audience who grew up on a steady diet of Jackie Chan movies, there’s nothing strange about this now, but back then, it was definitely not the norm.
The lesson I learned from this film was the realization of how subversive you could actually be in a Hollywood genre movie. I thought Big Trouble… said more about the portrayal of Asians in Hollywood films (and in an entertaining way) then most earnest dramas that prattle on and on about the topic and that was a valuable lesson: how you present your “message” is just as important as the message itself.
SILVER BULLET (1985)
Based on the Stephen King story, Silver Bullet is about a wheelchair-bound boy (the late Corey Haim) who discovers that a werewolf is terrorizing the small Maine town where he lives (BTW, I have a soft spot for werewolves and the first “real” script I wrote as a high schooler was an Asian American werewolf Western set during the building of the transcontinental railroad which was very much inspired by Silver Bullet).
What I learned from this film was how to construct a scene, especially in relation to creating dramatic tension. Silver Bullet has some wonderfully tense scenes: a fog rolls in while a mob is hunting the werewolf, but the fog lays low near the ground only coming up to the men’s waists. The werewolf attacks from under the fog like the shark in Jaws attacking from under the water so no one knows where it is, who it’s going to get next or can even see it. Fucking brilliant. In another scene, Haim sneaks out at night in his wheelchair to set off some firecrackers on an old bridge. The werewolf of course comes after him and Haim gets away by…well, don’t want to give too much away. But these and other moments–like the unexpected death of a main character that leaves the audience with that anxious feeling that anything can and will happen–really worked its magic on me.
This was the first film that got me thinking about why a movie made me feel the way I did. It made me start to think about how a writer might construct a moment or a scene to make the audience feel, in this case, fear, but also whatever other emotion you wanted them to feel. I still think it’s a great movie to study for that.
THE BEDROOM WINDOW (1987)
Before he made neo-classics like L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, Curtis Hanson wrote and directed this thriller about a man (Steve Guttenberg) who’s having an affair with his boss’ wife (Isabelle Huppert). One night after making love in Guttenberg’s apartment, Huppert sees a man attacking a woman outside his window. But not wanting to expose their affair, Guttenberg lies and tells the police that he was the one who witnessed the crime but when his story starts unraveling under questioning, he suddenly becomes the prime suspect himself.
And what important lesson did I learn from this film? Just this…always sleep with your glasses on the nightstand right next to your bed where you can easily access them. See, Guttenberg trips himself up in court when the opposing attorney reveals that Guttenberg (who wears glasses) didn’t have them on when he looked out the window and deduces he must be lying about having witnessed the crime. After the film, I always slept with my glasses right next to me so that if ever a crime took place outside my window and I were to be called as a witness, no slick attorney would be able to trip me up by saying I didn’t have my glasses on making my testimony suspect. A few years ago, I related this story to Hanson himself to which he replied, “Wow, no one’s ever told me anything like that before. That may be the best compliment I’ve ever gotten about my work.” Couldn’t tell if he was sincere or it was meant more in the spirit of “get this crazy fuck away from me.”