Beware becoming overly attached to movies you haven’t seen yet. Beware investing too much hope in the idea of those movies; the head space you imagine.

A shot from Les Vampires (1915)

When I was a kid I found a book at the Salvation Army that contained the full script of Casablanca (1942), which I read and re-read for about two years before actually getting the chance to see the film. (Ah, the olden days, when local video stores sucked.) Sometimes I even read them aloud to myself — because, naturally, as a kid I had lots of time to cultivate my eccentric persona.

Having that kind of intensive familiarity with the dialogue made me disappointed by the film — I thought the actors breezed through those great lines too quickly, whereas I had been accustomed to letting the dialogue wash over me with slow, methodical pleasure. Even now I have a hard time with some of the best exchanges between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Renault (Claude Rains), because that expectation of a different pacing still nags in my memory:

Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. 
Rick: It was a combination of all three. 

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, re-creating scenes from Les Vampires

(Don’t worry: it only took a few more viewings before I fell in love with Casablanca just as it is.)

I should know better. But I still catch myself fantasizing about what a movie might be, long before I’ve seen it. It’s like going back to that 12-yr-old place, in which my imagination turns out to be far more active than that of some filmmakers.

An example: a few years ago I saw Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996), a film-within-a-film tale about a manic, hapless crew filming a remake of Les Vampires (1915). I’d never even heard of that latter title, but my serious disappointment in Assayas’ film made me all the more fixated on the early silent.

Now, I can watch Les Vampires any time I like — it’s streaming on — but isn’t it true that sometimes we prefer to let the idea of the film percolate in one’s mind for a while?

Sometimes I imagine that if I’m ever given the chance to create a film of my own, it will be a tribute to the films I imagined — the narratives and love stories and fantastic voyages and melodramas I constructed in my fervid imagination, just from those tidbits of trailers or stills I came across. It’ll be about phantoms, as if a mad alchemist decided to create gold from the crazy mixture of that final montage of kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso, a healthy dose of Guy Maddin’s psycho-sexual funhouse style (see here for JB’s great interview with Maddin), those partially decayed clips from silent film so beautifully laid out in Decasia, Christian Marclay‘s dedication to subtle segues, and perhaps a Pixar screenwriter or two.

Musidora (yes, Musidora) from Les Vampires

Fantomas of movies I haven’t seen. Maybe it’s bound to be disappointing, the way the Choose Your Own Adventure books held out all that promise and, most of the time, showed an even more awful lack of imagination than ordinary novels.

But still, doesn’t it seem appropriate that film should address its own phantoms, its unrealized plots?


I walked into the research library today and got introduced to a head librarian. “We’re very happy you’re here,” he said. “We’ve heard wonderful things about you.”

My response? Panic. I believe he is actually saying, We’ve heard terrible things about you and we are perversely delighted to meet you. I’m quite certain I had a look of terror on my face — even the poor librarian recognized that something wasn’t quite right with me. “We were so pleased to hear about your book prize, for example,” he offered as reassurance.

“Look at this. Look at what they make you give” — that’s what Clive Owen’s character, The Professor, says to Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in The Bourne Identity (2002). The Professor has just tried to kill Bourne, as requested; as he’s dying, they discover they’re both assassins, both trained by Treadstone, and that they suffer from the same headaches. If it seems ridiculous for me to compare myself to Bourne, I must insist that this line makes me want to weep.

I became an academic for a lot of reasons that seem foolish in retrospect. To ruin a terrific exchange from Casablanca (1942):

Didion: I became an academic for the intellectual freedom.

Captain Renault: The freedom? What freedom? Academia is an intellectual cage!

Didion: I was misinformed.

On days like today — faced with a lovely man who wants to complement me, only to make me feel like I’m going to throw up — I realize how much academia makes you give. It’s not that I hadn’t seen it before; I’d seen other people get destroyed by the tenure process before me (and they got tenure). The thing about academics is, each of us believes that we will not suffer the slings & arrows of outrageous fortune. (I am a quoting machine tonight!)

Yet here I am, jumping at the slightest noise. I’ve survived — just barely — but with so many injuries and grudges and emotional damage that I can’t take a complement from a librarian. And I’m someone who, for the most part, did what I was “supposed” to do to move through the tenure process.

So now I study my email inbox, which now has four requests for letters of recommendation for undergrads wishing to go to grad school. They’re perfectly nice students and have the brains to do well and, more important, seem to have the drive to power through the sheer cussedness of grad school. But before I agree to write those letters I want to show these young men and women my wounds and scars, and force them to read posts by people like Professor Zero and Historiann and the other academics who write frankly about the long-term damage they’ve suffered. These bloggers write about wanting to quit their jobs, even after they get tenured. Oh young people, beware: look at what academia makes you give.