I watch a lot of movies. I have for a long time. It probably became a lifelong thing from working in a movie theater in high school. Movies are easy to get lost in, especially if you’re unhappy in your everyday life. But it’s always bothered me that I was taking in all these images and sounds and ideas made by others and doing nothing of my own with them.
I never had any movie-making aspirations of my own. The idea of collaborating with dozens of others on something creative was unthinkable. It remains so. I’m mostly a one-man-band. It’s the scale I’m comfortable working on. Still, I wanted to do something with all that was coming at me from the screen.
I used to write film reviews and that scratched the itch a little. But reviews and essays about movies are secondary. An add-on rather than their own thing with rare exceptions. The shittiest flick is more valuable than the greatest review because a review can only exist as a response. Sure, there are films made in response to critics but this isn’t a chicken and egg situation. Everybody knows which came first.
A couple years ago I tried to keep a film diary in which I wrote a sentence or two about every movie I watched. I gave up after a few months because it felt like homework. A chore. I didn’t want busy work, I wanted to make something of all I was taking in. There will be no prizes given for who saw the most movies or read the most books or listened to the most records. There’s a nagging feeling that to just watch all the time is passive and kind of pointless. A narcotizing time killer and nothing more. There has to be a better reason to keep taking it all in.
The solution I came up with a few months ago was to take screen caps and to try to make paintings of them. It started with Fassbinder. I watched a bunch of his movies on the Criterion Channel and they’re brimming with memorable moments. I especially liked the early black-and-white gangster ones. They’re bleached out. Overexposed. They were made after he saw the French New Wave tributes to American post-war hard-boiled crime films. Fassbinder’s version is like a degraded copy of a copy but they’re somehow more human and intimate anyway.
I tried it with some other directors with mixed results. Then I started bringing my sketchbook to the bedroom, where the TV is and just pausing the movie to draw directly from the screen. This feels the closest to an active engagement, a little like drawing people playing music, even if, more times than not, the people I’m rendering are long dead and the environments depicted long ago drastically altered.
I wanted to do this with Aleksey German’s great Khrustalyov, My Car! It hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw it at Facets twenty years ago. Even though I probably missed many of the references I felt connected to it on an almost genetic level. Unfortunately, when I paused the version on YouTube that I was watching, the screen was littered with auto-suggestions for other things to watch.
So I couldn’t draw German’s high-contrast snowglobe version of Stalin’s hell. I had to go back to screen caps. The domineering military father in the story reminded me this time of what my own father told me about growing up. His father was older and distant and he was afraid of him.
The next night I watched The Deer Hunter. It wasn’t on YouTube so I took out the sketchbook again.
I hadn’t watched it in probably thirty years. I still had Khrustalyov knocking around in my head. I’d totally forgotten all the Russian stuff in The Deer Hunter. Now there was a connection.
Something linking what I watched the night before to what I was watching this night. It’s tenuous, but the drawings and paintings make it tangible, at least to me.
I think I’ll keep doodling while I watch. Here are all the ones I’ve kept so far. It’s not like going to the movies, much less making them, but it’s a record of having been present.
—I made a painting of the Green Mill for a friend.
—I had a really good time talking music on the 3 Songs podcast.