Sister Movies

Monday, April 10th was National Siblings Day reminding me, as if I needed a reminder, to celebrate the indelible bond I share with my sister. I've written of our relationship before and how a love of music often brought us together when we were young. After nearly forty years together (where does the time go?) there are many stories left to tell. Aside from music, I can think of many movies the two of us have always held near and dear throughout our ever changing and everlasting relationship.

Whenever we reunite there are two cherished movies, which we refer to ingeniously as "Sister Movies," that we love to watch together.


Sense and Sensibility (1995)

My sister, a huge Jane Austen fan, was likely the first to suggest we watch Ang Lee's splendid adaptation about the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet). Growing up it was obvious, to everyone probably, that my approach to life and love was similar to Marianne's, whereas my elder sibling's was much more reserved and dependable, like Elinor. Today I'd say that, well, not much has changed really, but of course neither character can fully encapsulate who we are and I'd venture that there are pieces of Elinor and Marianne in both of us. What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that neither of us ever comes across this movie without texting the other that it's on and that neither of us will ever make it through the scene where Elinor sits at Marianne's bedside without blubbering. "Please, dearest, beloved Marianne, do not leave me alone."

Little Women (1994)

Louisa May Alcott wrote the pinnacle of sister stories and I never tire of Gillian Armstrong's adaptation. As writers, both my sis and I relate strongly to Jo March (Winona Ryder), but as a girl I also felt a kinship with Beth (Claire Danes) who was happy just to stay at home with Marmee. An ongoing joke between us with this one is how much we've always despised the character Amy (Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis). While tolerable as a snooty young girl who doesn't know any better, we always pitied poor Laurie (Christian Bale) for getting stuck with her in the end. There are so many moments to love in this movie, but Jo March eloquently sums up exactly why it's so meaningful to us: "I could never love anyone as I love my sisters."

I can think of a number of other movies we could add to create a Sister Movie Marathon, many which we have watched together at one point or another: Practical Magic, The Virgin Suicides, A League of Their Own, Ginger Snaps. Pretty much anything I watch with a storyline about sisters is going to speak to me on a deeper emotional level. Sisterhood is the type of relationship I can't begin to describe to anyone who hasn't had it and one I don't have to describe to anyone who has. It's fun, it's infuriating, and it can get very complicated, but overall it's one of the most meaningful connections I've been lucky enough to have in my life.

Aside from the obvious, there are movies my sister and I watched together that became special to us for other reasons. The most prominent on that list would have to be The Lost Boys--which I'd argue still holds up so well because it centers around the close sibling bond between Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim). It was the first R-rated movie we ever watched together and our introduction to a lifelong love of vampire stories. If I remember correctly, it was also the doorway to our first celebrity crushes. She was smitten with Billy Wirth and Kiefer Sutherland, while my bedroom walls featured the two Coreys and Jason Patric. I remember being so obsessed that we would reenact the bridge scene on our swing set in the backyard. It became our ritual to watch it every Friday night for months until we knew every line by heart. I'd wager that together we could still recite the entire movie from beginning to end. "I'm your brother, Sammy, help me!"

My sister and I were always pretty close, but it wasn't until I got a little older and started showing interest in things she liked that we developed a deeper bond. A bond that stretched beyond being two members of the same family to being best friends. I was lucky to always have her as my guide. She got everywhere first and she never held back from sharing what she discovered along the way. Now, despite distance and differences she's still my closest friend. She will always be sense to my sensibility and I could never love anyone as I love her. We're bound by, not only blood, but a shared lifetime of encounters and experiences. Once we had shared it, something as simple as a song became more than a song and a movie so much more than a movie. They became bookmarks to times we spent together as girls. Times we still revisit over and over again when we're together. You can never really go back and relive the past, but if you're lucky, like I am, you have someone by your side with whom to remember and cherish it for a lifetime.

Fantastic Fest

The weather is starting to cool here in Maryland, signaling my favorite time of year. Now I can wear long sleeves and layers minus the funny looks since it's no longer a hundred degrees outside. Soon everyone will be digging out their jackets and scarves, carving pumpkins, and planning Halloween costumes. Meanwhile, I'll be celebrating the arrival of my beloved Fall weather by leaving it and heading right back into the heat. And not just any heat, next week I'm heading into the heat of Austin, Texas.

It's my favorite time of year in Austin for another reason -- it's Fantastic Fest time. While this will be my fifth time attending the genre film festival, I still find it difficult to explain what it's all about. I'd love to write something that does the experience justice without gushing too much or alienating people who haven't been there yet, but it's not an easy thing to put into words. In past conversations the closest I've ever come to summing up Fantastic Fest is by saying it's like Christmas or Movie Camp. I never even went to camp as a kid, but I have heard tales, so comparing it to these two occasions seems like the closest I'll ever get to encapsulating the energy of the fest in words.

I suppose it's so difficult to describe because, for me, Fantastic Fest is about so many different things.

It's about movies.

Most people can't fathom watching more than one movie in a day, let alone the four or five that add up to an average day at the festival. And these aren't just any movies, either. Fantastic Fest offers an eclectic range of genre -- sci-fi, horror, fantasy, action -- movies from all over the world. While many of them are flat out over the top fun, others can leave you devastated. There are a number of movies I've seen there that still give me chills just thinking about them - Nothing Bad Can Happen, The Tribe, Goodnight Mommy. But I can also list quite a few that mark the most fun I've ever had in a theater - John Wick, Cheap Thrills, Dangerous Men, Why Don't You Play In Hell, Green Room. Fantastic Fest programming is known for showing you things you've never seen, things that can't be unseen, and things you maybe didn't realize you wanted to see.

It's about unknowns.

Not knowing what you're in for is part of the fun. Can you remember the last time you walked into a movie theater with no expectations for what you were about to see? It creates a certain atmosphere when you walk in knowing nothing outside of a three sentence description you read (or chose not to read) on the schedule. There's a level of excitement that is unique in this day an age where we're used to getting trailers for a trailer and have usually seen the majority of a movie before we ever reach our seat on opening day. I rarely know what to expect from the movies I see at Fantastic Fest and that's one of the things I cherish most about the experience. I also rarely come away disappointed, often leaving the fest having seen some of the best movies I'll see all year. I go in blind, but also with complete trust that the people who run this festival are bringing me an experience unlike any other.

It's about people.

Tim League and his team at the Alamo Drafthouse are like Santa and his Elves, bringing great joy and happiness to cinephiles across the land. Alongside them are the organizers, the serving staff, and volunteers who run themselves ragged to keep us all happy. Some of them even taking extra shifts just to be among the madness. The festival runs smoothly because of these people. I can only hope they get free movie tickets for life or something, because they deserve so much more than just tips and a thank you. Then there's the critics who watch the movies with you and somehow manage to write up a review that articulates exactly what you want to say in a way you could never say it (or on the contrary, in a way that makes you wonder if they saw the same movie you did). Agree or disagree, they're willing to listen, but it's the experience that matters.

It's about filmmakers.

Not only do I get to see major motion pictures premiere at the fest, I get to see directors and cast members walk the red carpet. I get to hear them talk about their passion for filmmaking, what it took to get this particular movie made, and why they wanted to share it with the world. I've listened to Guillermo del Toro talk about his approach to writing characters. I've chatted casually (while freaking out internally) about movies with Elijah Wood and Edgar Wright. I've high-fived and shook hands with Keanu Reeves -- yes, that's two times I've touched Johnny Utah. Two! And I've done all of this in the most unpretentious setting you can imagine, because everyone at Fantastic Fest is there for the same simple reason: they love movies. Whether they stand behind the camera, in front of it, or sit in the back row of the Alamo, this is a crowd that loves movies.

It's about community.

Two things you'll never run short on at Fantastic Fest are awesome people and things to talk about. You'll never have to suffer through an awkward silence that can't be filled with conversation starters like, "Is this your first fest?", "What movie did you just see?", or "What was your favorite movie today?" I've already written about making connections by talking about movies and this festival is the perfect venue for that. It's the easiest place to strike up a conversation with like-minded people -- not during the movies, though, they'll kick your ass out. The moments I spend between showings just talking with people outside or at the Highball are some of my favorite memories. It's the company you're in that really makes the experience so special. People like you who have come there from all over the world open to whatever crazy ride Tim and team have in store. I can honestly tell you that nothing compares to watching a movie with a Fantastic Fest crowd.

It's about friendship.

There's a sadness that hangs in the air on the last night. After the party, when it's nearing four in the morning and you realize that after eight days and nights this will be the last time you'll walk away from the theater. You hesitate for as long as you can with saying your goodbyes and even after walking away you can't help but look back. Back at all the people still hanging around, all the time you lost track of, and who knows how many movies seen. It's not about saying goodbye to a movie theater, the South Lamar Alamo feels like home by the time you leave it. I'm gushing now, I know. It's difficult because, for me, Fantastic Fest is about so many things. I've made lifelong friends there. Friends I may only see when we meet up at Movie Camp next year, but I know we'll revisit these memories for years to come. It's not just the memories of the movies we take home with us, it's the excitement, the laughs, and a feeling that we're part of something special. Something we carry with us that we can't quite find the words to explain. So, I guess you'll just have to venture to Austin, into the heat, and join in the fun. I promise you, it's fantastic.

O Captain! My Captain!

"No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

This line from Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (written by Tom Schulman) has resonated with me since I first saw it at the impressionable age of thirteen. And, oh, what an impression it's made! Prior to seeing it I can recall a few youthful attempts to express myself via writing. Yet, it wasn't until I was exposed to Mr. Keating's (Robin Williams) class that I really began to take the art of writing seriously.

In retrospect, I might have taken it too seriously, because for years I've struggled with limitations based solely on my own perceptions and criticisms of my work. A mindset which has, until now, prevented me from sharing much of anything with the world. While this film made me want to write with the intent to change things, I was paralyzed by fear that nothing I wrote would ever be good enough.

Robin Williams and Ethan Hawke, Dead Poets Society

It's not lost on me how much this outlook resembles that of character Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) in the film. Whether or not DPS influenced me so deeply that it made this my reality, I cannot say. What I can say is that my favorite moment in the film (it's everyone's favorite, right?) occurs when Mr. Keating masterfully helps Todd to overcome his fear that "everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing." How does he do this? By forcing him to stand in front of the class (the world) and create something out of nothing.  

Another thing not lost on me is that I've chosen to write this today: August 11, 2016. A date that marks the second anniversary of the devastating loss of Robin Williams. His performance, of course, is what most inspired me. Mr. Keating is the teacher I always wanted. The teacher the world always wanted. His message taught me to be myself, to never stop questioning, and to fight for my dreams. Lessons I can only hope to impart to my own children someday with the same passion he conveyed to his students. Ultimately, he's the reason I'm writing this now. His words have inspired me to share my experience of creating something out of nothing.

When I decided to create this blog I was faced with the daunting task of giving it a title. Fans of the film will recognize the title I've chosen from one of the pivotal scenes, when Mr. Keating shares this quote from Walt Whitman with his class:

"O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish...

What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer. That you are here-that life exists and identity.

That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse."

The poem alone is a stunning example of the lasting power of a writer's words. Yet Mr. Keating follows it up with a challenge of his own for his students:

"What will your verse be?"

Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

So, this begins my verse. A place where I hope to discover so much more about life and myself through writing and sharing without fear. Writing this piece in particular brought tears to my eyes, because it's helped me reach a deeper understanding of how profoundly Dead Poets Society has affected my life. It truly has changed my world.

Thank you, Mr. Keating. I'll be standing on my desk in your honor, and from it I will continue to write these words and ideas as a testament to all that you've taught me.