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.

Revisiting River

My father woke me that Sunday morning in 1993 with the news that River Phoenix was gone. I was fifteen at the time and many pictures of River I'd ripped from magazines hung on the walls of my room. In sadness and disbelief, I spent the day in bed watching the news unfold on TV. So many clips from interviews and scenes from his movies flashed across the screen as I sat there wishing it were all a dream. His face and that soft, distinctive voice had become so familiar by then. It was difficult to see him so full of life knowing that these images were all we had left of him now. Later, I would be comforted by the fact that these roles he brought to life in his too short career would allow him to live forever. He left us with many wonderful performances worth revisiting.

Photo from my personal collection. The first image of River I ever hung on the wall

Photo from my personal collection. The first image of River I ever hung on the wall

In his twenty three years on Earth, River Phoenix became a highly acclaimed and respected actor. While he was certainly easy on the eyes, he also had an astonishing talent and an apparent wisdom beyond his years. There was a sensitivity he brought to a role that other actors of his generation lacked the maturity to portray. I first saw him where most people did, as Chris Chambers in Rob Reiner's 1986 movie Stand By Me. Even as a teenager River appeared to take on the role of the revered leader with ease. The presence he created as Chris assured you that as long as he was around everyone would be okay. Yet it was the vulnerability River brought to the character that truly resonated. A vulnerability I think exists in all of his performances, making each of his characters feel all the more human and relatable.

River created a number of genuinely likable guys on film, beginning as early as The Explorers in 1985. While many of these early roles are similar in their journey of youthful discovery, the quirky and comedic Devo in 1990's I Love You to Death marks a turn toward more adult roles and an intent to seek out different parts from those he'd played before. From an outside perspective his transformation from child actor to leading man appeared to happen seamlessly. Perhaps it was due to the confident way in which he carried himself or that he had always seemed mature beyond his years. Regardless, he went on to hold his own with revered actors the likes of Sidney Poitier (Little Nikita), Harrison Ford (The Mosquito Coast), and Robert Redford (Sneakers). Were he still with us today I have no doubt that his work would be listed on the same level as these respected actors.

Photo from a review of My Own Private Idaho I ripped from US Weekly October 1991

Photo from a review of My Own Private Idaho I ripped from US Weekly October 1991

In 1991, as a fan of both River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, my teenage dream came true with a movie called My Own Private Idaho. At only fourteen, there was no way I was going to let the fact that I was maybe too young to watch, let alone understand a Gus Van Sant movie about male hustlers stop me from seeing it. So, my sister and I told our parents a little white lie and headed to the only theater we could find that was playing it. To this day I think River's portrayal of Mike Waters is the most riveting of his career. The scene around the campfire where he tells Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) how he feels about him aches with so much need for love and acceptance that your heart breaks for him. Even now that I've grown out of my teenage crushes, when I watch this movie the chemistry between River and Keanu is so unguarded and genuine that you can't help but hope for Scott to always be there to take care of Mike. My Own Private Idaho may very well be the role of River's career. It's an unforgettable and brilliant performance. One that gives us a glimpse of the future performances that could have been.

Photo I obviously ripped from some teen magazine given that Kirk Cameron is on the other side

Photo I obviously ripped from some teen magazine given that Kirk Cameron is on the other side

A personal favorite of mine is one of River's last films—The Thing Called Love. There's something about his performance in this movie that seemed different from the ones that came before it—a kind of distance or disconnect. I can't (won't) comment on the choices he made in his personal life that ultimately took him from this world, but I do think the toll was most apparent in this movie. That said, I still love the shy, socially awkward nature of the character. There's also a complexity there that makes him (almost) unlikable. The Thing Called Love also allowed River the opportunity to show off his musical ability and, boy, could that boy sing! The moments where he's playing music actually seem to be the most joyful for him here and that's more than enough reason to bring me back to it from time to time. 

River's been gone now as many years as he was with us, but he will never be forgotten. Pieces of him live on in the characters he created. We're lucky to have them to revisit whenever we like. There's only one movie of his that I've never seen—A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. I often think about sitting down to watch it, but in the end I always choose not to. I kind of like that there's still one character out there that I have to look forward to. Ninety minutes of River Phoenix I have yet to see. For now I'll just keep revisiting the others, including the one that remains my favorite of them all—Running on Empty. A performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, and who can say how many of those he would've received—and probably won—by now.

There's an added weight of sadness during River's final scene in Stand By Me whenever I watch it now. As Gordie (Wil Wheaton) and Chris say their goodbyes the voice-over tells of Chris' future and his eventual death. River waves goodbye and disappears before our eyes, taking with him all of his magnificent promise. The end of Running on Empty evokes a similar sadness. The last image is River waving goodbye to his family and standing alone in the road, his whole life stretched out before him. As the screen fades to black the voices singing along to James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" speak for us all as they echo the line, "I always thought that I'd see you again..."

Rest in peace, River.

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.

These Things Matter

Back when I was a kid trying to survive the horror of school hallways, it was easy to spot potential friends based on whatever movie or band they had plastered across their t-shirt. Failing that, a quick peek at someone's notebook or backpack offered hints of what they were intodrawing movie titles and band names all over my notebooks was a back to school ritual. When we were young and socially inept, advertising the things we loved acted as an invitation to others to approach us and start a conversation. Somehow it lessened the fear of rejection since it was obvious we'd have at least one thing in common. Many of my school friendships began this way, based on a mutual love of, what some may consider, trivial things.

If you were lucky, these friendships expanded beyond the thing that brought you together. Yet even if it didn't, at least you had that one friend you could be yourself around. And by be yourself I mean gush endlessly about your love of Nine Inch Nails, or launch into graphic detail about your fantasy of the perfect date with Lloyd Dobler. You could spout John Hughes quotes all day long and never receive a sideways glance, because the two of you could have entire conversations in movie quotes and it never got old.

They got it.

They understood how much these things meant to you. That these things helped you get through the day. Most importantly, they got it because they'd actually taken the time to listen to you. They knew the stories behind your love of every song and every movie. For some reason, speaking with passion about these things
outside your inner circle didn't fly. For some reason, it still doesn't.

There have been many times in life when I've been embarrassed to talk passionately about my love of certain things, specifically movies. When I was younger I could chalk it up to shyness and difficulty articulating my thoughts. Now that I'm older I've learned that people generally aren't interested in listening to someone talk about movies for longer than a few seconds. I've become accustomed to holding back during those day-to-day conversations you have in passing.

"Hey, did you see that movie?"
"Oh yeah, it's great!"
"I know, right? So cool."

In these scenarios I can usually sense not to go into too much detail about my thoughts on the subject.
Except, the thing is, I actually want to talk about movies. I want to talk about them like I did with that friend in school. I realize now how special those connections really were. These days the average person is happy to have their own opinion and go about their day. Finding someone who cares enough to dive a little deeper is pretty rare. That's fine, I don't want to bother you with the story of why I felt so connected to Lux in The Virgin Suicides when she reluctantly drags her records down the stairs. And I don't want to keep you with tales of why I wept during the famous scene of Singin' in the Raina moment I must have seen a thousand times in film retrospectiveswhen I first watched it in its entirety. Movies aren't trivial for me.

The reason why we connect with the things we do runs much deeper than merely being entertained. We experience all forms of art through the lens of our personal history, which gives them the power to create an emotional connection. What I love about movies is recognizing pieces of my own life within the stories they tell. There are times when it feels as if they're speaking directly to me in particular moments of sadness or hardship. Sometimes movies articulate the parts of life we have difficulty understanding. That's powerful. This is why I personally love hearing someone who is excited about a film speak passionately about their perspective. It gives me insight into their life. By speaking they're advertising what they love, while simultaneously revealing where they come from. When we use the opportunity to share these stories with others, with passion, we invite them into our world. Just like that kid with the NIN t-shirt in the hallway at school.

As an adult I've noticed that a lot more conversation is required to find members of your tribe amidst the crowd. Although, many of us are still rockin' the band tees so feel free to say hi! It can be discouraging when someone tunes you out or changes the subject when you're in the middle of a passionate speech about how you couldn't stop sobbing in a Taco Bell after seeing The Good Son. In the past this attitude has caused me to tone things down, to retreat inside myself, and to stop advertising my excitement about movies. Hard telling how many potential connections I missed out on in the process. Now, I've pledged to never dilute my passion again. If someone doesn't want to listen to what I have to say then I will gladly seek out the company of those who do.*

I know it can be embarrassing and your voice may shake with uncertainty, but you have to speak up to find your kind of people. The people who are willing to listen and share in a discussion about things they would never consider trivial. It's in the sharing that we discover something special. It's in the sharing that friendships form. Like when you're gushing about that movie you've watched twenty times that someone else might think is all right and never think of again, yet you'll never forget it. Tell them why. Whether it's spouting a quote from it in passing that grabs the attention of someone in the room, or maybe even sparks a heated debate over its artistic merit. Either way, the invitation is open and the conversation has begun. You can tell a lot about a person by the things that they're into. These things help us connect, with ourselves and with other people. So, speak up. Someone will listen and if you're lucky, they'll get it. And while it may all seem trivial to some, I'm telling youwith passionthese things matter.


*This piece is dedicated to my friends who get it. Thank you for always listening to me.

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.