Robert K. Elder’s new collection, The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors On Their Epiphanies In The Dark operates from the same assumption as many flawed biopics: that the work of an artist can be boiled down to a single defining moment. Can a single film really change a person’s life? What matters is that Elder, and the subjects he interviews, believe it can.
As its title suggests, The Film That Changed My Life is a collection of interviews with filmmakers about the most influential movie-going experiences of their lives. Elder, author of Last Words Of The Executed, is a skilled researcher and confident interviewer who frequently doles out nuggets of trivia, like the fact that Annie Hall was originally called Anhedonia. Yet he uses these details to steer the conversation, not to co-opt it; he isn’t here to prove how much he knows.
The films cited as influences run the gamut of style and genres, though the selections veer slightly toward predictable fare like The Godfather and It’s A Wonderful Life. (Elder insists that no two filmmakers can pick the same movie, which seems needlessly complicated.) Conversely, too many of the filmmakers interviewed in the book are still relative unknowns. Austin Chick (XX/XY) and Brian Herzlinger (My Date With Drew) might have long careers ahead of them, but their critical perspectives aren’t likely to mean much to readers at this point. That’s not to say that experience necessarily breeds insight. Kevin Smith’s impressions of Richard Linklater’s Slacker are shallow and parochial: He simply recalls seeing the film and thinking, “Well, shit, if this is a movie, I could make a movie.” Peter Bogdanovich spends more time correcting the alleged inaccuracies of RKO 281 than he does discussing Citizen Kane.
Still, many of the interviews reap illuminating personal anecdotes; the book is oral history as film criticism. In one chapter, John Woo reminisces about how, as a Hong Kong teenager, he styled his hair like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Kinsey director Bill Condon is even more intimate in his ruminations about Bonnie And Clyde, recalling how, as a gay adolescent, he related to Clyde’s sexual confusion. Elder has a keen eye for detail, and frequently invites his subjects to draw comparisons between their work and the work that inspired them.
The real lesson of The Film That Changed My Life is how to watch movies like a filmmaker. Elder’s interviews come to life when his subjects speak, in concrete terms, about the details they look for in films. At its best, The Film That Changed My Life is a reminder that once the lights are out, even the most accomplished filmmakers are just fans, too.