There are some films that feel so close to the individual human experience that they can seem as if they were projected from some internal reel. Others take root, growing and reshaping our artistic approaches in quiet or groundbreaking ways. BAMcinématek’s monthly series, “Screen Epiphanies,” internalizes this feeling and asks the question: How does film inform an artist’s work?
To find out, the series, which originated at BFI in London, features prominent cultural figures who have been invited to select and discuss a film that inspired them. “It can really open up a lot of interesting memories and personal histories of the guests that we bring in,” said BAM’s senior repertory film programmer, Ashley Clark, who brought the series from BFI.
“It’s almost like a prelude,” said Clark of the introductory discussions with the artists, adding, “And then the key thing is, obviously, the guest will then sit down and watch it and luxuriate in the film that they’ve chosen. So hopefully it’s a special experience for them as well.”
The series also offers the opportunity to place rarely programmed films back in the spotlight — like, for example, when the actress Adepero Oduye selected Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle.” “It’s a great film but I had completely forgotten about it,” said Clark. “And in her introduction she very eloquently spoke to how the film was revelatory for her in helping to process her own view of Christianity and religious upbringing. So, in addition to having these artists come in and share personal stories with the audience, the films that they choose can often be films that have been overlooked or forgotten.”
This month’s “Screen Epiphanies” film, being presented on Sept. 25, comes from writer Durga Chew-Bose, who selected Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Millennium Mambo,” a pulsating vision of Taipei. We spoke with Chew-Bose about “Millennium Mambo” and how the cinematic image informs her writing.
ALL ARTS: Why this film?
Durga Chew-Bose: It’s super moody and isn’t entirely plot driven, which I like — which might be annoying for some people — but those are the kinds of films that I feel really stay with me because there’s so much to latch on to, but then when you walk out you’re like, “What did I just latch on to?” So, it’s kind of, honestly, for selfish reasons. It’s got a really beautiful opening scene, which is sort of hard to forget. And so I think that has that haunting quality, and I wanted to see it again.
AA: What is it about the opening scene grabs you?
DCB: I guess it kind of feels like a dream. And there’s essentially one song or score that plays throughout the entire film, which I haven’t seen often, actually, so it kind of puts you in this trance.
Also the lead, Vicky, has this quality. I mean, she’s obviously beautiful, but she has that sort of intangible quality that some characters just have onscreen, where you feel like you’re immediately romanced by them, and that opening scene does that.
AA: How does an image, and especially cinematic image, influence your writing or inform how you develop story?
DCB: Pretty heavily. I definitely feel like my writing practices, what I write about, is entirely influenced by simply watching movies. Reading books and watching movies — I do that a lot more than I write. And images sort of have a forecasting quality, too, with what I might write. Like, I might see a film or be totally moved by a certain scene, and then unbeknownst to me, even years from now, it’ll somehow end up inspiring something I’m writing because it becomes part of the way I see and the way I feel. It’s like an encyclopedia for me of how to navigate the world.
So, to answer your question, film and scene really heavily influence how I write because I write pretty obnoxiously about images. And I want to capture them exactly so, but also sort of vaguely. So, in the same way that opening scene feels like it totally romances you, but then it’s like a candle blowing out and it’s gone — I kind of like that feeling. Movies do that. There’s thinking about it once it’s over. And that’s sort of the ideal for me.
AA: I’m wondering about the ways that you, as a writer, kind of cohere your images and how that relates to a film like this?
DCB: I recently re-watched it, and it was definitely sort of the experience of being like, “I’m not sure everyone in the audience at BAM is going to feel the way I do about it.” And part of that insecurity is largely in part with, where it’s still linear, but there’s also a voice-over, and it feels a little not grounded, and that sort of more impressionistic tone is something that I practice in my own writing, I think.
A film like this certainly shares some of that, but it’s far cooler. It’s a very cool film in a lot of ways, and my writing is not cool like that. And by cool, I really mean in the way that you can be like, “That’s so cool.” There’s a very cool quality to it, which is part of the joy of the movie because you get to live in this world that you otherwise don’t really take part in — like nightlife, in my case. So I think there’s something about that, too, which is not aspirational by any stretch, but definitely really fun to live in for a minute and then return to your own life.
AA: Are there any films that you go back to when you’re writing that — not saying that you get stuck, but if you were to get stuck while you’re writing —kind of jog that creative process?
DCB: Yeah, for sure. First of all, I definitely do get stuck, all the time. And I love to turn to film as a way to reorient myself a lot of the time, to procrastinate and also just to see something familiar that reminds me why I want to be an artist or why I want to create art.
Off the top of my head, I really love the script for this movie called “A Christmas Tale,” by Arnaud Desplechin. It was one of the movies I was thinking of selecting for this, but it didn’t feel right to stick a Christmas movie in September. So that movie, for sure, I return to just strictly for the fact that it juggles a whole family of characters and builds them up so incrementally but with history. And it’s just a really beautiful film.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Top Image: Photo courtesy of 3H Productions/Sinomovie/Palm Pictures/Photofest.