Columbia Forum

George Stade on the value of horror fiction
Phillip Lopate '64, coming of age as a moviegoer at Columbia
The "small, quiet worlds" of watercolorist Donald Holden '51
"Lost and Frozen" by Jeffrey Harrison '80
Charles Van Doren revisits Morningside Heights

The Heroic Age of Moviegoing

"I like to think of the early sixties as the 'heroic' age of moviegoing," says Phillip Lopate '64. The respected novelist, essayist and editor (including the panoramic 1998 anthology Writing New York) has harbored an abiding interest in movies since his youth in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, musing that he was lucky enough "to come of age during a period of phenomenal cinematic creativity." In this excerpt from Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies (Anchor), Lopate remembers how the College nurtured his craving for the cinema.

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Phillip Lopate '64



At Columbia, I discovered the general appetite for films was much higher than it had been at my high school; even the average student was willing to experiment with difficult fare. I remember going down to the Village one Friday night with a bunch of other dateless freshmen to see Kurosawa's Ikiru, part of a memorable season of Japanese premieres. Before the movie, just to get in the mood, we ate cross-legged on the floor at a Japanese restaurant. I adored Ikiru, with its perversely slow framing scene of the wake and its heart-wrenching flashbacks; but it also meant a lot to be sitting before it in a row of studious boys who I hoped would remain moviegoing friends. My own gang, as in I Vitelloni -- except it didn't happen with this bunch. It took a while before I found my real film companions.

From time to time, film criticism would appear in the Columbia Daily Spectator by an upperclassman, James Stoller ['62]. His articles were so stylistically mature and so informed that they seemed to me to be written by a professional quarterly critic rather than a college student. I developed an intellectual crush on this Stoller: if his opinion differed from mine, I would secretly revise my own. I had been, for example, avoiding Satyajit Ray's films because their packaging suggested what Andrew Sarris ['51] called "dull UNESCO cinema." But Stoller wrote that the Apu trilogy was great, so I went, and he was right.

Finally I decided I had to meet James Stoller. Palms sweating, I summoned the courage to call his room from the phone downstairs in his dormitory. I explained that I was a fellow film lover. Could I stop by sometime and talk with him? Sure, come on up, he said.

It shocked me to see the great critic living in so tiny and shabby a room: a double-decker bed; a narrow desk, which he shared with his roommate; a single chair; and books. We had no place to sit but the lower bunk bed. It always surprised me -- having come from a ghetto -- that parts of Columbia should look so seedy and run-down. I suppose I was expecting the Ivy League to be a step upward.

Stoller himself gave an impression of fastidious hesitation and social awkwardness. I had come prepared to play the role of the freshman ignoramus and so was puzzled when he reacted incredulously to my praise of his articles, retreating into a modest shrug. When I asked if he had been yet to Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, the cause célèbre that had just opened and which I was dying to see, he said he had, and fell silent. "Well, what did you think of it?" I prodded, expectng him to erupt with the equivalent of one of his articles. "It's -- terrific, I guess, I'm not sure, I need to watch it a few more times.... Go see for yourself." He was uncomfortable being put on the spot.

I rushed to see L'Avventura. It was the movie I had been preparing for; and it came at the right time in my development. As a child, I had wanted only action movies. Dialogues and story setups bored me; I waited for that moment when the knife was hurled through the air. My awakening in adolescence to the art of film consisted precisely in overcoming this impatience. Overcompensating, perhaps; I now loved a cinema that dawdled, that lingered. Antonioni had a way of following characters with a pan shot, letting them exit and keeping the camera on the depopulated landscape. With his detachment from the human drama and his tactful spying on objects and backgrounds, he forced me to disengage as well, and to concentrate on the purity of his technique. Of course the story held me, too, with its bitter, world-weary, disillusioned tone. The adolescent wants to touch bottom, to know the worst. His soul craves sardonic disenchantment.

I rushed back to Stoller; now ready to discuss the film. He listened patiently and with quiet amusement to my enthusiasm. Indeed, this turned out to be our pattern: I, more ignorant but more voluble, would babble on, while he would offer an occasional objection or refinement. It was only by offering up chatter that I could get him to correct my misconceptions and to educate me cinematically.

This was not yet the era of film appreciation courses. Nor would we have dreamed of taking any offered; it was a point of pride to gather on our own the knowledge of our beloved, semi-underground subject, like the teenage garage-band aficionados of today.

Stoller introduced me to his friend Nicholas Zill ['63], a film-obsessed sophomore, and we soon became a trio. Zill was a mischievous, intelligent boy of Russian Orthodox background who was given to sudden animated inspirations. The three of us took long walks together in the Columbia neighborhood, leapfrogging in our conversation from one film to another. Once, coming to a dead stop on the sidewalk, Zill asked me in horror, "You mean you haven't seen Diary of a Country Priest?" At such moments I felt like the baby of the group.

Zill and I both shared a zest for the grotesque, or what has been somewhat ponderously called "convulsive cinema," "the cinema of cruelty." I must say, these predilections were kept to the level of aesthetic appreciation; in our daily lives we were squeamishly decent, even if Zill, a psychology major, seemed to like cutting up rats. Nothing pleased us more than to talk about the beggars' orgy in Viridiana, or the maiming finale in Freaks, or choice bits in Psycho. We would go on in this perverse vein until Stoller was forced to remonstrate (which was probably why we did it). Stoller always championed the humane, the tender, the generous, and domestically observant moviemakers: Renoir, Ophuls, Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, Cukor, Borzage. It was typical for a powerless student like me to be drawn to Bunuelian fantasies of surrealist immorality and Raskolnikovian license. Much rarer was it to find balanced humanity in a nineteen-year-old, like Stoller. If I have come around over the years to his point of view, at the time I was looking for antisocial shivers, sliced eyeballs.

Nick Zill wanted to make movies -- as I suppose we all did -- but he went further in imagining bizarre film scenarios. He had already shot a film in high school, I remember it only as a disorganized romp of him chasing pretty girls, or was it pretty girls chasing him? In any case, he had registered an organization called Filmmakers of Columbia with the Campus Activities Office, so as to be able to borrow equipment and accept university funds should one of his projects ever get going. Filmmakers of Columbia existed only on paper; there were no meetings, even the title was pure wish fulfillment. As it happened, there were a number of "isolated" Columbia filmmakers (i.e., not in our circle) around, the most notable being young Brian De Palma ['62]. We did not know whether to consider De Palma's hammy experimental shorts like Wotan's Wake intentional or unintentional jokes, but we agreed that he had no future as a film director and that he was not a seriously knowledgeable, rigorous cineaste like ourselves.

From TOTALLY, TENDERLY, TRAGICALLY by Phillip Lopate. Copyright © 1998 by Phillip Lopate. Used by permission of Doubleday, a subsidiary of Random House, Inc.