The movie that changed your life? That’s a cocktail-party concept, really, and since the literary highbrows responsible for this book could take the fun out of a game of Twister, you have a right to your suspicions. But the 23 essays compiled in The Movie That Changed My Life, cut through cant just often enough to be worthwhile.
Still, elitism can’t help creeping into a project that asks the literati to discourse on a medium in which words are secondary. Editor David Rosenberg sets the snooty tone in his introduction when he writes, ”Movies have served as mirror to our culture…but for insights that actually pierce contemporary culture, we more often turn to our best writers.” Too bad Rosenberg’s own essay on The Boy With Green Hair is a few licks shy of piercing insights, especially when he drags in an Oedipal ”primal scene” from his childhood only to drop it a sentence later. The prize for irrelevance, though, goes to Harold Bloom (The Book of J), who has this to say about the W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer: ”The comedy…defies the Freudian definition: superego is not indulging poor ego before thwacking him unmercifully again.”
Mercifully, most of the essays avoid such heights of badness. Usually, the writers draw us into their subject with care, sketching out their childhoods, families, towns, the theaters where they went to see one forgotten entertainment after another until the day that one particular movie transfixed them with unintended revelations. The two finest pieces dive deep into the personal while remaining unsettlingly simple. Jayne Anne Phillips (Machine Dreams) recalls seeing the Roger Corman B-horror flick The Premature Burial and instinctively connecting the idea of being buried alive to her mother, trapped in a dismal marriage. And novelist David Bradley (South Street) conjures up a young black man at the University of Pennsylvania who watches as his professors excuse the Klan apologetics of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (one of them admonishes Bradley to ”get beyond history and deal with the aesthetics”) and realizes that he will never be safe from racism, not even in the Ivy League ivory tower. These two essays are the only time The Movie That Changed My Life becomes more than an interesting, readable, slightly smug party game. B-