I was once asked, in an interview for a job in a bookshop (which I didn’t get), whether a book had ever changed my life, and if so, how. I remember being completely stumped by this (unprepared, as ever). The answer to the first part, I knew, was yes, several times over, but the how of it felt just too immense for a quick, slick answer. It was more the sort of thing I’d want to retreat and write about for several hours, editing, thinking, then leaving for a few weeks before going back to it and writing some more, perhaps producing something of a moderate book length by the end of it. Which is one of the reasons I was so interested in this book, The Film That Changed My Life, in which critic Robert K Elder gets thirty filmmakers to talk about the film (or, in a couple of cases, pair of films) that they think changed their lives.
Of course, as they’re all filmmakers, the answer to the first part of the question (did a film ever change your life) is always going to be yes, if for no other reason than there must have been a film, at some point, which made them realise they wanted to make films, or showed them the style or approach that best suited them — in other words, that provided them with some technical release, some final polish to themselves as filmmakers. And for many of the interviewees in this book, it’s that film — often seen in their late teens, or while at film-school — that they talk about. But there are others (and these are my favourites) who talk about a film they saw, usually as a child, which just blew them away, not for any technical reasons, but for the sheer magic of it, and which has remained as magical throughout their lives. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that the three obvious ones of this type, Brian Herzlinger on E.T., John Landis on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and George A Romero on The Tales of Hoffmann, are all fantasies.) Herzlinger says “when I left the theater, I just wanted to go in again. I’ve never done any drugs in my life, but I think that is what an addiction feels like.” Romero says, “I was just blown away. I was in a great theater with terrific projection, a really big screen, and it was just beautiful. I was knocked out.” And Landis: “The film itself just made a huge impression on me in creating a completely different world. Instead of being this little kid in a theater in west L.A., [I was] being transported to this magical place, really going on these adventures.” A later, more mature reaction, though of a similar type, comes from Frank Oz, who says (of A Touch of Evil), “I don’t remember the first time I saw it. All I remember is every time I look at it I am never ever bored with this thing.”
I think the answer to the question of how a book or film can change your life is difficult because books and films don’t so much change you as bring into the open what was already there but hidden, or not understood, but which was waiting, if not bursting, to find a way of coming out. That’s why, looking back on a life-changing encounter of this sort, you can’t articulate what it was that changed, because as a result of the encounter you are simply more truly yourself, and in order to articulate the change you have to remember (and explain) a time when you were less yourself, which is really quite difficult to do.
Books, films — everything arty — are really only about one thing, when it comes down to it, and that’s how to be human. How to exist in this world, caught between your imagination and whole inner world on the one hand, and reality on the other. The great thing about art — films, books, etc. — is that it works at bringing the inner (imagination) into the outer (reality), and it’s when you see it being done in a way that reflects (or releases) your own attempts, your own style or personality, that a book, or film, or act of cake decoration or whatever, changes your life. And, really, the only way to explain that is to either make someone watch the same film (or read the same book) but as you, and as you were at the time, (which is of course impossible), or to make your own film, or book, and use that to put them through the same process.
Perhaps it’s simply that the best, most life-changing, books and films simply leave you speechless.
Anyway, I don’t think that answer would have got me the job in the bookshop, but it’s the best one I can come up with!