Cinema Without Safety Goggles
By Eric Allen Hatch
From Metrograph Vol. 15, Summer 2018.
From fainting at the sight of blood, to delighting in the explosion of brains, the programmer/critic chronicles the journey of his cinephilic obsession.
When I was 12 I fainted to the flicker and whir of a film projector. It was in shop class. Our teacher rolled in the A/V cart to screen a short film illustrating the importance of workplace safety. It opened on a factory worker clocking in with a cocky swagger, rebuffing a coworker attempting to supply safety goggles as he recklessly commenced welding. The production values were dated and the acting was broad, sending the entire class, myself included, into sardonic hysterics.
My experience changed abruptly as a spark flew into the worker’s eye, followed by a hard cut to an extreme close-up of an actual eye surgery. As a scalpel wielded by an unseen surgeon’s hand probed a milky membrane, a clamp made room for tweezers to penetrate the pulsing gelatinous white of the eye and extract the invasive metal particle. Every pore in my body flooded with cold sweat. My own vision became mottled with black and purple spots. I looked around in shock to see the other students still laughing. Just then my best friend’s face pivoted from the screen to mine, which suddenly rolled and dipped as the spots completely occluded my sight. My head hit the desk first, and then the floor.
For months afterwards, any time a projector was brought into a classroom, whether for sex ed, Eyes on the Prize, or The Karate Kid Part II (I’m not quite certain how that one fit into the curriculum), the sweats would come, and I’d just barely manage to chase away the swirling black dots. For a few very bad years, film projectors were the key trigger of a pervasive dread that plagued the most Solondz-y stretch of my life.
Even prior to that, moving images always landed on my eyes with extra impact. I grew up without a television in the house; my parents wanted me reading or playing outside. But my dad did have a thing for classic movies, and would take me to repertory screenings at D.C.’s Biograph and Key theaters (both R.I.P.) and Baltimore’s Charles and Senator (both still kicking). Marx Brothers and Bogart double bills were my treats. The rarity with which I’d see a film—of any era, on any sized screen—amplified their power exponentially.
For a few very bad years, film projectors were the key trigger of a pervasive dread that plagued the most Solondz-y stretch of my life.
It was an unconventional ‘80s childhood, one that gave me a foundation in classic cinema but almost no depth in contemporary pop culture. By the eighth grade, I’d pushed through the nausea A/V carts summoned, and, resentful that I’d been raised with Jimmy Stewart and Jack Benny as points of reference rather than Eddie Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger, became hellbent on “catching up.” I sought out friendships with anyone addicted to their video rental cards. A small group of us spent most weekend nights together in wood-paneled basements cluttered with pizza boxes and sleeping bags.
Late one night, channel-surfing landed us on Scanners during the head-explosion scene. We were changed. The friction and unease of shop class was back, only without the subsequent dizziness—and this time it was an exuberant shared experience, one that felt somehow cathartic. Hungrily connecting the dots from Cronenberg to Eraserhead to Pink Flamingos rapidly broadened our taste deeper into cult, midnight, and arthouse fare. Around that time, my parents broke down and purchased a TV, insisting that it be used only as a monitor for their modest library of VHS titles like Charade and Duck Soup. As an act of defiance, I identified a forthcoming TV show that intrigued me and tuned in each week—stubbornly at first, ecstatically from the second episode on; this was how Twin Peaks became the first television show I watched unfold live.
Moving to Baltimore in my early twenties and working for a nonprofit in a dingy basement devoid of music and conviviality, my refuge became the late, great Video Americain (immortalized in John Waters’s Serial Mom). Each night after work I’d luxuriate in the process of reading VHS boxes and making a selection. There I discovered filmmakers like Fassbinder and miracle movies like Xala and Possession. After a year of this, I gave up all pretense of having a square life, and jumped ship to manage Video Americain, finding my film school in its free employee rentals and my social life in coworkers and customers. That same year, the owners of Video Americain changed my life by sending me to TIFF as a bonus; seeing filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis present their work pointed me to the next level in my cinephilia.
It’s only in retrospect that I’ve understood my trajectory: an urge to catch up, to be “normal” and fit in, at some point shot past its mark and spun obsessively out of control, setting me on an esoteric life path of film festivals, historic theaters, microcinemas, and password-protected vimeo links that make me stick out as unabashedly abnormal.
Occasionally there’s still a film that makes me clammy with sweat; this happened with Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, with the opening sequence of How to Die in Oregon, and most recently with Caniba. Each of these films made me feel ill at ease for days—in a good way, I think. But to interrogate that feeling: is a sensation of feeling sick at the core of my lifelong cinemania? Was it masochism that made me fanatically pursue something that once made me faint, when someone else might’ve just avoided the source?
I don’t think so—not exactly. A lot of cinephiles work through an angsty developmental period where we prioritize extremity, but most of us abandon this compass after it serves its actual purpose: to expand the boundaries of our appetite.
Cinema should proceed unafraid into the unexpected. And while some of the films that’ve done this for me recently are amplified in tone (Sorry to Bother You) and/or extreme in content (Mandy), more often they’re exploratory (Distant Constellation, Kaili Blues) and even gentle (Maison du Bonheur). And with most physical media institutions like Video Americain gone, big-screen glances backward have become even more potent. The Black Audio Filmmaker Collective retrospective at True/False exposed me to a vital body of work I didn’t know existed; Metrograph’s recent soundtrack-release screening of ‘70s bad-trip black-radical vampire film Ganja & Hess with composer Sam Waymon miraculously opened up a film that I’d found a bit impenetrable on home viewing.
Maybe what isn’t killing me is making me not just stranger, but stronger. It’s thrilling that 30 years after that fainting spell, cinema can still overpower me. And while corporate-curated “indie” movies have degraded film culture over the course of my adult life, that’s only made places like Metrograph, the Quad, AFS Cinema, Northwest Film Forum, Trylon, and Suns Cinema more crucial. They’re my home and my family, and I’ll never not be hopeful—if, on some primal level, also a little apprehensive—at each day’s first beam of light from the back of the house. •
Eric Allen Hatch is a film programmer, critic, and consultant based in Baltimore. From 2007 to early 2018 he worked as the director of programming for Maryland Film Festival. He can also be found on Twitter and IG photoshopping Paul Blart into Apichatpong Weerasethakul films as @ericallenhatch.