9 Life-Changing Films That Made Me
"Some films you need to watch through the lens of your 7-year-old self, sitting on the floor; eyes wide, mind blown."
Though I've always loved books, films were just as formative for me. Even more so, at times. These aren't necessarily my favourite films, but they are films that found me at the right moment, films that left a mark.
I grew up in a landlocked Northern town with a wealth of woods and rivers, but no recorded pirate activity. There was little danger of stumbling on buried treasure, but that didn't stop us looking. We had a local video store that to my mind stocked every VHS tape in existence. My parents would spend forever diligently choosing a film to watch together, and I’d sit upstairs in the horror section and read the backs of the boxes, films I was too young to see. Every Saturday for a year, my brother and I rented The Goonies. It never got old, we knew every scene, every line. Each rewatch fuelled our own adventures: There was a huge chimney out in the middle of the woods near our house, part of a mill that had long been abandoned. An underground brick tunnel led up through the woods from mill to chimney. In the years since the mill closed, part of the tunnel had collapsed, as good as an invitation. Me, my brother Rob, and a couple of our friends climbed in with torches. It was a small tunnel, and we had to crouch to walk up it. Near pitch black even by torchlight, the crumbling, soot-lined passage went steeply upwards for a couple of hundred yards. Our hearts were racing, every sound behind us making us jump, laughing to hide our nerves. No one admitted to being scared. Goonies never say die. As we stood dusty and breathless at the bottom of the chimney, looking out at the sky through a small hole 60 feet above, we cheered and shouted like we’d just struck gold. I grew up on The Goonies, The Monster Squad, E.T. – films about kids on bikes, saving things. They inspired countless adventures. But unlike the Goonies we didn’t save our town. It didn’t really need saving. Not all of it, anyway: That video store, the one with every VHS tape ever, closed down eventually, entirely undone by time.
Saturday mornings usually involved watching cartoons until my teenage sisters woke up, then watching The Chart Show, which was the only way to watch the latest music videos in a house without MTV. I have them to thank for much of my early musical tastes: I was a huge P.M. Dawn fan at 7 years old. After The Chart Show, if it was a rainy day, or if they had friends over, we’d watch a film. It was sitting with them on the sofa, being told to keep quiet and stop asking questions, that I saw Top Gun for the first time, a snowy, speckled version they’d taped off the TV, ad breaks included. And holy shit. Top Gun blew my tiny mind. Fast bikes, faster jets. The soundtrack, the dialogue. The kissing wasn't my scene. But Goose. Goose! I cried then, I cry now, even though I’m old enough to know it’s more than a little silly. From Top Gun to The Lost Boys, from Dirty Dancing to Young Guns, my brother and I got to benefit from the vicarious cool of our teenage sisters' tastes. Top Gun isn't perfect, but some films you just need to watch through the lens of your 7-year-old self, sitting cross legged on the floor; eyes wide, mind blown.
As an adolescent boy with a Buffy fetish, I saw Cruel Intentions because it starred Sarah Michelle Gellar. Sold. And unashamedly so. I hadn’t seen Dangerous Liaisons and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but what I got was the formative film of my teen years. I watched it a lot, and not just because it was one of three films I owned. What kept me coming back wasn’t the sapphic titillation or Gellar’s corset top. I loved the story. I loved the soundtrack. I loved the clothes. And I especially loved the love. Sure I wanted to engage in dangerous sex with gorgeous Manhattan elites, but more than that, I wanted some of that crushing romance. You know, that real star-crossed stuff. In addition to my SMG fandom, I developed a major crush on Ryan Philippe’s character. As a straight man my male crushes aren’t ever overtly sexual, it’s more about identity. I crush on guys I want to be (not guys I want to be in). And I so wanted to be Sebastian (much in the same way I crushed Stephen Dorff in Blade). I spent much of my twenties trying to be Act 1 Sebastian, without benefit of Philippe’s boyish grin, and the inevitable result was that I spent much of my time actually being Act 3 Sebastian, broken-hearted and entirely emo, jotting down my important feels in a black notebook. In my thirties I’m still most thrilled by those Act 2 Sebastian moments: new love, the real sappy stuff, the kind you move continents for. The dangerous sex with gorgeous Manhattan elites is still on my to-do list.
The summer I left sixth form, still figuring out what to do with the rest of my life, I went to work at a summer camp on Long Island. There are worse places to procrastinate than the Hamptons. It was 2001, the summer before the world changed, and thrown together with strangers from half a world away, friendships were forged quickly against a common enemy – 11-year-old boys. By the second half of the summer the girls were in camp, and the male counsellors were reduced to teaching or lifeguarding. That meant a lot of downtime. Late one night a small group left camp for a fishing trip. Their quarry: sharks. We thought they’d return with a few flounder, but the lucky bastards bagged a world-record blue shark. Even though there were only six men on the trip, we all took pride in that catch. It was difficult to forget, partly because the south side of the camp was thick with the scent of drying dorsal fin, which someone nailed to the top of the rec room for all to smell. I’m not sure where we got the Jaws tape. Maybe we rented it from the Blockbuster in Southampton. Maybe it just appeared. Either way we wore it out. We all sat and shouted out the lines, sang the sea shanties, laughed at the rubber fish. It was our Shark Summer. Thanks to that film and those friends, it is one I'll never forget.
I arrived back from summer camp in New York to a town that looked even smaller than I remembered. I was 18 and feckless, and as winter rolled around I had to start thinking about applying for university. I wrote a lot that summer; short stories, poetry, nothing great, but I'd reach for a pen whenever I had a thought or feeling to express. It wasn’t so much a diary, more of a scrapbook of partial quotes, overheard phrases, bad poems. At a time when everything was in flux, writing made the world make sense. To pass the time and pay the rent, I started working in a cinema. The only perk was free film, and I saw all I could. On my days off too I was watching anything and everything. The great DVD price gouge was in full swing by 2001; it was cheaper to buy films than rent them. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen Almost Famous when it came out, but I bought the special edition DVD. I was halfway through when something struck me: This is what I want to do for a living. Not the working at Rolling Stone and touring with rock bands thing. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to write. I paused the film halfway through and ran to get my notebook. It was a couple of hours until I pressed play again. I've been writing ever since.
I finished my creative writing degree at 22 and immediately set off travelling. I made my way across the US, and then on to Australia, stumbling for something. I wasn't sure what. I was filled with a dissatisfaction, a restlessness. My travels were born partly from my age-old desire for adventure, partly from a desire to avoid responsibility. To not grow up. Goonies don't grow up. I was in my mid-twenties working construction jobs in Sydney, writing in the evenings, when Into the Wild was released. I read Jon Krakauer’s book before the film came out. Both are cautionary tales. In the book, McCandless is ill prepared for the harsh reality of an Alaskan winter; he gets tired, he gets hungry, he makes a mistake. When you’re alone in the wilderness there’s no one to ask for help. The film offers him several lives, places he could call home, places he could build a life. Offers he ignores. He dies alone, friendless, in an old bus. It's months before anyone finds him. Maybe it was just coincidence, but a few months later I went home. It was time to stop running.
In my mid-twenties the cinema became a refuge for me. I go alone most of the time, I have done since my late teens. It's my happy place: a dark room in the middle of the day, no one to talk to, a story to immerse in. Sometimes going alone is good in other ways. In 2008, after boasting for years about being unable to find a film that actually scared me, I spent nearly the entire run time of The Mist curled up in a ball in my seat, knees to my chest, skin slick with panic sweats. I was 25. I'm glad no one was there to see that.
I was 30 when I returned home in the wake of another grand adventure – I’m still prone to my Sebastian-romances and my McCandless-quests. I’d left a marriage behind in Australia, and I was falling between the cracks of my life. I felt tired, exhausted, sinking to the bottom of a deep depression. And I was scared. Scared that I'd fucked up. That I wouldn't recover from this. Scared that this was a storm too many to weather. Soon enough I got a job, found comfort in a few friends, and started to level out. I was 31 when I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild for the first time. It was screening with a live orchestra. I sat for much of the run time glassy-eyed and in awe. It’s a fever dream of a film about a 6-year-old girl, Hushpuppy, fighting to save her home and find her parents amid the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It's about the strength and resilience of children. It's about hope. It's about home. "No crying, you hear," Hushpuppy's father, Wink, tells her when she knows she's going to lose him. As she grit her teeth, tears dropping on her cheeks, I sobbed. Strength is in being scared, and carrying on anyway. London shone that summer. It hasn’t always been easy. It’s a city that will spit you out if you let it. Life will do the same. But you don’t have to let it.
When I was young, long before great loves and grand adventures, I saw an animated film I didn't really understand. This was the late '80s. I must have been 5 or 6. I only saw it once, and for years I couldn’t remember its name. Visions of the art haunted me. I only remembered small details, mostly the twist: It was about a little boy trapped on a planet after his colony is attacked by giant hornets. A crew race across the galaxy to rescue him, among them an old man – I remembered his name as Sinbad – who once lived on the planet where the boy is trapped. It turns out – spoiler alert – that Sinbad and the little boy are the same person, 60 years apart, their fates forever entwined. Frustrated by my memories, I decided to try and find it, using the IMDb to go through every animated feature made between 1970 and 1990, clicking on anything that looked likely, until eventually, bingo. The film is called Time Masters (Les Maîtres du Temps). More than 20 years after first seeing it, I'd found it again. This mythic film that I chanced upon as a boy existed. I bought the DVD and, much to the bemusement of my partner, sat cross legged on the floor in front of the TV one Saturday afternoon, watching it for the second time. "What’s it about?" she asked as the opening credits rolled. "It’s about trying to rescue yourself from the ravages of time," I told her. At least that's how I remember it.