The Toughest Critic
When a movie that holds a special meaning for me comes out on BluRay, I am likely to add it to my collection. I recently purchased Fellini’s 8 ½, not so much for the film itself as for what happened to me when I first saw it.
At age 14, I declared that I wanted to become a filmmaker. Shortly thereafter my mother, who raised five of us as a single parent, took me to a foreign film society screening of 8 ½ at the Physical Science Auditorium at UH Manoa. I suppose she had read that this was a movie every aspiring filmmaker should see. I had seen Fellini’s La Strada on late-night TV, but this was a completely different animal. From the opening scene of Guido Anselmi (Fellini’s alter-ego) escaping from his smog-filled car in Rome gridlock, to the ending scene of Guido directing all of the important people in his life in a circular dance around a circus ring, I was mesmerized. Having just experienced the transformative power of symbolism in the cinema, I felt as though I had discovered the holy grail of filmmaking. Then, on the way back to our car, my mother dropped the bomb. “Well,” she said, “I certainly hope you’ll be able to make a better film than that.” This completely stymied me. What did she mean? Is it possible that she really didn’t think much of what is arguably one of the best 10 films of all time? Or was she trying to set a high bar for me? Or both? The statement became a Zen koan that haunted me for decades. (“The sound of one hand clapping.” “I certainly hope you’ll be able to make a better film than 8 ½.”)
In my junior year of high school I decided I wanted to major in cinema at USC. (This was before George Lucas’s Star Wars success made enrolling in film school an in thing to do.) For most Punahou parents–who wanted their children to declare majors that would lead to practical careers in law, medicine, or engineering–this would have started a knock-down, drag-out fight. My mother just said, “Fine,” without a trace of sarcasm or “I’ve-done-all-I-can” exasperation. She even convinced my paternal grandfather to foot the bill.
I eventually did become a maker of films. Not features (at least not yet), but documentaries and shorts. Still, the koan kept gnawing at me. Will I ever arrive at the unreachable destination my mother had set for me at the start of my journey?
In early 2003, less than a year before the debilitating stroke that would eventually lead to her death, I invited my mother to a screening of Living Your Dying, a feature-length documentary on the great end-of-life pioneer Mits Aoki (The film was reviewed in the Honolulu Weekly issue of June 4, 2003.) My mother was profoundly moved. After the credits rolled (I was co-director, co-producer and co-writer), she paid me, in her inimitable way, the ultimate compliment. “I always knew you were good,” she said, “but I had no idea you were this good.”
Will I ever, in the eyes of the film-going public, make a better film than 8 ½ ? No. But it is possible that, in my mother’s eyes, I had. And that’s good enough for me. For in the end, aren’t we all just trying to please our parents?