Anthony Marais

Anthony Marais

by Susan Henderson on January 2, 2008

This week, someone decided to interview me, and it ended up being a conversation between a movie lover and a movie hater, so enjoy, and feel free to jump into the conversation. Please welcome Anthony Marais, my interviewer.


AM: …Now, is it true that you’ve seen so few movies?

SH: I’ve seen fewer movies than anyone I know. I consider going to the movie theatre kind of like going to the dentist. It’s something you’re obligated to do now and then. I definitely go to the dentist more often than I go to the movies.

AM: Have you seen Marathon Man? This may change your view of dentists. Okay, what’s the first movie you’ve ever seen? For my part, it must be one by Walt Disney: Pinocchio, Snow White and Jungle Book have melded in my earliest cinema memories. My father told me he started taking me to the movies when I around three. I also have early memories of the Hal Roach films with Laurel and Hardy and The Little Rascals, as well as I love Lucy back when I had to go to sleep at 7:00 PM. I have a clear memory of seeing Woody Allen’s Sleeper at the age of seven in Lake Arrowhead, CA. I can remember the scenes with the “orgasmatron” and not knowing exactly what it meant. Today I know what it means…I think.

SH: The first movie I ever saw was The Little Red Tent. I remember most of the movie was white, and then there was a tent in the movie, and it was red. There might have also been wind or the sound of wind.

AM: A film I don’t know. How frustrating! If you’re into wind – and I’m totally into wind – check out the films of Federico Fellini and Val Lewton. Such pleasure!

SH: The first Disney movie I saw was also the first movie I liked. I don’t know the name of it but it had Uncle Remus and zippetydooda in it, and I think if I watched it today, there would be things that really bothered me about it. There were cartoony bits that went along with stories I’d read. The stories were better. But what I liked about the movie were Uncle Remus’ hands, especially near the nail where the brown changed to pink. I also liked the gray bits in his hair and how his veins would swell up a little when he sang.

AM: The movie is called Song of the South (1946) and it is one of my all-time favorites. I have it in my video collection. This is, indeed, opening a can of worms, however, because I stand by this film as a piece of humanistic art. I believe the criticism it has received in recent years is unwarranted – and I do care about these issues – and in my opinion it’s a scandal that Disney has pulled it from the shelves. Unfortunately, it would take a lot of space to fully explain why I hold this view, but suffice it to say, I’m glad Uncle Remus is a part of my life, and like little Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll) I’d also run across a field of peril to keep from losing that jolly old man.

SH: The next movie I remember seeing was, oh hell, I forgot the name of that one, too. It had Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in it, and Jon Voight was like this prostitute cowboy and there was dancing and a bus ride and a great soundtrack and a bittersweet ending. I liked it, though I don’t remember the plot.

AM: Midnight Cowboy (1969). I don’t know how you did it, but the movies you’ve seen appear to be all good. The theme song by Harry Nilsson is fun.

SH: It’s because a movie needs to be suggested to me about 20 times before I’ll go. And even then, I have to be dragged to it. I Googled The Little Red Tent, by the way. There’s no such movie. But there is The Red Tent with Sean Connery, and that’s the one. Obviously the Russian-big blimp thing-espionage theme did not leave an impression on me. I usually fuzz out before the movie even gets going.

AM: This is interesting, because as a novelist (and mother) you obviously do not lack patience and attention to detail.

SH: I have a question for you, and it’s more about comparing gray matter, maybe. But even the movies I’ve seen, and even the ones I’d say were my all-time favorites, see they just don’t stick with me. I tend to notice a detail or a mood or an emotion, but I think I am mostly NOT watching the movie. I go somewhere else.

So my question is, What is your experience like when you watch a movie? How do you make yourself pay attention to it? And how does the movie stick in your memory years later?

AM: Wow, what a question! I am, indeed, fascinated by the amount of information our brains can store. Firstly, I ask myself, How many movies have I really seen? 1,000? 5,000? 10,000? If I watch on average a film a day that would add up to – well, let’s see – 15,000 movies over the past 41 years. Add to this the books I’ve read, the lyrics I’ve listened to, and the paintings I’ve seen and we’ve got a lot of info – and this is, pedagogically speaking, the abstract data that our brains shy away from. The basics (which are absorbed more easily and retained more deeply) like speech, smell, music and real-life experience, push the limits of what lies in our three-pound-tofu-globs beyond conception.

I don’t know about you, but I imagine a vast library in my head filled with a labyrinth of shelves; and a mental librarian who scurries about looking for info as it is needed in conversation or writing. Organization is important, and hence the dates after every film I mention. It may cost money, but I’m an advocate of collecting books, movies and music. I’ve found that when I buy a DVD and put it on my shelf, it stays in my active memory banks. I also develop a different relation to the movie, as I tend to watch them many times over. But, for any cinephiles out there, please don’t get me wrong: the cinema is the place for watching movies! I have around 750 movies in my humble collection, and these are most often the ones I refer to in conversation.

SH: I am absolutely staggered by those numbers! Do you watch movies alone or with company? Do you feel bigger or smaller after a movie? Do you know what I mean? Does life seem blasé afterward or fuller or what? I just can’t imagine ever watching a movie a day.

AM: Last night I saw for the first time Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) starring Gregory Peck. It was a good day. Well, come to think of it, if the movie is good, I feel smaller… and better. You see, I’d rather be a small fish in a big sea. I’m inspired when I encounter a world richer than mine, and I love hearing dialogue more clever and lucid than my own. I wholeheartedly believe that life is made fuller through art. It is the tonic of life.

SH: As for my brain, maybe I need to have shelves installed. My head is more like a body of water. There’s flotsam and jetsam bobbing around. There are a few hot pools, and there are places where you can touch the ground and then suddenly it drops off and it’s cold. I remember moods and emotions and little, vivid details of fabrics or bits of conversations that are attached to them. I think my writing is often an attempt to organize and fill in blanks to what otherwise feels like chaos.

AM: Sounds to me like Jungian psychology. Have you seen Solaris (1972) by Andrey Tarkovsky? Or read the book by Stanislaw Lem? Their brains look like yours! I also feel the need to fill in blanks, make sense of the chaos and, you know, clean up the mess. Thus far, no success on my end…

SH: Even when I read a good book, I’m rarely focused on the big plot but in the little moments and gestures and just being inside that writer’s heart and mind for a while and seeing the world as they do. Reading is an act of intimacy. It’s very much like falling in love or having amazing sex. It has to be a great book, though; I’m very picky. But when I read Dylan Thomas or Tim O’Brien or Nicole Krauss, I am breathless, sentence by sentence.

AM: “Love,” “Sex,” “Breathless,” “Intimacy” – What beautiful words to describe the act of reading! I think by now you know how much I love movies, but, ah, reading, there’s nothing like it. I would add the word “distillation” to this list, because, for me, there is an intensity to literature akin to having distilled life into a potent elixir. Indeed, these intimate details of which you speak create indescribable emotions, as if there is nothing more wondrous than being human. The English writer Charles Lamb (1775-1833) wrote: “I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. If I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.” I’m charmed by this idea. Reading is like thinking with the mind of someone more intelligent than us – that feels good, and awakens gratitude.

SH: That’s so gorgeous what you wrote there, it would be stupid not to end on that note. But for kicks, let’s maybe end with our top 10 favorite films? You first.

Anthony’s Top 10 Movies:

1. Spartacus (1960)

The alchemical mixing point of romantic Hollywood grandeur and the advent of psychological modernism, the biggest and smallest film ever made.

2. In Cold Blood (1967)

The best character development ever achieved on film, the most disturbing murder sequence ever filmed, and a fascinating fusion of stylized dialogue, poetic cinematography and gritty realism.

3. Annie Hall (1977)

A true auteur film: by a true auteur, bristling with ideas and brimming with wisdom, leaving one emotionally pummeled and deeply in love with life.

4. La Dolce Vita (1960)

Simply the Holy Grail of cinema, possessing the key to that paradoxical beauty for which all modernists strive, while never losing hold of its nostalgia and romance.

5. Psycho (1960)

The most gripping movie ever made; and perhaps the most audacious title ever chosen. Yet the film lives up to its name. It’s the apex of dark humor, a dazzling example of acting in a perfectly structured story.

6. The Ten Commandments (1955)

A miracle: a 3 hour 39 minute film that doesn’t leave you bored for a minute. This is the great elephant that all too many critics neglect as they seek out the “underground” and “influential.” This film has done more for archaeology than 150 years of scientific research. It is the triumph of art over science. Watch the obelisk fall into place and realize that we have invented time machines!

7. Sunset Blvd. (1950)

The most “Hollywood” Hollywood film ever made; and perhaps the best example of a movie possessing more than meets the eye. It’s a film that grows, because it is so rich in insight and piercing in its observations. Don’t be fooled by the light touch with which it was made.

8. Rosemary’s Baby (1967)

The most pessimistic movie ever made – and it’s a comedy! Hence it qualifies as the most philosophical movie ever made. Hannah Arendt coined the phrase: “The banality of evil.” Roman Polanski filmed it.

9. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Arguably the “American Dream” is just that: a dream. And yet all too few of us remember to thank the ones who dreamt it up. Do yourself a favor, watch this film, believe in life, cry and get married.

10. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

The closest Hollywood ever got to creating poetry on film. This is also the most anthropological movie ever made – an enchantingly dark film, where culture does not serve as a backdrop, but as the star. Don’t be deceived by the title. Val Lewton smuggled something inscrutable onto the lots of RKO, and the world is the better for it.

11. The Jungle Book (1967)

When Baloo the bear crashes onto the scene, dressed in nothing but a grass skirt and a coconut strung over his mouth, slamming the temple door in Bagheera’s face and boisterously joining in on King Louis’s tune – well, for my part, there are few joys to compare with this. Walt died six months before this film premiered, and I’d like to think his team transformed their tears into a loving work of art.

AM: Did I just pass my limit?

Susan’s Top 10 Movies:

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Try watching it all the way through and not having sex. Especially during the whole sequence with the guy on horseback and the fight over the comb. Our kids’ kung fu teacher is in the film and did all the fight choreography, so I like it for that, too.

2. Hero

You think I have a thing for fighting but I actually just love the colors and the movement in this movie. I like it with subtitles because hearing the Mandarin is half the experience of it for me.

3. Withnail and I

My husband grew up outside of London and I like this movie because it goes so well with the stories he tells of his childhood.

4. Finding Neverland

I cried like a baby watching this movie. It was my period, but maybe I would have cried anyway.

5. Princess Bride

Hmmm. Maybe I do have a thing for sword fighting. This is a sexy little fairy tale, and there’s a comedic fight scene on a cliff that is funny and gets you in the mood all at once.

SH: Sorry, I can’t make it all the way to ten, though these ones weren’t bad: The Red Balloon, Waiting for Guffman, Boyz in the Hood, Duck Soup, Fiddler on the Roof, and Doctor Zhivago (God that guy was beautiful). Still, I can’t help feeling antsy when I watch a film, like I could be getting something done, I guess.



Anthony Marais studied anthropology at U.C. Berkeley, focusing on the prehistory of Polynesia; and then at Simon Fraser University in Canada where he holds a Master’s Degree in archaeology and wrote a thesis on fortifications in Tonga. He is the author of The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Californians, The Cure, Plateau, and most recently, Delusionism.