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5 for the Day: Branded

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5 for the Day: Branded

The first “5 for the Day” in a while is a bit more loosely defined than previous ones, and more personal. This time I’m looking for movies or TV shows that contained scenes or images that branded themselves onto your imagination, disturbing or moving you and profoundly altering your view of entertainment and/or life. Interpret that however you wish.

1. The Exorcist (1973): One of the most audience-brutalizing films ever made, this one had an especially powerful effect on me. I spent much of my youth in the Bible belt epicenter of Dallas, Texas, in a family of jazz musicians headed by an atheist stepdad and a mom who comparison shopped among Christian denominations and rarely stuck with any one for very long, so I was blindsided by the movie’s literal-minded visualization of dark forces, its conviction that evil was not metaphorical, but tangibly real, and could crawl inside you and manipulate your mind and body like a puppeteer working a warm-blooded marionette. Of course the notorious showstoppers freaked me out—the rotating head, the pea-soup vomit, the crotch attack. But for some reason the incidental or purely atmospheric touches upset me even more: little Regan coming into her mom’s living room and urinating on the rug; Father Merrin wiping a golfball-sized phlegm gob from his spectacles; the scenes where Father Karras listens to audiotapes of overlapping demonic voices, and most of all, that early scene where Regan’s mom goes to check on her daughter, spots an inexplicably opened bedroom window and shuts it. (The idea that a demon or devil would fly through a kid’s open window—or worse, pry open a closed window!—was bone-chilling.) I saw this movie in the fifth grade, a chopped-up version that aired on network TV with lamely dubbed-over profanity. Yet it rattled me so deeply that I routinely stayed up until three or four a.m. for the better part of a year and fell asleep at school the next day because I wanted to be awake and able to call for help if my mattress or my little brother’s mattress (he slept above me in a bunk bed) started shaking. The Exorcist was an emotional hand grenade dropped in the middle of my life. Anybody who thinks pictures can’t hurt you hasn’t seen this movie.

2. Benji (1974): I saw this one on TV when I was about 10. An object lesson in how to imbue nonhuman characters with personality through crafty editing, it’s a crude but in some ways brilliant movie that envisions the world through the point of view of its title pooch. The scene where one of the kidnappers kicks Benji’s beautiful doggie girlfriend Tiffany signaled my first bout of sustained, cathartic tears as self-aware moviegoer. The subsequent slo-mo montage of Benji running while thinking about everything he’d seen prompted even more weeping and wailing, but more significantly, it marked the first time I’d ever thought about the fact that movies were not just streams of random images, that they were in fact edited to achieve particular narrative or emotional effects. In short, this was the first movie I remember being absolutely destroyed by, and the first movie that made me think about the aesthetic manipulations that got me to that point.

3. Holocaust (1978): In retrospect, this miniseries seems way more problematic than Schindler’s List—a cheesy prime time soap built around genocide, basically an uneasy merger of Rich Man, Poor Man and The Sorrow and the Pity. But when I saw it as a fourth grader, on a tiny black-and-white TV at my grandparents’ suburban house in Kansas City, it spurred me to check out school library books that filled in the details of a shameful chapter of history that neither my family nor my teachers had seen fit to tell me about. The scenes of unclothed concentration camp inmates (including children and crying babies) being led to their deaths was my first exposure to non-sexual, unglamorous, dramatically integral nudity. (“Why are they crying?” asked my brother, who was six at the time. “Is it because they’re naked?”) It was also my first televised illustration that cruelty wasn’t just a one-to-one phenomenon, that it could be methodically inflicted by one group upon another.

4. Superman: The Movie (1978): I saw this comic book epic at the Glenwood Theater in Kansas City on opening day. Being a child of the ’70s, when screwed-up characters and downer endings were the norm, I was unconsciously accustomed to a more reflective, even somber audience. This one was so over-the-moon you’d have thought they were watching a pro wrestling match or a stock car race. Simply put, they just flat-out loved the sight of Superman flying all over the place and saving people. Every time he did something astonishing and selfless—for instance, pushing that schoolbus back onto the earthquake-damaged Golden Gate bridge—they applauded and whooped and whistled. Looking back on it years later, I realized that Superman, like Star Wars before it, signaled a psychological and political turning point for American movies. After a decade-long embrace of melancholy, grim or ambiguous material, the industry shifted, virtually from top to bottom, into P.T. Barnum mode and made up for lost time, feeding the audience’s craving for straightforward spectacle and uncomplicated heroism. To hear that crowd’s ecstatic reaction was to understand that Americans were ready to emerge from what then-president Carter would later call a “crisis of confidence.” They wanted to be optimistic again and believe in their own capacity for goodness again; any pretext would suffice.

5. Emmanuelle in Bangkok (1976): I saw this on Betamax at my friend David Crooks’ house in the sixth grade. His parents were gone for the afternoon and he wanted to impress me and my brother by showing us that (a) he had a home video player and knew how to operate it, (b) he knew where his dad’s supposedly secret stash of nudie flicks was, and (c) he had seen these tapes so many times that he wasn’t the least bit aroused by them anymore, and in fact was so blasé that he could stand there watching softcore in the company of two other kids, cracking jokes while they stared at the screen in astonishment. I was riveted, of course; maybe dumbstruck is a better word. Twenty-some years later, when I finally stumbled across the movie again on cable, I realized that after just one viewing I had memorized particular scenes shot-for-shot! A formative sexual influence, I credit this movie with speeding me through puberty much sooner and singlehandedly illustrating the distinction between pornography and erotica (which is beautiful to look at, and is as much about situations as it is sex and skin). Because of this early encounter with Emmanuelle—the first so-called “adult” movie I ever saw—brightly lit, purely mechanical porn starring women with implants has never turned me on. If I can’t have real bodies and artful photography, I’d rather watch The Cartoon Network.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.