My Life In Films: Jake Abatan

Buster Keaton in 'Sherlock Jr.'

If I ever were to write down my life story, films would play a crucial role in helping me sort out the chronology. For every standout moment, I can roughly work out the year it happened using films I remember seeing at around the same time.

It wouldn’t be difficult to break down this version of “My Life In Films”: I could share the first film I ever cried at (Stewart Little, 1999) or perhaps the first film I ever went to see without my parents (Hancock, 2008), but neither of those films actually mean anything to me. At least they never meant enough for me to watch them more than once (and even once was one time too many in the case of Hancock). Instead, my life in films is made up of (mostly) movies I’ve seen many, many times and have contributed massively to the person I am today, and here they are.

The Carlton Screen Advertising ‘Flaming Rod’ (1996) designed by Martin Lambie-Nairn

Long before I had ever heard the adage that all great artists must suffer for their art, I was suffering as a child in the audience. The Carlton Screen Advertising Logo might not be a film, but it was the literal trial by fire I had to get past in order to watch them. This nightmarish sequence preceded all the films I saw in my youth and was a very real barrier to entry. I still remember my first encounter with the ‘Flaming Rod’ (an affectionate nickname given to the sequence by people who regarded the brand as anything other than terrifying). My first trip to the cinema was over in a matter of moments with the start of the sequence, which depicts a branding rod being plunged into hot coals before then being thrust aggressively towards the viewer. It only takes a glance at the sequence’s YouTube comments to infer that this screen ad likely traumatised a whole generation of cinemagoers.  

Princess Mononoke (1997) dir. Hayao Miyazaki 

While we’re on the theme of trauma, I will never forget being removed from my year seven classroom before a screening of Studio Ghibli’s infamously tragic Grave Of The Fireflies (1988). I was not old enough to watch the film, and that fact stung all the more when I returned to see many of my classmates openly crying. From that moment on, I associated Studio Ghibli with a more adult brand of animation and an early viewing of Princess Mononoke confirmed this idea to me. The film is a sweeping epic with strong adult themes of environmentalism, war and death, but I’d be lying if I said I recognised this at the time. Most of these themes actually went over my head, and what initially sucked me in was the violence which is brutal and harsh, and because of that very cool to a child like me. 

Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch

I’m a massive fan of David Lynch—both the man and his films—and Mulholland Drive will forever be known as his masterpiece. On my first viewing I, like everyone, was completely lost in what little plot the film actually has. What I initially found so appealing was how powerfully the film made me jump between a variety of emotions. Ranging from utter terror at the now infamous ‘Denny’s parking lot’ scene, to laughing at a cameo appearance of Billy Ray Cyrus as an adulterous LA pool boy, or even responding in a mixture of the two at Angelo Badalamenti rejecting a shot of espresso into a napkin. There is of course much more to say about Mulholland Drive (many a pretentious dissertation has been written on the film, including my own). Simply put, David Lynch’s cinema will always hold a very special place in my heart. 

Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (2003) dir. Kazuhisa Takenouchi

I recently realised that Interstella 5555, produced in part by the legendary Toei Animation, is likely the first anime I ever watched. This film is, in essence, a music video to Daft Punk’s seminal 2001 album Discovery and that’s the context I first watched it: piecemeal as music videos on MTV. In fact, I had no idea that the music videos to some of my favourite songs, “One More Time”, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and “Digital Love”, were part of a feature film. What I did realise, however, is that there was some sort of narrative linking the music videos together and I was obsessed with the possibilities behind this. The music videos depicted a band of blue aliens being abducted by humans and turned into a cash-grab pop group. That is essentially all the film is really about, and unfortunately this means Interstella 5555 proves to be less interesting when watched in one sitting. But I’ll never forget the way the music videos inspired me to fill in the gaps in ways the film could never live up to. 

Sherlock Jr. (1924) dir. Buster Keaton

If you ever feel disillusioned with the medium of film, this is the one to set you straight. Sherlock Jr. gets a lot of love amongst cinephiles, likely due to its meta elements. Keaton plays a cinema projectionist and detective-in-training, trying to win the affection of a beautiful girl. I was first shown the film at university and wasn’t expecting the sheer amount of fun this film contains. I’ve seen the film a few times now and never fail to be surprised at some of the more audacious stunts in the film’s later half. Sherlock Jr. will always be a reminder to me of why I love films.  

Honourable Mentions: Blazing Saddles (1974), Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Damsels in Distress (2011), Do The Right Thing (1989), Only Yesterday (1991) 

Words by Jake Abatan

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