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Mothers and Movies

"Mothers of America, let your kids go to the movies!  ...It's true that fresh air is good for the body but what about the soul that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images?"—Frank O'Hara, "Ave Maria" (from Lunch Poems, 1964)

During one of my conversations with San Franciscan film historian Matthew Kennedy, I realized that both of us had acquired our love for movies through our mothers, which led me to wonder how many other cinephiles—filmmakers and audience alike—shared a similar experience?  In the past year, I have asked several individuals: "Did your mother have any influence on your cinephilia?  Did she influence the movies you watched or—in the case of filmmakers—the movies you've made?"  Here are some of the generous responses.  And I would be delighted to hear any responses from the MUBI community.

Chris Fujiwara, Critic

My mother was a normal moviegoer of her generation, so she wasn't particularly involved with film but she liked certain stars, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis, Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  That probably had an influence, though it's difficult to define.  She let me watch horror movies on TV and go see them at drive-ins, so that was certainly a constructive influence, through permissiveness.  She didn't watch them herself, except one time when we went to see Night of the Living Dead, not expecting anything as intense as what it turned out to be.  She tried to cover up my eyes at the moment when the little girl is about to kill her mother.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film Critic

The funny thing is that the only other cinephile in my family—someone who really qualifies as a cinephile, though in a very different way than me—is my grandfather who started our family business of film exhibition.  In a non-analytical mainstream way he liked watching movies.

In my first book Moving Places, there's a passage that's an actual letter to my mother that was written for the book—which is kind of weird—in which I talk about a period in my youth when I was about 11 when she was away for about a year.  I used to write her long letters.  I mentioned in my letter that my liking for long sentences almost had something to do with reaching out to her.  In other words, there was something almost Freudian in all of this about bonding with my mother.  But that's about writing.  As far as filmgoing is concerned, yeah, maybe in all kinds of unconscious ways movies are like wombs and stuff like that; but, though it was a family business and my parents went to a lot of movies to see how things were doing, they were not really cinephiles.

Jose-Luis Guerín, Filmmaker

I can see my mother in the character of Ma Joad played by Jane Darwell in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

  Ford as a filmmaker was able to communicate to me a sense of family in his films.  But my mother never had any direct influence on my love for movies.  She influenced my taste for literature, for books, for reading.  Though I can say that I came to my love for movies through her reading me books as a child before I learned to read myself, especially when she read to me from illustrated books or comics.  For me it was like she was making up the stories from the pictures and this nourished my imagination.

However, I also think that cinema lies outside the protection of the family, whether mothers or fathers.  The first movies a young person sees—especially those young people who go on to become filmmakers themselves—are a blessure, a wound.  The first contact with cinema usually involves a kind of damage, a shock, a trauma, a terrifying experience and the only solution for this trauma is to see more movies.

Patricio Guzmán, Filmmaker

I believe so because I have memories of being beside her while I was viewing films that were important to me when I was growing up.  She did it, but maybe in a simple, spontaneous way.  She was a very simple mother.  I was an only child and so—when I think about my childhood—I only think of her because I didn't have any brothers or sisters.

Diana Sanchez, Programmer

My mother is Colombian and she was actually a lot more interested in reading so I started reading a lot.  I studied literature.  Reading was actually a much bigger part of my life.  It was actually my younger brother—he's 12 years younger than I am—that got me into watching film because he loves film.  I started working for TIFF when he was 13 or 14 and he started getting me to bring him all these films from the film reference library.  I'd bring all these films home and that's when I began to get very excited about cinema.  I saw so many parallels between the literature my mother had taught me and storytelling in general.  Cinema seemed—what's the right word?—bigger?  But it's not so much that it's a bigger medium than literature; it's just that a book has one authorial intent and in a film anything can happen.  I like that a lot.

Colin Geddes, Programmer

Let me put it this way.  My first year doing Midnight Madness in 1997 my parents met one of the directors.  This director, in fact, is the only director who has really met my parents: Takashi Miike.  My parents came and saw Fudoh in Midnight Madness and then we had a big discussion the next day about children and violence—because there's a lot of children and violence in that film—and two years later I went to Japan for my first time and I was invited onto the set of one of Miike's films.  When he finally came over to me, the first thing Miike said to me—in his very slow English and with a big grin on his face—was, "How . is . your . mother?"

Because—and here's really the good story—before Fudoh started I introduced Miike to my parents.  My dad and sister had both lived in Japan for a while and my dad had taken a little bit of Japanese so he tried some of that on Miike and then—when Miike and I went out on stage to introduce the film (this was one of my earliest introductions at the Ryerson)—we had the translator on stage and Miike started talking, "Da da da da, Colin-san, da da da da, Colin-san" and he just kept talking and the translator interpreted, "I'd like to thank Colin for bringing me here to the Toronto International Film Festival—I'm very grateful to him—but, I think you all should know that Colin is a brave young man because his parents are sitting right up there.  Colin was a special child, but they still love him.  I hope you enjoy my movie."

I grew up in the countryside where on our black and white TV we got maybe three stations if we were lucky.  My parents would get the Toronto Star and I would go through the Toronto Star TV guide and would clip out listings of horror films and B-films and put them in my Psychotronic Movie Guide that they got me.  At a young age they bought me the three-volume set of Danny Peary's Cult Movies.  My father took me to go see Barbarella as a young child.  I think that was his way of doing the birds and the bees talk.  They're coming up to Toronto for two days and they're going to see The Butcher, The Chef and The SwordsmanStake Land and A Horrible Way To Die.

 Pablo Trapero, Filmmaker

Maybe.  But nothing particular.  She loved watching films, so maybe.  I remember the first time I went to a movie it was not even a theater, it was a drive-in.  I was very small and don't even remember the name of the movie; but, I remember the feeling of being in the car watching the movie on such an immense screen with both my parents.

Benjamin Heisenberg, Filmmaker

That is a very interesting question.  We didn't have a television for a long time.  We went over to our neighbors to watch Lee Majors as Colt Seavers in The Fall Guy.  Do you know this series?  He was a stunt man and his friends were Howie and Jody?

The point is that my film history in terms of my mother showing me anything is not strong.  She didn't show us a lot of films.  Both she and my father, in fact, were even against our watching TV too much.  They felt it was a waste of time.  So the first film I remember seeing was The Jungle Book and other commercial films I saw in the cinema.

But what I have to say is that my mother is a great storyteller and she's very interested in the arts.  And my grandmother was also interested in the arts.  So my studying art came from my grandmother but also from my mother.  Part of my mother's life is about telling the stories of other people because she can remember them totally.  We lived in a village and she would visit people on their birthdays for example, old people who didn't have any relatives, and she would know everything about them.  She could remember everything, which is something I think I've inherited from her.  So it was her storytelling impulse that influenced my filmmaking.

Diego Vega, Filmmaker

It's funny you ask because we didn't grow up in a cinephilic family; we were—how do you say?—a common film audience.  I recall going to the video store with my stepfather and my mother and we would get one action or western for my stepfather and a drama for my mother, a horror film for me, and a high school comedy for my brother.  That was our weekend.  The entire family watched the action film and the drama film, including my mother, but I watched the horror film alone or sometimes with my brother, and my brother watched the comedy with my stepfather.  So we grew up watching these common films and I think, of course, that had some influence.  But originally I studied economics, worked, went to school, and only about 12 years ago started to watch a lot of films.  So the formation of my love for film actually started then, not with my family and the films I was watching as a teenager.  Of course, it had some influence; but, it was more that we just enjoyed watching films together as a family.

I don't remember thinking about films because of my mother or anything.  I remember she loved the film The Champ (1979).  I remember watching that film many times because she loved it.  She cried and then that made me cry.  So, though of course there's an influence, it's not rational. 

Alex Cox, Filmmaker

She did actually, but not in terms of her taste.  She wasn't very interested in films.  But I remember my mother told me when I was a little boy that she had set out to go for an audition to be an actress.  She sat up on the bus and on the way to the audition she lost her nerve and went back home again.  It's just as well.  Who knows what dodgy operation she was on her way to audition for; but, that story always stuck in my head. Now, she doesn't remember that she told me.  She says that never happened.  But she told me that story.  She's 94.  So obviously that had an impact on me.

Icíar Bollaín, Filmmaker

I come from a middle class family.  My dad was a little bit more current with Spanish films and he knew Victor Erice; but, my mom was not particularly current.  When I was cast in Erice's film, they were both surprised but thought it was great for the experience.  We never even had a tele at home until I was 12.  My parents were against tele because they thought it was rubbish so we had to go to the neighbors to watch tele.  It was the experience of working with Erice that awakened my love for film.

Todd Haynes, Filmmaker

My mom was a huge encourager of my imagination as a child.  She accompanied me in all of my earlier obsessions and was there as a supplier of the material of the goods.  The first film I ever saw was Mary Poppins and it had a huge spectoral influence on me and in the content of it as well.  It was the story of a very intense maternal figure, y'know?  I think maternity and movies were born at the same time in my imagination through this very strong female figure who had both warmth and a discipline—more than my mother actually had; she was more of a supporter and encourager—and was founded at the same moment as a visual experience, as this spectoral experience of the movies.  It propelled me into an intense, creative response where I was forever drawing and creating Mary Poppins material when I first saw it.  My mother continued to be the person who was there for me.  It wasn't necessarily her taste in movies or her specific suggestions or influences that guided me; it was just her being there as an enthusiastic partner in what I did.  It was an amazing thing.

She loved acting and she had studied acting.  She also did visual art.  And she unexpectedly passed away while we were making Mildred Pierce.  I'm still in shock.  It's just not right that she's not here to share it.  She even appears in the wedding party scene in Episode Five.  Strangely enough, a lot of key people involved with Mildred lost their mothers while we were shooting.  A whole bunch.  So we've been thinking a lot about our moms.

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How nice for you to post this article! As a mother who makes films and who enjoys watching them as well, age appropriate of course when with my kids, it was fun and interesting to read.
Thanks for your kind comment, Odilonvert. I’m glad you enjoyed hearing these anecdotes and remembrances as much as I did. I’d be curious to know the first movies you’ve taken your children to?
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Bookmarked. and what a great opening – love that Frank O’Hara poem.

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