Playwright Steve Water’s new book charts his love of film, and how it led him to where he is today – we’ve been chatting to him about it.
Cinema is about life, of course, and for some of us, a lot of life is about cinema. Steve Waters’ book A Life In 16 Films is about both, at once, never looking to divide the two.
It’s simultaneously the review of a man’s life as well as the personal history of decades of cinema. It’s a biography of moviegoing as much as that of a moviegoer.
I spoke to Steve about a lot of the ideas in what proved to be an unusually intimate and personal film history, and here’s what he had to say about it.
FILM STORIES: There are a lot more than sixteen films in this book, and we’re sure there might have been many more. However, sixteen of them are the ones put in the spotlight of chapter titles at least. How did this structure arise – and how concerned were you with making any given chapter circle around any certain films? If you did it all again tomorrow, which film or films would you be keen to push closer to the spotlight or add to the copy?
STEVE WATERS: It’s interesting how I found the films without a great deal of soul searching – they simply seemed to sum up that moment in time for me and epitomised an aspect of film or of the role of film in my life which felt compelling and defined in my memory.
Take a film which means nothing to me now – Logan’s Run – I could have rummaged around to find something more enduring or substantial than this dated and derivative mid-70s sci-fi movie and I did venture into re-watching it which only confirmed my sense that one’s own past is a foreign country. But thinking about why it mattered so much to a ten year old me seemed fruitful – it appears in a chapter concerned with a difficult passage in my childhood when my family moved to an obscure corner of Warwickshire from Coventry and I found myself in a new and slightly disturbing landscape, at a time of intense class struggle in the UK; the dreams of the film then mirrored my dreams inspired by the first wave of ecological anxiety, a wish for a sealed-off new earth which now resembles a badly planned shopping centre.
Likewise, I am not intending to ever re-watch Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth but it had a role in my life that galvanised me as a writer and a citizen and has come to define that moment. But flicking through the book I am equally struck as to what is not in there – no Pasolini, no Almodovar, very little in the way of contemporary cinema, a dearth of films by women and people of colour – which as I reflect in the book is simply a reflection on the biases of film production for most of my viewing life. Also I am surprised at how much British film is in here, and my wish for a tradition of film from within the UK crops up quite a bit.
The book combines autobiography, film commentary and even some elements of social and political history. How much is this like the book you originally proposed – or set out to write? We’d love to hear about how it evolved in the making.
This is a big one – after all the real presumption of the book is how much of it is devoted to my own life and that of my family; yet that was always the drive in the book, which is in some ways a love letter to my parents who I lost in quick succession in recent years, and whose lives offer some structure to it. And for whom film – cinema – was central to their lives, a passion I inherited but in very different terms.
So, the book is really a series of essays around the role of film in all our lives and not only that but places, cinemas, pivotal moments of change which a given film watched in a particular time and place somehow captures. The chapter on Solaris exemplifies this perhaps – for me the access to that film, which I watched in a late-night viewing on the new TV channel, Channel 4, was a portal into a transformation of my view of film and the world – and C4 itself is a symptom of the explosion of a new less patrician kind of culture coming out of the New Left which ironically emerges in the early years of Thatcherism – and also at the height of the Second Cold War. So whilst Tarkovsky’s films are for all time, meeting that film at that moment has such a specific meaning, and those moments govern the book’s structure.
Memory is a big theme in the book. Were you tempted to go back and revisit these films for the writing, or was this a no-no? How much did you think of this as writing about your memories of the films, rather than the films themselves?
Really good question. I honestly think we can reconstruct a film that matters to us almost shot by shot in our memory for years after we have viewed it. Indeed I would go so far as to say film has re-shaped the very working of our memories and that is often film’s great concern – especially when thinking back to a film watched in childhood it is impossible to experience it with the force of that first encounter. That’s why I haven’t, say, re-watched The Wizard of Oz, the first film I discuss, which in effect was a traumatic induction into the medium’s power; the residue of that experience interests me as much as the film. As anyone over 40 knows, we didn’t always have the capacity to re-watch film anyway – in an age where it is instantly available, we forget the sheer power of that encounter, with no prospect of VCR/DVD/YouTube replays.
You talk sometimes about the big screen, projected-rather-than-screened and usually communal experiences of cinema as well as the films being screened. We’d love to hear you reflect on your expectations of and relationship to films which are shown “as they were meant to be seen” as opposed to, for example, those streaming online.
I suppose that follows on from the last question – and I think the big argument of the book is that the great age of film-going treated the film as a site-specific event comparable to the theatre; the very act of going to the movies, the journeys we take, the drama of the venue itself, the power of the image enlarged and the sound amplified, and the presence of others, generates a heightened collective intelligence and attention which cinema at its best rewards and which is entirely different than how, say, television, or, god help us, TikTok might work.
I recently made my way to a very empty cinema to watch Robert Altman’s Nashville, a film I had only seen on TV before; its force was mind-altering, the astonishing power of its soundtrack, the deep focus shots with overlapping dialogue overlaid on them, it was dizzying with excitement. That’s what I am after in film, that epic scope, that feeling of something landscape scale; but that’s why I dislike bombastic showily ‘cinematic’ films – the really great films use that scale to enable us to see and contemplate reality anew. I rarely get that experience from the small screen.
What can cinema and theatre learn from one another? What can cinema do that theatre cannot?
Another key question, especially given I’ve spent much of my life working in theatre, the older medium.
One thing that puzzles me is the occasional hostility I detect between lovers of either medium – certainly theatre has and can be an elitist medium, and in the UK very much the preserve of an elite; cinema always felt pitched to everyone, much as Shakespeare is, but no one can deny modern theatre is a niche activity – ironically, film is becoming that too.
But there is a meeting place between the forms which interests me – not least in that so many great films obsessively explore the meaning of theatre (Fanny and Alexander, All About my Mother, Les Enfants du Paradis); and indeed the great directors from Renoir to Fassbinder deploy ensemble, family companies and working techniques which have their origins in the tradition of popular theatre. After all both media depend utterly on actors and their bodies.
Theatre however works with constraint built in, and artifice is its middle name; we are always in a room even when that room is the heath or a beach; we are always under artificial light. Film’s great gift derives from its proximity to documentary – it shows us figures in a landscape, it is at one remove from human experience as such in a place of light and weather and buildings and animals. That’s why cinematography for me rather than screenwriting defines film; I think theatre at its best finds way of reaching beyond its human domain like film – in Chekhov say or a contemporary writer like Annie Baker. And often film that adopts the constraints of theatre can be extraordinary – Haneke’s films perhaps, Ozu’s films; wherever life beyond the frame is suggested not shown.
If it were an absolute given that it would be made, and given whatever distribution you prefer, which film inside you would you feel the most compelled to write?
Lovely question and prospect! In a way writing the book has given me a taste of that as I have occasionally delved into screenwriting my own experience – and having recently worked a lot outdoors in East Anglia where I live, I think there’s a film in there about the fens, about this strange country in its own state of twilight; about where the sea meets the sky. Maybe I should just get on with that right now!
Steve Water’s book, A Life in 16 Films: How Cinema Made a Playwright, is available now from Methuen.
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