Widgets Magazine
From the film desk: A letter to the freshman Class of 2020
Catherine Deneuve in Jacques Demy's 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' (1964). (Courtesy of Janus Films)

From the film desk: A letter to the freshman Class of 2020

Dear Frosh,

Hope you’re enjoying your first week! We hope—nay, we know—that you’ll love it here. Now I know you’re busy, but sit back for a moment. Unwind. Let’s rap for a bit — about movies, about art, about life before 21.

A friend once sent me a picture that said, simply, “Watching one great movie is equivalent to the lessons learned from one entire year of living life.” There’s a naked honesty in that statement. Movies are the great connector, where the spectacle of theater’s human drama merges with the rhythm of dance and the crisp uncanniness of photography. They’re beasts that can make you laugh or cry; leave you feeling angry, frustrated or hopeless; and comfort you with humor, lightness or hope. (Sometimes all in the same scene.)

Movies are everywhere on Stanford campus. A boatload of options are at your Uber-pressing fingertips. For a nice night out with the studio hits everyone wants to see, your best bet is Century Theaters 16 in Mountain View. When Oscar season gears up, this is the place to be to catch up on all the big-talk movies.

Alternately, for more adventurous independent fare, seek out The Aquarius Theatre, located right off University Avenue when first entering Palo Alto. It’s far cheaper than the Mountain View multiplex. Two theaters show a variety of interesting movies, with the most recent big splashes screening there including “Knight of Cups,” a re-release of the Studio Ghibli anime “Only Yesterday,” and “Hell or High Water.”

The Guild Theater, a single-screen theater, also plays quality independent cinema. Look out for their “Rocky Horror Picture Show” midnight screenings — a movie unimaginable in any other format that’s not in public.

For the cheapest (and, for my money, the most enjoyable) night out, look no further than the Stanford Theatre on University Avenue. Tickets are $7. A bucket of popcorn, a large soda and assorted snacks only cost you between a dollar and $2.50. The selection of films — vintage Hollywood classics from the ’20s to the ’50s — are consistently on point, screened in crackling 35mm film. Just quickly skimming the Stanford’s latest film program (Vienna in the Movies), there are too many slam-bang masterworks to the naked eye: Jacques Demy’s “Lola,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “M,” “Double Indemnity,” “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” and “Lola Montes,” for starters. They all promise a quality weekend night in Palo Alto.

Or, maybe even better still, you can come to the basement level of Green Library to the Media and Microtext Center, a mecca for movie lovers. Over 4,000 DVDs and Blu-Rays are available to watch. From the finest silent films to the latest season of “Game of Thrones,” it’s all there: watchable, available, rentable. I’m constantly surprised when I talk to people who don’t know this place even exists. Well I’m here at the beginning of the year, telling you it does. And it’s fucking awesome.

* * *

The arts and life writers on campus are dedicated to providing consistently stellar criticism on what’s happening in the arts. We’re all here to help each other discover new things. We want to listen to exciting music, experience some truly great theatrical and dance performances, watch exciting movies, marvel at some out-there art pieces.

I think you’ll also find that the student arts scene on campus is constantly surprising. We hope to guide you to their work, to support them and engage in discussions on the crucial questions of today. Inevitably, you won’t like everything you see. But my view is to always observe with a fresh and curious eye, never judging until experiencing the whole work, always trying to give my readership a sense of uplift in my pieces. Even the worst movies, the tinniest music or the flimsiest theater pieces have something to teach us — and it’s not just “Well, at least I know what I don’t like.” As the great art critic Manny Farber once said, “There’s always another side to every fuckin’ movie or painting.” And neither he nor I would have it any other way.

Here, we want to cover unexpected, unusual things. Speaking personally on movies, I’ve gotten sick and tired of the boring, unchallenging blockbusters being peddled as entertainment today. They’re okay nights out — if you’re only seeking regurgitated jokes, repetitive action, unbelievable human drama and unchallenging content. Hollywood condescends us. The stuff they put out in multiplexes are, on the whole, lukewarm puff pastries. Watch as Oscar season rolls around; they have holed themselves up for 364 days behind a “white”-washed picket fence, then come out of their foxholes claiming “diversity!” and “prestige!” and “quality!,” when the evidence clearly points in the opposite direction. Hollywood only cares about the audience between the fall months, when they eke out one or two middlebrow prestige movies (“Spotlight”) in the hopes that no one noticed their 20 3D summer gaffes. Inevitably, these slick flicks get more attraction than the real revolutionary stuff on the American sub-indie scene today (“Tangerine,” a film that looks at the transgender community in a far less condescending and misguided light than the made-for-TV “Danish Girl.”)

The arts are more than just a soulless advertising campaign. The best parts of movies tell entire stories about who we are as individuals. They expose us to new perspectives we haven’t considered. They can even take us out of comfort zones and give us experiences that we may not like the first time, but that stick with us in meaningful ways. Thus, I want to place a bigger emphasis away from this so-called mainstream.

We’ll be covering that obscure band on Soundcloud that you and your friends dig. We’ll do reviews of that independent film that only ran for a week but which deserves to be seen by every person. We’ll write about that Netflix TV season a week, a month or even a year after it came out. We want topicality, yes, but we also aim for good, quality writing — and that sometimes means revisiting stuff that’s not the talk of the town at this very moment. Rejecting what Pauline Kael told her followers, I’m a firm believer in experiencing music or movies long after the hype has died down, rewatching compulsively (even if it’s just a scene), in order to really dig under the art-object’s skin, tapping its multifaceted, multisided complexity.

Here at Stanford, you’re going to be exposed to a lot in a short span of time. Lots of assumptions are going to be overturned. Lots of moments will stupefy you, hitting you with lightning bolts of perception and clarity. Always have your ears and eyes open to everything that comes your way. If something disturbs you, good. Try to let it challenge you, as much as you are able to. You’ll never know when the next life-changing movie or jaw-dropping theater performance will happen.

* * *

John Cassavetes, one of the most passionate and committed of all film artists, had some choice words for why movies are so vital. When asked to describe his films, Cassavetes seemed to be demanding a full-fledged revolution of American movie life. He wanted his films to shake audiences up, to reflect “a culture that has the possibility of attaining material fulfillment,” but that “finds itself unable to accomplish the simple business of conducting human lives.”

Most important of all, Cassavetes says: “In this country, people die at 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe younger. My responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21. The movies are a roadmap through emotional and intellectual terrain that provides a solution on how to save pain.” They’re brutal words, but they stink of the truth.

The best movie experiences — the ones that stick in the mind — are the ones that make you feel something raw, powerful, exciting. Feelings that you’ve never felt before. Viewpoints that you’ve never come across. Passionate people who deliver you a ceaseless pleasure. Broken-down people who remind you of the pain we all suffer. In effect, the best movies remind us what it means to be human, to live, to go against the grain of what is popular to make a point about what is right. The best movies can help us as we age beyond what are routinely called “the best years of our lives.” It’s hard to understand now, but Americans develop a certain complacency after the college years, a complacency that Cassavetes constantly rejected in his art. To him, the years between 18 and 21 are the freedom years — the time to stray from under turtle shells, the time to feel something grand and deep, the time most adults want to return back to for the rest of their lives. We must make the most of it, now. And cinema shows us how.

Cassavetes’ kind of art was raw — the kind that gives you goosebumps because it so completely taps into life’s hidden reservoirs of beauty and emotion. I’m sure you’ve come across similar types of films. “Silver Linings Playbook” and in fact, all of David O. Russell’s films. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” A Terrence Malick movie. Pixar. “Blazing Saddles.” “Imitation of Life.” Miyazaki. Hitchcock. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” “The Social Network.” The process of watching and loving movies isn’t exclusive; it’s open to anyone and everyone.

After 21, hopefully you’ll leave Stanford with a vaster understanding of the history of movies—where we came from, where we’re going. There’s Cassavetes to watch, along with Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Terence Davies, Jacques Demy, Howard Hawks, Chuck Jones, Richard Lester, Elaine May, Preston Sturges, Isao Takahata, Jacques Tati, Agnes Varda, Wong Kar Wai, Billy Wilder, Frederick Wiseman, and so many more. All these names should be as awe-inspiring and remembered as Baldwin, Tolstoy, Austen, Hurston, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Salinger, Marquez.

At Stanford, there will be stressful moments where it feels like the seams of your universe are splitting apart, one by one, second by second. When those moments come, stop what you’re doing. Relax. Breathe in, breathe out. Then, go out and enjoy one of Stanford’s many fire dance groups. Or stay in and rock those jammies while watching Netflix or a DVD you rented from Green. Or close your eyes and let the “Good Vibrations” of your Spotify playlist take you to seventh heaven. Whether in the hugest art museum or the smallest movie house, there’s always something rich for the taking — if you have a sense of where to look.


Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96@stanford.edu.

About Carlos Valladares

Carlos Valladares' 18 is double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He loves the Beatles and jazz, dogs and dance. Were he stranded on a desert island, he'd be sure to take some food—and also, copies of "A Hard Day's Night," "The Young Girls of Rochefort," "Nashville," "Killer of Sheep," and anything by Studio Ghibli. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.