The scenes that define our lives (Smith Column)

Kyle Smith

This is my favorite part of the movie.”

Part of what makes the movies so alluring is our inability to truly understand them on a textual level. The infinite images, words, music and details of a film are impossible to fully comprehend, unless we’re talking about my freakish skill to quote the entirety of “Wayne’s World” at the slightest prompting.

Everyone’s got that movie they love more than a brother, the movie with which they are eternally entwined, as if their own nucleotides were wrapped around the celluloid. This alarming genetic mutation was probably responsible for the likes of Quentin Tarantino.

But beyond memorization and plain old obsession, we can’t comprehend a movie as a whole. It’s mentally impossible. And so we compensate with sequences.

There are certain sequences that achieve an iconic status — the finale to “The Godfather” or the closing of “The Usual Suspects,” to offer up two obvious examples — and others that we connect with on a personal level. Two such sequences for me are in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.”

When I first saw this movie (on DVD), the opening credits hypnotized me — so much so I kept pausing the film to go back and watch the beginning. It’s just grainy home movie footage of Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and some others hanging around New York City looking good for the camera. Maybe it’s so compelling because the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is playing, which I’m now convinced is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the last century. This is not up for debate.

A later scene in the film sees De Niro and company getting in a brutal bar fight while the Marvelletes’ “Please Mr. Postman” attempts to pacify the situation. Scorsese’s use of these oldies is strangely unironic, going beyond the obvious tonal contrast between violence and Motown — instead, it unifies these scenes, allowing me to imprint and properly obsess over every cut.

For me, however, those opening credits embody everything the film is about. And when I think of “Mean Streets,” I don’t think of the violence, the language, the story, the acting or even the nudity, however plentiful. My first thought is that title sequence or the bar fight, which is all I need to know to understand the movie.

Or, it’s My Favorite Part of the movie. And whomever I’m watching it with inevitably will be distracted by my hurried claim that this is, indeed, My Favorite Part of the movie. And they will be justly embarrassed when they don’t find it so transcendent as I do.

I do the same thing when listening to my favorite songs, interrupting whatever pleasure someone else is deriving from the music and building it up to be like the voice of God momentarily coming through a CD-R.

Friends are a lot like movies. The image in my mind of a close friend is not really an image or clear portrait of him, but rather a sequence — an event that we shared which my mind’s eye has conveniently edited into a clever short film. I’d much rather remember what a friend of mine looks like while pounding two liters of wine than the way he looks sitting in a chair wearing a collared shirt.

I don’t know if that’s because the movies have taught me to visualize life, or if the creation of the cinema was an inevitable extension of our own imagination. I loathe pretentious cineastes that make overarching comparisons between the movies and life. The distinction for me is pretty easy — one is real and one is not. But in our memory, when we conceptualize the massive details of our lives and movies, there are some similarities.

And so my memories of flying over New York invoke the terrifying coos of the score to “Rosemary’s Baby”; any time I’m involved in any sort of group sing along I contemplate John Wayne, Dino and Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo,” or Wayne and Garth belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody” in their Pacer; and any time I’ve ever tried to cook spaghetti I act like Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment.”

I don’t live my life like a movie, but some sequences, for whatever reason, peel themselves away from the screen and stick inseparably to the rest of your life. I guess this is part of the pull of the cinema.

Or at least a testament to the unholy power of “Be My Baby,” a song so amazing it single-handedly makes “Dirty Dancing” worthwhile.4

Communication junior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]