“Everything I learned about love, I learned from the movies.”
– Hugh Hefner in the Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2009
Long before I created Playboy Magazine, my cinematic education in love began with Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece “Potemkin.” During the epic Odessa Steps scene as that poor mother lost hold of her baby stroller, it struck me how the great Russian director chose to shoot in black and white purely to mask any sense of what kind of body the woman had. For days afterward, the entire mise en scene haunted me until I realized that potato-shaped women in winter coats just weren’t my type, so I moved to LA.
The first film I saw in Hollywood was “King Kong.” By the third reel, I knew this classic love story was talking to me and me alone, although a couple behind me thought the film was talking to them and I had to tell them to shut up. Through languid tracking shots, I discovered that even if a beautiful young blonde screams in horror at the sight of you, there’s no need to be discouraged. Why, just seeing how Kong, in his first trip to New York, was able to find his true love in a tiny rent-controlled, L-shaped studio apartment amid the thousands of buildings in that great city– well, if that couldn’t convince me that love conquers all, what could?
Then, of course, no lesson in love would be complete without “Casablanca.” Set somewhere overseas, the film mercilessly depicted the hopelessness and sheer stupidity of long-distance relationships. Prior to seeing “Casablanca,” I’d been a devotee of the not yet invented auteur theory, but “Casablanca” made me see that the writing in a love story is critical because without it, there’s no script. Screenwriter Julius Epstein’s haunting use of foreshadowing made clear the timeless lesson that when taking up with a girl, one should definitely make sure her husband is really dead. In addition, Epstein’s deft placement of commas nearly led audiences to fall for Ingrid Bergman without the benefit of full-frontal nudity. And finally, Epstein’s witty repartee taught me that being jilted at the airport can be an opportunity for new love if you own a nightclub and, by extension, hire girls wearing rabbit ears. What a film!
An even larger influence on me than “Casablanca” was “Citizen Kane.” The revolutionary nature of Orson Welles’ deep-focus shots was hypnotic and even though the whole rigamarole with that dopey sled was lost on me, the point of the film hit me dead on: Love requires a really big house. And to get a really big house, you need to go into publishing. And to go into publishing, you need a gimmick. So many life lessons crammed into one film is breathtaking. (There could have been even more if Welles used a little airbrushing on himself, but that’s a nitpick.)
Later, I became a student of the great European filmmakers but never got around to seeing their movies until, on a first date, I caught helmer Bernardo Bertolucci‘s classic downer “Last Tango In Paris.” If examined closely, preferably from the first row of the theater, “Last Tango” (as Rex Reed once referred to it) is a film noir even though it was shot in color and falls under a completely different genre. Granted, movie-goers had to muddle through the parts in which Bertolucci used diopter lenses to show how long-term marriage usually ends in suicide, but after that, the film bloomed. Never before had a director’s use of both subtext and subtitles shone such a groovy light on anonymous, age-inappropriate sex. The anonymous aspect so inspired me, I came up with my idea of the questionnaire in which women list their turn-ons. (As Howard Hawkes showed so trenchantly in His Girl Friday, when it comes to love, it’s feasible to want to know what kind of stuff the other person likes.)
In the late seventies, I fell under the spell of Woody Allen films. Personally, I would have replaced Diane Keaton with Barbi Benton but still, Woody’s naturalist dialogue and keen moral imperatives made me realize that the only thing wrong with monogamy was that you can’t have sex with anyone else.
That was pretty big for me.
But the best thing about Woody is, he never stopped growing. In transitioning from raucous comedy to comedy I couldn’t comprehend, he used master shots in which characters went in and out of frame all willy-nilly. The stillness of the camera parceled out one piece of timeless wisdom: New York women are best avoided at all costs.
Let’s see, is there anything else? Oh, right: romantic comedies like “Taxi Driver” and “Brokeback Mountain” strengthened my resolve to find my one and only. Three Kings led to my photo spread “The Girls of Fallujah”; “Blue Lagoon” gave me the idea for the grotto; “Shampoo” was my favorite documentary about Los Angeles; “All The President’s Men” had barely any girls in it…
I guess that’s about it.