The first time I read these words, belonging to French film director François Truffaut, I was 21 and subsisted on the solitary passion of movies -- with generous helpings of rock & roll and literature thrown in for good measure. Truffaut's question made perfect sense to me, as did his childhood reminiscence about the first time he saw Citizen Kane: "I was certain that never in my life had I loved a person the way I loved that film.”
The years roll by, however, and with them come the true responses to questions which we thought had long ago been answered. Today, while Truffaut's poetic rhetoric still satisfies, I'm not so quick to agree. I do think cinema can be life-changing, in ways big and small. I know that seeing the original King Kong when I was four years old instilled in me a love for art of the dark imagination that continues to influence my sensibilities today. I know that when I was eighteen and won free tickets to see an advance screening of a movie I'd never heard of, something called Taxi Driver, that it rekindled my love of cinema and, at a time in my life when I'd already decided to give up writing, compelled me to return to the typewriter. And I know that coming across the film Amargosa on the Sundance Channel in late 2002 or early 2003, when I was 45 years old, forever changed my life.
Amargosa, the award-winning documentary written and directed by Todd Robinson, tells the tale of Marta Becket, the 76-year-old (at the time of filming) artist and dancer who resides in Death Valley Junction, California, and performs weekly at the Amargosa Opera House. The theme of the beautifully shot and edited film might best be summed up by writer Ray Bradbury, who also appears in the movie: “There’s the excitement of the new, of a chance to become... [T]he past is past. Maybe this afternoon, or tomorrow, I can become the real me that I’ve always wanted to be.” Amargosa is about Marta Becket's journey, from New York City, where she lived someone else's life (her mother's) to Death Valley Junction (population ten at the time of the film; several less now) to discover herself.
Though long unavailable on video, the film has finally been released on DVD. As well, Marta Becket's autobiography, To Dance on Sands, was recently published. Now 82, she remains active in every sense of the word.
When I switched over to the Sundance Channel on that Saturday morning so long ago (it now seems like another life), Amargosa had already started, but I immediately got caught up in its tale. I watched the movie in toto when it replayed that afternoon, and decided before it was over that I needed to make my own pilgrimage to Death Valley. Not necessarily to see Marta Becket's act, a mixture of vaudeville and ballet that no longer has any place in our world, but to witness personally this woman who'd taken command of her life and was realizing it fully. What she'd given up and what she'd gained; how she'd achieved the aesthetic through the ascetic.
I visited Marta Becket and the Amargosa Opera House twice, in December of 2003 and the following March. The first time was full of wonder. Her anachronistic cabaret not of the desert, but rather something that belongs on top of a jewelry box. Seeing how all of her life, everything she did, fed into her art, I got a sense of what I'd given up, what I'd missed. I didn't have to travel to Death Valley to discover my life was a lie; but that's where it all became blindingly clear, clearer than the cold desert air, for me. When I left, it was not only with my newfound knowledge, but with one of Marta Becket's paintings (more than a souvenir: a reminder in case I should ever forget the lesson learned). My second trip to the Amargosa Opera House only served to confirm what I already knew I had to do.
Is cinema more important than life? No. But had I not seen Amargosa, I don't think I would have made the changes I did in my life (certainly not when I did, nor how I did), which resulted in my moving 2,000 miles to where I sit today, leading the life I was meant to live with a woman I love more than any film I've ever seen. In that sense, cinema indeed saved me.