Alex Winter is a writer-director whose new documentary, The YouTube Effect, is out now in theaters and whose other non-fiction films include Zappa, The Panama Papers, Trust Machine, Deep Web and Downloaded. A former child actor on Broadway, he found fame playing Bill S. Preston, Esquire in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and Bill & Ted Face the Music. The co-creator of the MTV show The Idiot Box, he made his directorial debut in 1993 with Freaked. Learn more at his official website. (Photograph by Rick Wenner.)
Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current release in theaters of Alex Winter’s new documentary The YouTube Effect, the actor turned non-fiction filmmaker shared some of the works of art that have shaped him the most. — N.D.
Notes From Underground
I’m going to focus on three works from different mediums that have influenced me a lot artistically, and which are wildly disparate. Going in order, what really hit me first was Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I read it at a pivotal period in my life, at the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, and it really opened my eyes. So much of what became modern storytelling and even philosophical thought came from Dostoevsky. He really galvanized and then became a very fundamental part of my worldview, but also allowed me to articulate a worldview I already had. What’s so great about art is it gives us new ways of seeing. Notes from Underground was written in the mid 1800s, but I felt it was telling my story and the story of my friends, and examined what it meant to be coming up as a thinker, an artist and an outsider in contemporary culture in a much deeper way than I’d seen elsewhere.
I was an avid reader as a kid and had read a lot of good books, but Dostoevsky – and the combination of the artfulness of his language (which, even translated, is incredible) and his very specific way of looking at trying to exist in contemporary society – was extremely formative for me. I’ve read most of his work since then, some of which are my favorite books. But for me, it comes back to Notes From Underground; it’s almost like his manifesto from which everything else grows.
When I first read Notes From Underground, I had just put myself through film school at New York University with the money I’d made working on Broadway as a child actor and I was looking toward what I was going to do with my work and my art, and how to approach life. I left NYU early to go act in The Lost Boys, so I faced a lot of decisions and was confronted with questions like, “How does one live as an artist? Is it even doable? And does our culture allow one to exist as a free thinker or does it find ways to stamp you out?” And those conflicts and challenges were really present in this book.
I read Notes From Underground while I was in Italy working on the Ivan Passer movie Haunted Summer, about Byron and Shelley, in which I played Polidori, Byron’s lover. I’d just come off of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and we shot that movie in the same castle in Italy where I then shot Haunted Summer! I was going from heightened Hollywood pop culture right into a movie that Fellini’s cinematographer, Peppino Rotunno, was shooting, in which Byron and Shelley were questioning what art is. And it was not only about art, but also, “How do you craft your worldview? How do you find your voice and deal with some of the inner disturbances about beginning to come to terms with what it means to live as an adult in modern culture?” Which is really what Notes from Underground is about, and about a reckoning with how one integrates oneself and survives within culture. What I always related to with Dostoevsky and all of his work was that he was adamant about trying to figure out a way forward, how to to function in this world.
A Love Supreme
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme came out in 1964, but I didn’t get into it till I was well out of college. I love jazz and I grew up liking a lot of classical music and also some pretty aggressive and esoteric, avant-garde modern music. But when I heard A Love Supreme, it showed me a synthesis of art, spirituality and mastery, and letting go of mastery. I had never experienced anything like it. It probably still is my single favorite piece of recorded music.
I believe that John Coltrane is, in general, one of the greatest minds we’ve ever had. On A Love Supreme in particular, I feel like he is firing on all cylinders. He had almost a physics brain, where things just work in an extraordinarily efficient way. He was like if Einstein had decided to play music instead of be a scientist And yet he was really spiritual and you feel that infused in his music, while at the same time it is completely accessible. It’s not too avant-garde nor too poppy to cast off different audiences. To me, A Love Supreme is his living thesis and represents the ultimate aim of not just creative life, but human life, which is to be engaged with the world, rather than shut yourself off from it. And to engage in rational thinking, which of course is what good jazz is. There’s a lot of God here too, and I love that. But it’s not a religious god; in a way, it’s a love supreme, which is my definition of spirituality.
My last choice is Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, which on any given day is probably my favorite film, possibly tied with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. I love Los Olvidados because, from a cinematic standpoint, Buñuel gave me a way forward. He was a philosophy major, and I think there’s philosophy in all three of these pieces I’ve chosen. I don’t think any of them are just art for art’s sake. Buñuel’s vision of the world, which is bleak but also hilarious and hopeful, synthesized for me what makes films so great. Buñuel is not really thought of as a great contemporary thinker, but I think he is, like Dostoevsky, one of the great thinkers of our time, and there’s a lot in his work about what makes humans, society and life tick.
I saw a lot of movies when I was too young and had to come back to them later, like all the new German Expressionists, and Buñuel was my favorite filmmaker when I was in high school. But I came to Los Olvidados a little later, probably while I was working with Tom Stern on Freaked. I think Los Olvidados gave me a way into Buñuel’s work that was not as bleak as I thought it was. The film is optimistic, but clear-eyed. It says, “Look, mankind is a mess, but that doesn’t mean it’s all going to go down in flames.” I find the film quite hopeful and I did in my youth, as well. It really inspired me to keep moving and to find ways into the world as an artist.