Until recently, Polish-born Marcin Wichary could be found at Google, where he spent time in several of the company’s key product groups, and assisted in the creation of many of its best-loved interactive Google doodles. Next year he joins Code for America as a fellow, a position that we trust won’t diminish his capacity for thoughtful, nuanced writing about trips to the cinema.
In reply to one of his many helpful Letterboxd feedback emails, we snuck in a few questions for him.
Self-portrait by Marcin Wichary
What were your early cinema-going experiences like? Was there a seminal equivalent of The Goonies in Poland?
One of my cousins was crazy tall for his age, and he managed to sneak us all into a theatre to watch an uncensored version of Superglina. I was eleven then, and I couldn’t sleep that night, deadly terrified of a bipedal enforcement droid from the movie standing in a doorway behind me, ready to blow me to pieces whenever I moved.
So, yeah, of course I am talking about RoboCop. The tickets were pricey and the theatres far away, so movie-going was reserved for big, impressive productions. All these came from Hollywood, although with baffling, bespoke posters, and equally creative new titles (Superglina means “supercop”, The Terminator was an “electronic assassin”, and Die Hard would translate back to “glass trap”, which of course caused problems with the sequels).
You seem to have an affinity for 80s films in general, judging by their representation in your lists.
I’m fascinated with computer and technology history — particularly the 80s, which is when the general public was introduced to home computers and robots. And while I will forever applaud WarGames for its realism, the romantic scene with Virginia Madsen playing cello against the computer from Electric Dreams, or the most annoying robot ever from Deadly Friend, can tell you just as much about public perception, fears, and hopes involved with new technologies.
I read that you’re a fan of Stanisław Lem. Do you prefer Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris or Soderbergh’s?
I have yet to finish the apathetic former, and I couldn’t get past the latter rewriting so much. But if you’re in love with the source, you can’t really win, can you? The book has a chapter with the protagonist sitting in a doggone library, leafing through academic papers. How on Earth, futuristic or contemporary, can you film that?
Actually, about a year ago, I teamed up with an illustrator to work on a Stanisław Lem Google doodle, which was essentially a five-minute interactive animated movie. It took us forever, and required a lot of really tough decisions I did not expect. If anything, that gave me a lot of respect towards people who squeeze visual narratives out of words for a living.
You’ve famously sought out the landmark building from your favorite film. Do you only stalk inanimate objects?
As a teenager I visited Lem himself once, in his house in Cracow. It was foolish, but arguably rather necessary for my continued well-being. But one of my favorite moments was actually an anti-stalk. A few years back, I was visiting my friend at Industrial Light & Magic (which, if you love movies, is more fun than visiting Hollywood itself). And, in the company store, he starts elbowing me and pointing towards the entrance. Turns out, who else is there, but not George Lucas himself?
My first thoughts on what to do were exclusively restraining order-inviting, but then I realized this was Lucas’s place of work, and I shouldn’t really behave like a common fanboy. So, I just looked at him, and made one very slow, respectful nod. After a second, he did the same. It was pretty legendary. People are still talking about it.
What film is your guiltiest pleasure?
Two-dimensional worlds are easy to love. I can not only watch Rocky IV on repeat, but there is no way for me to get through the ‘No Easy Way Out’ montage without rewinding it a few times.
I mean, hypothetically.
Christopher Livingston wrote recently about the films he’d always watch if he coincided with them on TV. What would make your list?
I suppose all of those movies I don’t remember watching the first time. Or second. The movies that were just always there. Both parts of Die Hard, which Polish TV was fond of playing every Christmas. Some of the Police Academies — cheap and horrible, but my Dad loved them. Tango & Cash (I rounded up different Polish translations once and in typical case of Internet serendipity, someone actually made a master’s thesis out of it later). The Blues Brothers, forever responsible for the Pavlovian humming of the Peter Gunn theme whenever I’m driving in Chicago. And Ghostbusters II, on a grand-grand-grand-copy of a close-captioned VHS tape, which I learned a lot of English from, and I will argue to my death is far superior to the original.
Spielberg or Scorsese?
Meh. Fincher! It was actually through Letterboxd that I realized he must be my favorite director, since I watched all, and liked most of his movies. The making ofs and interviews, the attention to detail, the certain relentlessness toward movie-making he exhibits is very inspiring.
I also have a soft spot for mainstream action directors. Michael Bay, Michael Mann, the late Tony Scott — I don’t actually like very many of their movies, but I admire their body of work and where they’re trying to go with it. On my business card while at Google, my title said “the Michael Bay of doodles”, which was half-hopeful, half-cautionary.
Do you have a favorite Letterboxd review you wish you’d written?
I’m going to pick Morgan Nichol’s review of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol because it’s unpretentious, clever, funny, incisive, and meandering in all the right proportions.
Come to think of it, kind of how I like my movies.
Our thanks to Marcin from his many fans at HQ.