If memory serves, it was Miller's Crossing that really set me on the road to becoming the particular kind of cinephile that I am now, by which I mean someone -- and we are legion -- who has a particular fondness and appreciation of genre films. Three years prior to that film's release, Brian DePalma's The Untouchables sparked a fire in me, which lit the way to my love of the crime genre both in film and literature (and introduced me to David Mamet, not incidentally), but the bloom has faded -- not entirely, but enough -- from that particular rose, while Miller's Crossing has not lost an inch over the ensuing 19 years. I was electrified after seeing that movie, and the now-famous Danny Boy scene was such a viscerally beautiful moment that I wanted to rewind the film, in the theater, and watch it again. For me, it is a perfect film.
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When I was a teenager -- I can't remember exactly when -- I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. Like pretty much everybody else who caught that film at a young age, my one previous viewing of Kubrick's masterpiece bored me stone stupid, but for whatever reason I tagged along with my brothers to this screening. They were quite excited, because they already loved the film, and had also already caught Lawrence of Arabia on the Uptown's giant screen, and were properly awestruck (the rat they saw scurrying past the bottom of said screen did not diminish the experience one iota). So, like I say, for whatever reason, I went along. And as soon as Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra kicked in, I became enveloped. I was still expecting to be bored by what was to follow -- and I'm sure I was, at times -- but the majesty of that opening, in that theater, on that screen, with that sound opened my eyes to what film could be. I couldn't describe then -- and can't now, really -- what it is that I realized films could be, but later, when the Strauss piece kicked in a second time, and the ape realized just what he could use that bone for, and we're shown his arm rise into view, holding the planet's first weapon, I got chills. The hairs on my arm stood on end. A film had never done that to me before, and it's never quite happened, in that same way, since, but I keep going to the theaters and sliding in those DVDs, hoping it will happen at least one more time before I die.
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When I was younger than I was in either of those two earlier anecdotes, I remember my brothers used to invite friends over to watch movies, and very often they were horror films. By that point, I'd started reading Stephen King novels (no Hardy Boys for me! Although, okay, I was quite the enthusiast when it came to The Three Investigators, and even believed, in my youthful idiocy, that Alfred Hitchcock wrote those books himself. I thought that there must be nothing that the man couldn't do), so horror and me were at least on friendly terms. One of the things about horror that shocked and, yes, delighted me was the violence, because no one ever died in the books I was supposed to be reading. Sometimes an evil robot would be pushed off a cliff, but as far as Living Thing-on-Living Thing violence was concerned, my blood-thirstiness was not satisfied by Raiders of the Lost Ark or Clash of the Titans, although Race Bannon shooting a guy dressed as a gargoyle, or killing a scorpion with a bullwhip, gave me quite a charge, because those killings were happening in a cartoon. Anyway, so my brothers would invite these friends over, and the movies they would watch would be things like John Carpenter's The Thing or Day of the Dead. And every so often, I would sneak a few steps down the stairway that led to the "family room" (as opposed to the living room) where these films were being watched, and try to catch glimpses of the kind of movies that my parents, at this point, had forbidden me from watching. I can't quite remember what I glimpsed from spying on The Thing, but do you know what I managed to catch from Day of the Dead? My timing was apparently amazing, because I saw Rhodes getting ripped in half and his guts scooped out and devoured by the handful. Good Christ! This is what grownups watched?
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I was a fairly young kid when David Cronenberg's The Fly came out, but my parents let me see it anyway. I think they both had fond memories of the original and assumed this couldn't be too far removed from that. Well, they were, you know, wrong, but what got me about the film wasn't the copius amounts of fluid regularly spraying across the screen, but the moment at the end when Brundle, barely able to move now that he's almost completely transformed into this ungodly thing that cannot exist, feebly uses his claw to lift Veronica's shotgun up to his head, signalling to her that he couldn't go on. He had now come to terms with what he was, and what he'd done, and anyway he was simply in too much anguish. I don't believe I'd ever seen such nightmarish torment depicted on-screen before, or at least not this kind of weary defeat. And brother, when I saw him lift that barrel to his own head, I sobbed.
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My parents were both considerably older than is considered average when they had me, the youngest of seven boys. As a result, their own tastes, while often -- increasingly so, over the years -- at odds with my own, helped me to become far more catholic in my cultural experiences than those of my peers. I grew to like swing music, for instance, and old radio shows, as well as old movies (my dad also fed my interest in the crime genre by recommending Mickey Spillane to me at a young age, although I could tell that he wasn't sure, even then, if I was old enough, but it was a shared interest, so I guess he wanted to encourage me. And he never gets tired of relating the ending of Spillane's I, the Jury -- "It was easy" -- or, conversely, quoting Paddy Chayefsky's sly put-down of Spillane, from Marty: "That Mickey Spillane, he sure can write.") My dad is a big John Wayne fan, and my mom loved musicals and "happy" movies. Her favorite movie of all time, though, wasn't one she grew up with, but rather Wilford Leach's adaptation of of The Pirates of Penzance from 1983, starring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith.
None of us boys were overly keen on musicals -- it was much easier for us get into True Grit and The Cowboys and Rio Bravo -- but we unavoidably saw a whole mess of them anyway while growing up, and even liked some of them. I think if you polled all seven of us on what our favorites were, The Music Man would come out at either the number one or number two spot. Battling it out for top spot would be The Pirates of Penzance, rented out of the blue, as far as I know, one weekend from Erol's. And that sucker swept us all up. It was so funny, with the romance that we all so dreaded almost ruthlessly cut by a magnificent Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, or Tony Azito as the Sergeant. But always, always, always there was the humbling (humbling now, then merely delightful) genius of Gilbert and Sullivan. So we all really liked that movie, but my mom loved it. She couldn't get enough of it. My mom loved her family, and was loved, fiercely, by them in return, and this seems so piddling in comparison, but I'm glad she had that movie. No, on second thought, it's not piddling, because it was a thing that made her happy. No one can have too many of those in their life.
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From sneaking downstairs to watch Rhodes get torn to pieces, to my mom and Pirates of Penzance. The logical progression from there is to talk about going to see Strange Brew with my family, and my dad being utterly bewildered by his sons' relentless guffaws, but that'll have to wait until some other time. G'night, folks!